Category Archives: Church History

Nothing New Under the Sun

Matthew Pinson

When it comes to the big questions, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is nothing new under the sun. I am often reminded of this when I attend debates between Christians and skeptics of various varieties. For example, several years ago I heard Craig Evans debate Bart Ehrman, the famous evangelical-turned-skeptic who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After hearing Ehrman’s arguments (and later reading them in some of his books and articles), I was really surprised that that was all he had.

Most of his criticisms of the Bible would do more to bring doubts to a child in a Sunday school room than a person who had taken a freshman course in biblical interpretation at a Christian college. I was struck particularly by how many of his concerns were reiterations of things that the church fathers themselves were dealing with 1,700+ years ago. Here I was braced for some new, groundbreaking scientific argument or an argument made possible because of computer technology or some new archaeological discovery. But what I heard was just more rehashing of much of what skeptics of Christianity have been saying for hundreds, yea thousands, of years.

This memory came back to my mind recently when I was reading Carl F. H. Henry’s wonderful little book from the 1940s, Giving a Reason for Our Hope (Boston: W. A. Wilde, 1949). It’s a wonderful little volume on apologetics that is still relevant for today. In answering the question, “The Modern naturalistic version is that God is simply an imagination of ours, so how can we answer that?” Henry replies:

“The arguments which the modern naturalists use against belief in God are not new; strictly speaking, nothing essential has been added to the argument as it existed many centuries ago, in ancient Greek times. The arguments were all in existence when Christianity came into the world. It is not because a man is modern, but because he is a naturalist, that he says God is a figment of the imagination” (16).

This is so true. In the major intellectual questions about Christianity, there is nothing new under the sun. Reading this also brought to my mind not just our contemporary intellectual context, but also our contemporary cultural context. Many evangelical Protestants have developed a “fear of man” and are too intimidated by the rapid cultural changes in our technological, secularizing society.

It seems that we think what we are facing is unique to our time, and thus we have to use methods in our church growth practices that have never before been tried in the history of Christianity. (And it’s not that the apostles and saints and martyrs throughout history couldn’t have tried them, that they didn’t have the resources to try them. It’s just that they chose not to.)

I don’t want to downplay the acute difficulties and unique qualities of modernity and postmodernity. But I think that we need more to see ourselves in a missionary situation to a pagan culture, like the church fathers and missionaries of the Christian tradition, rather than seeing ourselves as being comfortable in a Christian culture and still thinking we can spread the gospel like we used to in that culture. Yet, in the big questions, there is nothing new under the sun. We are not experiencing anything that the early church did not experience, or that various traditional missionaries to pagan cultures did not experience.

I think it’s helpful for us to look at the church fathers, especially prior to the mammoth changes in the fourth century when the church began accommodating pagan culture more and speaking a prophetic word to it less. When we look at the early church, we see it engaging a pagan culture that is similar in profound ways to our own, and we find that they had almost all the resources at their disposal that we currently have. Yet they based their ministry of the gospel on the all-sufficient word, not the methods and gimmicks the secular culture used to draw a crowd.

Every age and society has its unique qualities. Yet because humanity is made in God’s image and is fallen and finite, we find that there is nothing new under the sun. The Holy Scripture that God breathed out more than twenty centuries ago gives us—just as it gave the saints and martyrs who went before us—everything necessary for life and godliness, for building Christ’s church, for extending the kingdom, and for defending the rationality of the Christian gospel in a complex marketplace of ideas.

We Must Reform in Order to Conserve: Part 2

by Matthew Pinson

I am—we all are—under a great temptation to discard the Great Tradition of the Christian Church, and our own heritage of Free Will Baptist faith and practice, replacing it with the latest flavor of the month from the non-denominational movement, again, hoping that something will work, something will stick. We are desperate.

But Scripture and the saints and martyrs of our Christian past call us to go back and retrieve scriptural faith and practice that has been eclipsed—to be reformers, not revolutionaries, to put into practice Burke’s maxim that “we must reform in order to conserve.” Only in this way can we know that we have something that will last, that will work, not just in the short run, but in the long run. Only in this way can we have a deposit of truth and life that we can pass down unscathed to our children and their children and their children’s children.

We must resist the temptation to lose our nerve, to be intimidated by a challenging culture, and throw arbitrary extra-biblical attempted solutions at the predicament in which we find ourselves—when we have no idea whether these solutions will work or what their unintended consequences will be. Instead, we must rely on those “permanent things” that we know will conserve the church and its faith and practice and allow us to pass on what we have received to future generations.

