Thursday, December 16, 2010

Be Faithful 3

The previous post is here.
The second way in which the Wesleyan tradition differs from some other Christian traditions is in its sense that those who do not remain faithful to God will not be part of the kingdom of God.  For this reason, some have accused Arminians of believing in "salvation by works," of believing that we are not saved by "faith alone" but by our deeds.  Since the Reformation began in part over this issue, with Luther arguing against the Roman Catholic Church for this reason, some groups consider this distinctive of Arminian theology defective.

Similarly, these same groups might describe Wesleyan-Arminians as "Pelagian" or "semi-Pelagian."  Pelagius was a Christian in the 300s/400s who believed that humans could still do some good in their own power, without God helping them.  In response, Augustine argued that we are currently in a state of "total depravity," that it is only by the power of God that anyone might do or even want to do any good in the world.

To be fair, none of these charges are true of the Wesleyan tradition.  For example, John Wesley accepted Augustine's teaching on total depravity.  The difference is that while Calvin saw God's empowerment as a matter of "all or nothing."  Wesleyan theology sees God empowering people to make moral choices, both toward and away from God.  Accordingly, God not only empowers everyone potentially to move toward God.  God also empowers those who have already come to him, who have become truly right with him through Christ and received the Spirit, also to choose to move away from him.

Without the possibility of such moral choice, the central claims of Christianity seem incoherent.  If God does not give everyone the possibility of salvation, then the central claim that God is love does not seem to make sense.  But if it does not matter how one lives thereafter, then serving God is potentially a trivial matter, and our moral choices potentially become meaningless.

Of course you might notice that the last few paragraphs say nothing about the Bible.  Indeed, Paul knows nothing of these debates.  They are debates that arise, as we said at the beginning, from theological systems that various thinkers have developed as they have filled in the blanks.  Perhaps it is the Holy Spirit who has helped them fill in these blanks, but it is significant to make the distinction between what is Bible and what is later Christian tradition.

It is not necessary to go into details about how Protestant Christian tradition has expanded on Paul's language and meaning.  For example, it would be more accurate to Paul to say that humanity is thoroughly depraved rather than totally depraved.  And Paul never says that we are justified by faith alone.  The only place in Scripture where the word "alone" is used with either the word faith or works is in James 2:24 where James says that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Indeed, many Pauline experts believe that Paul had as much the faithfulness of Jesus in view as faith in Jesus.  Further, it seems likely that it is not so much faith versus works in general that was Paul's focus as works of the Jewish Law, especially those that clearly separated Jew and Gentile ethnically.  Such boundary issues would especially include things like circumcision, food laws, and sabbath observance.  Augustine's universalization and systematization of Paul thus involved some significant shifts in meaning.

And so it is no surprise that Romans 2:6-10 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 have recently drawn the attention of Pauline experts.  Arguably, both of these passages say explicitly that believers will be judged by Christ for their works even after they are justified.  A picture emerges where we are made right with God at first, solely because of our trust in what God has done through Jesus.  But after that point, God expects us to be faithful.

Indeed, a proper understanding of grace in its first century context supports this understanding.  Grace (charis) in the New Testament is best understood against the backdrop of ancient patron-client relationships.  In these prevalent relationships, individuals of means would give to those without means.  Such gifts (charisma) were not earned.  That is to say, the gift was disproportionate to anything the recipient might give in return.  Technically speaking, gifts also came without any strings attached, meaning that the "client" would not be asked to give the gift back.

However, when we view New Testament grace from this perspective, we see how naturally Wesleyan-Arminian theology fits Paul's thinking.  No patron would continue to give patronage if a client disrespected him or her.  And while there were technically no strings attached, there were often informal expectations that came along with the gift.  Further, while the gift would be something you could not possibly earn, there might be things you could do to trigger the gift.

Our default expectation of Paul is thus that he would see God's acceptance as a gift, something you could not possibly earn but something you might seek.  He would expect, along with the gift, that you would serve him and submit to his lordship--after all, he was empowering you with his Spirit to do so as part of the gift itself!  Finally, we would expect that if a person continued to sin willfully, insulting God's grace (cf. Heb. 10:26, 29), God eventually would stop extending his gracious forgiveness for those sins.

