Tag Archives: Perseverance

A Reflection on “Falling Away” in the Patristic Period

by Jackson Watts

My first educational stop during my graduate studies was at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a distinguished Southern Baptist school in the beautiful town of Wake Forest, North Carolina. Southeastern (hereafter SEBTS) has a number of excellent scholars in several fields, and so I appreciated my three years there immensely. However, given my Free Will Baptist background, I expected to encounter some differences.

The two major doctrinal distinctions that most observe between Southern Baptists and Free Will Baptists are (1) Disagreement over whether feet washing should be considered an ordinance; and (2) Disagreement over whether genuine believers can fall away, that is apostatize, and thus forfeit their salvation.

Free Will Baptists answer affirmatively on the first of these, understanding feet washing (a) to have been ordained for perpetual practice by Christ himself, (b) to be a symbol of the Gospel truth of sanctification, and (c) to inculcate humility and remind the believer of the virtue of humility as part of their sanctification. Commission Chairman Matt Pinson called attention to this topic in a recent blog post.

On the question of perseverance and apostasy, Free Will Baptists affirm not only the possibility of falling away, but the actual incidence of believers making shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim. 1:19). We call to mind not only the many severe warnings found in Hebrews and Second Peter, but warnings from Jesus himself concerning blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 12:31; Mk. 3:29). Though most would describe apostasy as a process of falling into unbelief, it is still attached to decisive, willful disobedience.

During my experience at SEBTS, I expected to encounter dissent on these two doctrines. Being a Free Will Baptist swimming in Southern Baptist currents, situations would arise when a classmate unfamiliar with my tradition would raise the question, “So what’s the difference between Free Will Baptists and Southern Baptists?” Though my explanations often garnered surprise or confusion (and sometimes genuine interest), I often marveled at those who learned of my position on the doctrine of perseverance, and responded in downright shock that I could hold such a view.

Learning with Other Brethren

Aside from learning to have charitable and useful “intra-mural theological debates,” that is, debates within the Christian family, I took away two key reflections from these experiences. First, I learned how deeply ingrained mainstream views like “once saved, always saved” and “eternal security” are in the Southern Baptist religious imagination. While there are some unhealthy aspects to this, in another sense our view on perseverance ought to shape our piety! All doctrines have real-world import, even if sometimes that import isn’t immediately evident, or if the spiritual consequences of certain doctrines (beliefs or practices) aren’t essential to salvation itself.

One could believe, for instance, that the office of pastor and bishop are two different roles, or that the body of Christ is physically present in the Eucharist, and still be a Christian. Of course, I would say they are incorrect on both of these points. But again, this is what we might think of as an “intra-mural” debate that Christians have had through the ages. Our views truly matter, and no doubt most of our Southern Baptist brethren believe “eternal security” occupies a lofty place in their doctrinal hierarchy.

The second reflection I took from these conversations is just as interesting as the first, and is an angle of the perseverance subject that I believe merits much more scholarly attention: beliefs about perseverance in early and even pre-Reformation Christianity.

One fact that seemed to be a great loss on many of the young seminarians that surrounded me at SEBTS was the belief that a believer could genuinely forfeit, leave, or “lose” (to use popular, though misleading jargon) their salvation has been prevalent in Christian thought through the ages.[1] As Kevin Hester noted in his recent post, “I used to be amazed at my peers’ refusal to readily consider the contributions of almost 1,500 years of church history.” Among these contributions are a number of insights into the “perseverance debate.”

Here, I’d like to simply contribute some increased awareness in the evangelical Christian community about how perseverance was characterized in early Christian thought.

Insight from a Forgotten Voice

I will be the first to say that Syriac Christianity is not my area of specialty. Yet my preparation for a sermon from 2 Corinthians 6 recently brought me into dialogue with a significant Syriac writer from the late 5th-early 6th century A.D. named Philoxenus of Mabbug.

