Category Archives: Theology

Can Arminians Be Molinists? (Part 2)

Robert E. Picirilli

(This is the second part of a two-part article)

In Part I, I have defined Molinism and evaluated its view more basically. I have other criticisms of Keathley’s position, some of which might not be shared by all Molinists but all of which seem likely to result from Molinism’s effort to achieve a stance between Calvinism and Arminianism.  I will treat three matters.

Other Problems with Keathley’s Molinism

1. Keathley confronts the objection often posed by Calvinists who say that requiring a person to exercise faith for salvation makes faith something the saved “do” that is in some way virtuous and distinguishes them from unbelievers. He states the objection as follows:

If I freely believe, but my neighbor freely does not, does not this imply that somehow I was nobler than my neighbor? Did I not use my freedom to a higher end? Yes, salvation is a free gift, and receiving redemption incurs no merit, but is not the one who accepts it in some way wiser, more humble, more virtuous, more appreciative, more aware of his need, or more sensitive to sin than the one who rejects it?[1]

In essence Keathley accepts this as a “problem” and proceeds to resolve it by viewing faith as a gift and not something the elect “do.” He represents the elect as “doing” absolutely nothing; they don’t even choose to accept Christ. By contrast, the non-elect actively “do” something; they consciously resist God and thereby become solely responsible for their damnation. So, for Keathley, the salvation of the elect is totally the work of God, while the damnation of the non-elect is totally their own work.

I would urge, however, that as long as one regards salvation as conditional, there will inevitably be a difference between what a believer “does” and what an unbeliever “does” (or “doesn’t”) and this can theoretically (but mistakenly) be regarded as making the one more “worthy” or “virtuous” than the other. The very reason for unconditional salvation is to avoid that.

Keathley says the elect “refrain” from resisting, whereas the non-elect actively resist. Well, to “refrain from resisting” is still to “do” something—which simply substitutes for “choosing Christ.” The difference between one who “does” this refraining and one who actively resists can still be (falsely) accused of amounting to a difference in “worthiness.”

The way to deal with this Calvinist objection is to deny that it is valid. Biblically speaking, believing (faith) is not a “work”; accepting a gift with the empty hand of faith is not offering any worth or merit or virtue to God. The actions of the elect and non-elect are parallel: one chooses for and the other chooses against. If libertarian freedom means anything at all, it is exercised by both the elect and the non-elect. Otherwise, only the unbeliever acts with libertarian freedom, while the believer does not lest he be guilty of offering something he has “done” to God.

Elsewhere Keathley shows clearly that he understands that faith is not a work and that the verb “do” doesn’t require doing a meritorious work or deed. If one asks, then, why he bothers to offer a different solution, the answer is that he is determined to hold to Calvinism’s view of what it means for salvation to be wholly the work of God. To this end he is sustaining unconditional election, to which I now turn.

2. Keathley’s treatment leaves cloudy the question whether salvation is by faith. I say “cloudy” because he seems to speak both ways. On the one hand, he forthrightly affirms that salvation is by faith: “The Bible does not merely present faith as the evidence of regeneration or effectual call but as the condition to receiving salvation. Salvation is by faith.”[2] Again, he says, “We are required to exercise faith in order to receive salvation.”[3]

On the other hand, he also affirms things that appear to mean that salvation is unto faith instead of by faith. He follows the quotation just given with these words, “but this disposition of trust is a divine gift.”[4] He “understands the sinner’s coming to faith as a process by which the Spirit of God carries a person to the point of saving trust.”[5] He refers to this as “ambulatory faith” and illustrates with an ambulance carrying an unconscious man to treatment who wakes up on the way having had nothing at all to do with being transported to the emergency room.  This means that God’s “overcoming grace” carries a person all the way into faith. This way, God gives him or her the faith: “All that is necessary in this scenario is that a person refrains from acting.”[6] The man in the ambulance could rebel and insist on getting out, of course; but as long as a person being drawn to Christ doesn’t resist, he will infallibly believe.

We remember that this is the case for persons for whom God, knowing how they would respond to specific circumstances of grace, designed and actualized the world to include the very circumstances that they were certain not to resist.

As I see it, this is not salvation by faith,[7] and the matter is further complicated by the fact that Keathley defends unconditional election. In traditional theology, unconditional election entails unconditional salvation, and conditional election implies conditional salvation. For Arminians, election is God’s choosing believers for salvation, and so their salvation is conditional. If election is unconditional, the elect meet no condition.

I found myself trying hard to discern how Keathley’s unconditional election is compatible with his observation that salvation is by faith. Clearly, he means that election is not grounded in the believer’s faith: “Molinists agree with Calvinists that it is crucial to maintain that God did not elect on account of foreknown merit or foreseen faith.”[8] I concluded that for him “by faith” does not mean conditional salvation, precisely because he regards faith as a gift and therefore the initial element of salvation itself. In the end, Keathley is making a diligent effort to credit the work of salvation to God alone—with which we Arminians will enthusiastically agree. By the same token, he accepts the idea that if the individual must exercise faith in order to be saved then the individual has contributed something and the work is not God’s alone—with which we will firmly disagree. We are not synergists.

