Explaining and explaining away
Some thoughts on human nature, sin, and grace.
Recently, I have been reading the great Christian epic by John Milton: Paradise Lost. It is a panoramic masterpiece of the fall of Satan, the creation of the world, and the fall of humanity, all in an elevated poetic style.
For any work of literature I read, I always keep an eye on the treatment of human nature, sin, and grace. The same is true for my reading of Paradise Lost.
In the past, I am usually relatively satisfied after categorizing a given author as a Pelagian, Arminian, Calvinist, or hyper-Calvinist, but on this reading of Paradise Lost I have been foiled, so to speak. Milton insists very strongly upon human freedom, and the efficacy of the will and the conscience, at the same time affirming election, prevenient grace, and predestination. Any attempt to place him in one theological camp or the other runs into contradiction and failure, as I can confirm.
This preamble now proceeds to my thesis: whenever an author asserts the importance of God’s sovereignty and the necessity of God’s grace for the renewal of the will in one breath, and then the importance of human freedom and willful cooperation with God in the next, I think we should take both seriously.
The same goes for reading the Bible, although, admittedly, there are many authors who wrote it. And yet, the Holy Spirit thought it fit to include both the book of Hebrews, and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Consider this passage for a moment:
“He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:4-6).
I would encourage my Arminian readers not to become defensive, but to soak in the truth in this passage (which carries this theme throughout the first chapter of Ephesians). Paul is clearly conveying something he wants his readers to accept – and rejoice about! Don’t view this passage as an embarrassment to your notions about grace and will! Confront it face to face, and “hear what the Spirit sayeth unto the churches.”
Ah, ah ah! Calvinists are not off the hook, either: “In the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame” (Hebrews 6:4- 6).
A fearful passage to be sure! But whenever I see Calvinists discuss this passage, what they seem most fearful about is that it does not accord well their theology of the Perseverance of the Saints! They gloomily cross their arms muttering a “huhmm,” or they very eagerly pipe in with the objection that this passage refers to those who were never truly elect from eternity.
NOTE: Along the same lines, I almost never see the doctrine of Limited Atonement taught explicitly in the Scriptures (or in Calvin’s Institutes!), but I find that it is merely a bulwark for systematizing the other elements of TULIP.
Sometimes I feel as though passages like the ones quoted above are not taken seriously, or are taken far too seriously, in accordance with the theological commitments of the reader. What I mean is that they are explained very zealously and contentiously, or they are explained away.
Where systematizing is dicey, I propose that we read the Bible “existentially.” I have become less and less concerned about winning arguments concerning human nature, sin, and grace (though anyone who knows me can attest that I have been a very enthusiastic arguer in the past!). Yet, I cannot help feeling that these doctrines are important.
A way forward? Well, my brothers and sisters, for starters, I would exhort you all to stop trying to explain away passages that problematize your theology. I think God wants those passages right there, right where you and I don’t want them to be.