Thursday, September 17, 2009

Agapocentrism

What makes debate between Calvinists and their opponents so difficult is that it really boils down to a difference of basic hermeneutical principle. What makes Calvinism difficult for many to accept is the fact that they see the Bible pointing in the direction of a hermeneutical center, and that center is love. When the I John 4:8 says God is love, for agapocentrists, this isn't just a statement that God is loving, (except, of course, when he's unconditionally reprobating people), it is rather, that this is an essential characteristic of God that provides the fundamental motivation behind everything.

Consider Wesley's response to a biblical case for predestination in "Free Grace."

Whatever that Scripture proves, it never proved this; whatever its true meaning be. This cannot be its true meaning. Do you ask, "What is its true meaning then?" If I say, " I know not," you have gained nothing; for there are many scriptures the true sense whereof neither you nor I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory. But this I know, better it were to say it had no sense, than to say it had such a sense as this. It cannot mean, whatever it mean besides, that the God of truth is a liar. Let it mean what it will, it cannot mean that the Judge of all the world is unjust. No scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works; that is, whatever it prove beside, no scripture can prove predestination.

What Wesley is saying here is that for him, God love is the central to his understanding of Scripture, and that, as he sees it, it ought not to be interpreted in a way that conflicts with its most fundamental theme.

With respect to the Law, Jesus seems to set love up as the hermeneutical center: love God and your neighbor and in so doing you will fulfill, at least in spirit, the whole of the Law. Paul, with respect to what came to be known as the Three Holy Virtues, faith, hope and love, put love as the greatest. With respect to any question on limits on the scope of love (Who is my neighbor?) Jesus, through the parable of the Good Samaritan, undercut the conception of "in group" versus "out group" which, to a regrettable extent, infects all human efforts to love others.

Calvinists say that, yes, God is loving, God saved people he didn't have to save, but besides loving, he has other fish for fry, other attributes to manifest. In particular God's glory would be diminished if he only manifested the attribute of loving in his treatment of us, instead of also creating persons destined to be unrepentant sinners on whom he manifests his wrath.

I had complained against Calvinism that it leaves an unacceptable gap between what God wants us to do and what God himself does. Of course, Steve and Peter have both pointed out that there are plenty of situations in which, depending on who you are, what is right for you to do is different from what it is right for someone else to do. But I was not talking about specific actions, I was talking about the traits of character that God manifests and the God expects humans to manifest. John tells us those who don't love don't know God because that is who God is. He doesn't say "those who aren't wrathful don't know God, because God is wrath." It is no doubt true that an infinite God has the right to exercise "tough love" in ways that would be unacceptable if humans were to behave in the same way towards others. We are not talking about "sloppy agape" here at all. Sin has to be repented of, actions and thoughts have to be repudiated, and that's got to be painful. But in agapocentric theology there is a symmetry between the character God commands us to have and God's character. God is more powerful and wiser than ourselves, but his fundamental purposes are the same as those we are told to develop within ourselves. If Calvinism is true, then God has certain traits of character which are good for him to have but not for us to have. To me, that leaves us, not with an Omnipotent Fiend perhaps, but certainly with a God with a divided character that seems to me schizophrenic.

The essay I have linked to is by Thomas Talbott, who is an agapocentrist who is also a universalist. Other agapocentrists are Arminians; they believe in God's loving purpose, but think that in order to have genuine love there has to be freedom, and that some persons will permanently choose not to accept God's love, and will, as C. S. Lewis says, lock the doors of hell from the inside. However, the character of God is the same for universalists as for Arminians. Calvinists, however, see God's character differently.

One further objection might be that it is wrong to have a "hermeneutical center," because if we have one we will screen out important biblical data that conflicts with that center. What one must do is take the Bible as it comes, with each part of it being regarded as no more fundamental than any part.

But doesn't everyone have a hermeneutical center? Doesn't everyone read passages that are harder to understand from the point of view of their hermeneutical center through passages that express that center? If someone says "No. We do pure exegesis here. We read the Bible in an neutral unprejudiced way. That's how we came to accept he doctrines of grace," my response is that I simply don't believe you.

Can there be shifts in hermenutical centers? Yes, but they are massive shifts in understanding that involve massive biblical evidence.

Does agapocentrism make the problem of evil more difficult? There is a sense in which it does. Persons who advance the argument from evil expect God's goodness to involve loving all persons, which agapocentrists agree with. They also have a tendency to equate love for us with a pursuit of our own temporal happiness, which agapocentrists need not accept. Calvinists can say that it just isn't morally necessary for God to behave lovingly toward every person, and there is a sense in which they can deflect or dissolve the problem of evil more easily than can agapocentrists.