I came across Philoxenus in the 1-2 Corinthians volume of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series (ACCS). The ACCS is a wonderful set of commentaries that have mined riches from numerous early Christian figures and sources to allow the best of the exegetical tradition to inform contemporary biblical interpretation and faith. Gerald Bray was the main editor of this particular volume, and he cites some of the comments from Philoxenus on 2 Corinthians 6:14-15. Here is an excerpt of the verse: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers….for what fellowship does Christ have with Satan, or the believer with the unbelievers, or God’s temple with that of demons?”

Commenting on this verse in “On the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Syrian bishop and theologian writes:

“It is the same now with us who are baptized: neither the wetness of the water in which we are baptized nor the oiliness of the oil with which we are anointed remain with us after our death. But the Holy Spirit, who is mingled in our souls and bodies through the oil and the water, does remain with us, both in this life and after our death. For he is our true baptism, and for this reason we remain always baptized, for the Holy Spirit is within us always, and no sin can strip us of our baptism–neither adultery, nor theft, nor fornication, nor false testimony nor any action of this sort: only the denial of God and consorting with demons can do this, for in such cases the Holy Spirit really does depart, for he does not consent to remain in a place where Satan dwells.”[2]

While Philoxenus’ connection with Syriac Orthodox Christianity is hinted upon in these opening lines, we should keep in mind that regardless of one’s specific anthropology, or one’s views about the proper subjects of baptism, the baptized person in view in this passage is a true believer because of the indwelling presence of the Spirit. So while we would contend with many early patristic brethren over their espousal of infant baptism, the person in view in this passage is a true believer.

Of that true believer, Philoxenus argues, no sin he may commit is able to strip from him the presence of God’s Spirit. Indeed, we would say the Holy Spirit powerfully convicts believers who may commit such sins. Yet this ancient writer also qualifies his claim with the very exception that many Free Will Baptists would also supply in defense of their view of conditional perseverance: “only the denial of God and consorting with demons can do this, for in such cases the Holy Spirit really does depart, for he does not consent to remain in a place where Satan dwells.”

Some Qualifications

I cannot say for sure that Philoxenus has blasphemy of the Holy Spirit specifically in mind here, but it sure sounds like it. Moreover, his assertion of the Holy Spirit’s initial presence in the individual and then later departure also seems to support the notion that “falling away” isn’t merely backsliding, or always the evidence that one was never really as a Christian to  begin with. These are just a few of the main aspects of the overall perseverance topic that often arise in discussion.

I should add one another qualification about this figure from early Christianity. Philoxenus is often overlooked because there has been reluctance among Christians who espouse Chalcedonian Christology to engage him since he belongs in the theological camp known as miaphysitism. Though it is a proto-orthodox position, it arises from the basic view found in monophysitism. Historical context aside, most modern Christians would see this as a serious Christological error that doesn’t line up adequately to the definition offered at Chalcedon (A.D. 451).

Even so, despite the cautious reading we must exercise with early Christian sources—and any Christian sources at that—I think we can learn to chew up the meat and spit out the bones when it comes to gleaning doctrinal insights from premodern Christian exegesis.

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[1] It is important to acknowledge that one reason why beliefs on this topic during this period are often overlooked is because they are sometimes attached to problematic assumptions and views on the efficacy of baptism, penance, and post-baptismal sins. Still, some untangling of these issues are worth doing for the sake of uncovering truly consensual Christian beliefs.

[2] Cited on page 261 of 1-2 Corinthians in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Volume edited by Gerald Bray (IVP Academic, 2006).

A New Look at an Old Issue

by Randy Corn

 For the last few years I have become a devotee of Accordance Bible Study Software.  As with most such systems, one can buy books and commentaries, which are indexed through the program, resulting in an easy accumulation of vast amounts of material on any passage or topic he might wish to study. I have used two other systems on my journey to Accordance: the Logos/Lebronix program and Bible Works. One advantage of Accordance is that you can also access hundreds of theological journals. Some of these were familiar to me already like the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, while others were new like the Journal of Ministry and Theology. I was also glad to find one of the few theological journals I have subscribed to, Bibliotheca Sacra, the journal of Dallas Theological Seminary.

