About Me

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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Why I am No Longer a Calvinist - Summing Up

I know I haven't answered all the issues that are present in the system of Calvinism, nor will this entry finish the task. However, I am going to wrap up some thoughts here so that I can move onto other things. I will return to various outstanding matters in the weeks ahead.

Each of the remaining points of Calvinism largely grows out of the first, with which I have already dealt. For me, it wasn’t any of these points that caused me to question Calvinism directly, though a couple of them manifest the worst characteristics of systems and how they become the dominant question to be sought rather than Scripture.

For instance, Limited Atonement really cannot be found in Scripture anywhere (in fact there are numerous texts that argue otherwise); however, the logical necessity of the belief must be defended and argued because the other points require it and because without it – within this system, one ends up with universalism. That is, the argument usually pursues the direction of the Sufficiency of Christ’s blood and that if He didn’t die for only the elect, then by definition everyone must be saved. Of course, this argument, while logical, fails at the point of understanding the role of antinomy and paradox in the whole issue of who God is and how He relates to humanity. Indeed, Limited Atonement is one of those places where Calvinism has failed to let the text take priority over the system.

Logic has its limits. This is not to say that logic has no place in Christianity or that Christian beliefs cannot be understood, discussed, and even to some degree proven within the realm of reason and rationality. Rather, it is to say that there are moments in many experiences (love for instance) where our capacity to explain, assess, and logically see something to its end come up short and we must simply step back and say, “Well, that’s just the way it is.” One has to wonder how small one’s god truly is if at the end of the day we can say that we can define and explain all of his steps and ways through which he relates to us.

Concerning Grace…Glorious, Amazing, Unmerited and wondrous Grace. Grace is that activity of God that engages us where we are and transforms us into something new. Grace is not a passive activity in which God looks at our sin, shrugs in resignation, and says, “Oh well, I guess I won’t judge that sin today.” NO! Grace is the active attack from God on our sin in which He declares victory over sin, equips us in a new and powerful way to confront sin in our life and to walk in victory with Him. To take something of such power and awesomeness and to try to juxtapose it with our free will is non-sensical. We shouldn’t understand the work of God’s grace and our free will as two opposing views of our relationship with God – they are not even in the same league. To try to pit them against each other is to limit God’s grace and elevate man’s choice beyond its capacity. For me to say that my decision to follow Christ is part of the process of salvation is not to say that my decision explains salvation, makes salvation possible, or is any way a meritorious work on my part. Just as orthodox Christianity doesn’t look at God and Satan as two opponents in a struggle of equals, but still holds to Satan having real influence, decision making capabilities, and baring responsibility for many things – without subverting God’s sovereignty, I can’t see how me saying, “Yes, my decision to follow Christ plays a part in salvation,” challenges the concept of salvation being by Grace, through Faith and that it is entirely a work of God.

Election in Scripture often has more to do with privilege than exclusion. Even the vanguard of Calvinism’s view of double predestination – Romans 9-11 – contextually has more to do with God showing PRIVILEGE to a certain group than it does to the eternal destiny of anyone discussed. His hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not to destroy Pharaoh, but for the sake of spreading His word. At some point I will return to Romans 9 in particular, but I will simply say at this point that it is NOT the great disposition on eternal destinies that Calvinism often tries to turn it into – the context of Paul’s explanation of God’s purpose of working THROUGH different groups clearly suggests otherwise.

In summation, I left Calvinism because I believe that the system upon which it stands strains credulity when it comes to adequately dealing with the biblical subjects of anthropology and soteriology; and even Christology to some degree. I believe that God is absolutely sovereign and whatever He desires to happen will happen, but I also believe that somewhere in the mystery of what He has determined to do with humans, He has provided a way for REAL relationship, response, and responsibility. I think Jeremiah 18:1-11 best sums my theology of relationship:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: "Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words." So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.
Then the word of the LORD came to me: "O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: 'Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.' (ESV)

The passage highlights God’s sovereignty via the image of the potter, but in the midst of the revelation God reveals that humans differ from clay in that we are capable of response. The result is that OUR RESPONSE in some way has an impact on God’s plan. Why? How? To What Degree? I don’t know – but I do know that this passage and many just like it make it clear that what we have a relationship with God  – a relationship in which we do play a part.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why I am No Longer a Calvinist, Part 4: Total Depravity - Some Cursory Thoughts

“Unless I am convinced by the testimonies of the Holy Scriptures or evident reason (for I believe neither in the Pope nor councils alone, since it has been established that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures adduced by me, and my conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God, and I am neither able nor willing to recant, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience.” – Martin Luther

