Friday, June 26, 2009

Salvation, Scripture, and Sovereignty

There are three sets of scriptures that one has to account for in dealing with this issue.

1) Scriptures apparently asserting the absolute sovereignty of God.
2) Scriptures apparently indicating God's universal love and universal intent to save.
3) Scriptures apparently indicating that Satan, and many humans, are punished eternally for their sins.

I say apparently because the "apparent" implications of one set of passages has to be only apparent. You have to deny the apparent implications of one of these sets. And Christian Bible interpreters have alternative interpretations for each of these sets. You can say that the sovereignty passages do not mean to imply that God doesn't permit humans to choose freely. You can say that the universal intent to save passages have implicit in them a limited reference class that limits the scope of God's love and/or the intended benefit of God's salvific actions to the elect. (Actually, Calvinists are split on whether God loves everyone, even those that God reprobates.) And, interestingly enough, there are Christians who have argued that "eternal" punishment for the wicked is only age-long, not forever, and is designed to bring about an eventual redemption, which means that eventually everyone will be saved. In the first four centuries of the church, universalism was far more prevalent that what later became known as Calvinism.

Or, of course, you can say that, based on Scripture, we are not in a position to extrapolate and decide what the correct answer to this issue is.

And just in case someone gets the wrong idea, there is nothing in here intended to attack Calvinism.


Dan Lower said...

If by absolute sovereignty you mean a sort of theological determinism (that is, those who go to hell are foreordained to do so), or predestination in the Calvinist sense, then I agree. That said, as a free-will Christian I'm more than a little tempted to suggest that interpretations calling for such an absolute sovereignty are misinterpretations which take too seriously the apparent implications, as opposed to the real and fully contextual ones.

Ilíon said...

Human moral freedom, human agency, is *also* a Scriptural assertion.

1) The absolute sovereignty of God no more entails the lack of freedom of men than does the absolute power of God entail that absurdity about whether "God can create a rock too big himself to move."

2) God's universal love and universal intent to save no more entails universalism (i.e. that ultimately no one is damned/cut off) than does his absolute knowledge entail that men are not free.

3) According to Scripture, those who are damned will be denied to dwell in God's presence. According to Scripture, the punishment for sin is to be given over to one's sinfulness. According to Scripture, the consequence of sin ("the wages of sin") is death.

According to Scripture, in the new creation heaven and earth will be brought together in some manner which we can't even imagine -- this seems to me to imply that in some way "eternity" will be manifest in the physical/material creation of which we are a part: God will dwell *with* us.

Now, *if* (as seems to me to be indicated) the distinction between our time-bound existence and God's timeless existence is one of the things which is not carried over, or carried over exactly, to the new creation, and if the punishment of sin is death, then is it really so difficult to see that speaking of "never-ending" punishment/damnation is the best way to express, in our time-bound language, the choice God calls us to reject?

In creating us as free moral agents, God has made us his partners in the on-going unfolding of his creation. He is sovereign, and his will shall be done; all that we do, for good and for ill, moves the plot of the story forward.

Christ did not put himself into our hands only at Cavalry, but from the very creation, and even until the new creation: he upholds the existence of *all* things.

Robert said...


"I say apparently because the "apparent" implications of one set of passages has to be only apparent. You have to deny the apparent implications of one of these sets."

Not true, one need not deny that
(1) God is sovereign (explicitly stated in the bible and believed by Christians from all different theological persuasions (including Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox and Independent), (2) God desires the salvation of all human persons and explicitly states this in the bible (and again this is the majority view among Christians across all theological traditions); and (3) that Satan and some human persons will be eternally separated from God explicitly stated in scripture (and again the majority position among professing Christians).

There is **only** a problem if you conceive sovereignty ***mistakenly*** as necessatarian calvinists do as: ***exhaustive predetermination of all events***.

DJ Lower clearly sees this as well when stating:

"If by absolute sovereignty you mean a sort of theological determinism (that is, those who go to hell are foreordained to do so), or predestination in the Calvinist sense, then I agree."

Victor I believe you are forgetting or perhaps unaware that theological determinism and its belief in exhaustive predetermination of all events has always been the **minority** position among professing Christians. Any of your three sets of scriptures mentioned here, again have been affirmed throughout church history without controversy and have been the majority position among professing Christians. Eliminate theological determinism and these sets of scriptures and their implications are fully consistent and coherent. Affirm theological determinism and then you've got problems with these sets of scriptures.