So, finally, let me pass on to the readers of this blog the quotation from Scruton’s Conservatism that brought these thoughts fresh to my mind. In the context of his discussion of Edmund Burke’s defense of the “reform” of the American Revolution and his distaste for the “revolution” of the French Revolution, Scruton says:

“Burke rejected the liberal idea of the social contract, as a deal agreed among living people. Society, he argued, does not contain the living only; it is an association between the dead, the living, and the unborn. Its binding principle is not contract but something more akin to trusteeship. It is a shared inheritance for the sake of which we learn to circumscribe our demands, to see our own place in things as part of a continuous chain of giving and receiving, and to recognize that the good things we inherit are not ours to spoil but ours to safeguard for our dependents. There is a line of obligation that connects us to those who gave us what we have; and our concern for the future is an extension of that line. We take the future of our community into account not by fictitious cost-benefit calculations, but more concretely, by seeing ourselves as inheriting benefits and passing them on. Concern for future generations is a non-specific outgrowth of gratitude. It does not calculate, because it shouldn’t and can’t.”{1}

Our temptation as low-church evangelicals, in our intimidation by the cultural change all around us, is to agree with principles like these in the political and social and moral realms, but not to carry this same conservative—conservationist—impulse into our religious and church lives. I think we have a lot to learn from thinkers like Edmund Burke and his modern interpreters like Scruton. At least it gives us food for thought.

_______________

[1] Scruton, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition (New York: All Points, 2018), 45.

We Must Reform in Order to Conserve

by Matthew Pinson

I have been reading—and thoroughly enjoying—the new book Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition by Roger Scruton. Scruton is the best-known conservative intellectual in Great Britain. A philosopher by training, he has written more than forty books on issues as diverse as politics and the environment and art and music. He gave an excellent presentation of the latter two subjects in his BBC documentary, Beauty.

Conservatism is largely about the principles of cultural and political conservatism that emerged from seminal thinkers like Edmund Burke. But theological conservatives can learn a lot from it. In reading Scruton’s section on Burke, I came across a great passage that summarizes a key principle of conservatism and Christianity that I strive to pass on to my students in my courses at Welch, and it’s about continuity with the consensus of scripturally based tradition that has been bequeathed to us.

Edmund Burke is famous for his quip that “we must reform in order to conserve.” He believed that, in political and cultural life, revolution is dangerous, because it rips people from the organic inheritance that they received from their fathers and mothers. That was the problem he saw in the French Revolution, which he despised, but not in the American Revolution, which he defended.

So, Scruton explains, Burke saw the American founders as going back to the ancient rights and liberties of free Englishmen. “The U.S. Constitution was designed to guarantee to the people what they had once enjoyed,” he says. “It was the residue of an already established practice rather than a recipe for a new order of things.” This is like the Protestant Reformers, who I explain to my students were not revolutionaries but were recovering an ancient tradition that had been eclipsed by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

I explain to my students that sometimes we conservative Protestants are tempted to be intimidated by our difficult cultural circumstances, in which Christianity is being treated with hostility by the cultural elites and by many in the neighborhoods where our own churches minister. I am tempted—we all are tempted—to be revolutionaries, to try arbitrarily first one thing and then another that has never been tried before, hoping that maybe something will stick, something will do the trick. We hope we’ll stumble onto that cultural silver bullet that will open the floodgates for people, finally, to overcome their cultural objections to the faith and pour into the church.

The Reformers and the great missions pioneers and our early evangelical and Baptist and Free Will Baptist forebears did not choose the way of revolution. Instead, they chose reform. They knew the church needed renewal, freshness. But they sought what Timothy George and others call “renewal through retrieval,” reforming the church by recovering precious truths of faith and of practice that have been lost or at least eclipsed in the recent past.

This gets back to G. K. Chesterton’s idea of “the democracy of the dead,” to C. S. Lewis’s counsel not to be guilty of “chronological snobbery,” but instead to “let the clean sea breeze of the centuries blow through our minds.” It means that we are a part of something much, much greater than ourselves and our current, passing moment. We are continuing and conserving the faith and practice of that “great cloud of witnesses” that has gone before us, so that we will have something worth passing down to those who come after us.

This is what the Christian tradition has called the “communion of saints.” It’s something that transcends the present age which is passing away with its lusts. It spans centuries and generations and classes educational levels and races. It’s a communion we risk getting out of touch with if we have a revolution and discard the Christian tradition of faith (what we believe) and practice (what we do).