I had read BibSac since my days in college, but had not explored the earlier issues.  That is where Accordance came in. I went to the first issue of the Accordance collection and found it came from 1934! I scrolled through that issue until I was intrigued by an article entitled “Is Salvation Probationary?” by a DTS student named Willard Maxwell Aldrich.

Brother Aldrich states his argument early in this article:

“By way of opening inquiry this leading question might well be asked, ‘Upon whom does safekeeping depend? Upon God as giving and maintaining salvation, or upon man as though salvation were a gift to be received and rejected at will?’  If we conclude that it is of God, as does the Apostle Paul in the words of Phil 1:6, ‘Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it unto the day of Jesus Christ,’ then we must find evidence of a disposition on the part of God to keep the Christian safe in spite of the Christian’s sin and his tendency toward a lack of faith in Christ–the remedy for sin” (Aldrich, 88).

He goes on to state that no one is all that concerned about the Christian who is evidently growing in grace.  The issue is what do we make of those who are not?

It is at this point that the article took on special interest. As an example of those who disagree with his premise, the author gives an extensive quotation from Butler and Dunn, whom he refers to simply as “two Baptist theologians.”  Of course I recognized that he was quoting from the Systematic Theology by J. J. Butler and Ransom Dunn published by the Free Baptists in 1891. In that volume they wrote,

 “The life of faith must continue as long as the natural life, or there is no salvation…. Salvation is throughout conditional,–that voluntary obedience to the end is the condition of salvation to every one,–and that the Scriptures afford no sufficient warrant for the teaching that all who are once regenerated do hold out to the end and obtain salvation. This doctrine is argued from the fact that the believer is still in a state of probation. If he were not liable to fall, he would not be in a probationary, but in a confirmed, state. The promises of final salvation to Christians are all conditional, either expressly or implied. Perseverance in faith and obedience is the indispensable condition of their salvation” (Butler, 330).

Now, it would be beyond the scope of this blog post to consider all of the arguments that Aldrich makes in his article or the earlier arguments of Butler and Dunn in their volume. Since Aldrich states it at the outset of his article as though it is an incontrovertible argument for the “once saved, always saved” position, we will look at Philippians 1:6.

This verse may not be the most solid ground for Aldrich’s position when one considers the context surrounding it. Aldrich must contend that this verse means God will complete the work of salvation in the individual’s life regardless of their lack of continuing faith. Philippians 1:5 strongly suggests the continual faith of the Philippian believers, “For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now.”  This is followed by the prayer of Paul in verse 9, 10: “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.” Paul clearly has in mind that the Philippians would continue in faith.

It seems to me that Aldrich may be missing the point of Philippians 1:6. Paul is speaking of the confidence, or assurance, that all believers can have in God’s work to secure our relationship with Him, but the context clearly indicates believers will continue to believe. This would seem to me to balance the argument on both sides.  Yes, believers must believe, but our assurance is in the object of our faith, not our faith itself.

 

WORKS CITED

Butler, J. J., and Ransom Dunn.  Systematic Theology.  Pawnee City, NB:  The School of the Bible, 1891.

Aldrich, Willard Maxwell.  “Is Salvation Probationary?”  Bibliotheca Sacra, January 1934, (pages of article).

Daniel Whitby on the Warning Passages in Hebrews

by J. Matthew Pinson

Recently I was reading an old book from Daniel Whitby entitled A Discourse Concerning the True Import of the Words Election and Reprobation (1710). Whitby was a well-known Anglican Arminian in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. His works are (in)famous for eliciting lengthy responses from Jonathan Edwards.