For Keathley, then, God’s decree to save the elect is completely independent of their faith. God’s “overcoming grace” carries them along to a faith that God gives them and which they do not actively choose to exercise. This is not the Arminian view of conditional election or of salvation by faith.

3. Keathley does not seem consistent in drawing out the implications of how God deals with the non-elect as compared to the elect. I do not intend to pursue this in detail, but I think it important to mention as a matter for further consideration. To sum up, his view makes God fully responsible, in grace, for the salvation of the elect; but he intentionally does not draw a parallel conclusion with regard to the non-elect.

However, I believe that if he were consistent his view of how God uses middle knowledge would make God just as responsible for the damnation of the non-elect as for the salvation of the elect. At least there would be more that is coordinate than he appears to realize when he compares the two as “asymmetrical.”[9] In both cases, a Molinist God acts in exactly the same fundamental way. For the elect, God provides circumstances that He knows they will not resist and will lead them into faith. For the non-elect, God provides circumstances that He knows they will resist and will not lead them into faith. Both of them have, by His design at the moment He actualized the created order, been placed in circumstances which they will freely respond to in ways that accomplish God’s will for them. This is one of the problems of determinism that Keathley fails to avoid, I believe.

I call attention again to these words from the three quotations I included earlier: “God predestines all events.” “God meticulously ‘sets the table’ so that humans freely choose what He had predetermined.” “By use of middle knowledge [God] ordained … with infallible certainty that Peter would [deny Jesus].”  “[God] rendered certain … the destruction of certain ones who would reject God’s overtures of grace.” “Our free choice determines how we would respond in any given setting, but God decides the setting in which we actually find ourselves.”

The implications of these observations are as surely for the non-elect as for the elect. What Arminians call “prevenient” grace, which effectively enables even those who reject Christ to believe, is not the experience of any non-elect in Keathley’s view, so far as I can see.

The Problem of Order in Molinism’s “Middle Knowledge”

Molinism is about the logical order of elements of God’s knowledge—and, consequently, of His decisions. To begin with, I see no need for Molina’s “middle knowledge.” If God by virtue of His omniscience knows all possible worlds, then He already knows how anyone would respond to any conceivable circumstance.

Nevertheless, Molinism has a problem in its own presentation of order. Keathley and Molinism strongly distinguish between the three supposed “moments” of God’s knowledge.  First is God’s necessary knowledge of what could be, then His middle knowledge of what would be in any of the worlds that could be, and finally His free knowledge (or foreknowledge) of what will be in the world He decides to actualize.

The question is this: Where in this logical progression does election take place?  One would think that God’s decision to elect some out of the mass of fallen humanity cannot logically exist until He has first decided to permit (or cause, in supralapsarian views) the fall. And yet, in Keathley’s progression, God has already, prior to creation, identified the elect in considering what circumstances of grace to include for them in the world He actualizes.

In other words, the way God can provide “circumstances of grace” in the lives of the elect when He actualizes the world is if he has already identified them.  But that means (logically) that He must decide on the world to actualize before He (logically) decides about the fall and then about the election. That might work well if He were designing the world to provide equal opportunity for all, but instead He is designing its circumstances to the advantage and disadvantage of the elect and non-elect. And in order to do that he has to know who they are before He even knows they have fallen and need salvation.

If it should seem that I am violating my own uncertainty about Molinism’s logical “moments” in God’s knowledge, I say that I realize that some things known and/or decided must at least logically precede or follow from other such things. And it is clear to me that God must know/decide that He will create the world, before He knows/decides about the fall, before He knows/decides about election to salvation or about reprobation. But Molinism inverts the logical order.

Conclusion

In the end, the problem with Molinism is, precisely, a problem of order in God’s design for the world and human beings. Molinism offers that God, knowing all our tendencies, designed the world first in such a way that all those He willed to save would freely come to Him and all those He did not will to save would freely reject Him. This means that when we come into the world, God has already placed us in circumstances that will bring the elect to faith and will not bring the non-elect to faith. For such a view, Keathley is right to use words like determines and renders certain to describe the salvific acts of God.  And this is how God becomes a manipulator of human choices.

For the evangelical Arminian, however, the order is different. God designs the world, first and foremost, in a way that works in harmony with the libertarian freedom of all. In His universal salvific program, He provides for all and deals graciously with all in a way that enables each to respond positively to His wooing. Then both the elect and the non-elect, enabled by the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit, respond in libertarian freedom to accept or reject Christ.

When it comes to showing how God’s sovereignty and human freedom work together, then, Arminianism offers a much better understanding than Molinism.

________________

[1] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 102.

[2] Ibid., 119.

[3] Ibid., 116.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 104.

[6] Ibid., 105.

[7] I can tolerate saying that faith is a gift of God, but only if that is carefully explained to mean that God gives the opportunity and persuasion that enable faith.  But always the Scriptures attribute faith to the person exercising it.  See my Grave, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism & Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 167.