 

Was Arminius a Molinist? Richard Watson’s Answer

Matthew Pinson

The other day I came across a wonderful quote that I had forgotten about from Richard Watson’s Theological Institutes. I thought the readers of this blog would enjoy it. It concerns Molinism, or middle knowledge, the theory of divine foreknowledge articulated by the sixteenth-century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina.

As I’ve said elsewhere [1], Arminius’s views on divine foreknowledge militate against a Molinist account of predestination, as presented, for example by recent scholars such as William Lane Craig and Kenneth Keathley. While Arminius showed awareness of Luis de Molina’s concept of middle knowledge, he did not utilize it in his doctrine of predestination. Arminius nowhere intimates that, in eternity past, God, knowing what everyone would do given certain circumstances, selected the possible world, from among all possible worlds, in which exactly what he desires to occur will occur, while at the same time human beings retain freedom. Instead, Arminius argued that God knew the future infallibly and certainly. Thus, he knew what everyone was freely going to do in the actual (not possible) world. This includes their union with Christ through faith or their rejection of him through impenitence and unbelief.

I agree with Robert Picirilli, Roger Olson, F. Stuart Clarke, William Witt, and more recently Hendrik Frandsen, who I think properly interpret Arminius on this point, while scholars such as Eef Dekker, Richard Muller, Keith Stanglin, and (to a lesser degree) William den Boer read too much Molinism into Arminius. The most that can be said is that Arminius toyed with the concept of middle knowledge but was ambiguous on it and did not actually articulate a Molinist doctrine of predestination.

I had forgotten about the following statement by the eminent British Wesleyan-Methodist theologian Richard Watson that agrees with these sentiments, and I thought I’d share it here:

“There is another theory which was formerly much debated, under the name of Scientia Media; but to which, in the present day, reference is seldom made. . . . This distinction, which was taken from the Jesuits, who drew it from the Schoolmen, was at least favoured by some of the Remonstrant divines, as the extract from Episcopius [quoted earlier in Latin] shows: and they seem to have been led to it by the circumstance, that almost all the high Calvinist theologians of that day entirely denied the possibility of contingent future actions being foreknown, in order to support on this ground their doctrine of absolute predestination. In this, however, those Remonstrants, who adopted that notion, did not follow their great leader Arminius, who felt no need of this subterfuge, but stood on the plain declarations of Scripture, unembarrassed with metaphysical distinctions” (Theological Institutes, 1:418, emphasis added).

________________________

[1] This and the paragraph after it are adapted from my book Arminian and Baptist.

Did Arminius Think the Intellect Can Know the Good and Direct the Will Despite Sin?

Matt Pinson

Recently I was re-reading Richard Muller’s God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacobus Arminius. Muller is thestellar scholar of Reformed scholasticism whose work, on the whole, has richly informed my thought and for whom I have great appreciation.

Muller’s work, however, has emphasized his view that Arminius’s theology was a radical departure from sixteenth-century Reformed theology, a view with which I disagree. Unlike Carl Bangs and others who have argued that Arminius fit the description “Reformed,” because Reformed theology before the Synod of Dort was broader on the question of predestination than after the Synod of Dort, Muller seems to intimate that the predestinarian Calvinism that characterized Dort was the Reformed theology.

All one has to do to see that this is not the case is to read the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism, to which Arminius proudly subscribed to his dying day. One does not have to believe in predestination, etc., as Calvinism does to love and agree with these Reformed confessional documents. Both “Calvinists” and “non-Calvinists” (in the modern way we use these terms to speak of the doctrine of predestination, etc.) fit within this expression of Reformed confessional theology.

When I was reading Muller recently, I came across an interesting passage. He says that “Arminius’s own theological concern for the problem of grace and human ability raised anew the epistemological problem of the relationship of the fall to the human faculties and—against Calvin—Arminius argued the ability of the intellect to know the good and to direct the will despite the problem of sin” (p. 37). After that sentence appears a footnote that refers to Arminius’s Public Disputation 11, paragraphs 1, 5, 7, 9, and 10.

It had been a while since I had read Muller’s book, and I was taken aback. I thought to myself, “I have read this disputation dozens of times, and it has never struck me that way.” So I went back and re-read it. I have reproduced those paragraphs below and will allow the reader to conclude whether they demonstrate that Arminius thought the fallen intellect can know the good and direct the will despite the problem of sin, or whether in fact they demonstrate the opposite of that assertion. (I have also included paragraph 2 because it provides information that is relevant to the assertion Muller is making.)

