Tag: predestination


Review: The Story of Christian Theology

nullThe Story of Christian Theology
Roger E. Olson

If you’ve ever wondered how the major pieces of Christian theology –things like the Trinity, Predestination, and Baptism– you will find them here. Dr. Olson, a historian by trade, takes on the places, times, and movements that developed and hardened the Christian doctrines we know today. Essentially, this book follows a strictly chronological format, starting from the birth of the Church in the book of Acts, and carrying through to the split of the Fundamentalist movement and Reformed theology in the 20th Century.

The first section deals with the fundamental heresies that came in with the founding of the Church by examining the writing of the Patristic Fathers, the Apologetic Fathers, and then focusing specifically on Irenaeus. Here the fundamental issues of the nature of Christ in his incarnation were initially resolved. Of course, many of these issues have risen again in recent time with the formation of heretical branches of Christian thought, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the LDS Church.

The second section deals with the unity of the Church which is primarily founded on the conversion of Rome to a Christian state. While Dr. Olson does a good job of explain the good results of the unity of the Church, he doesn’t cover the concerns of those Christians who objected to the sacralism of merging the state and church, and using state power to impose consistency of theology.

The major argument over the nature of the Trinity is dealt with in the fourth section, and the fifth returns to the nature of Christ. Section five describes the split between the Eastern and Western church over the issue of the procession of the Spirit –does the Spirit proceed only from the Father, or from the Father and the Son. According to Dr. Olson, the theological quarrel was founded on different views of the place of Scripture and hermeneutics.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Reformers are covered in the seventh section. Dr. Olson provides good insight into the relationship between the various Reformers, laying the groundwork for the ultimate split of the Reformed movement described in section eight. The author’s ability to lay out the relationships in this section provides a very easy to understand historical picture, though he tends to downplay the role and objections of the Anabaptists, and the sacralizing power grounded in Constantinian Christianity.

In the final section Dr. Olson discusses the split between liberal and conservative Christianity, the split between fundamentalism and mainline Christianity. Some of the most interesting pieces he discusses here relate to the role of Billy Graham’s ministry, and the role of various schools, strong personalities, and even the impact of scientific thinking in this era.

A long read, but a good basis from which to reach out and investigate Christian history and theology.


It's Your Nature (Unconditional Election)

One of the prime accusations against Calvinism is that if man is predestined to salvation or damnation (unconditionally elected, saved by irresistible grace, against man’s total depravity), then man is not free to choose –or rather, man has no free will.

The Calvinistic response is:

What does it mean to say that I am free? It means that I am not under constraint. Thus, I am free to do whatever pleases me. But am I free with respect to what pleases me and what does not? To put it differently, I may choose one action over another because it holds more appeal for me. But I am not fully in control of the appeal each of those actions holds for me. That is quite a different matter. I make all my decisions, but those decisions are in large measure influenced by certain characteristics of mine that I am not capable of altering by my own choice. If, for example, I am offered for dinner a choice between liver and any other entree, I am quite free to take the liver but I do not desire to do so. I have no conscious control over my dislike of liver. -Erickson, Christian Theology (page 383)

Men are free to chose, but only within the dictates of their desires. To put it another way, your desires so override your freedom (total depravity) that you cannot anything that you do not desire. One fatal flaw with this line of reasoning is that it misstates the relationship between desire and decision. In Romans, Paul discusses the war going on between two desires within him.

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. -Romans 7:15

There is a difference between your desire to do something and your ability to do it. Sometimes this comes down to self control, other times it comes down to conflicting desires, and still others it comes down to raw ability. You might desire to jump over the moon, but you’re not physically capable of doing so.

So to say that we are trapped by our desires, that we cannot overcome them unless we are aided by God, is to actually make two possible statements.

  1. That we are unable to do what we desire for some reason.
  2. That we are unable to desire something other than what our “animal instincts” or “nature” commands us to desire.

The statement in #1 perfectly accords with the idea that God looks down at us and sees the desire of some to be saved, but knowing that none of us can actually achieve salvation —even come one point on a line closer to salvation without his aid— graciously reaches out across the chasm of sin and draws us to him.

The statement in #2 accords with the idea that God looks down and sees that no-one desires salvation, ever, so God “graciously” chooses to change the will of some people for his own glory (and nothing else).

The problem with #2 is that it doesn’t really solve the riddle of free will. Who gave us our nature? Well, God, of course. In fact, this is such a powerful argument that Satan uses it against Eve in the Garden. “Didn’t God give you the desire to eat? Then how can it be wrong to eat of that tree?”

