Posts Tagged ‘Arminianism’

Arminianism, God’s providence, and suffering

March 5, 2014

In case you haven’t noticed on this blog recently, I have recovered a far more robust view of God’s providence in our lives and world—so much so that I happily say, with a sigh of relief, “God is in control.” My favorite fellow Arminian blogger, Roger Olson, won’t go that far—out of fear that saying so compromises human free will or makes God the author of sin and evil. He says, instead, “God is in charge but not in control.” He says God does not “micromanage” history or human lives.

While I have felt at odds with many of my fellow Methodist clergy over the doctrine of providence, am I also at odds with Arminianism itself? Am I becoming… Calvinist?

Thank heavens, no!

Perhaps Olson himself sensed that his quibble over words like “control” and “micromanage” had caused Arminians like me to wonder if we (or he) were outside the Arminian camp. As he makes clear in this post, however, being Arminian does not imply a weak view of God’s providence. On the contrary!

The only category of creaturely decisions and actions where God NEVER interferes with free will IN THE SENSE OF rendering them certain is sin and evil. God permits them but does not design, foreordain or render them certain. One qualification is necessary even here. In relation to creaturely decisions and actions that are sinful, God never designs, foreordains or renders certain individuals’ evil decisions and actions that would cause their condemnation.

Olson is careful above to say that God isn’t the author of evil, and God doesn’t override an individual’s free will when it comes to their acceptance or rejection of God’s gift of salvation in Christ. These are bedrocks of Arminian doctrine.

But my main concern here, now, is to say that God DOES interfere in free will in guiding and directing our lives as his people. He is not the author of our sins or failures, but he does direct our lives in terms of opening and closing doors.

My point is that for the Arminian God is not a “deist God”—uninvolved and only observing. God is intimately involved in the details of our lives—to the extent that we allow him to be. If we shut him out of our lives and tell him to leave us alone he will, saying, reluctantly, “Okay, thy will, not mine be done.” This, too, of course, is within his will—consequently but not antecedently.

This is how I understand God’s providence in my life when I sing, for example, hymns that talk about God “appointing my pathway, knowing just what is needful and best.” I never think such lyrics mean God designs , foreordains or renders certain my sins or failures. I take them to mean that God has a plan for my life and, insofar as I surrender to his will, whatever happens to me is “needful and best.”

Of course, God does not design, foreordain or render certain OTHERS’ sins that impact my life. In that case he permits me to be impacted by their sins and brings good for me out of them. But I have no problem believing that he foresees their sinful intentions and allows me to be in the path of their consequences insofar as that [is] “needful and best” for me.

So he and I are on the same page, even though I see no harm in speaking of God’s being “in control.” I also don’t see how what he’s written above means that God doesn’t micromanage. He would at least concede that God manages very, very closely, right?

Regardless, like me, Olson rightly sees what’s at stake in the question of the doctrine: Is God actively involved in our lives and world—including answering our prayers and guiding our paths—or does God mostly let events run their course?

The liberal mainline Protestant answer, which I now completely reject, leans toward the latter: God hates that we suffer, and God suffers alongside us, but he doesn’t really do all that much about it. To be sure, this safely insulates God from being being responsible for evil in the world, but where does it leave us when bad things happen? “It’s all a mystery,” we say. God can’t possibly be allowing this to happen for a reason—to serve his good purposes. The less said about what God is up to, or even that he’s up to anything, the better.

How many of my fellow Methodist clergy, fresh out of liberal mainline seminary, would agree with the following statement from Olson? “But I have no problem believing that he foresees [other people’s] sinful intentions and allows me to be in the path of their consequences insofar as that is ‘needful and best’ for me.”

From the perspective of too many of us Methodist clergy (which, sadly, used to be my perspective), there can be nothing “needful and best” about God’s allowing us to suffer.

