Category Archives: Soteriology

The Study of Salvation

THE SPEED OF LIGHT AND SPIRITUAL LAWS

642736_76463569Einstein famously said, “God doesn’t play with dice.” Observers of our created universe note predictable patterns that govern the motion of physical matter. Over time, scientists test hypotheses and develop theories. Theories, given enough testing and widespread acceptance, become laws.

There are a variety of fundamental scientific laws / principles that have been discovered, and they often bear the names of the human discoverers. Naturally, as a Christian I believe that the creator of these laws is Yahweh himself, who through his wisdom established every aspect of the physical reality we inhabit (Proverbs 3:19).

Here are a few examples of scientific laws:

Newton’s First Law of Motion: The velocity of a body remains constant unless the body is acted upon by an external force.

Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics: If two systems are in thermal equilibrium with a third system, they are also in thermal equilibrium with each other.

Einstein’s Principal of the Constancy of the Speed of Light: The speed of light in a vacuum is a universal physical constant.

These scientific laws appear to accurately and predictably describe how our physical universe operates and will continue to operate. Proponents of multiverse theories argue that such laws may be totally different in other universes. The speed of light may not be 299,792,458 meters per second in another universe. With an infinite number of universes, the argument goes, we just happen to be in one with an essentially randomized speed of light. Now, I am not convinced as to the existence of a parallel physical universe, but I do believe in a parallel spiritual reality.

For whatever reason, God actualized a universe (the physical reality we live in) in which we observe the speed of light as indeed being 299,792,456 meters per second. Like it or not, that is just the way it is. You can’t change the facts. This may even be an inconvenient truth, because no matter how much I would like to fly a spaceship to Polaris, it would take me 434 years if I could somehow travel at light speed. I could never arrive sooner. Warp drives don’t exist.

What many people do not realize is that there are spiritual laws in place that govern our spiritual reality just like scientific laws govern our physical reality. Regardless of our opinions, beliefs, understanding, or desires, they remain true and timeless. One such spiritual law is as follows:

“… without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22b)

Many people do not understand the atonement. ‘Wait… why did Jesus have to die to forgive our sins? He’s God, right? Can’t he just snap his fingers and make everything better? Why are Christians so obsessed with the blood of Christ?’ In fact, many lay Christians do not know that there are many competing and intersecting theories of atonement debated in theological circles about what the sacrifice of Christ accomplished. Regardless of all that, there seems to be a very real spiritual constant in much the same way that the speed of light in a vacuum is a physical constant. Sin can never be forgiven unless blood is shed. This is a spiritual law, presumably established as a wise design decision of God, which predates any of us and cannot be altered. No human can use a spiritual warp drive to shortcut this unavoidable fact about their sinfulness.

“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.” (Leviticus 17:11)

SALVATION AND SOVEREIGNTY: A MOLINIST APPROACH

Salvation and Sovereignty

I just finished reading ‘Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach’ by Kenneth Keathley in my ongoing quest to find out exactly what I believe about God’s “sovereignty.” Molinism, often advertised as a middle-ground position between Calvinism and Arminianism, piqued my interest. Keathley is a Baptist who teaches at a Baptist seminary, who adopts the ROSES acronym (against TULIP)… originally presented by Baptist scholar Timothy George. As Baptist theology has always been a curious mixture of Calvinist and Arminian ideas, it seems fitting for Keathley to embrace this “middle position” of Molinism.

Unfortunately, the book is far more about the ROSES acronym and how it plays into the doctrines of salvation and sovereignty (as the title advertises) than it is about Molinism itself. I was left mystified by the more elusive, philosophical details of Molinism and will have to read ‘A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology’ by Kirk R. MacGregor next.

Keathley often states that God “uses his middle-knowledge” in such-and-such circumstances. But how? In what exact way? Also, God “actualizes” a particular world out of all possible worlds. But what does it mean for God to “actualize” a world – does he only actualize a world during the seven days of creation recorded in Genesis and then sit back and watch everything unfold in a deterministic cascade? Or is God in a process of constant actualization? Does the world he actualizes change based on Keathley’s concept of contingency? What specific criteria did / does God use to choose a particular world to actualize? Keathley says little about these matters.

Regardless, Keathley writes well and his attention to certain topics have left lasting impressions on me. He argues very clearly and logically in favor of:

1. Contingency: Scripture repeatedly presents scenarios that turned out one way but could have truly turned out a very different way. The outcome was not set it stone. “Contingency is the concept that things could have been otherwise” (25). “A contingent truth is something that happens to be true but obviously could have been false” (28).

2. Permission: The Bible “presents God’s relationship with iniquity as one of permission. The notion of God’s permissive relationship to evil permeates the Bible” (27). This is opposed to God being in any way the author or cause of sin, even indirectly.

3. Soft Libertarianism: Humans have a limited ability to choose to the contrary – their set or range of possible choices are determined by their character. An unregenerate person has the possibility of making genuine choices between alternatives, even to engage in externally moral behavior, but they do not have the ability to please God because this is not within the scope of their character. Humans do not have the freedom to make any possible choice out of an infinite set of choices, nor are their choices illusions determined by external factors.

4. Agent Causation: Closely related to soft libertarianism, the concept of agent causation states that “a person is the source and origin of his choices” and that ultimate responsibility for decisions lies with that agent (73). “Rather than functioning simply as a link in a chain of events, a causal agent operates as the impetus for new causal chains. This creative ability reflects the imago dei” (75). Our capacity to originate choices is like “a little citadel of creativity ex nihilo.

