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Of God’s Eternal Decree

In the Exodus account, a book brimming with God’s sovereignty- not least of which includes Paul’s citation of 9:16 in the ninth chapter of Romans- one is nevertheless confronted with a startlingly powerful affirmation of the viability of human volition.  The curious passage reads thus:

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.” But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.  And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle” (Exodus 13:17-18).

Here we’re confronted authentic human choice; the kind of choice that genuinely affects the outcome of history.  Had the Israelites passed through the land of the Philistines, they would have changed their minds and returned to Egypt, something the Lord didn’t want to happen.  So in light of this volitional reality, God circumvented the problem by steering them in another direction.

Reading this reminds me of the brilliance of the Westminster Confession of Faith, particularly the first point on God’s eternal decree.  With near poetic flare, the Westminster divines carefully, even masterfully, capture the balance between God’s sovereignty and human freedom.  Allow me to quote it:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

Here the sovereignty of God is unabashedly extolled.  God has ordained “whatsoever” comes to pass.  That’s everything.  But note the qualification “yet so.”  Here the Confession goes on to explain how this foreordination works, especially with regard to humans.  Two things are especially highlighted.  They want us to know that (1) human freedom isn’t trampled, and (2) the liberty (freedom) or contingency (what if-ness) of means isn’t ignored or repudiated, but rather established.  Simply put, God sovereignly works through means.

So let us be clear here.  Calvinism upholds both God’s sovereignty and human freedom.  Both are true.  Now how they exactly go together, well, that’s ultimately mysterious.  I like to think of it in terms of a young child trying to understand an algebra problem.  The youngster, having just learned his ABCs and 123s, happily affirms both letters and numbers.  But when presented with the following problem: X+4=7, he cannot imagine how in the world a letter could be a number.  His mind simply cannot wrap itself around the issue.  So it is with God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.  The answer to the problem is like the letter X.  The solution is certainly intelligible, but it isn’t intelligible to the child.

If you’re curious what the confession goes on to say, check it out here: Link. (See Chapter III).

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D.A. Carson has written a timely article entitled “Generational Conflict in Ministry.”  See if the first paragraph catches your attention:

“About five years after the Berlin wall came down and the communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe had mostly fallen or been transmuted into something rather different, I had the privilege of speaking at a conference for pastors in one of those formerly eastern-bloc countries. The numbers were not large. Most interesting was the way this group of men reflected a natural breakdown. They were clearly divided into two groups. The older group—say, over forty or forty-five—had served their small congregations under the former communist government. Few of them had been allowed to pursue any tertiary education, let alone formal theological training. Most of them had served in considerable poverty, learning to trust God for the food they and their families needed to survive. Some had been incarcerated for the sake of the gospel; all had been harassed. The men in the younger group—say, under forty or so—without exception were university graduates. Several had pursued formal theological education; two or three were beginning their doctorates. They were interested in ideas and in the rapidly evolving cultural developments taking place in their country now that their media were a good deal freer. Quite a number were engaged in university evangelism and wanted to talk about postmodern epistemology.”

[For the rest click Here]

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In a recent debate over the five points of Calvinism, Dr. Fernandez said the following:

“Another problem for Calvinism: No one held the Calvinist view of predestination until Augustine.  If the apostles taught Calvinism, then they apparently didn’t consider it important enough to convey this doctrine to their successors.  Until Augustine embraced unconditional predestination in about 380 AD, we know of no church father who was a Calvinist.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard an Arminian make this claim.  And I don’t suppose it will be the last.  Regardless, what should we make of the statement?  Is it true?  Was there not one poor Calvinist running around Macedonia or Italy in the days before Augustine, the first *gasp* Calvinist?

The frustrating thing about this claim is the manner in which it is framed.  If anyone has read through the apostolic fathers, for example, they’ll know that they simply weren’t concerned with expounding the doctrines of sovereign grace, or nearly any other doctrine for that matter!  They wrote letters, not systematic theologies.  They were dealing with false teachers and persecution.  They were trying to survive.  And since the early false teachers weren’t distant cousins of a guy by the name of Pelagius, the issue wasn’t a matter of great concern.  So no, the apostolic fathers weren’t running around with tulips for bookmarks.

That being said, what did they say?  During one my reads through the apostolic fathers, I marked every location that touched on the sovereignty of God, at least in an overt way.  If I have missed one, please let me know.  I likewise kept an eye out for “Arminian” proof texts.  But in all honesty, I’m not aware of any distinctly Arminian statements.  Again, if someone thinks otherwise, please let me know.  At the end of the day, I think you’ll find that while the apostolic fathers didn’t articulate a robust view of the doctrine of unconditional election (either for or against!), they nevertheless held to a very high view of the sovereignty of God, which, of course, provides the necessary substructure for the doctrine.

Want to see what I found?  The following quotes are taken from “The Apostolic Fathers,” second edition, edited and revised by Michael W. Holmes.