Methodists believe in the doctrine of election, too

January 9, 2013

I recently referred to Francis Chan’s “nearly Pelagian”—what I could rightly call semi-Pelagian—”disregard of the role of God’s grace in sanctification.” As if on cue, Arminian Baptist theologian Roger Olson has an evenhanded article about different evangelical perspectives on election (full article behind subscription firewall) in the most recent Christianity Today, which includes a discussion of semi-Pelagianism.

He helpfully describes it with an illustration:

Semi-Pelagianism is the idea that human beings take the initiative in their salvation and service to God. We decide whether to be saved or enter into God’s service completely by ourselves, without prevenient (or necessary) grace. (Prevenient grace is grace that convicts, calls, illumines, and enables. Christian theologians disagree about whether it is resistible or irresistible, but all evangelical theologians agree it is necessary for the first exercise of a good will toward God.) Some years ago, a popular television series featured angels in human disguise helping people in distress turn to God. In one episode, a beautiful young angel with a Scottish accent counseled a man to “reach up to God as far as you can, and then he’ll reach down and take you the rest of the way.” I call that “Touched by an Angel theology.” By itself, without careful biblical and theological clarification, it expresses semi-Pelagianism.

Moreover, he calls semi-Pelagianism “arguably the default view of both salvation and service among American Christians, especially younger Christians. But all branches of Christianity have condemned it as heresy, because it completely contradicts Scripture.”

Did you read that? All branches of Christianity condemn semi-Pelagianism, including us Methodists. I emphasize this because, as Arminians, Methodists are sometimes accused of being semi-Pelagian by our Reformed brothers and sisters because we affirm a limited but (we believe) necessary role for free will in the process of salvation. As Olson writes,

According to Wesley’s essay “On Predestination,” faithfully following Arminius, election (predestination) means that “God foreknew those in every nation, who would believe, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things.” He based this on Romans 8, especially verses 29 and 30. Like all Arminians (and many who do not use that label but agree with its essential doctrine of election), Wesley affirmed free will, enabled by grace, because otherwise, “[I]f man were not free, he could not be accountable either for his thoughts, words, or actions.”

Free will, enabled by grace. Olson goes on to emphasize a point that can hardly be made loudly enough: “[W]hatever role humans play in their salvation, salvation is God’s work. Even Arminians, at their best and truest, believe sinners receive saving grace only because God enables them to receive it with the free response of faith.”

Hell and “optimal grace”

September 7, 2011

Gotta love that cover illustration. It looks really hot in there!

One book I read to prepare for our two-part sermon series on heaven and hell is Methodist theologian Jerry Walls’s fun-sounding book Hell: The Logic of Damnation. In it, he seeks to overcome the most important objections to hell and damnation on moral grounds. And unlike our hyper-Calvinist brothers and sisters, Walls isn’t content to say, “God is perfectly good, even though our human understanding of God’s ‘goodness’ bears no apparent relationship to God’s goodness”—that God is good, in other words, even if our account of that “goodness” makes God out to be a moral monster.

In the real world, skeptical people of good faith do raise honest objections to Christianity on moral grounds. Let’s assume for a moment that they are doing so of their own free will, and that God isn’t simply making them be that way. We Arminian Christians, who live in that same world with them, should try to answer their objections. Hence Walls’s book.

In his chapter “Hell and Divine Goodness,” he brings the problem in sharp relief by discussing a few hypothetical scenarios, one of which I excerpt below:

Next, consider the case of two young women, both of whom have been taught the Christian faith, but have rejected it. Both are involved in an automobile accident in which one is killed while the other lives. Let us say the second is eventually converted and becomes a saintly person, whereas the first is damned. Suppose God knows the first would also have become a saintly person if she had lived to a normal age before dying.

What all these cases suggest is that it is very odd, to say the least, to think that salvation and damnation might hinge in some way on such factors as the circumstances of one’s birth or the time of one’s death. If this is actually possible, it seems to raise doubts about the claim that God, in perfect goodness, desires to save all persons.1

In other words, doesn’t our salvation or damnation often depend on circumstances over which we have no control? And if so, doesn’t this reflect poorly on God’s goodness?