The irony of using someone’s words who would have accepted most, if not all, of the “Doctrines of Grace” should not be lost on anyone. Of course I don’t mean to imply that my observations come close to the scope, the importance, or even the learnedness of Martin Luther’s fight against the errors of the Church in his day. Rather, I am simply reflecting on the fact that there is an appropriateness to revisiting issues of interest and concern in light of Scriptures teachings – for the Christian, this is not only appropriate, it is necessary. Starting today I will begin addressing the primary elements of Calvinism, commonly identified as the 5 points of Calvinism. As I have previously stated, I understand that they work together and lean on each other. I understand that different Calvinist’s will address these issues differently as well. What I am attempting to engage are the perspectives of these points as I held them, as I commonly hear them presented, and as some of the major proponents of the views held them.

TOTAL DEPRAVITY/HUMAN INABILITYAlready in the modern rendition of the doctrine (“Human Inability”) this point has undergone some softening in expression, though the undercurrent of its purpose and position is still present. The doctrine, at first glance, appears to be built upon some almost ill-refutable evidence – the verses that relate to man’s utter sinfulness, the necessity of drawing for response, and the enmity between God and man are too numerous to even begin to list here. But do these passages amount to a support of Total Depravity as described and defined by Calvinism?

The Synod of Dort Canons, from which the 5 points get their organization and definition, explain Total Depravity as:

All people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin; without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform.
 The statement is plain enough and the general bent of the statement can hardly be disputed. Yet, there are specific elements of the doctrine that I believe go beyond the biblical evidence. Furthermore, in discussions about this doctrine, certain texts are either ignored or minimized which I believe are devastating to the position.

"Conceived in sin and born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good"
This statement can be said to be the classical expression of the doctrine of original sin. Though this doctrine has been expressed to varying degrees as a marker of orthodoxy, there is actually a wide variety of expressions concerning it that span the history of Christianity. In essence, the question centers on the relationship of humanity to the sin of Adam. Generally speaking the positions can be divided into three groups (these groups are not original to me and can be found in a number of sources): Influence, Infection, and Inclusion.

The group whose belief is best represented as “Influence” argues that the relationship of Adam’s sin to ours is merely one of influence and that any connection beyond that is largely imagined or over-stated. Pelagius (branded as a heretic by the Council of Carthage [418]) essentially argued this position. The full extent and nuance of his teachings are not known because we only know of him from his enemies and such people can hardly be counted on to fairly express nuance in an argument. Still, one would have to argue that there doesn’t seem to be anyway one can read passages such as Romans 5 and argue that this position (as it has come down to us at least) is consistent with the biblical expressions of Adam’s relationship to the rest of humanity.

The group whose belief is characterized by the word “Infection” generally argues that humanity has been infected with a sin nature because of Adam’s fall. This infection so influences mankind that all will sin and, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, will gravitate toward sin at all times. Regarding the sin in a human, this group would state that all humanity shares in the influence of Adam’s sin, but not the guilt of his sin.

The final group can be described adequately as the “Inclusion” group. This group argues that all humanity (from the time of conception on) shares not only in the influence of Adam’s sin but that all humanity was in fact present in a sense at the first sin and is included in the guilt of Adam’s sin. This clearly is the group to which the Synod of Dort belonged (and to be fair, much of Christian history has belonged).

“Inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin”
There is little one could really argue against this position, except perhaps some important arguments over what “dead in their sins” would mean. Obviously the phrase is a biblical one and so on the surface might seem like a non-negotiable. I would argue that as a status it is indeed non-negotiable; however, the implications of that status is where I will depart from classical Calvinism. When Paul talks about being “dead in sin” does he mean that humans are completely incapable of any response to God? The writers of Dort did not think so, they observed:

“There is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in man after the fall, by virtue of which he retains some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrates a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior. But this light of nature is far from enabling man to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him--so far, in fact, that man does not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society. Instead, in various ways he completely distorts this light, whatever its precise character, and suppresses it in unrighteousness. In doing so he renders himself without excuse before God.”

The theologians of Dort were far more careful than their modern counterparts in how they phrased their statements – terms go undefined and there is a broadness to their expressions that allows them to work in a variety of contexts. When, however, these expressions are taken in context with the doctrine of Irresistible Grace/Effectual Call one comes away with a perception of “dead in their sins” and “slaves to sin” that goes so far to suggest that even the good people do is sin and a transgression against God. One finds even some of the foremost modern Calvinists making arguments that twist texts like Romans 14:23 “whatever is not from faith is sin” to apply to the human condition, even though Paul in this passage is clearly talking to Christians about the reasons they do things and not with the issue of man’s nature. Indeed, this is the crux of where I eventually separated from Calvinism. Often to argue for the system, I found myself (and those who believed like me) applying texts in directions the biblical writers never intended them (more on this below).