[8] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 11.

[9] Ibid., 145.

Can Arminians Be Molinists? (Part 1)

Robert E. Picirilli

(This is the first of two guest-authored posts)

I hear that some Arminians incline toward a Molinist view of God’s sovereignty and human freedom. Perhaps the reason is, Molinists say their purpose is to uphold libertarian freedom[1] in a universe governed by a sovereign God, sure to achieve His purposes. We Arminians believe in both of those things.

What Is Molinism?

Molinism was conceived by a sixteenth-century Jesuit, Luis de Molina, with the express purpose of maintaining human freedom in a world providentially governed by a God who accomplishes His purposes in all events. Molina did this by defining God’s knowledge as occurring at three logically different (not temporally different) “moments.”

First is necessary (or natural) knowledge, which includes everything God knows simply because He is an omniscient God. What He knows at this stage includes “all possible worlds,” as philosophers like to express this—everything that could be, in other words.

Second is free knowledge, which includes knowledge of everything that will be as a result of God’s choice—out of all possible worlds—to create this world that actually exists. (Understand that a “world” in this sense includes everything that occurs in it, all the circumstances that ever arise.) Since this world didn’t have to exist (else it would have been co-eternal with God), then God’s knowledge of it likewise didn’t have to exist, and wouldn’t have if He had not created it.

Third is middle knowledge. The distinction between the first two goes back well before Molina.  He added a third “moment” or phase of God’s knowledge that stands logically between necessary and free knowledge, called middle knowledge. This includes God’s knowledge of everything that free beings would do in every conceivable set of circumstances.

Now, what does this have to do with anything? According to Molina: when God decided to create this world and all its “circumstances,” He already knew just what every person would freely choose in every possible circumstance. The key idea, then, is that God didn’t just actualize a world, He actualized all the circumstances in that world that He knew everyone would respond to and “freely” make the very choices that fit into God’s eternal plan. This way, God remains in sovereign control and His plan is entirely successful, but human beings remain free to choose between live options.

At first glance, this may seem appealing. I myself have sometimes said that God can keep me from working in my garden, by sending rain, without infringing on my freedom. He can, of course, and that’s an example of “middle knowledge” at work, say the Molinists. But read on.

Molinism and the Theology of Salvation: a Specific Example

In the following three paragraphs I will summarize the view of Kenneth Keathley, as explained in his recent book presenting a Molinist view of soteriology.[2]

When God actualized this world, using His middle knowledge of how every person would respond to every possible circumstance, He designed all the “circumstances” of every person’s existence in such a way that all of them would respond—in their libertarian freedom—in the very way necessary for His plan to be successful.

For the elect, He included in their existence what I will call “gracious circumstances” which He knew they would find appealing and not resist, and which would therefore carry them along to salvation. While this grace is resistible, God knew just how to present it so that they, although free and capable of doing so, would not resist. This way, their salvation is entirely effected by God’s grace, from beginning to end. They “do” absolutely nothing, not even so much as choosing to receive grace. In the entire process that brings them to God, they remain free to accept or reject Him but certainly accept Him—I add, given the circumstances He has placed them in.

For the non-elect, perhaps God also placed them in gracious circumstances to which they could respond favorably, even though He knew they would not. But He did not place them in any gracious circumstances that would bring them to Him, although (I assume) He must have known of such circumstances and could have actualized them but didn’t. As is true for the elect, then, the non-elect remain free to accept or reject God but certainly will reject Him—I add, again, given the circumstances He has (or has not) placed them in. Thus their damnation is entirely their own doing; God in no way desired or caused it.

Lest the reader think I have misinterpreted Keathley’s view, I include here his own words.

From the repertoire of available options provided by His middle knowledge, God freely and sovereignly chooses which one [which option] He will bring to pass. … [By utilizing his knowledge] God predestines all events, yet not in such a way that violates genuine human freedom and choice. God meticulously “sets the table” so that humans freely choose what He had predetermined. Remember the example of Simon Peter’s denial of the Lord. The Lord predicted Peter would deny Him and by use of middle knowledge ordained the scenario with infallible certainty that Peter would do so. However, God did not make or cause Peter to do as he did.[3]

When God made the sovereign choice to bring this particular world into existence, He rendered certain but did not cause the destruction of certain ones who would reject God’s overtures of grace. According to Molinism, our free choice determines how we would respond in any given setting, but God decides the setting in which we actually find ourselves.[4]

God determines the world in which we live. Whether I exist at all, have the opportunity to respond to the gospel, or am placed in a setting where I would be graciously enabled to believe are sovereign decisions made by Him. The Molinist affirms that the elect are saved by God’s good pleasure.[5]

Evaluation

It’s one thing for God to use such knowledge in providentially controlling circumstances after He actualized and designed the world. No doubt He does such things to “work all things together” for our good (Rom. 8:38) or for His own purposes. But it’s an entirely different thing for Him to use His knowledge that way to design circumstances for us at creation—before we even exist!—to bring about our salvation or the development of our moral character.