Ascribing all our choices to desire doesn’t resolve the problem of free will, because God made every one of us with the desires the Calvinist wants to say controls our decisions. Ascribing our decisions to our desires (which God made) isn’t any better than ascribing our decisions directly to God.

But in saying #1, aren’t we somehow pulling down God’s sovereignty? If God’s choice is somehow compatible with man’s choice, isn’t God just a little smaller, and a little less glorious?


This sort of thinking comes from tearing God into little pieces, and then thinking of only one piece at a time. God is just over here, and merciful over there; God knows everything over here, and wills everything over there. These are human distinctions, and human thinking. humility and glory in God, for instance, or between justice and mercy.

In the same way, it is not contradictory for God to choose us because we choose him, or for us to choose him because he chose us. It is not contradictory for human choice and God’s choice to be compatible with one another.

Real choice means being able to choose against your desires, as well as with them. At the same time, God’s sovereignty must have real meaning —and sovereignty means ruling the universe in the most minute detail.



Fatalism and Religion

As Muslims we must believe in Al Qadr. Saying “What IF” causes one to have doubt in the decree of ALLAH and opens ones ears to the evil whipspers of Shaitan which weakens our eman. It was decreed that this situation happen–Man plans but ALLAH is the best of Planners. –Arab News (Comments)

This comment on a story about the current situation in Palestine started me to thinking about the difference between fatalism predestination —and how we approach these two things as humans. There is a famous story about the father of modern missions, William Carey, giving a talk at a meeting of the Particular Baptists in the late 1700’s (close to the turn of the century). On finishing, a man stood and said, “Sit down, young man. If God wants the heathen saved he will do it without your help or mine.”

Oh how well modern heathens would prefer to live next to that Particular Baptist today.

But my point here isn’t about missions, it’s about fatalism in religious belief. That God has decreed, and we have no options, no choices, no way to do anything. There is a fine line, a balance, between fatalism and predestination that Christians need to walk to avoid stepping into the attitude of the Muslim or the Particular Baptist above. The problem is finding that line —to refuse to fall into the ditch on either side of the problem.

For God is sovereign. There is no way around this. Open theism, with a God who doesn’t know the future, is simply untenable in light of the Scriptures.

But men do have choices. There is no way around this, either. It’s built into almost every story in the Scriptures, every law, every interaction between God and man.

How to understand both of these at the same time, I simply don’t know. I’ve made some attempts at putting them together, but I’m certain they all fall short in one way or another. But I know they are both true.

The danger of fatalism is simple, and illustrated in the comment posted to a story about the choices of the Arab world around Palestine above (the article, itself, is worth reading, by the way). If we believe that God is choosing, then we are frozen into a sort of paralysis, where we simply won’t choose. If all things are God’s choice, then humans have no need to choose. Should I choose the red or the blue tennis shoes this morning? It doesn’t matter, God has already chosen. If I wind up with one of each color, on the wrong foot, well, that’s God’s doing, not mine.

It seems to me that we must guard against such thought, for down this path leads the most totalitarian governments, and the most dreadful and dead lives we can imagine. There is almost no surer way to quench the life of a man than to tell him that it doesn’t matter what he does, his fate is certain in all cases. If you want to see someone fail at work, tell them they are going to be rated poorly no matter what they do.

Islam is probably the most fatalistic religion on the face of the Earth today.

As Christians, it’s important that we not fall for fatalism. Yes, God is sovereign. Yes, the ultimate ends are up to him. But yes, your prayers do matter. And yes, it’s important that you study the Scriptures, and witness, and ask for forgiveness for sins, and teach your children in the way of truth, and fight against evil where you can, and…

Understand that God is sovereign, but don’t make that an excuse for not standing up and living the Christian life in its fullness. “What if,” is not an evil question to ask.


Dr. Hesier, Predestination, and Chess

I recently ran across a video Dr. Heiser, a teacher I greatly respect in the Christian world, made to explain his view of predestination. What I find interesting is his view of predestination and free will is very close to mine —and I think he struggles in the same places to explain his real view, just as I do. Watch his video before reading the rest of this post.

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The part that makes me uncomfortable here is the talk of God “adjusting” things as they go along so the world always reaches the end he has decreed. I don’t like to think that God, who is omniscient and omnipotent should have to “adjust” to what humans are doing in real time.

