Looking Back on 2012: Oct-Dec

Since it’s the last day of 2012, I have to cover three months in this final post of looking back so I’m going to give myself 12 posts from the past three months instead of just 10. This fall, we experienced two alternatives for responding to an election season: preachers endorsing political candidates from the pulpit or Christians coming together across the political spectrum to celebrate communion. Jerry Sandusky got convicted for his crimes, so I asked what would need to happen for him to enter into God’s kingdom and feast at the heavenly banquet with the boys he molested. I watched with anguish and tried to be fair in what I wrote as Israel and Gaza went to war. And Rachel Held Evans became this year’s Rob Bell after her Year of Biblical Womanhood drew a furious reaction from the evangelical establishment. So here are 12 from October to December. Continue Reading

Looking Back on 2012: Aug-Sept

August and September were busy months for my blog. There was the Chik-Fil-A drama and other culture war nonsense. Both political parties held their conventions. Then the Benghazi attack happened. In September, our church did a sermon series called “Jesus is My Candidate” that I tried and spectacularly failed to turn into some kind of bigger “movement.” The idea was to transcend partisanship and avoid saying and doing things that would dishonor Jesus’ name. So here are 10 posts on culture wars, morality, marriage, American Pelagianism, holy war, the fear of God, and other matters. Continue Reading

Biblical literalism + magisterial inertia = sacramental Pelagianism?

I’ve been reading through Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings in which he spends a whole lot of time arguing emphatically why unbaptized infants deserve to go to hell because of Adam’s sin. It seems like the damnation of babies was a huge sticking point for Pelagius and his followers and part of why they were inclined to say that the doctrine of original sin was ridiculous. The core of Augustine’s argument against Pelagius rests upon a literal interpretation of John’s two verses describing the salvation of the two sacraments — 3:5: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” and 6:53: “Except ye eat my flesh and drink my blood, ye shall have no life in you.” Though I don’t have time to trace the historical development of this literal attribution of salvation to sacramental observance, I cannot help but wonder if Augustine’s Biblical literalism and the magisterial inertia of the church in following his claims uncritically led to the formulaic view of the sacraments which created the atmosphere of “Pelagian” salvation by works that triggered the Reformation. I realize I’m being mischievous, but the irony is too delicious. Continue Reading

Perpetual Conversion (Reframing the Question of Salvation)

I had an epiphany while I was reading Kurt Willem’s Red Letter Christians article on being a Christian disciple rather than doing Christianity. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve heard people talk about being rather than doing. It was very trendy among the writers we read in seminary to talk that way. But this is the first time I thought of these two words as being analogous to works-righteousness (doing) and justification by faith (being). And so I wanted to put forward a somewhat risky proposal (which can hopefully be treated as theology-in-progress rather than heresy by my more zealous critics). What if salvation is properly understood as a perpetual process of being converted from works-righteousness to justification by faith? Continue Reading

Marc Carpenter and Today’s Pelagianism

Okay I recognize that most people who would  read my blog wouldn’t have any reason to know or care who Marc Carpenter is. I didn’t know or care who he was until yesterday when some chatter on facebook led me to this post on Billy Birch’s Arminian website. For those of you who were blissfully unaware, in the Christian blogosphere, there’s a group of fierce theological piranhas known as the hyper-Calvinists. If you don’t know what Calvinism is, in a nutshell, it’s the belief that God decided before the beginning of time who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell and nobody knows who’s going where (except that the people who are going to the right place always seem to agree with Calvinist theology). There are other aspects to it as well, such as being very argumentative with other Christians and radically sure of your own theological correctness (though I’m sure there are Calvinists who are actually humble, nice people who might even have a sense of humor).

Now hyper-Calvinism is the extreme version of Calvinism, when you not only damn all non-Calvinist Christians to hell (along with the rest of humanity — DUH!), but also all fellow Calvinists who refuse to damn non-Calvinists. It’s kind of like the logic of the Rwandan Hutu militia that massacred not only Tutsis but also Hutus who sympathized with Tutsis as well as Hutus who didn’t think that Tutsi-sympathizing Hutus should necessarily get killed. So anyway, Marc Carpenter is the most hyper of the hyper-Calvinists that I’ve come across. He actually says that he doesn’t call himself a Calvinist anymore because John Calvin himself isn’t Calvinist enough to avoid going to hell for some of the things that he said (unless he repented before dying which nobody can know for sure).