"Regenerating Holy Spirit"
This phrase also has wide appeal within Christianity. Who could argue against the need for the Holy Spirit to regenerate the dead man and make him alive to salvation? NO ONE! But the problem comes in here in the order of events. For the Calvinist sold out to the doctrine of Total Depravity as described in their system, this regeneration MUST PRECEDE faith. In other words, a person must be brought to life in order to then find life. To be fair Calvinists will distinguish between regeneration (bringing to life) and justification (declaration of salvation) and so those who argue against the position are often misrepresenting the argument because they are treating the two as one. Kept separate, I can certainly see the logic in the argument; however, I don’t see anything in Scripture that would distinguish the two realities to the degree that Calvinism does – especially as it pertains to the matter of being made a new creature, alive, and one in Christ are almost always put into the singular work of justification.

Some concepts that I couldn’t ultimately answer:
In my journey out of Calvinism, there were certain issues I never could answer. Certain biblical concepts related especially to the doctrine of Total Depravity that didn’t measure up.

The Inclusion View of Adam’s Sin and Humanity’s Sin – As I looked at Church history and the theological arguments of proponents of this view, I never have been able to reconcile this belief with the person of Jesus. If we are going to argue that to be HUMAN is to be under the guilt of Adam’s Sin and to possess that sort of separation, then there is indeed a problem with a belief in the complete humanity of Jesus. Catholic theologians recognized this and developed the concept of the immaculate conception in which Mary’s birth was of such a nature that she was separated from the taint of Adam’s sin and could therefore bare the Christ child without passing on the guilt to him. Other’s have sought to find other means with which to deal with this matter, but from where I sit, all of them result either in a fictitious order of events not represented in Scripture or in some way rejecting some portion of Christ’s humanity.

Dead in Sin­ – The position of Calvinism that all that man is capable of is rebellion prior to regeneration does not seem to me to mesh with Scripture. First of all, I think it ignores the fundamental doctrine of Imago Dei – that is, that man was created in the Image of God. Though we would certainly have to admit that the Image has become distorted to a great degree, the image still persists according to Scripture (Gen 5) and man is still capable of choosing right and wrong (God’s instructions to Cain seem abundantly clear on this matter Gen 4). It seems to me that Paul’s discourse is indeed talking about a status, but without ever going to the full extent of the implications of that status that Calvinists generally appeal to.

What I believe On this Matter:
Man is totally helpless regarding salvation apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. This doesn’t mean that man won’t seek God (I think both history and Scripture bare out that he will), but that he will mess up that search and will be unable to reach any sense of truth apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. I believe that truth comes from the word of God - “faith comes from hearing.” I believe that God moves through the revelation His word to the heart of man; that man responds as the Holy Spirit works – partially under compulsion but also because the revelation relates to man that for which he has always been longing due to the Image of God present in his being; and that this revelation by the word of God, drawing by the Spirit of God, and compulsion by the Grace of God are the means by which salvation comes as a gift – man’s role is simply that of acceptance.

Two charges likely to be made:Semi-Pelagianism – no doubt my view will be characterized at least in the mind of some as Semi-Pelagianism. Such monikers were of the sort that I once cast towards individuals who held a position similar to mine. What is interesting is that such a title really has no basis in history. Someone could technically call someone a semi-Augustinian as much as they could a semi-Pelagian. But the latter carries with it the stigma of being associated with a branded heretic and so is a crafty tool for those who would seek to first alienate and then discredit their opposition. To be certain, the belief I have espoused is as distinguishable from that of Pelagius as it is from that of Augustine/Calvin. So such appellations mean little to me.

Works Salvation – because I suggest that there is a role to be played by humanity in salvation, Calvinists will typically say that I am therefore setting up a works salvation. But again, just because an assertion can be made, doesn’t mean it is necessarily accurate. My view of what God accomplishes in salvation is grand enough and big enough that I can’t imagine how my acceptance of it or participation in the relationship comes anywhere near “purchasing” even a smidgeon of it. In other words, as I see it, the grace of God and His work of salvation is so magnificent, awesome, and overwhelming, that my participation amounts to little more than an afterthought in the entire scheme of things. Salvation is from the Lord.

Such observations are what they are, my limited understanding of a work beyond my comprehension. To God alone be the Glory

Friday, September 10, 2010

Coming Back Next Week

Hello All,

I realize being off for several months is not conducive to building a usable and visited blog. Beginning next week, I will be back. I will finish the blogs I started on Calvinism.

It has been a CRAZY YEAR!