Let me shift gears for a moment to bring a possible resolution into view. In the world of math, there are games, and there are “not games.” Cards, for instance, are games. Chess is not. What’s the difference? The element of chance. In any sort of card game, there is the random draw of the card to deal with. You can be very good at strategy, but you can’t account for the draw. Why isn’t chess a game, then? Because, in reality, the only chance in chess comes from the other player. The chance, in other words, is rational, rather than irrational.

The reason chess feels like a game to us is that we can’t compute every possible outcome from any particular point in the play. The reason computers will eventually be able to reliably beat any chess player in the world is that they can, in fact, compute every possible set of moves, and compute the odds of winning, perfectly, for every possible next move.

When is any given game of cards just like playing chess against an infinitely capable computer? When you’re playing against God. God, you see, not only knows what the possible is, he also knows what the real is. In God’s world, there are no games (as defined above), because there is no chance. So, let’s extend the analogy a little, and see if it at least makes some sort of sense.

If God truly decrees everything before time, not taking human will into consideration (or knowing that all humans would choose hell in all cases without his intervention), this is like playing a game of chess against God where God not only chooses his moves, but he wills yours, as well. You may desire what he wills (so you could still claim to have free will, in a sense), but you cannot desire anything other than what God wills. God knows the future because God is effectively playing both sides of the board.

If God truly “adjusts” as things go along, then this is exactly like playing a chess game against God —only God has the most perfect brain, and hence can perfectly compute the odds of winning from any possible opening position and for any sequence of events on the board. God will win, no matter what, simply because he can compute faster than you can. But while God always wins, he doesn’t interfere with your moves in any way. He simply “adjusts” his moves to match yours, to ensure the final outcome he wills.

Both of these seem wrong to me in some way. The truth is probably closer to this.

Life is like playing chess against God, only God can not only compute every possible move on the board from the current position, and hence is able to control the game to a particular outcome. God also already knows every move that will, in reality, be made. God doesn’t control your desire, nor does he adjust to it. He already “adjusted” to it in eternity past.

There are no games in God’s world, because there is no chance. He knows what your next move will be, what every possible move could be after that, and what every move will actually be after that. He not only has infinite computing power, he can read your mind —well into the future, as well— knowing thoughts you’ve not even thought yet.

But aside from all of this, you are still moving the pieces from your side of the board. You aren’t moving them because of his will, nor is he adjusting to your moves. Knowing doesn’t mean controlling, it simply means knowing.

Does that make things clear? No, I didn’t think so. But at least I tried.


Narrative 029: Jacob and Esau (1)

We continue working our way through Genesis (there’s a lot of material to cover in Genesis) with chapter 25, up to the birth of Jacob and Esau. The end of this study spends a little time talking about predestination in light of the Romans 9 passage, which relies on the birth of these two men as background.

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The Library: A Paradigm

Talking to someone the other day, I ran into an illustration of the five point Calvinistic system of thought within Christianity. The illustration went something like this:

Imagine God is sitting in a library, and there are thousands of books on the shelves around Him. Each of these books represents a possible world. He looks through each book, and selects one that comes out just as the world we live in has come out. This illustrates divine predestination of the world.

My first reaction was that this doesn’t really illustrate true five point Calvinism with deterministic predestination—and I’m still not certain it does, for it implies perfect middle knowledge, or knowledge of things which God does not will. To get to full predestination, you must rule out middle knowledge. Or must you? This is where I think the catch lies. There is a situation in which middle knowledge is not ruled out, in fact. Assume that around God, each of these books actually contain multiple stories, but that in each story, no humans are saved because they desire salvation. In this case, God would choose a book not based on human desire, but on some other reason.

The key in the illustration then becomes: Why does God choose the book He does?

There are, I think, a limited number of answers to this question; in fact, I think there are really only three (though I could be wrong).

  • God chooses the book that brings Him the most glory by showing his power in the most complete and total way. While no humans desire to be saved, some are saved nonetheless because it’s necessary for some humans to be saved in order to show God’s glory through His power. In the same way, it is necessary for most humans to be condemned to show God’s glory through His power.
  • God chooses the book that brings Him the most glory by showing His love and justice. This maximizes God’s glory by maximizing His righteousness; the most moral world is chosen, with those desiring salvation being saved, and those not desiring salvation being condemned.
  • God chooses the book that brings Him the most glory by showing His love.