  1. The word, arbitrium, “choice,” or “free will,” properly signifies both the faculty of the mind or understanding, by which the mind is enabled to judge about any thing proposed to it, and the judgment itself which the mind forms according to that faculty. But it is transferred from the Mind to the Will on account of the very close connection which subsists between them. Liberty, when attributed to the will, is properly an affection of the will, though it has its root in the understanding and reason. Generally considered, it is various.

(1.) It is a Freedom from the control or jurisdiction of one who commands, and from an obligation to render obedience.

(2.) From the inspection, care, and government of a superior.

(3.) It is also a freedom from necessity, whether this proceeds from an external cause compelling, or from a nature inwardly determining absolutely to one thing.

(4.) It is a freedom from sin and its dominion.

(5.) And a freedom from misery.

  1. Of these five modes of liberty, the first two appertain to God alone; to whom also on this account, autexousiaperfect independence, or complete freedom of action, is attributed. But the remaining three modes may belong to man, nay in a certain respect they do pertain to him. And, indeed, the former, namely, freedom from necessity always pertains to him because it exists naturally in the will, as its proper attribute, so that there cannot be any will if it be not free. The freedom from misery, which pertains to man when recently created and not then fallen into sin, will again pertain to him when he shall be translated in body and soul into celestial blessedness. But about these two modes also, of freedom from necessity and from misery, we have here no dispute. It remains, therefore, for us, to discuss that which is a freedom from sin and its dominion, and which is the principal controversy of these times.

    5. In the state of Primitive Innocence, man had a mind endued with a clear understanding of heavenly light and truth concerning God, and his works and will, as far as was sufficient for the salvation of man and the glory of God; he had a heart imbued with “righteousness and true holiness,” and with a true and saving love of good; and powers abundantly qualified or furnished perfectly to fulfill the law which God had imposed on him. This admits easily of proof, from the description of the image of God, after which man is said to have been created, (Genesis 1:26, 27,) from the law divinely imposed on him, which had a promise and a threat appended to it, (2:17,) and lastly from the analogous restoration of the same image in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:10.)

    7. In this state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace. For Christ has said, “Without me ye can do nothing.” St. Augustine, after having diligently meditated upon each word in this passage, speaks thus: “Christ does not say, without me ye can do but Little; neither does He say, without me ye can do any Arduous Thing, nor without me ye can do it with difficulty. But he says, without me ye can do Nothing! Nor does he say, without me ye cannot complete any thing; but without me ye can do Nothing.” That this may be made more manifestly to appear, we will separately consider the mind, the affections or will, and the capability, as contra-distinguished from them, as well as the life itself of an unregenerate man.

    9. To the darkness of the mind succeeds the perverseness of the affections and of the heart, according to which it hates and has an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God; but it loves and pursues what is evil. The Apostle was unable to afford a more luminous description of this perverseness, than he has given in the following words: ”The carnal mind is enmity against God. For it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then, they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:7.) For this reason, the human heart itself is very often called deceitful and perverse, uncircumcised, hard and stony.” (Jeremiah 13:10; 17:9; Ezekiel 36:26.) Its imagination is said to be “only evil from his very youth;” (Genesis 6:5; 8:21;) and “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries,” etc. (Matthew 15:19.)

    10. Exactly correspondent to this darkness of the mind, and perverseness of the heart, is the utter weakness of all the powers to perform that which is truly good, and to omit the perpetration of that which is evil, in a due mode and from a due end and cause. The subjoined sayings of Christ serve to describe this impotence. “A corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit.” (Matthew 7:18.) “How can ye, being evil, speak good things?” (12:34.)

    The following relates to the good which is properly prescribed in the gospel: “No man can come to me, except the Father draw him.” (John 6:44.) As do likewise the following words of the Apostle: ”The carnal mind is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be;” (Romans 8:7;) therefore, that man over whom it has dominion, cannot perform what the law commands. The same Apostle says, “When we were in the flesh, the motions of sins wrought in us,” or flourished energetically. (7:5.) To the same purpose are all those passages in which the man existing in this state is said to be under the power of sin and Satan, reduced to the condition of a slave, and “taken captive by the Devil.” (Romans 6:20; 2 Timothy 2:26.)