1 Clement

1 Clement 0.0, “The Church of God which sojourns in Rome to the Church of God which sojourns at Corinth, to those who are called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ…”

A potentially (it’s a LONG stretch) synergistic statement, 7.5, “Let us review all the generations in turn, and learn that from generation to generation the Master has given an opportunity for repentance to those who desire to turn to him.”

21.9, “For he is the searcher of thoughts and desires; his breath is in us, and when he so desires, he will take it away.”

27.4-5, “By his majestic word he established the universe, and by a word he can destroy it. “Who will say to him, ‘What have you done?’ Or who will resist the might of his strength?”  He will do all things when he will and as he wills, and none of those things decreed by him will fail.”

Ignatius to the Ephesians

0.0, “Ignatius… to the church at Ephesus in Asia, blessed with greatness through the fullness of God the Father, predestined before the ages for lasting and unchangeable glory forever, united and elect through genuine suffering by the will of the Father and of Jesus Christ our God…”

To the Smyrnaeans

4.1b, “But I am guarding you in advance against wild beasts in human form- men whom you must not only not welcome but, if possible, not even meet.  Nevertheless, do pray for them, if somehow they might repent, difficult though it may be.  But Jesus Christ, our true life, has power over this.”

The Didache

3.10, “Accept as good the things that happen to you, knowing that nothing transpires apart from God.”

Barnabas

(This isn’t a copy error) 19.6b, “Accept as good the things that happen to you, knowing that nothing transpires apart from God.”

The Epistle to Diognetus

5.4, [speaking of Christians] “But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food…”

9.1, “So then, having already planned everything in his mind together with his Child, he permitted us during the former time to be carried away by undisciplined impulses as we desired, led astray by pleasures and lusts, not at all because he took delight in our sins, but because he was patient; not because he approved of that former season of unrighteousness, but because he was creating the present season of righteousness, in order that we who in the former time were convicted by our own deeds as unworthy and, having clearly demonstrated our inability to enter the kingdom of God on our own, might be enabled to do so by God’s power.”

[There are several statements to effect of our needing to persevere in order to obtain the promises, but I won’t reproduce them here.  Any Calvinist worth his salt believes that every Christian must continue in the faith.]

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Instead of walking the mail this week, which affords me the pleasure of listening to many an MP3, I’ve been delivering the mail from the ease of a postal truck, which of course means that I haven’t been gorging my ears with podcasts (Postal policy doesn’t allow us to drive while talking on a cell phone or listening to an MP3 player).  So it’s been a time of fighting my portable radio, as it doesn’t want to pick up any decent stations.  Therefore, I’ve been stuck mostly with my thoughts, seeing how I usually grow weary of the incessant static and angrily turn off the radio.  And when I’m stuck with my thoughts, strange things often bubble forth.

So here you go:  A week’s worth of mental meanderings, which, I might add, could probably be placed under the category paradoxes- paradoxes both serious and stupid.

————-

So I was thinking: What if you want to mail a large envelope, and when you place it on one of those handy-dandy postal scales, it reads: $1.32.  But what if it’s so close to $1.33 that when you toss on a few stamps, it adds just enough weight to push it over the edge, and so now it will be sent postage due: .01 cent?  Sweet mother!  A postal paradox!

When I posed this conundrum to a fellow carrier, he thought for a moment and then said, “I guess I’d just tear off a corner of the envelope.”  Ah, paradox solved!

————–

So I was thinking: Imagine two young, sophomoric Jedi pupils at Yoda’s school of Jedi Knight training.  What if one of them said to his training partner, while waving two fingers in the air, “I want you to Jedi mind trick me to Jedi mind trick you so that I keep Jedi mind tricking you to keep Jedi mind tricking me in this way”?

Two hours later, imagine Yoda walking in and slapping his head at the sight of these two weak-minded pupils locked in an infinite repetition.  “Very stupid, they are.”

—————

So I was thinking: What if people started coming to grips with the hopelessness and meaninglessness of life in a naturalistic and materialistic universe; and as a result, they started committing suicide at an alarming rate, thereby endangering the human species; and so evolution, which is all about adapting to problems, evolved rationality out of mankind so that humans wouldn’t be able to logically think through the implications of evolution, thereby lowering the suicide rate?

Wait a minute… has this already been going on?!?  Hmmmm.

————-

Speaking of Neo-Darwinian evolution… I can’t say I’m a fan.  Now in all honesty, I flunked my first year of biology (The Drizzt Do’Urden fantasy novels slid nicely behind a propped open biology book), so I’m not exactly the go to guy when it comes to the subject.  Nevertheless, I’ve listened to my fair share of committed evolutionists since the days of High School.  Some of what they’ve said has made me rub my chin, but on the whole, I’ve found the position, so far as macro-evolution is concerned, to be weak.  A lot of conjecture and tendentious argumentation.