As a Reformed Arminian, I greatly dislike many things about Whitby’s more moralistic, semi-Pelagian brand of Arminianism (I would agree with many of Edwards’s criticisms!). But one of the things I agree with Whitby on is his belief that it is possible for genuine believers to make shipwreck of their faith and thus fall from grace.

Two things especially stood out to me in Whitby’s treatment of the warning passages in Hebrews (specifically Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-39). First, he interprets these two passages as Reformed Arminians do—that they refer to an irremediable apostasy and represent the same sort of phenomenon that Scripture refers to as the sin against the Holy Spirit. Second, he discusses how unlikely it is that these warnings are hypothetical.

Apostasy as Irremediable and as the Sin against the Holy Spirit

In discussing Hebrews 6:4-6, Whitby states: “That the persons here mentioned must fall totally and finally, is also evident, because the apostle doth pronounce it a thing ‘impossible to renew them to repentance.’ And (ii.) he declares their repentance impossible on this account, that they ‘crucified to themselves afresh the Son of God, and put him to an open shame’; that is, they again declared him worthy of that punishment they had inflicted on him; and so to them there ‘remained no more sacrifice for sin, but a fearful looking for of judgment,’ x. 26, 27.”

Whitby goes on to discuss that the phrase “if we sin willfully” in Hebrews 10:26 refers to believers “falling off from Christianity,” and for them there remains no more sacrifice for sin but only divine judgment (vv. 26-27). Whitby goes on to explain that the statements in Hebrews that those who have fallen away have “done despite” to the Spirit of grace (v. 29) indicate that they “were guilty of the sin against the Holy Ghost” and “fell totally and finally.” This is “so exceeding evident,” Whitby exclaims, “that I know none who ever ventured to deny it.”

So that was the first thing that struck me about Whitby’s treatment of the warning passages in Hebrews: that it agrees with the Reformed Arminian reading, which sees Hebrews as teaching the irremediability of apostasy, indeed which identifies the falling away described in Hebrews as the same event as the sin against the Holy Spirit.

The “Hypothetical View” of the Warning Passages as Untenable

The second thing that stood out to me in Whitby’s treatment of the teaching of Hebrews 6 and 10 on apostasy was his comment about how unlikely it is that these warnings are hypothetical. This reminds me of a discussion I had recently with some colleagues about how Calvinism does not match what God wants preached and proclaimed—or what He commands—with his intent.

The discussion went something like this: if God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30) and preordains a state of affairs in which some men are not divinely enabled to obey His command, then there is a disjunction between His command (“Repent!”) and His intent (“I have no intention of enabling you to repent; in fact I have predetermined the universe in such a way that you can never repent”).

In the same way, if the argument is true that the warning passages in Hebrews are hypothetical—that they are intended to warn people against something that cannot occur—then there is a disjunction here between what God wants to be preached and proclaimed, and what He intends. God is warning people to persevere and to avoid apostasy, when He knows apostasy can never really occur.

Whitby skillfully describes the difficulty with this in his discussion of Hebrews 10:38: “Now the just shall live by faith; But if anyone draws back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” Whitby remarks that “if we read the words hypothetically, the supposition cannot be of a thing impossible, for then God must be supposed to speak thus: ‘If the just man do that which I know it is impossible for him to do, and which I am obliged by promise to preserve him from doing, my soul shall have no pleasure in him,’ which is to make God seriously to threaten men for such a sin of which they are not capable, and of which they are obliged to believe they are not capable, if they be obliged to believe the [Calvinistic] doctrine of perseverance, and so to make his threatenings of none effect” [1].

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[1] See Daniel Whitby, A Discourse Concerning the True Import of the Words Election and Reprobation (London: John Wyat, 1710), 406-09. There is no doubt that Whitby is no Reformed Arminian on the doctrine of perseverance and apostasy! Still, I found his remarks on the warning passages in Hebrews very illuminating.