I indicate my rejection of Keathley’s approach with an analogy.[6] Consider a skilled chess-master, playing against opponents whose abilities are much less that his and whose tendencies he knows well. He decides in advance which opponents will win and which will lose. He chooses his moves carefully and designs them in accord with his knowledge of their tendencies and skills. By making this move or that one, he skillfully maneuvers each opponent to freely make moves that will lead to the victory or defeat that the chess-master decided in advance.  And the opponent never suspects a thing!

That’s the way I see Keathley’s Molinist view of how God deals with the elect and non-elect. As I see it, Keathley makes God a manipulator of human beings. He knows their tendencies—more, He knows exactly how they will respond to any circumstance—and ordains circumstances in the very structure of the world that will bring them to salvation or leave them for damnation as He has willed. I appreciate Keathley’s insistence that all the persons involved are free to choose, but I confess that this claim rings hollow.

Like Keathley, I will also affirm that when God deals graciously with people, He knows how they will respond. But he is saying much more than that: namely, that God, before our existence, has set up the world with circumstances calculated to bring the elect to Him and not to bring the non-elect. What sort of creaturely “freedom” is that? Wouldn’t it be better if God brings circumstances of grace into the lives of both elect and non-elect, influences to which all of them really can respond positively? Wouldn’t it be better if He does this without tailoring their circumstances to fit their tendencies in a way that guarantees the salvation of the elect and the damnation of the non-elect? Wouldn’t it be better if everyone, in libertarian freedom and without divine manipulation behind the scenes, can choose for or against Him? This is the Arminian position, and this is not Molinism.

If anyone thinks I am misrepresenting Keathley, I call attention to some of the words in the quotations above. “Humans freely choose what God had determined.” In Peter’s case God “ordained the scenario with infallible certainty.” God “rendered certain … the destruction of certain ones who would reject God’s overtures of grace.” This may be determinism by indirect manipulation rather than by direct causation, but it is determinism nonetheless.

This is not Arminianism. We Arminians agree that God has foreknowledge of the choices we make, but we insist that God’s “overtures of grace” (to use Keathley’s apt phrase) are made to all persons, with the same salvific intent of making possible the salvation of all of them. Molinism, instead, offers that God uses His knowledge of how people will respond to various circumstances to arrange different circumstances for those He chooses to save as compared to those He does not will to save. Arminianism believes that God extends saving grace to all alike and draws them all with the desire that all be saved, thus providing real opportunity for them all; and they choose whether they will meet the condition for salvation or not.

Does Keathley Portray Molinism Accurately?

I believe Keathley’s view, so far, is true to Molinism. Other representations of Molinism seem clearly to confirm this. For one example, consider the following summary:

Before all decision to create the world, the infinite knowledge of God presents to Him all the graces … which He can prepare for each soul, along with the consent or refusal which would follow in each circumstance. …Thus, for each man in particular there are in the thought of God, limitless possible histories … and God will be free in choosing such a world, such a series of graces, and in determining the future history and final destiny of each soul.[7]

That this is, after all, a form of determinism seems assured when the writer adds that in this way God actualized, out of all possible worlds, this very one in which all the circumstances and all the “graces” He likewise actualized bring each individual to the destiny God chose.[8]

William Lane Craig affirms that Molina himself viewed God as operating in this way, that God “chose for the one [the elect] and for the other [the reprobate] the order of providence in which He foresaw that the one would be saved and the other not.”[9]

G. Sutanto capsules Molinism to say, “In so decreeing [all that comes to pass], God elects to actualize a world in which free creatures do exactly what He wants them to do, but in a way that does not sacrifice libertarian freedom.”[10]

Part II of this article will appear next week. 

_________________

[1] The freedom to choose between alternatives, sometimes called the power of alternate choice, is called libertarian freedom.

[2] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2019).  Keathley is Southern Baptist, teaches at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina.  Thanks to Matt Pinson for introducing me to this work.

[3] Ibid., 152.

[4] Ibid., 154.

[5] Ibid., 155.

[6] I know that analogies do not prove anything, but they enable us to express our view more clearly or forcefully.

[7] Portalié, Eugène. “Teaching of St. Augustine of Hippo,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 2 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907), as transcribed in New Advent, ed. Kevin Knight, at  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02091a.htm.  I thank Richard Clarke for pointing me to this article;

[8] My purpose here is not to vouch for Portalié’s interpretation of Augustine but to show how he understands Molinism.

[9] William L. Craig, “Middle Knowledge, A Calvinist-Arminian Rapprochement?” in Clark Pinnock, ed. The Grace of God, the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1989),156–57, quoting the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, s.v., “Molinisme,” by E. Vansteenberghe, 10.2., col. 2112.  (Thanks to Matt Pinson for this reference.)

[10] Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, review of Sze Sze Chiew, Middle Knowledge and Biblical Interpretation: Luis de Molina, Herman Bavinck, and William Lane Craig (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2016), in The Journal of Theological Studies 69:1 (April 2018), 389.