A person could point to a thousand different things and ask, “So, uh, yeah, tell me again how this level of complexity evolved via natural selection?”  I’ve often wondered, for example, how a spider ended up spinning webs, given Neo-Darwinian evolution.  Just think about it.  The spider’s body had to evolve the ability to make webs- I mean the actual stuff that webs are made of.  This alone is a tremendous feat when you think about the size of the hole, the rate of formation, the “turn off” switch, the potential toxicity, balance of energy, etc.  But to complicate matters:

(1) The spider had to somehow recognize the web’s potential function.  “Oh, look, this gooey, yet surprisingly strong stuff spilling out my rear- which I can control!- will help me catch insects!”
(2) The web had to be such that the spider wouldn’t become entangled in his own net, while also being such that other insects would.
(3) The spider had to pass home ec class, specifically the sowing semester.
(4) The spider had to know not only how to weave a web, but how to properly connect it to trees or limbs, which is no small feat for a creature who can’t reason.
(5) The spider had to learn to persevere (for storms and animals would knock down the web, after all).
(6) The spider had to learn the tune “Good Vibrations,” which of course means that the spider had to learn to connect vibrating web with freshly caught insect, which means, of course, “hurry up and bite the sucker before he gets away.”

So anyway, I’ve always wondered how a Neo-Darwinian would explain the rise of the spider.

But this last week, I’ve been thinking more seriously (no doubt on a layman level, but nevertheless seriously) about the rise of emotions, given a Neo-Darwinian worldview.  I just can’t make sense of it.  But seeing how this post is getting a bit too long, I think I’ll share my thoughts in part II, which will hopefully be coming soon.

In the meantime, check out Alvin Plantinga’s fascinating lecture, “An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.”  You can hear it here: http://www.veritas.org/Media.aspx#!/v/454

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Recent circumstances have reminded me again of the importance of the biblical warnings.  Here I have in mind those passages of Scripture that warn saints that they must continue in the faith or else be damned.  Colossians 1:21-23 is one such example.

Typically, when these passages are considered, the tendency is to immediately jump on the Arminianism vs. Calvinism ship and debate the matter long into the night, focusing largely on the question, “Can a Christian lose their salvation?”  The issue, of course, is tremendously important, but what is often forgotten is the more immediate point of the passage itself.  After answering the larger theological question, arriving no doubt at a Reformed conclusion (wink, wink), we often fail to return to the text and ask ourselves the more pastoral or practical question, namely, “How or when should the warnings be used?”

For here’s the thing.  If Paul was an Arminian, he wasn’t afraid to tell Christians that they must continue or else.  And conversely, if Paul was a Calvinist, he wasn’t afraid to tell Christians that they must continue or else.  Either way, the warnings are employed, and they’re employed fairly often.

I draw your attention to this because it isn’t uncommon for Christians to lose sight of this fact.  We tend to shy away from unsheathing these potent warnings because we think that Christians shouldn’t be warned in this way.  Therefore we fixate ourselves on the more nebulous question, “Is the person really born again?”  Perhaps they’re not.  Perhaps they are.  Sometimes sinful saints and sinful pagans are hard to distinguish during certain periods of their life.  But rather than trying to figure out if so and so is born again, maybe it’s time to carefully and wisely warn the person that the deeds of the flesh are obvious, and that those who live in such a way will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:19; Eph 5:5).

Remember that the warnings are also part of God’s word and part of the apostolic approach to dealing with Christians.  The right use thereof can prove to be a vital means in steering wandering sheep back onto the narrow path.  Even today I heard a story of a pastor I know who sat down a young man heading towards destruction (the party life, etc.).  The pastor soberly warned him that if he continued living this way, he would be doomed.  And today, having crossed paths with my wife, he told her that this particular pastor expressed to him exactly what he needed to hear.  It shook him to the core and he repented.

So let us not forget that Paul was a Calvinist who warned Christians that they must continue in the faith or else be damned.

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Armchair Theology

Recently I was asked by Dave over at Armchair Theology if I would be willing to answer a few questions about my blog, interview style.  I was like, “What the!  Who me?”  But after looking over my shoulder and finding no one standing there, I answered, “Well, sure, it would be my honor!”

So if you’re curious about how The Sound of Doctrine came into being, and other such questions, click your way over to Dave’s blog.  Thanks again, Dave!

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A good friend of mine recently called to ask me about a perplexing passage in Matthew.  We discussed the issue at some length, and I gave what I thought was a fair interpretation.  After some healthy give and take, he was like, “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.”  And that was it. 

But that wasn’t it.  I had that uncomfortable gnawing feeling, as if I had just made the incorrect call as a referee in a ball game.  And it stayed with me.  So I soon found myself pondering the issue while walking the mail, chewing and thinking, mulling over the text over and over again.  “What does it mean?”  I kept asking myself.  Round and round went the thoughts. 

It happened over my lunch break, while eating some oatmeal cookies at McDonalds (3 for a dollar!  Hard to beat!), when the answer hit me.  And it felt right… and it continues to feel right.  (more…)

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