The first option is total predestination. Since no man will ever desire salvation, the entire point of predestination is to maximize God’s glory through illustrating His power. The second option is a mediate view, and the third is universalism. There are other options, but they involve a single book that God is writing “behind” man, rather than a library of possible worlds.

What’s interesting about this illustration is it shows all three possible options in a way that can be grasped and understood without getting into a lot of theological terminology. It’s also interesting because it allows us to compare the three views of predestination with other religions. For instance, the first view most closely resembles Islam, the third most closely resembles Buddhism, I think. The second doesn’t really have an analogue among the world religions that I know of, except for some views within Judaism. It also allows us to approach the various views and understand them within a philosophical framework; which of the three views is the most defensible position for a theist within the realm of philosophical debate?

Overall, an interesting illustration, well worth thinking about and adding into the stable of ideas knocking around in my head.


The Trouble with T and P

I noticed these two quotes in a book I read recently:

In John 3:24, the reference is to the attitude or disposition that a believer displays in his life. John states that a believer knows Christ abides in him by the attitude or disposition that He has given him. That attitude displays itself in obeying Christ’s commands (3:22) and loving the brethren (3:23).

A constant worrying about whether one is saved or whether has lost his salvation is a serious obstacle indeed to victory over Satan and his demonic hoards.

Let me say this first: I don’t see any difference between “losing” your salvation after years of going to church, study, etc, and finding out you weren’t ever really saved after the same sorts of things. Given this as background, I find this sort of logical inconsistency breathtaking; if you should be assured in your salvation, then why are there Scriptures telling you to examine your life to see if you’re saved? If you should examine your life to see if you’re saved, then how can you be assured of your salvation?

In fact, there is an interesting contradiction built in to the high Calvinist definition of total depravity (the T) and the perseverance of the saints (the P). Total depravity states, in essence:

Men have no desire for salvation, or God, being slaves to sin, unless God regenerates them in some way.

Perseverance of the saints states, in essence:

If you are regenerated by God, evidence of your salvation shows up as discernible fruit in your life.

To quote another blog:

…”God’s work of grace” which “consists in the real change of the whole man by the Spirit of God, whereby he is prepared for every good work.” This work of grace is accompanied by a “palpably evident change” in the life of a true believer… Evidence of the change in a man can be seen in his changed “soul, body, and practice: all things are become new.” These evidences include substantial changes of heart, inclination, affection and meditation. These changes are both observable and mystical.

If we take John 3:24 to mean that we should examine our own lives for evidence of our own salvation by looking for the types of changes described above, then we have a problem; I wouldn’t be examining my life for signs of salvation unless I had a desire for salvation! So the entire premise is somehow wrong here. One of these three must be true:

  • John 3:24 should never be read this way, because just the desire to find out if I’m saved or not proves my salvation (if I desire, then I must be regenerated)
  • Our definition of total depravity is off somehow; men can desire salvation without being regenerated, as shown by the desire to search our lives for signs of salvation.
  • Our definition of the perseverance of the saints is off somehow; men can be saved, and not see recognizable signs of “fruit” in their lives at the moment they look.

It’s possible, of course, that some combination of these three is true (in fact, I think all three are probably true in some sense). There’s simply no way for both the T and the P to stand together when you define them both in the strictest of terms; it’s a logical contradiction.

As an aside, I notice that the article on total depravity on Wikipedia is really quite funny. There is a list of “proof verses,” and then this:

It should be noted that these objections raised to the doctrine of total depravity have no strong foundation in Scripture, but are rather philosophical and logical objections to the doctrine. –Wikipedia

What’s so funny? Predestination—the way the article itself defines it—is only provable if you work from a specific set of presuppositions about the nature of God when reading the Scriptures. In other words, the definition of predestination the article supports is, itself, based on logical and philosophical foundations that lead you to read specific Scriptures in a specific way.

In reality, there is a fundamental tension between predestination and free will within the Scriptures, and no single view can really be proven without reference to some view of God’s nature. I accept this, and also accept that there are people who disagree with me on this point—and I don’t think that makes them any less of a Christian than I am. None of us should presume that we can prove our view from a single proof verse (or a collection of proof verses), nor should we think that this little, narrow point of rock is a hill worth dying on.


People, Places, and Things (2)


Now, as Christians, we can toss intelligence out as a definition of personhood.