Theology in a Time of Pandemic

W. Jackson Watts

Theology never arises in a vacuum. It always has a context, a set of circumstances shaping its development and reception. Augustine’s City of God was a response to pagan claims that the barbarian incursions into Rome were a consequence of Christian emperors abolishing pagan worship. Martin Luther’s early writing would have never been penned outside the shadow of a spiritually bankrupt church. Francis Schaeffer’s Trilogy makes greater sense once you learn about his years ministering to spiritually and intellectually adrift youth at L’Abri.

The coronavirus pandemic is an occasion that forces us to theologize. As important as it is for church leaders to develop communication strategies and ministry procedures to ensure safety, it’s equally important to consider how our understanding of God, Scripture, and the Gospel are revealed in and through this crisis. Crises always expose the depth (or lack thereof) in our convictions. Yet they should also elicit careful theological reflection—reflection which presupposes that Christianity speaks to all of life.

I’d like to highlight five questions Christians should be able to address during this pandemic. My goal is not ultimately to answer all of these. Rather, it is to show how a clear understanding of Scripture is essential to begin to answer them at all.

Where is God and What is He Up To? (Theodicy)

As the death toll rises, so too do the questions that some ask about the presence of God. No doubt the present suffering is unequally distributed among families, communities, states, and nations. Some are better equipped to treat the sick, comfort the afflicted, or avoid the worst financial impact of the crisis. But rest assured, many are asking about God’s ways.

Theodicy is simply that: an account of the ways of God, especially in the face of suffering. Typically theodicy is a concept discussed in the context of what philosophers and theologians call “the problem of evil.” The problem, generally and simply stated, is that if an all-loving, all-powerful God exists, and evil exists, too, then how can we maintain belief in God? It would seem that a good and loving God would eliminate evil—at least in its most egregious forms. It seems just as likely that an all-powerful God could. While free will is usually used to show that it’s not a logical contradiction for evil to exist in a world where such a God exists, the problem of evil has many intellectually challenging forms that require us to pause, and avoid simplistic answers.

Imagine Christian parents who lose an infant child to coronavirus. Tragic. They then learn from hospital staff that their baby won’t be permitted a traditional burial. Moreover, it may not be safe to touch or kiss his body. He is their only child. The problem of evil lands a certain way for these parents: “Why God? Why this evil? Why did you let this happen?” How does free will sufficiently answer such questions? The problem of evil then presents a pastoral challenge as much as a theological challenge.

Now imagine unbelieving parents who experience the same tragedy. While they may not know what a syllogism is, at a deeply visceral level their suffering counts against belief in God. “How could we believe in a supposedly all-powerful, all-loving God who allows things like this? How could belief in such a God be maintained in the face of this kind of evil?”

Pastors, Sunday School teachers, small group leaders, and believers of all kinds don’t need to wait until they, the believers under their care, or their neighbors face death to think carefully about these issues. We need attentive hearts and ears, to go along with a biblically-informed mind.

Is this Pestilence Like the Ones in Scripture? (Eschatology)

 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”  And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth (Revelation 6:7-8; ESV).

More than one Christian has read a passage like the one above and tried to find versions of it in their world. This isn’t new. What is new is our 24-hour news cycle where we receive real-time updates on our phones about every famine, plague, shooting, drought, tornado, and earthquake. Let’s face it: it’s hard to watch the evening news and not think, “The world is literally coming apart.” And it has, ever since Genesis 3. Most of us also have some basic eschatological beliefs which entail conditions on earth and for human life growing increasingly worse. This means both people’s love growing cold, as well as earth’s increasing travail, groaning for release from its bondage (Mt. 24:12; Rom. 8:18-22).

Beyond this basic conviction, Christians can certainly freely debate how similar the nature of modern disease and virus are to ancient plague and pestilence. I’m sure there are similarities and differences.

Where we want to be cautious is at the intersection of theodicy and eschatology. For example: “God is doing this to wake us up spiritually!” “This city had more coronavirus cases because it is an especially wicked city; it’s the judgment of God.”

Believing in the providence and sovereignty of God means that He is in control. Nothing happens that He isn’t aware of or that He did not allow. However, it takes a few extra theological leaps to claim to know precisely why a particular evil happened and had the specific effects it had. Some have done this even in recent years, whether it concerned Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans (2005), or Hurricane Sandy in the greater New York area (2012). I can see no biblical claim that would allow us, with confidence, to call specific natural evils divine judgments. It may be the case, but we cannot know. Just as important, it raises other problems we may not be prepared to answer: What if the calamities that impact Christians are just as likely to be judgments of God against His church for her unfaithfulness to Him? After all, the grain of the Old Testament certainly shows us that God’s judgments fell against His own people more often than it did pagan nations!

It’s certainly not my intent to squash every theological judgment we might personally consider as reasonable or even probable. I find in my own congregation that we all have a sense that God is reminding us all of important truths: “We are not in control of our lives. God will take care of us. God is good even when things are going wrong. We need to obey civil authorities, even when we find it difficult.” It’s not irresponsible to say that God has His purposes, and some are more clearly discernible from Scripture. Yet we should not go beyond that.

