Saturday, November 1, 2008

Happy Belated Reformation Day!

A few days ago was October 31, 2008. On October 31st each year is an illegal holiday. I am talking, of course, about my mother's birthday. But aside from that, it is Reformation Day. And so what better time of the year to reflect on the Reformation?

The advent of Protestantism is traditionally thought of as beginning with the nailing of the 95 theses to the door at Wittenberg. These theses of Martin Luther dealt primarily with the issue of indulgences. You know the saying: when a coin in the copher rings, we'll be able to afford St. Peters Basilica.

So Martin Luther saw this abuse of power on the part of the Roman Catholic Church and tried to address it. According to the movie re-enactments that I've seen, he was in total shock to find the then current pope less than sympathetic to his goals. As time passed, I think, the Reformation became less about indulgences per se, and more about the extreme authority of the pope on the one hand, and soteriological issues (i.e. the doctrine of salvation) on the other.

Fast forward to the present day and we find the pope does not have anywhere close to the authority he has exercised in years past. We also find that indulgences are no more-at least as they were in Luther's day. A third thing we find today is efforts on both sides, Protestant as well as Catholic, to re-unite Christendom. And then, much to our politically correct chagrin, we find bigots coming along to celebrate Reformation Day when they ought to be dressing up like Optimus Prime and collecting as much candy as they possibly can from door to door.

But I suggest to you that the Protestant Reformation is something we all-at least if we are Protestants-should take seriously. Although, I must confess, a reform of the Catholic Church would have perhaps been better (and this was Luther's original intention) but that is beyond the scope of the post.

While the papacy has lost a great deal of its power it has also retained some of it. Officially, every Catholic is to submit to the pontiff in all non-temporal matters. Within Protestantism, however, there is no supreme merely human authority figure. While each denomination may have a ruling body of the particular denomination, there is no general human authority for the church as a whole.

It seems to me that this is a good thing overall. For, as far as I can tell from the Scriptures, the church is supposed to rest on the authoritative teachings of the apostles. The apostles all being dead now, we are left only with their writings. In other words, on the Protestant view, there is no apostolic succession. The Bible alone is our authority. Sola Scriptura.

But the more interesting point of dispute between the protesters and the Catholic Church is perhaps the soteriological one. Apparently, Catholics hold now, and back then as well, that salvation is partially on the basis of works. For example, baptism is necessary to get rid of original sin. While this is not a work done by the baptizee per se (since the said baptizee is normally an infant and thus no willing participant) it still seems out of step with the Bible. Other examples include participation in mass and confession. If I am correct, the mass is to nullify venial sin whereas confession is to nullify mortal sin. But Protestants claim that our sins were covered at the cross. There is nothing left for us to do. We have salvation and often view the so-called vicariousness of the sacraments as a concession to salvation by works. Or, more precisely, salvation by grace plus, which is not, perhaps, salvation by grace at all. It appears to be a denial of sola gratia.

Does this mean that Catholics-I mean true Catholics that believe all the things Catholics are supposed to believe and, in addition, actually know what that is-are not saved? I will plead the fifth on this score. At the very least, I think it is safe to say, that Roman Catholics have got what appears to Protestants to be a faulty view of salvation. Whether they are saying the same thing in different words or if they are heretics (if one wants to use the h word) is a matter that I shall not comment on here except to say that the issue is a complex and confusing one. It is always hard to have intelligent dialogue with an "opponent" when neither of you agrees on the definition of terms and often there is the tacit assumption, on the part of both parties, that technical jargon is being used univocally.

So it seem to me that Roman Catholicism may indeed have an incorrect view of soteriology. This is not to say that the reformers got it right either, however. Rome was not built in a day so we should not expect it to be unbuilt in a day either. When I say "reformers" perhaps what I really mean here is "reformed".

Calvinism is no doubt an important facet of Reformation Day. And I am no Calvinist. Therefore, while I appreciate the good that was in the Reformation, or came out of it, I am not in total agreement with all aspects of it. I must say before continuing that I definitely count reformed believers as true Christians or brothers and sisters in Christ.

Still, they did not go far enough. Or more perhaps more accurately, they went too far. At least by my lights. Let us now turn our attention to the "five points of Calvinism." Those five points (or doctrines) are summed up in the ingenious acrostic "TULIP".

T: Total depravity-This first point is relatively uncontroversial in Protestant circles once properly understood. Man is basically not good after all. We are vile sinners outside of a relationship with Christ.

