Thursday, September 18, 2008

I believe in predestination...

…yet I’m still an Arminian. I’ll explain why in a moment. For too long divisions have existed in the Christian faith over minor points of doctrine; predestination has been one of those points. These divisions have run deep and wide in many ways and have seen Christians belittle, defame and even kill one another over differing beliefs. When we behave in such a manner we fail to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3). For me, this is a much graver error than whether we affirm this doctrine or that. The fact of the matter is that for both Calvinists and Arminians we are both attempting to answer the same question:

“Why is it that some people respond to the gospel message and others do not?”


Whilst we come to different conclusions with our answers, there is still unity in the question. There is unity in us both seeking God in prayer, Bible study, and theological reflection to wrestle with this problem. The fact is, this is an eternal mystery, and while I find more satisfaction in the Arminian explanation compared to a Calvinist one, I still do not pretend that I am right and a Calvinist answer is wrong. Like two witnesses standing on opposite sides of a car accident, each side will never be able to give a “complete” account of this, or any, doctrinal statement. Even more so if we refuse to engage in dialogue about it.

For Arminians the problem, as I see it, is this; when we read the two passages (and yes, there’s only two) that use the term “predestined” (Ephesians 1 and Romans 8) we apply what I call an “editorial hermeneutic”. That is, we mentally delete the word “predestined” or “elected” so that it fits with our system of thought. This is wrong. We do not form Scripture, it forms us. We do not apply our system of theology and make the Scriptures fit with it, the Scriptures are the Word of God and we listen to the Spirit speaking through them and our theology is formed through that process. This is why, in The Salvation Army, our first doctrine affirms that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the divine rule of Christian faith and practice. Period. So how do we need to change our system of theology to include predestination within it? Well, in fact we don’t really. We just need to recapture historical Arminianism which has always had a place for predestination.

You see when the “Remonstrants” who presented the five points of contention to the Synod of Dort in the early 1600’s (which incidentally is how the “Five Points of Calvinism” TULIP came about – in response to the “Five Points of Arminianism”) they included an understanding of predestination called "conditional predestination". Conditional predestination suggests that God predestines those who, in grace-enabled faith, respond to the gospel message. This is a “corporate” predestination (the “faithful” are saved, the “unfaithful” are not), compared to the “individual” predestination of Calvinism (this “person” is saved by God's decree, that “person” is not). The “condition” of predestination in Arminianism is a grace-enabled faith response to the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (“how” we are enabled to respond in this way is a discussion for another day). This understanding is a positive understanding of this doctrine. It enables Arminians to read the passages concerned without mentally deleting those words which they do not like. So as an Arminian, I gladly say that “I believe in predestination.”

There is yet a more important point, though. Read both the Ephesians 1:3-6 and Romans 8:29-30. In both instances (and remember these are the only time the term “predestined” is used) it is in reference to being predestined to holiness (“holy and blameless” and “conformed to the likeness of his Son”). Rarely, if ever, when discussions take place in regard to predestination do I hear this mentioned. This is good news. This is why I believe we need to recapture a positive use of “predestination” terminology within Arminian theology, and particularly in the “Wesleyan” tradition because predestination is about holiness, not just salvation/justification. Remember, “it is God’s will that you should be sanctified” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). So if I could summarise a Wesleyan-Arminian understanding of predestination it would be this:
God predestined those who respond by His grace, through faith, to the Gospel message to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, holy and blameless in his sight. It is God’s will that his people be sanctified.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Keys to the city

Today I came home for lunch and happened to turn the TV on to see James Tomkins being interviewed following the Welcome Home Parade for the 2008 Olympic Team. Apparently he had been the lucky recipient of the "Key to the City of Sydney". During the course of the interview James was asked the logical question - "So what does the key open?" To which there was obviously no serious reply given. It seems a really bizarre thing, though that in 21st Century Australia we would continue to hold a ceremony such as this which stems from the Middle Ages, when passing dignatories and nobles were given tax-exempt passageway into cities when the mayor would give them the "key to the city". It would enable them to pass through the city walls freely. Sydney's never had city walls though (at least to the best of my knowledge - I'm prepared to stand corrected) so what's the point of giving out the keys to the city? I wonder whether this elaborate ceremony using terminology from a time long gone is much like our discussions on "holiness" (and theology in general) today? Are we using terms and language that was intended for a setting where it actually meant something to the original users but now it is completely devoid of its original meaning (take for example "propitiation")? Do we need to somehow recapture the meaning and then reword it in ways that are relevant to a 21st Century audience? I could be wrong, but is even the word "holiness" being used in ways that have made it so detached from the everyday lives of the average Christian that even its use has become the reserve of the theological elite? Is my view on this wrong? How do we address this issue? Can we even talk about "holiness" anymore? If so, how? I look forward to your responses. God Bless Adam P.S. Incidentally, Sadam Hussein was given the keys to the city of Detroit in 1980. If he were still alive today, do you think he would still have safe passageway through that city?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Can you help?

Hey everyone... I would love this blog to become a place where "discussion" happens, not just my ideas. So, if you have something you would like to contribute, please feel free to email me and I will add it to the blog. It could be an article, a question, a quote, a book review, or just some random thoughts. Theology is formed in community and I'm hoping to use this online community as one way to contribute to that email: amcouchman@gmail.com Every blessing Adam

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Is perfection possible?

I've been reading Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt's Holy Teaching - Introducing the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005).
It's a great introductory read to the theology of Thomas Aquinas which has been an incredibly instrumental contribution to the Church universal. You have to take it slow to sink everything it as Bauerschmidt provides a selection of Aquinas' writings with commentary in the footnotes. As a result it is necessary to read some sections two or three times to take both the text of Aquinas and the commentary in. Whilst this is a time labouring task, it is essential nonetheless, given the differences in how language is used today compared to Aquinas' day.
One of the significant aspects of Aquinas' theology that continues to come out as I read is the understanding that "grace does not destroy nature but perfects it." I think this is a significant aspect of our understanding of grace. I think at times in our Western mindset we treat grace too much as some king of "thing" that we take into our possession through faith in Jesus Christ, rather than an activity of God himself. In using this thought of Aquinas it could be suggested that in receiving the grace of God our very being is perfected by that same grace. This is different understanding to the receiving of a "thing" concept of grace.
I see some correlations here to Wesley's understanding of holiness as "Christian Perfection", a term that he received alot of bad feedback about in his lifetime and since. However if we define "perfection" as the result of the activity of God's grace on our nature (rather than the focus upon the capacity to not sin as Wesley's opponents seem to focus upon), we come to a very positive use of this phrase. "Christian Perfection" then becomes the ongoing perfecting of our nature that is a work of the grace of God.
This is not reliant upon my ability to avoid sin, but rather on the boundless capacity of God's grace to continually cleanse and renew me. This is holiness. This is Christian Perfection.
In answer to my question in the title "is perfection possible?" - by the grace of God, it is.
"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48)

Welcome

I have commenced this blog because in recent days I have seen a desire for a recapturing of the doctrine of Holiness. This has been particularly evident in my own denomination, The Salvation Army, which has consistently labelled itself a "Holiness" denomination. But what does that mean? What does this very "churchy" word - holiness - actually mean? I'm not suggesting that I have the answers to this question at all. Rather, since there are other people who seem to have an interest in this topic I thought this could become a place where it could be discussed. This is not restricted to holiness either but other important matters of Christian theology as well. I would welcome any comments that you would like to contribute. Yours in Christ Adam

The Tradition of Scripture

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