Should We Take the Money or Not? (Conscience)

One provision in the CARES Act involves the government (specifically the Small Business Administration), through banking institutions, providing loans to smaller businesses to help them meet their payroll needs. The loans actually convert to grants if the company can demonstrate that they used all of the funds for payroll. After all, the government has a vested interest in seeing small businesses survive and workers continue to be paid.

The wrinkle in this bill that many Christians have been debating is the inclusion of churches and other religious organizations. In other words, a church could be the recipient of a loan. Baptists have a long and complex history when it comes to its relationship between the church and state (see more below). But this specific provision in the law cuts across denominational lines, whether one belongs to the free church tradition or not. Many pastors, theologians, and parachurch legal groups have landed on different sides of this question. Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has written a short, helpful piece arguing that it may be permissible. Yet even he acknowledges the reasonable, conscientious objections some Christians and churches may have to accepting such financial support, even if the funds appear to have no strings attached, and enough lawmakers thought it was a good idea.

It’s not my intent to analyze the merits of this argument, but simply to caution about how we debate matters of conscience in general. Sometimes Christians understand conscience in a sub-biblical way. We essentially adopt our society’s basic understanding: “If it bothers you, don’t do it. If it doesn’t, go for it.” This is not a biblical understanding of conscience. Scripture is clear that one’s conscience is not reducible to how we feel about a given choice before us (I commend Andy Naselli’s excellent, short book on the topic). As Harold Senkbeil thoughtfully puts it, “Conscience is not so much a moral compass as it is an umpire, or the capacity to see oneself as God sees you.”[1]

Our conscience can be misinformed, desensitized, and just plain wrong. Our “umpire,” to use Senkbeil’s metaphor, must be trained by the wisdom of Scripture. I say this because we can yield to the moral relativism of our highly secular age. Christians need to avoid merely saying, “You do what’s best for your church, and we’ll do what’s best for ours.” Christian truth is such that we need to come together and discuss thorny questions in a gracious, patience, respectful way without checking our brains at the door. Such a discussion will not yield uniformity, but it will yield greater unity, even when we have come to different conclusions.

What is the Church and How Shall it Gather? (Ecclesiology)

The same considerations concerning Christian dialogue certainly apply to more than the CARES Act. Probably the first question pastors asked when they realized the severity of COVID-19 was, “What can we do online?” Of course, the first question should always be, “What should we do?”

I spent countless hours thinking about and discussing this particular one. I’ve written elsewhere about my concerns concerning the interface of religious practice and technology. It’s ironic that I should find myself teaching and interacting with church members through Facebook and Zoom each week. But technical ability (or the lack thereof) should never be bracketed off from theological reflection about what the church is and isn’t, what worship is and isn’t, and how we maintain those distinctions, even while using certain crutches that we’ll gladly lay down when gatherings begin once more.

Technology has surrounded worship practices for nearly two thousand years. The moment anyone gave any thought to a building, keeping records, or musical instruments they were discerning what tools or artifacts could be faithfully used to support Christian ministry. I dare say our forefathers thought a bit more carefully than we do about these types of issues. They had their own temptations to resist. They also had to try to discern how much liberty to extend to one another, especially as various congregations (and later denominations) made different ecclesial choices.

I think what’s crucial to affirm again and again is this: A worship service is an embodied gathering. No amount of virtual proficiency will create that. Now, this is a separate question from, “Can we provide a context for our households to be edified while they are apart? Are there some Scripture-based messages, songs, or other resources we can provide each week to foster private worship, while at the same time saying: Won’t it be great when we actually do worship together again?”? To me this is a delicate balance to strike. Yet this is the challenge all church leaders have. At least this strange and uncomfortable time should give us some space to feel how unnatural it is for the church to be apart.

To What Extent Should We Obey the Government? (Church and State)

As I said above, Baptists have a rather complicated history when it comes to relating to the state. Heritage aside, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 are in our Bibles. We may not teach it so explicitly on a weekly basis, but the Lord has reminded us that obedience involves reading Scripture with Scripture. Can we square the command to assemble together in Hebrews 10 with the command to obey the authorities, who tell us not to assemble?

With few exceptions, Christians across this country have clearly seen that civil obedience and love of neighbor (both Scriptural principles) shape our application of the command of Hebrews 10—that a temporary suspension of public gatherings is not compromising our faith. In fact, it may be the exact embodiment of the faith needed in a world that so often misunderstands the church.

To be sure, as we see what appear to be positive signs in the fight against COVID-19, we are all chomping at the bit to gather again. The test of our theology of civil obedience will be whether our impatience is born out of a spirit of passion for Christ, or disdain for authority. Sometimes we struggle to discern the difference. Regardless of motives, being in an emotional uproar is seldom a good place to begin good theology.