U: Unconditional election-This is the heart of the controversy right here. Perhaps the best way to view this doctrine is the way that Bertrand Russell viewed the ontological argument. It is a lot easier to feel that there is something wrong with it than it is to say precisely what is the problem. After all, God would remain 100% just if we all went to Hell. The fact that a handful of us are elected to escape is an added bonus. What's more, according to this doctrine, God's choice of the elect need not be arbitrary. While Calvinists say not everyone gets into Heaven, that is also the case in more Arminian soteriologies. All that being the case, I must confess that it just seems better to allow everyone a chance. God has created us with free will, and free will is good, so why wouldn't He allow us to use it in following Him? On the Calvinist view there is a kind of free will though it is in bondage to sin. In a sense, the Arminian (i.e. non-Calvinist conservative Christian) also believes this. But God can allow the Arminian to choose Him in spite of his total depravity can He not? Our free will is, I think, the ability to choose to do anything humanly possible and all things are humanly possible with God's help. So then, the Arminian allows for more exercise of free will than the Calvinist, it seems to me. And why believe in Calvinistic predestination in the first place? There are two and only two reasons why anybody ought to believe in such a doctrine. First, philosophical considerations. For example, if God knows what we will do in the future, some might say, we must do it so we are not free to do otherwise. But philosophical arguments for predeterminism are, it seems, inconclusive. Second, certain Bible passages which seem to teach predestination of a Calvinistic sort. But these verses can apparently be easily given other interpretations. For example, when Jesus said to His followers, "you did not choose me. I chose you," it is very easy (for me) to suppose that they could have said "no we will not follow you." So I think that we are not obligated to accept Calvinistic predestination. In other words, there is no sufficient reason, as best as I can see, for adopting a belief in unconditional election.

L: Limited atonement-I am not quite sure I understand precisely what is meant by this term. Apparently the idea is that God's goal, in sending His Son to die, was that the elect would receive salvation through the said death of the Son. However, Calvinists will say that the non-elect would also be saved through the cross if only they turn to Christ (which they won't do because they are not elect). But isn't this what we nasty Arminians were trying to tell them all along? The only people that will be saved are the people that will be saved. But everybody else could be saved too if only they would turn to Christ (which they won't do because they aren't one of the people who will be saved, ex hypothesi). Maybe it is like total depravity in that pretty much everyone accepts it once they understand it. Still, this doctrine seems even more controversial than predestination so one is certainly tempted to think this doctrine of limited atonement is uniquely reformed. Or, as I said at the beginning, mayhaps I do not accurately understand the meaning of the phrase.

I: Irresistible grace-This is the other side of the unconditional election coin. If election is not conditional on anything (even our accepting the gospel, apparently) then saving grace would be irresistible. Election is unconditional if and only if saving grace is irresistible. And since God sovereignly decrees our salvation-supposing Calvinism is true-we simply have no choice in the matter. On the other hand, if our election is not unconditional, then grace must be resistible. Obviously God is still sovereign. He has sovereignly decreed not that a particular sinner shall be saved but that a particular sinner exist with the free will to choose to follow Him or not.

P: Perseverance of the saints-Sometimes called "eternal security" this is the "once save, always saved" view. I actually agree with this view. Here are two arguments:
1. Jesus Himself explicitly said, "no man can snatch them (Christians in general, I presume) out of my hand." I am a man. Therefore I cannot snatch myself out of His hand, say, by committing apostasy. 2. One of the things a saved person is saved from is Hell. Being saved from Hell means you won't go there someday. A true apostate, however, would go to Hell so, by contradiction, eternal security is true.

Now, as I said before, Rome was not built in a day. The reformers did much doctrinal good. But it is surely unreasonable to expect them to do everything. They had too much on their plate in breaking away from Rome to precisely work out every detail of soteriological theory. Indeed, reformation was always said to be an ongoing thing. Continual reformation has always been the watchword of Protestantism in contrast to the stale traditionalism (note the "-ism") which Roman Catholics had fallen victim to. As the dust of the Reformation began to settle more time was given to focus on the precise formulation of Biblical salvation. Ironically, the reformed (i.e. Calvinistic) church, I tend to think, fell into the very same trap they were fighting against. They seem to have fallen into a theological rut. Not that theological truth can change over time, but perhaps Arminianism or Molinism is more in keeping up with the times of the contemporary evangelical, or Protestant, church.

In any case, these are how things seem to me. To any reformed people whom I've offended in the post, you have my sincere apologies. Please remember that I said at the outset that this is an in-house debate. You are not heretics and are still Christians. I am proud to call you brother or sister. So there you have it dear reader. I mean, some of my personal reflections on the Protestant Reformation. If the length of this post is any indication of importance, the Reformation most certainly does still matter. Until next time, goodbye. Sola Christus.

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