Monday, March 29, 2010

an age-old debate among Christians...

I posted this recently as a comment on my friend Phil's blog (see the link to the right), but I thought I'd post a revised version of it here, too, because I like what I had to say. And I'm humble. :-)

The following is an attempt to break down the disagreement between traditional Reformed theology and so-called Arminian theology. Here are my basic points:

1. Either God has given everyone common grace (i.e. God gives us all certain basic gifts/blessings) or God hasn't. It seems very difficult to argue, Scripturally or otherwise, that God hasn’t done this.

2. But if God has already given everyone common grace, then it is not entirely unreasonable to think that God may also choose to give everyone salvation grace. Of course, this would be universalism, which generally goes against Scripture and established Christian doctrine.

3. So, if all persons are given common grace, and not all are given salvation grace, on what basis is the distinction made? In Protestant Christianity there have been two traditionally developed responses: Reformed Christians believe God alone decides who gets what, and Arminian Christians believe we assist God with the decision in some way.

4. This basic division seems to be a false duality. I would suggest many Arminians actually come down on the side of Reformed theology, i.e. God alone decides. But this seems to beg the question, which the Arminians then ask: On what basis does God decide?

5. Reformed folks then say, more or less: there is no way to know, simply trust in God's sovereignty, justice, and love. Arminians say, fair enough, but certainly God doesn't just expect us to assume we're saved, right? Surely there must be some response involved? There needs to be some sort of fruit? (Here's where that pesky book of James shows up!)

6. Yes, say the Reformed folks, but it's a response that is brought about by the Holy Spirit, it's nothing that you would do otherwise on your own. The Arminians respond: But that would make any ability to distinguish truly Christian action from non-Christian action impossible, because someone could 'do' all the right things, and still not be saved.

7. Yes, say the Reformed folks, that's exactly right. There's no way to know, so simply trust God and the obedience will be the fruit of that. This creates a logical circle, wherein your fruit is a result of your salvation, but your salvation is evidenced by your fruit, and no person can be certain of the validity of either.

8. It's right here that we enter a paradoxical reality that falls apart logically. Essentially we've established a tautology, which is: "You are saved by God because God saves you." But even to state this tautology means that I have to agree with the statement, which throws the whole thing back up in the air, because the point is that I (a mere human) can never give assent to what God alone can claim. If we hold that God does it all, then even my agreement that God does it all becomes an impossible thing for me to affirm!

9. This is why faith is such an absurd mystery, but one that we have to cling to nevertheless; faith presupposes a subject that cannot logically be presupposed, if God truly always has priority, and yet we are asked to do that by faith.

All of this makes me sympathetic to the Arminian position, not because it is necessarily more theologically sound, but because it appears to push the ramifications of the paradox a bit further, and that opens up a lot of interesting space that it sometimes appears Reformed theologians are hesitant to pursue because of the 'danger' that they will fall into some sort of Pelagianism. My sense is that both sides can be valuable when held in tension with each other and used as a reminder of the paradoxical mystery of faith, rather than trying to establish a systematic articulation of faith.

Additionally, if God always retains the priority (ontologically, epistemologically, and soteriologically) then God will continue to have that priority in spite of our forays into strange theological territory. So, I guess what I'm saying is, I support the Reformed view, but the Arminian questions tend to be a lot more interesting!

1 comment:

Jeff Finley said...

Thanks, Geoff, for exploring these issues. I come from a long line of Reformed Presbyterians on my father's side but grew up in an Armenian church (Free Methodist). I lean toward the Armenian side but see valid points on both sides. As your blog title notes, shadows currently veil our eyes, but one day in heaven, maybe we'll understand how it all fits together.