All five of these questions are complicated. Unfortunately they often elicit a lot of heat, but not a lot of light. This is part of why the Commission for Theological Integrity exists. Our prayer is to lean into the conversations that others are already having, and to serve as a resource for clear, theological reflection and action. I pray we serve Free Will Baptists and their neighbors well in this pandemic.

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[1] Harold Senkbeil, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2019), 128.

Augustine, Arminius, and R.C. Sproul on Christian Perfection

Matthew Pinson

Sometimes Arminius has been (inaccurately) interpreted as laying the groundwork for a doctrine of Christian perfection. With regard to perfectionism, Arminius said in his Declaration of Sentiments that he “never actually stated that a believer could perfectly keep the precepts of Christ in this life.” Nor did he deny it. He left it as an open question, contenting himself with the sentiments of Augustine. In short, citing Augustine, Arminius believed that, through grace, perfection was a logical possibility but that an individual who had attained it had never yet been found! [1].

Given how many times I’ve heard Calvinists say this about Arminius, I found it interesting when my friend Chris Truett, in a sermon on why God calls us to rely on Christ’s work and the gospel, not on our own standards of perfection, quoted staunch Calvinist R. C. Sproul as saying what Augustine and Arminius said. I went and looked up where Sproul said this, and here’s the quotation:

“Can a person be perfect? Theoretically, the answer to that is yes. The New Testament tells us that with every temptation we meet, God gives us a way to escape that temptation. He always gives us enough grace to overcome sin. So sin in the Christian life, I would say, is inevitable because of our weakness and because of the multitude of opportunities we have to sin. But on a given occasion, it is never, ever necessary. So in that sense, we could theoretically be perfect, though none of us is. [2]

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[1] Gunter, Declaration of Sentiments, Kindle locations 3313-3314; cf. Arminius, Works, 1:677-78. Keith Stanglin, in his book Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation appears to agree with this interpretation of Arminius on perfection (Leiden: Brill, 2007, p. 140).

[2] R. C. Sproul, “Be Ye Perfect,” Ligonier.org, July 28, 2010; https://www.ligonier.org/blog/be-ye-perfect/

 

Early Christian Views on Creation: Part 2

Kevin Hester

(Part 1 of this two-part article appeared last Tuesday).

In my last post (or part 1) we examined the philosophical background of the early church that influenced the way in which they examined biblical references to creation. Their responses to Atomism (Naturalism) and Neo-platonism demonstrated how they presented Christian truth from a biblical framework. Though it may not have fit in with the predominant worldviews of the day, we saw that the early Fathers were ever insistent that a good God actively created a good world from nothing, and endowed that world with His purpose and design. This week, we will continue our study by looking more closely at how creation was understood in early Christian creeds and the Fathers’ exegesis of the biblical creation accounts. We will see how closely aligned were the stories of creation and redemption.

Early Christian Creeds

The development of the early Christian creeds did not focus specifically on aspects of creation. However their Trinitarian formulation and reification of the early kerygma do provide an important opportunity for them to engage their culture with truth about God and his relationship with the world.

God is often described as Father. The early Christian authors primarily refer this title to God’s relationship with his only-begotten Son. At the same time, there is a consistent undercurrent of discussion among several fathers of the way that God as the agent of creation is symbolically the “Father” of all that exists. This implies God’s ultimate responsibility as the author of creation and the one who sustains it by his word. In fact, this concept of the Word’s presence in both the creation narrative and in the first chapter of John’s gospel link the role of God as Father and the work of creation in a Trinitarian foundation.

In addition, God is referred to as pantokrator (Almighty). Some believe this is just a basic Greek translation of the concept of El Shaddai or God Almighty from the Hebrew text. While this may be partially true, there is more to it than that. Literally, pantokrator speaks to being lord and ruler of all things. Early on in the Eastern church’s tradition it was a reference to monotheism and God’s existence as the one who rules over all things. They consistently argued in their teaching that God’s rule is based in God’s creation. Because He created the world and is responsible for its continued existence, God has the right to do with it what He wills and to command what He wills.

A later addition to the creedal tradition was incorporated in the Western church and found its way into what we call the Apostle’s Creed. It is the phrase “maker of Heaven and Earth.” J.N.D. Kelly, the foremost authority on the creeds, asserts that this addition was actually a restatement of earlier tradition owing to the shift in the west to Latin and the term “Almighty” moving from pantokrator in the Greek to omnipotens in Latin. While the Latin phrase speaks to God’s capacity for creation, it did not have the same connotation. Therefore, the Western church added this phrase as its common confession that all that exists comes from God as an act of conscious and purposeful (indeed gracious) creation.

The word creatorum (maker) here is also important. It indicates that God “started fresh” in creation (de novo). Other phrases like fundamentum (established) were rejected for a term that indicates that all that God did was new and did not make use of pre-existent matter or some aspect of Godself. The term that was most often used in the Eastern church (teknites) was often used to describe a master craftsman or an artificer. This was specifically used over and against gnostic and platonic ideas to demonstrate God’s active and intentional participation in the creative act.

