Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Faith based theology, or not

Some books in the New Testament go on and on about "faith", and others don't. This is an important difference. If you keep the questions of "how important is faith, and how does it relate to salvation and works?" in mind, and read the New Testament and post-NT Christian writings, there is a noticeable divide. The differences become very profound: Some books do not use the word faith once, and other books go on and on about it.

In general books can be fairly easily categorised into two categories regarding the importance, or lack of importance, that they give to "faith". Some books talk about salvation, judgement, eternal life and don't mention faith even once, while other books talk as though faith is absolutely essential and necessary with regard to all these topics. This demands an explanation.

I can see two possibilities to explain this:
1) That there was a massive theological divide within early Christianity, one side of which saw "faith" as being central, the other side of which were not interested in faith and considered it unimportant and were interested only in good works.

2) That there was no massive theological divide within early Christianity, and both sides are simply using different words to express essentially the same concepts.

Which is the case? All the reasons seem to favor (2) over (1), three reasons:
(a) We have no real evidence of massive theological differences to the degree that hypothesis (1) would require.
(b) Despite the differences in use of the word "faith", both sides consistently depict a works-based judgement.
(c) Most Christians would be extremely relunctant to think that different writers of the NT were in opposition to each other theologically.

Whichever hypothesis we accept the consequences are severe:
If we accept (1), then we are faced with the fact that New Testament Christianity was composed of two opposing theological views, and we have to choose one to believe. We can either choose to believe in the importance of faith, or in the importance of works, and either way we will be implicitly accepting some books of the NT and rejecting others. We have to stop kidding ourselves into thinking that we "just believe the NT" and admit that we have arbitrarily picked one of two NT views.

If we accept (2), then we are faced with the fact that everything that is meant by the word "faith" can be translated into language that deals with good works without significant loss of meaning. ie, we'd have to say that faith and works are in some way identical. Whatever our theology was regarding faith, it would have to be able to be translated into language that didn't use the word "faith". We'd have to say that the books which didn't use the word faith and instead only talked about works-based salvation were not at all wrong, and were an equally valid way of expressing the same concept.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Why I just can't take the idea that Calvinism is biblical seriously

As a theological system, Calvinism is interesting. It’s not one I particularly like, or would want to adopt myself, but as far as theological systems go it’s fairly clearly plausible and coherent. The problem comes when I hear people saying that “Calvinism is what the Bible teaches”.

Now we all know that there are lot of individual statements in the Bible that look (or can be made to look) like they are advocating Calvinism. This is not really surprising: The Bible is big and when you’ve got enough material to choose from you can make a case for any viewpoint. However, let us consider God’s interactions with Israel throughout the Old Testament. Israel is following him, then they turn away from him. God waits for them to come back, he makes statements like “I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people”.

God holds out his hands to a rebellious people. What does this actually mean, in light of Calvinistic doctrine, how ought we to understand such a statement? Well, we can say that if they are rebellious, then they are rebellious because God hasn’t regenerated them. God must in fact have predestined them to be rebellious. Yet here God is making statements about how he’s ready to receive them. If he was ready to receive them he would have regenerated them, and if he’d regenerated them they would have come. In this way, Calvinism translates all complaints God makes about man into complaints God makes about his own acts of foreordination. God is portrayed at getting upset about men’s deeds, yet their deeds are what they are due to God’s foreordination - and their deeds would have been different if God had foreordained something different: so he is in fact getting upset at the situation that he himself has foreordained. In this way, all the actions of God in the world are rendered into nonsense: men are already doing what they do because God has decided they would do it. If it ever happens that God needs to correct the situation, then he must have made a mistake earlier when he foreordained the current situation and is now correcting his mistake. If it happens that he doesn’t like the current situation, then he’s effectively objecting to his own earlier decision to foreordain the situation to occur. Consider the Old Testament prophets who brought messages from God that the people ought to turn from their wickedness. We may ask: What was the point of such a message? The people who God hasn’t regenerated can’t turn from their wickedness no matter what the prophets say. Those people whom God has regenerated will turn from their wickedness no matter what the prophets say. In this way, Calvinism renders everything the prophets ever said, did, or wrote as a pointless waste of time.

In short, Calvinism means that God is depicted acting moronically throughout the Bible:
1) He moans about the present that he himself foreordained;
2) He tries to talk people into following him when he is well aware they cannot follow him because he has deliberately chosen not to enable them to do so.

That is simply a ludicrous depiction of God and that is why I cannot for even one second take Calvinism remotely seriously as a biblical theology. This is not a matter of any one scripture, but a matter of considering scripture as a whole. Anyone remotely familiar with the Bible’s depiction of God’s interactions with Israel knows well that God is at many and various times depicted as being unhappy with Israel’s behaviour. He is depicted exhorting and cajoling them to repent, to turn back to him. He sends to them many prophets and messengers, some of whom they follow and listen to and others whom they do not. Yet consider Calvinism’s picture of man and God: That man cannot possibly turn to God without God acting upon him supernaturally to regenerate him, in which case the regenerated man would inevitably turn to and follow God. In the Old Testament in his interactions with Israel, God seems ignorant of this. He calls to Israel, he pleads with them, any reader could certainly be forgiven for thinking that God really wanted Israel to repent, and that God really was upset about what Israel was currently doing. This is not a matter of one or two passages, that we could look at individually, this is a matter of Genesis to Malachi, this is a theme that spans the entire Old Testament. God clearly hasn’t realised the Calvinistic Truths: that He is sovereign and the world is the way it is it is because He wanted it to be that way, so it is nonsensical of Him to complain about the way Israel are acting; that Israel simply cannot follow him unless he regenerates them which he has chosen not do. Calvinism, we see, renders the entire Old Testament nonsense... God complaining about what he has foreordained? God trying to get Israel to follow him when he himself has prevented them from doing so? The entire Old Testament might as well say "lksfdjgag" for all the sense it makes under such a reading: Calvinism simply renders vast tracts of the Bible as complete and utter nonsense. The entire length of God's interactions with man (ie most of the Old Testament = Israel + the prophets) seems to be rendered meaningless and void in light of these to things. In terms of Biblical theology Calvinism seems to be a non-starter as it implicitly denies a large proportion of the Bible.