After all, I was brought up in a Christian home. I grew up going to Sunday school and church. I saw many Christians role-model the love of Jesus for me. I had one opportunity after another to respond positively to the gospel, which I eventually did. Clearly, the vast majority of people in the world today—and who have ever lived—have not had those same opportunities, to say the least. Would God damn them to hell without giving them a fair chance of hearing and responding to the gospel? (This was a primary objection to Christianity raised by Bertrand Russell in the early 20th century, and Walls frames his argument to meet Russell’s objection.)

Walls doesn’t think so, and neither do I. In fact, I think this opinion represents a consensus on the rightward side of the mainline Protestant spectrum in which the United Methodist Church finds itself (which is to say the leftward side of evangelical Protestant spectrum). I have believed (or hoped) for years that an equal opportunity exists for people to respond positively to the gospel, even after death if necessary.

Before Walls’s book, however, I’d read no writer who had explained in a plausible way what this might look like. Walls argues that God gives everyone an “optimal measure of grace” to enable a “decisive response” to the gospel. So, getting back to the hypothetical case above, Walls writes,

I am inclined to say the one killed had not decisively rejected God. Although her initial response to grace was negative, she would have become a saintly person had she lived longer. This suggests that her initial negative rejection to God was not really a settled response. If God knows this, it may be the case that God will give her the grace at the moment of death to begin to become what she would have become if she had not died. Further spiritual growth could occur after death.2

Walls concedes that this notion would involve some form of purgatory. Stripped of its medieval Catholic excesses, he doesn’t believe there’s anything inherently un-Protestant about the idea. Indeed, many Protestants of Lutheran and Anglican extraction (including my man C.S. Lewis) believe in some form of it.

Walls even addresses one objection I have to the idea: If God were to give people an opportunity after death to respond (because in this life they failed to decisively accept or reject the gospel), who could possibly say no? Wouldn’t it be rather obvious what the correct “choice” would be? I put the word in scare quotes because at that point, it would fail to be a choice. It would be coerced. Walls responds:

[I]t might be suggested that perhaps God cannot extend grace to persons at the time of death, or after death, without destroying their freedom. After death God’s reality may be so evident that it would be impossible to make a free response to him. In the face of his majesty and power, persons would feel compelled to submit out of fear. Such a reaction would not be out of faith and love so it would not count as genuine acceptance of grace and commitment to his will.

In response to this, I see no reason to assume God’s existence must be more evident after death than it is now. Surely God could reveal himself only to such an extent as would enable a free response. Perhaps God may even continue to use human creatures as messengers on his behalf. The situation  after death may be similar to this life in the sense that persons may learn about God from their fellow humans and respond in faith to what they learn.3

Or maybe not… It’s obviously highly speculative. But I’m glad Walls is at least making the effort to explain it.

As I said in my sermon on Sunday, what we know for sure is this: We have this time now, this moment now, to respond. Everyone who has life still has the opportunity to find salvation. This should give urgency to our mission. Moreover, along with Walls, I believe our choices in this life can have eternal consequences. I believe people can decisively reject the gospel. I also fear that if we continually fail to respond to the gospel, we may harden our hearts such that we can no longer respond, in this life or beyond. (This, I believe, is the “unforgivable sin” Jesus mentions.)

One thing is also for sure: We don’t know the mysterious ways in which God works in the human heart. We don’t know how the Lord might move in that liminal place between life and death. Could it be that Jesus meets everyone, arms outstretched, as he met the two criminals on the cross beside him?

Will we, like the first criminal, reject him? Or will we, like the second, ask him to remember us when he comes into his kingdom? The choice will be ours.

1. Jerry L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 86.

2. Ibid. 90.

3. Ibid., 100.