And Ilion makes some very good points showing there is no inconsistency between God's sovereignty (rightly conceived as He does as He pleases in all situations) and man's free will. Sovereignty only becomes problematic when mistakenly conceived as and equated with exhaustive determinism. Then sovereingty becomes a problem as free will is eliminated and God becomes the author of all sin and evil.


Victor Reppert said...

Quite right. One can be in sovereign control while "delegating" that control to persons.

Jason Pratt said...

While some (even many) Calvinist theologians have played the 'exhaustively deterministic' card, the question of God's sovereignty only has soteriological meaning insofar as the question is: is our salvation from sin 'secure'? Can we trust God to never give up on us, even though we betray Him every time we sin?

Notably, the current phrasing of the three positions has nothing to do with salvation or sin or righteousness or anything of that sort, in its first element. Consequently, the topical focus is off, and should be adjusted.

1.) Some scriptures apparently assert that God will never give up on saving from sin those He intends to save from sin, and that He shall be victorious sooner or later in this.

2.) Some scriptures apparently indicate God's universal love and universal intent to save all sinners from sin.

(Plus 1.5: there are some scriptures apparently indicating both (1) and (2), every once in a while. {g})

3.) Some scriptures apparently indicate that Satan (and rebel angels) and many humans are never saved from sin.

A Calvinist (or universalist either) need not affirm exhaustive determinism, nor disaffirm the free will of man (at least of the elect, per Calvinism), to affirm element (1); even though the Scriptures which appear to reveal and promise this tend to explain it in terms of God's sovereign authority [u]in which we can trust[/u]. But also in terms of God's intrinsic goodness and love [u]in which we can trust[/u]; which is more important because of course a sovereign authority might decide to sovereignly say "to hell with those ingrates" sooner or later, too, and sovereignly stop trying to save those sinners from sin, sovereignly choosing instead to never try saving them again.

The point is an ontological one: if God decides to save us from sin, we need not worry about something else defeating Him from achieving that goal, even if we still have to worry about something-elses introducing difficulties along the way. Similarly, if God decides to not save us from sin (whether from the outset or eventually), we have exactly zero hope of ever being saved from sin--it won't happen, period.

The relevant question (for Calvs as well as for Arms, and for Kaths, too) is to what degree this goal has priority among the intentions of God to accomplish.

(By which I am not trying to introduce factors pointing toward one of the three theoretical results as actual. I am only trying to clarify the issues. I would introduce orthodox trinitarian theism as the factor that points toward one of the three theoretical results being actual. {g})


Jason Pratt said...

JRP: {{Notably, the current phrasing of the three positions}}

Sorry, composition gaffe; probably happened when I rewrote the sentence.

That should say, "the current phrasing of the first of the three positions". Obviously the other two have salvation and sin as topics, which is why the first phrasing stands out as not being topically focused enough.


Ilíon said...

"Sorry, composition gaffe; probably happened when I rewrote the sentence."

That's when most of mine happen.

Ilíon said...

In the words of a prayer found scratched into the stones of the ruins of Lindisfarne: "God preserve us from the scourge of the Calvinists ... and the universalists."

Jason Pratt said...

Or, as I occasionally pray myself, "God preserve other people from my scourging." Which I should possibly pray more often. {g}

(Not that universalists have ever done enough actual 'scourging' so as to get a reputation for it; we're usually thought of as being wusses instead for not persecuting other people. But in principle it's possible. It might have even happened historically. God knows; I don't.)

So, do you ever pray for God to save people from Arminian scourging? (Whether from your own or other Arms'?)

What I would not pray, is "God save us from the hope of salvation of all sinners from sin." The only people I know of who would be praying that would be... um... well, to be honest... the people you expect God to finally leave to their sins. Hopelessly damned, they way that they wanted to be. They pray for God to stop pestering them to repent and be saved from their sins; and/or they pray to stop being pestered by God to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them and to forgive their enemies their transgressions and to hope for their enemies' salvation instead.

So, are you going to pray their prayers, and hope that God grants them? Or pray for the salvation of all sinners from sin?