Monday, September 03, 2007

Pelagius V

It didn't seem fair to keep tacking poor old Pelagius' name on to the whole discussion that's occupied me so far this month - I was going to change the title to "Free Will," and then I discovered a post by The Philosophical Midwife, entitled Between Augustine and Pelagius: A Middle Way, so I gave up...

He says:

Why would a Christian say such things as this [denying original sin]? Pelagius' reason was simple. He held that, if we come into the world with a nature ruined by Adam's sin, our later sins are inevitable and thus not culpable. The plausibility of this is difficult to deny. Do we hold someone responsible for something that could not help but do? Do we punish them when their act was inevitable?

I do agree with the claim that we are not culpable for that which we cannot ourselves help but do. Thus I think that a just God would not punish us for our sins if they grow out of an innate sin-nature. But am I forced to reject the doctrine of original sin? I am not. I embrace it. (Indeed I think that, of all bedrock Christian doctrines, this is the one whose truth is most clearly visible in the world around us. We are ruined creatures, as is plain to see.) But how then do I avoid the conclusion that God punishes those who could not help but sin? My answer is simple: in the end all are saved, and God punishes no one.

Now I don't think I am wholly with the good Midwife here: I am more in sympathy with Julian of Norwich, who held that wrath is not in God, but in our opposition to him. That being the case, it seems to me that salvation is a gift offered freely to all, but that it is possible consistently to refuse that gift, and thus be lost. The hell-fire and brimstone imagery may then be just that - picture language for an eternity without God - on which reckoning it seems to me more like understatement than hyperbole...

I am well aware that there will be those people who will want sincerely to remind me that Romans 8.28, which I was talking about yesterday, goes on to say, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." Vv.29-30 rub in that thought: "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified."

It is possible to derive from this not only the doctrine of irresistible grace I mentioned yesterday, but that of double predestination, whereby:
The classic position of Reformed theology views predestination as double in that it involves both election and reprobation but not symmetrical with respect to the mode of divine activity. A strict parallelism of operation is denied. Rather predestination is viewed in terms of a positive-negative relationship.

In the Reformed view God from all eternity decrees some to election and positively intervenes in their lives to work regeneration and faith by a monergistic work of grace. To the non-elect God withholds this monergistic work of grace, passing them by and leaving them to themselves. He does not monergistically work sin or unbelief in their lives. Thus, the mode of operation in the lives of the elect is not parallel with that operation in the lives of the reprobate. God works regeneration monergistically but never sin.

Surely, though, if God were seriously into robotics, he could have saved himself, not to mention his Creation, a great deal of trouble by simple predestinating Eve and her man not to have anything to do with reptiles? The whole story of the Fall (Genesis 2:4b - 3:24) implies that free will was an ability humanity possessed even before eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And as CS Lewis says somewhere, what would be the good to God of people who had no choice but to love him and obey him? For those things to mean anything, there has to be the possibility to choose otherwise. To choose freely.

I know many Reformed theologians do claim to uphold the idea of free will. They say that "Man freely makes choices, but those choices are determined by the condition of his heart and mind (i.e. his moral nature)... Because man chooses according to his desires, he remains responsible for his actions. He may have chosen otherwise - given different circumstances - but his choice is the outworking of his desires." However, those desires are so deeply deranged by our fallenness that we cannot choose otherwise than to sin. Freedom on this basis is no freedom at all, it seems to me.

Of course, we must be careful not to caricature this point of view, even though under the name of hard determinism, just that conclusion is openly espoused by some Reformed theologians like Vincent Cheung.

RC Sproul, the noted Calvinist theologian, has an interesting article on the freedom of the will, where he states:

Some have approached the subject of God's foreknowledge from a different perspective. Their argument is based on God's relationship to space and time. The idea is this: God is eternal; He is above space and time. God sees all things from the vantage point of the present. There is no past or future with God. He sees all things as present. If God sees all things as present, then how He does it is completely beyond our comprehension. What God's ultimate relationship to time is remains a highly speculative matter. If what is future to me is present to God, then we know His knowledge of our future is perfect and that future is absolutely. certain. God can make no errors in His observations.