Understanding of Genesis and the Creation Account

Thus, these creedal formularies capture both in language and doctrine, the formulaic expression of the Christian church seeking to explain God’s work in creation as presented in the biblical text. Over and over again they asserted the following:

  1. God actively created the world from nothing
  2. God is the source of all things and the source for all order and purpose in creation.
  3. God’s redemptive purposes include all aspects of God’s good creation now tainted by sin.

When the early church turned to the actual description of creation in Genesis 1, we see aspects of the culture and these clear teachings often in tension. This tension resulted from different ways of reading the text. Much of their work on the texts was written as an apologetic against the common worldviews of their day. As such, they do not directly answer some of the questions we often ask given the apologetic needs or interests of our day. However, that does not mean that they are silent. There are several things that are worthy to note.

The Days of Genesis

There were two basic methods of exegesis of the Biblical text that were predominant during this time. There was a literal or Antiochene tradition of interpretation and the Alexandrian or allegorical method of interpreting scripture. The Cappadocian fathers, including Basil and other early patristic fathers, seem to understand the “days” of creation as literal days providing a literal description of the mode of God’s creative purposes. While Basil recognizes two creations (a spiritual and a material), it is clear that what he has in view is the creation of the immaterial world (angels, etc.) apart from the material world. His discussion in a number of different homilies on the days of creation clearly shows that time was created with the creation of matter and the world, through the Son.

There were some who viewed the days of Genesis as allegorical in nature, and not representative of God’s actual means (or timing) of creation. Origen is perhaps the best example of this. Origen builds upon Philo Iudaeus’ means of interpreting the Torah after the fashion of Neoplatonic philosophy. Of important note in this regard are the teachings of Augustine. Augustine was sympathetic to this reading. He had for a time been an adherent of Manicheism and parroted its mockery of God’s active engagement with the world and Scripture’s use of anthropomorphisms. Following his conversion, he was hesitant to affirm the days of Genesis as an actual description of God’s work. Instead, he argued that God created all things that existed instantaneously and that Scripture’s purpose in relating creation in days was to describe order and give humanity a pattern of existence.

However, in most instances and with the majority of authors, the days were viewed as literal days of creation. Most commentators were quick to say that it wasn’t as if God needed six days to create, but that he did so as a means of accommodation to humanity.

Length of the Days

There was much greater consistency however in the description of the length of the days. When the days were understood to be literal days they were often described as “evening and morning” as represented in the Biblical text and identified with Jesus’ days/nights in the tomb. While there was often an allegorical or eschatological reading of the days as a description of the ages of creation and the world (identified with Daniel), these eschatological descriptions are all ultimately about the spiritual meaning of the text as distinct from the literal meaning and nothing can be made of them to work the “age” concept back into the creation narrative itself. In fact, even for those who make this connection and for those who are hesitant to embrace the literal understanding of the days, their emphasis is upon an immediate or instantaneous creation.

Ex Nihilo

For all Augustine’s reticence to commit to God’s creation in six literal days, he establishes and furthers the early church’s argument that God creates ex nihilo. God’s creation was a new or “de novo” creation that was identified with the creation of time and this world. God did not make use of pre-existent matter because there was nothing beyond or besides God. This world was tied to God’s purposes in establishing his glory and offering His grace. God alone is the responsible agent for all that exists and His omnipotent character meant that He did not need anything else in order to accomplish His work of creation.

Linear Time and Purpose

Something also deserves to be said about the fact that time is created when God created the world. This concept of time outside of God’s nature, is what allows for development and purpose. The Christian church upended the typical view of time as cyclical in the Greco-Roman world and argued that time should be understood as linear. It had a beginning and would ultimately have an end in God. All that was, and is, lies fully under his superintendence and sovereign, purposeful care.

Conclusion

The early church rightly understood that the question of where the world came from was foundational for building a biblical worldview. It is no different today. Errors in cosmogony lead to catastrophic missteps in understanding God, the world, human existence and purpose, and morality. As such, the early church began with Scripture and with God. So should we.

Scripture clearly presents that God Almighty purposefully created the world and continues to superintend His will upon it. God’s creation of the world ex nihilo means that God is the only self-existent being and that all else owes its existence to Him.

In this world, He placed a human couple with whom he desired a relationship. They would serve as His vice-regents to continue to impose the order He had established at creation. Human failure to rightly recognize this order brought sin that has infected all of God’s good creation. And yet, through the God-man Jesus and through the work of human persons redeemed by Him, God is working to renew and restore the goodness of all His creation.

This is the biblical worldview that fueled the early church’s efforts at evangelism and apologetics. While the questions with which the early church struggled were different from ours, the answers must ultimately be the same. While we struggle with the questions of our own age, let us do it in the same spirit and with the same goal of glorifying the Creator God and drawing fallen humanity to Him.

(This article was adapted from a presentation entitled,  “A Historical Christian View of Creation,” which was presented at the Polis Apologetics Conference in Goodlettsville, Tennessee on March 2-4, 2019)