Saturday, February 11, 2012

What's Wrong with this Picture?

Friends, the last few days have been very frustrating for me. I have watched as a recurring debate has erupted, both on the social networks and in Baptist newspapers over whether and to what extent Baptists should or should not be disturbed by a resurgence of Calvinism in our seminaries and pulpits. I'm not going to get into who I think is right or wrong. That would only fuel the debate even more, and to no good purpose.

Why, I ask, are we debating this when 70% of our SBC churches are either plateaued or in decline? This sad state of affairs cannot be blamed on resurgent Calvinism because the best estimates I've seen put Calvinists in pulpits in the SBC at only about 10%. Something else is driving the downward spiral of our churches. But rather than try to face and deal with that we choose to debate theological minutiae like the Medieval Schoolmen who debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

It's time to set aside the theological wrangling for a minute and refocus on the Gospel. Both Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the SBC (at least the ones I know) believe in the free offer of salvation to all who hear the Gospel. Both believe that it is the responsibility of every believer to share his/her faith with unbelievers and call them to repent of their sins and trust in Christ for salvation. Both believe that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Both believe in biblical inerrancy and justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Both believe in the substitutionary atoning work of Christ on the cross.

How can we show a lost world the love of Christ if we can't even show it to each other? It's time to refocus on the main thing. We've got a lot of churches that are dying. Why? Each church has its own particular pathology that must be faced and dealt with. But behind it all may lie a kind of subconscious hardshellism that says "our four and no more." Oh, we would never state it so blatantly (okay, so I've heard of one church that did), but it prevails, I suspect in many of our churches. We say "Everyone is Welcome", but are they really? Do we want drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, and swindlers (you know, the people Jesus went to) coming through the doors of our churches? Our priorities are out of focus, and repentance needs to start with us if we're going to reach a lost nation and a lost world.

Monday, February 6, 2012

God's Sovereignty, Human Responsibility, and the Molinist Position

I've been reading the recently published book, Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, edited by E. Ray Clendenen and Brad J. Waggoner.  On the whole this is a book worth reading, especially if you are a Southern Baptist with questions about Calvinism. The book presents an irenic debate between Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the SBC on the role of Calvinism in Southern Baptist life, past and present. The authors of the various essays are well chosen and articulate. They share a common commitment to the Gospel and the evangelistic mission of the denomination.

Some chapters I found somewhat lacking were the two chapters on the extent of the atonement, and then a later chapter on a Molinist interpretation of God's sovereignty. David Nelson sought to make a biblical defense of general atonement and for the most part he succeeded. However, at one point he raises the issue of God's love in relation to the Calvinistic position of particular redemption (the idea that Christ died particularly to redeem the elect; 132). He implies that the doctrine of particular redemption indicates God does not love all people, at least not in the same way. At the same time he admits to holding unconditional election (131). But does not his affirmation of unconditional election raise the same questions regarding the nature and extent of God's love for sinners as does particular redemption? It is a question worth asking.

In the next chapter Sam Waldron set out to present a "biblical" defense of particular redemption. However, this chapter, rather than building on key biblical passages that affirm the definite nature of the atonement, argued primarily from logical deductions and inferences for the doctrine of particular redemption. Waldron most commonly cites the Puritan John Owen and the twentieth century commentator John Murray, with an occasional nod to B. B. Warfield.

For me, however, the most interesting and troubling chapter is the one by Ken Keathley on Molinism as the best solution for the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. For Keathley logical consistency is a driving force. He wants to find a way to make the infralapsarian position logically consistent, and for him Molinism is the key. Molinism was first advocated by a Jesuit priest named Molina. His position has been roundly criticized by all sides as giving too much ground to the other side and so has never enjoyed a great following among either Catholics or Protestants, Calvinists or Arminians. Essentially Molina argued that God knows at three levels. He knows what is necessarily true, he knows what will be, and he knows what could be if circumstances were different. This third knowledge is said to be "middle knowledge" and stands between God's necessary knowledge and his knowledge of what will be. In the Molinist system God employed his "middle knowledge" or knowledge of what would be in any given circumstances, to plan the course of creation to accomplish his perfect will by establishing the circumstances in which free moral agents would free choose to do what God intended. At first glance this looks like a good proposal. Bruce Ware has also argued for God's use of middle knowledge (God's Greater Glory, chapter 4, although Keathley doesn't present Ware as holding to middle knowledge). A thorough and much more capable critique of middle knowledge can be found in John D. Laing's "The Compatibility of Calvinism and Middle Knowledge" in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47, no. 3 (Sept 2004): 455--67. My only observation is that, looked at carefully, Molinism doesn't really resolve the tension. It only moves it back one step. As I understand it (and maybe I don't, really; Molinism always gives me a headache when I try to look at it too closely), in the Molinist schema, God simply governs the universe with a stacked deck, so to speak.

God determines the context in which we live and move in such a way as to secure our doing his will because he knows perfectly how we will each respond in a given circumstance. In one sense this is little different than the Arminian view that God merely ratifies our choices through his foreknowledge. In another sense the hard determinism of some forms of Calvinism are maintained, except this time God is merely manipulating his creation to achieve his goals.

Herein lies the problem of a theological system too slavishly devoted to human logic. God says, "For  My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways" (Isa 55: 8 NASB). I find pure, supralapsarian Calvinism, pure Arminianism, Molinism, and Open Theism to be far too committed to perfect internal logical consistency. They all share a common arrogance--that the human mind can fathom the mysteries of God through logic. Can I resolve the tension between God's sovereign rule of the universe and the free moral agency of humanity and angelic beings? No. Is that a problem for me? No. I assume that God has the issue resolved in his mind, and that satisfies me. I don't need for my system to be perfectly symmetrical. Let me rest in the biblical witness. Those who are saved are saved completely owing to God's grace--his undeserved favor freely given for reasons known only to God (Eph 1: 4--6). Those who are lost are condemned for their sins and for no other reason than that they die in a state of unbelief, unforgiven and unregenerate (Rom 3: 23; 6: 23). Some say this makes God unfair. If God were fair and if every individual received his proper due, we would all be lost. None would be saved because no one of us deserves even the next breath of air we breathe (Rom 3: 10ff). I'll take his mercy over fairness any day. "God, be merciful to me, the sinner" (Luke 18:13, NASB).