And arguably this is exactly what we find in Paul's writings.  Perhaps the consummate example is the fact that Paul does not consider his own eternal destiny decided.  In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul indicates that he himself might be disqualified for the prize of salvation if he does not continue in faithfulness.  Hebrews 3 later builds on the imagery of 1 Corinthians 10 to say that just because a person has begun the journey to the promised land does not mean a person will make it.  Hebrews 3:14 uses a perfect tense to say that even though we have become a partaker of Christ (completed action), that status will not continue unless we hold firm to the end.

Indeed, Hebrews is notorious for its warning passages that tell believers they will not inherit the promise if they intentionally turn their backs on God.  If they fall away, they will not be able to repent again, like ground that after much watering only yields thorns (6:4-8), like Esau who could not find a place of repentance even though he sought it with tears (12:16-17).  It seems impossible to work around what Hebrews is saying here, that a person can be genuinely "in" and yet not make it because they turn away.

So also Paul presses on in hope to get that "upward call" of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14).  He has not yet attained a guarantee of the resurrection (Phil. 3:11-12).  It is something he strives toward.  He must continue to be faithful if he hopes to be perfected when Christ returns.  His sufferings are like a sharing in Christ's sufferings "if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (Phil. 3:11, NRSV).  What we find is that Paul himself talks like an Arminian, and it is arguably only the theological system of various Protestant groups that makes this thinking problematic.


Dick Norton said...


Great summary of the perseverence issue! Thank you!


Ken Schenck said...

Everyone once and a while I get it right ;-)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The whole is more than the sum of its parts, because one has to accept the whole meaning or system to accept/understand such a tradition..But, that doesn't mean I won't try...

It seems that there is no questioning when it comes to "God's ways" (as they are "past finding out"). It is presumed and accepted that God is the "blessed controller of all things", but some people do not believe this. And those that have come not to believe that "God ordains, controls, foreknows, etc." are condemned by those that "presevere" in such understanding or teaching? Then fear is what continues to dominate one's belief system; fear of being condemned by God, or the 'in group'.

As to client/patronage thinking, leaders are "under God" determining and patronizing with plans as to what "place" the clients will have? Then, do the clients cease to have free will except to accept what is determined/planned, because it is rebellion to "not accept" whatever is planned for you? Does this get into government/leadership? If so, it seems pretty fatalistic to me, as there would be only two choices; to accept one's "place" or reject it, no negotiation. Is this not slavery? Where are equal rights under the law? Does the client not have a right to "due respect" or is he/she looked down upon? Then what is spiritual superiority? Is that not a sin, if God is the one to enables?

Do Wesleyans believe that revolution such as in our American revolution was acceptable to God? If so, why? as the Revolutionaries were not submitting to a lack of representation! Ane these revolutionaries were being treated like slaves, by that lack of representation, weren't they? Shouldn't they have seen, or known that it was not their "right" to question the authority of the Crown? What do Wesleyans believe about "the divine right of Kings"? Are "kings/leaders" above the law? If so, are they "above the law" when it comes to slaves only, or above the law in general? Then what do Wesleyans believe about depotism? Reform? Shouldn't there only be One Church, then? If so, then Wesleyanism, as well as every other denomination would be considered "a sin". Is submission of the greatest value to Wesleyans in general, or for the slave only? What makes one a slave? Do Wesleyans believe in the "noble lie"?

Education would not be sought by Wesleyans, as it might hinder perseverence, wouldn't it, since there are so many other ways of understanding "the world and all that is"!? And I thought Wesley was a scholar.

Where do the Wesleyans "start" in understanding their faith? Phoebe Palmer understood experience, as did John Wesley in the revivals. But, didn't Wesley forbid/discourage enthusiasm?
It seems from this post, that Wesleyans are fundamental traditionalist. Do they believe that Judiasm is the "true faith", because that is the root of Christianity? Or the Catholic Church? Do Wesleyans believe in progressive revelation, since they adhere to scripture and scripture being a product of "new scholarship"?

John Wesley had said that if another's heart was as his, then "take my hand". Did he judge men's hearts by what they sought to do in the world? Then do Wesleyans work alongside humanists, atheists, and other traditions? How would they think about working alongside one who had not "presevered"? Whould they shun them, or look at the work as "working out salvation"?

If Wesleyans do accept the ones who "do the work" without having the belief, then it really doesn't matter at all what one believes. Belief systems are just a facade to get the work done, whatever that might be...that would be sly, as government wouldn't have any say about their choices, because they have "freedom under the First Amendment"....