Self awareness certainly qualifies as a dividing line, however. While plants, at least, don’t have self awareness, humans do. Moral agency also qualifies as a dividing line; the entire point of the story of the Fall is that Eve made a moral choice. Without the moral choice, no fall could have occurred. As Christians, we roll these two ideas—self awareness and moral agency—into a third overarching idea, that humans are made in God’s image. While there is a good bit of argument over what being made in God’s image means, self awareness and moral agency are always included in the definition. The critical point to consider here is that strict predestination removes moral agency. Thus, any belief system that removes free will from humans totally also removes the image of God from humans. In effect, humans become things, not persons.

The answer to this statement is usually something like:

But I’m not saying you have no moral responsibility, only that you have no choice! In fact, isn’t that what Paul says in Romans? That God makes some people for grace, and others to condemn, and we shouldn’t talk back to our maker?

And here we have a slip in logic; we’ve made an unjustified logical leap. Is it being responsible for your actions that makes you a moral agent, or is it the ability to choose that makes you responsible for your actions? I assume God could hold us responsible for choices we made, even though we have no real choice. The problem doesn’t lie there, the problem lies back in the definition of a person.

Let’s take a side trip to try and sort out the difference between responsibility and agency. Suppose I want to train a dog not to dig in the garbage all the time. Now, when actually engaged in the training, I use the language of moral agency. I say the dog “knows” it shouldn’t dig in the garbage, and I say I “punish” him when he does so. But any really good dog trainer will tell you things don’t really work this way. The dog, you see, doesn’t understand “right” from “wrong” in the sense of making choices about these two things. For a dog’s world is all about rewards. “If I dig in the trash, I’m rewarded with tasty bits of human food.” I want to change the dog’s perception to, “If I don’t dig in the trash, I get a tasty treat, I make my pack leader happy, and I don’t get stuck in a corner for what seems like forever.” We say the dog has a moral choice, but then we understand it doesn’t, and we act as though it doesn’t in the way we train it.

In other words, I hold the dog responsible for its actions without treating it as a moral agent.

In the same way, God could hold humans responsible for choices without treating humans as moral agents. That’s not the problem here. The problem is that without moral agency, humans are persons, made in the image of God, they are things, like a dog, or cat, or any other animal. To be a moral agent, you must be able to choose between good and evil, not just this set of rewards against that set of rewards. You must understand what your choice entails, and make the choice, even if you can’t enact it.

Removing free will from humans makes us into things, rather than persons, and defaces the image of God in which we were made.


People, Places, and Things (1)

I was recently reading a theology blog (Parchment and Pen) when I stumbled across an entry about how Romans 9 proves humans are predestined. In the strictest sense, this means humans have no free will; you cannot choose to follow Christ, God decided, long before you were born, whether or not you would. The relevant passage is:

Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Romans 9:11-13

If God chose who He would love and who He would hate before they were born, then obviously God has your life all mapped out for you before you are born. In reality, there a perfectly reasonable alternative reading here that doesn’t support the “total predestination” view, but I don’t want to dive into that here; I’ll save it for another post. The main thing I want you to notice about this entire concept of strict predestination is the impact is has on the idea of what a person is. You remember the old saw, right? A noun is a person, place, or thing. Great. Now how can you tell what is a person, a place, or a thing? Places are simple, I think, because they are an abstraction we use to make the world around us more understandable. But what about people and things? What makes you a person, and your dog a thing?

Is it intelligence? Well, a lot of scientists think so, and they are calling for dolphins to be proclaimed “persons,” rather than “things.”

Is it self awareness? If a “thing” is “self aware,” then it must be a “person,” rather than a “thing.” Based on this definition, some people are looking into the future and stating that a singularity is coming specifically in this area.

They call it “the Singularity”. Ray Kurzweil, a legend in the IT world, a pioneer in optical character recognition, speech recognition and text-to-speech, has become the apostle of “the Singularity”. A documentary about him will be released later this year, Transcendent Man. In summary, the visionary Kurzweil argues that artificial intelligence is improving exponentially, and eventually ““ the latest ETA is 2045 ““ it will become self-conscious and “alive” -MercatorNet

Is it moral agency? A thing does not make moral choices, while a person does. A dog is a thing because a dog doesn’t make any moral choices. They do what they are taught to do, or they fulfill their desires.

Is it because humans have souls? You can’t measure a soul, and no-one can explain what “having a soul” means, really. So, generally speaking, arguing that a person is a person, rather than a thing, because they have a soul, is a dead end. Whether or not it is correct isn’t the point, it’s that you can’t prove it in any meaningful way.


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