8 comments:

Dominic Bnonn Tennant said...

Q. What is the only characteristic of God which is thrice-named for emphasis in Scripture, and is called out ceaselessly by the Seraphim who attend to God on his throne?

Agapocentrist: love! It must be love. That's the hermeneutical center.

Randy said...

Great article. I, too have many problems with Calvinism and have blogged on it several times. I in no way can reconcile the "God is love" statement with Calvin's doctine of election.

Wesley's "Free Grace" sermon is a good one. It helped me greatly in understanding the Wesleyan foundation of prevenient grace.

Crude said...

Victor, I just wanted to commend you for your tone throughout this discussion. I'm personally not decided on this subject, but you have a knack for keeping a cool head during what can be otherwise heated exchanges.

Peter Pike said...

Reppert said:
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However, the character of God is the same for universalists as for Arminians.
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Any Bible-believing Christian ought to take that sentence as an argument against "agapocentrism." It is really quite telling how much Reppert's view on God has in common with other groups who continually ignore Scripture that plainly teaches about hell.

Secondly: "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated." How do you square that?

But it's not like that's the only verse.

"The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers" (Psalm 5:5).

"The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence" (Psalm 11:5).

"And the LORD made his people very fruitful and made them stronger than their foes. He turned their hearts to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants" (Psalm 105:24-25).

"Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?" (Psalm 139:21).

"Every evil of theirs is in Gilgal; there I began to hate them. Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of my house. I will love them no more; all their princes are rebels" (Hosea 9:15).

Proverbs 6 says "There are six things that the LORD hates" and includes in that list "a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers" (vs. 16, 19). In other words, it's the people who are listed (not the actions) as what God hates.

And Jesus Himself said: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26).

I look forward to seeing how you interpret those passages "agapocentristically."

Gordon Knight said...

Why do I feel that Calvinism is a ploy by Satan to make the atheistic argument from evil seem even more compelling than it is.

I spend a fair amount of time trying to persuade atheistic friends that one does not need to check one's brain at the door to be a Christian.

And yet, reading the debates here, i find all sorts of people who do just that, picking scipture passages willy nily as if one can somehow say "hey its not me., its GOD" but of course it is YOU, since you agree to consent that this interpretation of this scriptural passage is really God's word.

Time to duck and run!

a helmet said...

Peter Pike,

your objections have been answered repeatedly; many, many times. If you shut your eyes and ears you're simply being ignorant.

-a helmet

Victor Reppert said...

Universalists like Talbott do pay plenty of attention to what the Bible says about hell. Their interpretation of hell is very different from yours of course, but you can never accuse Tom Talbott of ducking an exegetical dispute.

Robert said...

Hello Victor,

“Universalists like Talbott do pay plenty of attention to what the Bible says about hell. Their interpretation of hell is very different from yours of course, but you can never accuse Tom Talbott of ducking an exegetical dispute.”

Victor this brings up a major problem that I have with the Triablogers like Pike and their groupies. In their minds, unless you march exactly like they do and think exactly like they do, then they feel you are in some way inferior and possibly not even a Christian.

A person is a Christian if they have a personal and saving relationship with Jesus Christ, that’s it. You are not saved because you are a calvinist or because you subscribe to TULIP or because you reject libertarian free will and hold compatibilism. With the Triablogers and their groupies however, things are slanted a very different way: unless you hold their beliefs you may not be saved according to them. They appear to worship the Calvinistic system of theology incapable of seeing that most other Christians reject their system and are simultaneously genuine Christians. And if you think differently or hold a different position than they do, you must not really take the bible seriously or you must not really be trying to interpret the biblical texts and you certainly can’t be logical or intelligent. These are of course all lies, continually perpetuated by the Triablogers and their groupies.

I am quite confident and persuaded that both open theism and universalism are false views. I believe their interpretations of biblical texts are mistaken. Yet at the same time, they may be genuine believers, they may have a personal and saving relationship with Jesus Christ. I don’t have to belittle them, question their intelligence, question their desire to interpret scripture and make rude and obnoxious comments about them to establish the truth. I feel the same way about Catholics and Eastern Orthodox persons (I believe they are mistaken in certain areas, nevertheless they may be saved individuals). The Triablogers and their groupies seem incapable of admitting this to be true. Or if they acknowledge this truth, they certainly do not live like it is true.

I can (and do) have reasonable and civil discussions with others (including Open theists, Universalists, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, etc.) with whom I disagree, and there usually is no name calling, no snide and rude comments. But add a Triabloger to the discussion and civility and rationality seem to go out the window.

Robert