5. Resistible Grace: Keathley powerfully argues, from both Scripture and logic, that grace (though “monergistic”) is in fact resistible. “God’s drawing grace should and would be efficacious for all. The only thing that could stop it is if, inexplicably, a person decides to refuse” (106). Keathley uses many verses that point to the free and universal offer of salvation as well as the culpability of those that refuse. “[T]hose who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thessalonian 2:10b, ESV).

Has this book convinced me to become a Molinist? No. I still don’t fully understand the nuances of the position. But I got a lot out of reading it and I applaud Keathley’s thoughtful work. If this book can help nudge doubting hyper-Calvinists toward becoming 5-point Calvinists, and 5-point Calvinists toward becoming 4-point Calvinists, and 4-point Calvinists toward becoming Molinists… then I consider that a win!

CALVINISM / ARMINIANISM

The debate between Calvinism and Arminianism is nothing new. However, after decades of seeming obscurity in the religious marketplace, Calvinism has had a resurgence. The rebirth of Calvinism in America may be a reaction to “superficial, seeker-sensitive theology … the God of Calvinism is far from a cosmic bellhop. He is not obliged to do anything for you except send you to hell, and if he chooses to do so, he is glorified by your damnation” (Walls and Dongell 2004, 17).

There are many differences as well as similarities (e.g., the doctrine of Total Depravity) between the two theological perspectives, but regarding the issue of salvation the heart of the argument is found here: The Bible tells us that God desires the salvation of all. God is all powerful. Why are not all saved?

The simplistic Arminian answer is “free will.” The simplistic Calvinist answer is “God chose in advance some to be saved and others not to be saved.”

I recently read ‘Why I Am Not A Calvinist’ by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, and the counterpart book ‘Why I Am Not An Arminian’ by Robert Peterson and Michael Williams. Both are thoughtful and irenic treatments of the subject matter and what the authors view to be at stake in the debate. I will give brief impressions on both:

WHY I AM NOT A CALVINIST

notacalvinist

Walls and Dongell absolutely nail the underlying philosophical arguments. They helpfully define concepts such as libertarian free will, determinism, compatibilism, and point out our axiomatic beliefs and philosophical judgments that play into the development of theology. Beyond this excellent analysis, however, the “fundamental dispute is [over] God’s character.” Is the Calvinist gospel truly good news?

Distancing themselves from modern Arminianism-lite, the authors instead advocate for Classical Arminianism, which they believe is more faithful to scripture. God enables the possibility of salvation like a surgeon operating on an unconscious crash victim, seeking consent for further operations once the patient is partially stabilized, but not out of the woods. Regarding the crucial point of God’s foreknowledge, they survey three main perspectives – Actual Foreknowledge, Molinism, and Openness.

The authors poke holes in the logic of prominent Calvinists such as John Piper and R.C. Sproul, and even show inconsistencies in Calvin and the Westminster Confession. In general, “too many biblical passages must undergo heavy modification according to Calvinist precepts before they can be understood in Calvinist ways.”

One complaint I would have is that the Arminian concept of God giving every human at least one opportunity for salvation is brought up (although not specifically advocated). Experientially this does not feel true. I have met many people who do not seem to have ever had the slightest glimmer of a spiritual awakening. If such people exist, such as the proverbial unreached native in the jungle, we are somewhat back to square one – why did God not give them that opportunity to respond to the light? I wish the authors would have specifically addressed that.

WHY I AM NOT AN ARMINIAN

notanarminian

“Human beings are utterly dependent upon the saving grace of God. And apparently, God has not acted on behalf of all … Calvinism is predicated upon a divine discrimination regarding the recipients of saving grace.” Peterson and Williams argue heartily for the untarnished sovereignty of God, at least as the word sovereignty is defined by Calvinists (that God always gets exactly what he wants), and show many scriptures that indicate a favored group of individuals identified from “before creation.”

The authors helpfully delve into the historical issues of the Arminian / Calvinist debate, including Augustine, Calvin, the Synod of Orange, Arminius, the Synod of Dort, and the later development of so-called Calvinist positions that perhaps went beyond the intent of Augustine and the early Reformers (e.g., TULIP). This overview spans more than half of the book. The authors also refute the claim that Arminians are Semi-Pelagian, rather identifying them as Semi-Augustinian.

I appreciated this background, as well as the distinction between Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism and how those relate to Calvinism, which I had not thought about since my seminary days. Ultimately, the authors settle on a sort of moderated Calvinism, saying that few actually live at the logical extremes of their beliefs (does that mean that the authors embrace an illogical version of Calvinism?) Preferring Infralapsarianism, they argue that God is not responsible for the original sin of Adam, but essentially for everything else. Sinful mankind get exactly what they deserve; the elect are mercifully spared from their justified damnation.

I have two main complaints with this book. One is that Peterson and Williams often proclaim that such-and-such a point is the “clear” meaning of a verse, whereas the correct interpretation has been debated for hundreds of years by God-fearing Christians. A second is that they on occasion retreat into mystery – God’s criteria for choosing the elect from eternity past is totally unknowable. Of course, it can’t possibly be because of any foreseen positive quality in the elect! But, if the criteria for divine discrimination is truly a mystery, why couldn’t that be one of many possible actualities?

SALVATION AND SOVEREIGNTY

Next up I am reading ‘Salvation and Sovereignty’ by Kenneth Keathley. Keathley argues for a Molinist understanding of salvation and election, claiming that Molinism is the only system that logically holds human responsibility and God’s sovereignty in balance without contradiction or paradox. Ironically, Molinism is decried by Arminians as “too Calvinist” and by Calvinists as “too Arminian.”