It is one thing to say that God causes or coerces all things. It is quite another to say that God foreordains all things. If God forces or coerces all things, then He would have had to coerce the fall of man. If this were so, then God would be the cause, indeed the guilty perpetrator of sin. Not only would God be guilty of sin but His coercive actions would destroy the freedom of man.

To aid understanding we need to consider two models, two images of God, which lead to serious distortions of the divine character. First is the image of God as a puppeteer. Here God manipulates the strings of marionettes. The feet and the arms of the puppets jerk and dance as God pulls the strings. Puppets have no will. They have no heart or soul. Their bodies are filled with sawdust. If God were like this, not even the Wizard of Oz could make us truly free.

The second image of God is of the spectator. Here God sits on the sidelines of world history. He observes the game closely. He makes careful notes about the action and will turn in a scouting report. He is the ultimate armchair quarterback. He second-guesses the plays that are called. He roots for His favorite team. However, He is powerless to affect the outcome of the game in any way. The action is on the field, and He's not playing. This model of God destroys His sovereignty. The spectator God is a God who reigns but never rules. He is a God without authority. He observes history but is not Lord over history.

Neither of these images does justice to the biblical view of God. They serve merely to alert us to the pitfalls that lurk in the shadows. They represent borders over which we must not go.

  • We must be careful not to so zealously maintain the sovereignty of God that we end up denying human freedom and responsibility.
  • At the same time we must be careful not to so zealously preserve human freedom that we reduce God to an impotent spectator of world affairs.

The correct approach is to insist that God foreordains all things and that all future events are under His sovereignty. The future is absolutely certain to God. He knows what will take place, and He foreordains what will take place...

The greatest event of human history was at the same time the most diabolical. No greater shame can be tacked to the human race than that a human being delivered up Jesus to be crucified. Judas betrayed Christ because Judas wanted to betray Christ. The Pharisees pressed for His death because the Pharisees wanted Jesus killed. Pilate succumbed to the howling crowd, not because God coerced him, but because Pilate was too weak to withstand the demands of the mob.

Yet the Bible declares that the Cross was no accident. The outcome of God's eternal plan of redemption did not hinge finally on the decision of Pontius Pilate. What if Pilate had released Jesus and crucified Barabbas instead? Such a thought is almost unthinkable. It would suggest that God was only a spectator in the plan of redemption, that He hoped for the best but had no control over the events.

God did more than hope for the Cross. He willed the Cross. He sent His Son for that very purpose. Before Jesus was brought before Pilate, He pleaded with the Father for a different verdict. He begged that the cup might pass. Before Pilate ever raised his Roman scepter, the gavel had fallen in Gethsemane. The verdict was in. Jesus was delivered by the determinate forecounsel of God.

This is a very grown-up and persuasive argument, and even more so considering Sproul's later assertion that:

God is sovereign. Man is free. Man's freedom is limited, however, by God's sovereignty. God's sovereignty is not limited by man's freedom. This is simply to say that man is not God. God is free and man is free. But God is more free than a man. Man's freedom is always and everywhere subordinate to God's freedom. If we reverse these we pass from theism to atheism, from Christianity to humanism, from Christ to Anti-christ.

I can't argue with that - though it is remarkable how close it comes to the following, quoted in the Wikipedia article on Arminianism (a theological standpoint historically opposed to Calvinism):

Most Arminians reconcile human free will with God's sovereignty and foreknowledge by holding three points:

  • Human free will is limited by original sin, though God's prevenient grace restores to humanity the ability to accept God's call of salvation.
  • God purposely exercises his sovereignty in ways that do not illustrate its extent - in other words, He has the power and authority to predetermine salvation but he chooses to apply it through different means.
  • God's foreknowledge of the future is exhaustive and complete, and therefore the future is certain and not contingent on human action. God does not determine the future, but He does know it. God's certainty and human contingency are compatible.

I can readily accept the limitation of free will by our sinful natures; what I could never accept is that our free will is totally ineffective, and yet we are held morally responsible for our choices. God's grace is surely given freely to all, and is sufficient for all. We are then free to choose, or not to choose, to respond to the call of Christ. The fact that God, above and beyond all time (which is his creation anyway) foreknows our choices doesn't make them any the less our choices.

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