Here’s a sampling of Carpenter’s logic taken from a letter called “Speaking Peace to God-Haters” in which he explains why other Calvinists (such as a guy named North) aren’t themselves really Christian if they refuse to condemn Arminians like Methodism founder John Wesley (for believing that God’s grace is available to all of humanity).

North and others like him believe that “experience” and “holy living” take precedence over doctrine. They believe that one’s doctrine can deny the work of Christ, but as long as one has a “heart-felt spiritual experience” and a “Christian life,” one can hold to a different christ and a different gospel.

The truth is that it is doctrine that distinguishes the true Christ and the true gospel from all counterfeit christs and counterfeit gospels. Without the doctrine of Christ, you do not have Christ. The “personal knowledge of God in Christ” includes the knowledge of how God is just to justify the ungodly – Christ’s person and work (which no Arminian knows). God invariably gives this knowledge to everyone He regenerates, and no one who does not have this knowledge is a true Christian.

The paradox of hyper-Calvinism is that their doctrine says that only Christ’s atoning sacrifice can “justify the ungodly” — nothing humans do in and of our own accord can earn God’s salvation (a statement which I agree with), BUT… the believer must believe in the right doctrine to be saved (“Without the doctrine of Christ, you do not have Christ”). What Calvinists believe is that while we can’t do anything to make God save us, “God invariably gives [a clear understanding of Calvinist doctrine] to everyone He regenerates.” If it sounds confusing and twisted, that’s because it is. They have to articulate their views in a convoluted way because these two aspects of hyper-Calvinism are fundamentally contradictory. Maintaining the second part, that someone remains unsaved without the right doctrine, undermines the first part, that we can do nothing to earn God’s salvation.

There’s a word that hyper-Calvinists hate more than any other word. It’s Pelagianism, a term derived from a 3rd century ascetic monk named Pelagius who had a fierce argument with the north African bishop Augustine over whether humans could do good without the power of God’s grace. Pelagius argued that if humans just used their will-power, they could suck it up and obey Christ’s teachings, and God would judge them in the end on the basis of their success. Augustine believed that barring Christ’s atonement and empowerment, humans were completely without the existential resources to do good. In Augustine’s view, we need not only for God to forgive the sins we committed before becoming Christians but to continue to prop us up constantly like sagging tomato plants till the day that we die because we never are completely liberated from sin. Augustine won the argument and Pelagius was condemned as a heretic. Since then, Pelagianism has been a catch-all phrase throughout the centuries for accusing other Christians of believing that they earn salvation through their works rather than receiving it as a gift of grace from God (by the way, there’s a ton of scripture which I haven’t referenced which undergirds this whole debate — see my post “Justification by Faith: 3 Perspectives” if you’re confused and let me know if I need to provide more scriptural context for you to understand).

In any case, during the Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin accused the Catholic church of Pelagianism for purportedly thinking that the sacramental system of baptism, Eucharist, confession, last rites, etc, was a sort of formulaic means for assuring one’s right standing with God, i.e. earning your salvation through your works, in this case, sacraments. The Reformers’ accusations were at least partly on-point. One of the more extreme, disgusting practices in that day was for the church to collect a certain amount of money from people (called indulgences) in exchange for guaranteeing that their relatives who had died and were suffering in Purgatory could get bumped up to heaven faster. This more obviously corrupt practice (which Catholics quickly discontinued after the Reformation) was allowed to develop because of a mindset that the church could generate (and eventually sell) salvation-assuring products through its sacramental system. Now I don’t think that using the historical sacraments of the church as a means for opening our hearts to God’s gracious transformation is inherently Pelagian (we would do well as Protestants to respect the sacraments a lot more), but it is true that the late-medieval sacramental system was overly formulaic and commodified to the point of creating a culture of works-righteousness that interfered with the Holy Spirit’s reign over the church.

Today we have a new Pelagian problem. Just as sacraments were good but became a stumbling to the medieval Catholic church, doctrine is a good thing, but it has become a stumbling block to Calvinist Protestants in particular. The form that Pelagianism has taken in our time is doctrinal rather than sacramental. Doctrinal Pelagianism is the belief (often vehemently denied and/or unacknowledged but confirmed in practice) that we earn our salvation by believing the right doctrine about Christ. If the hyper-Calvinists really believed what they say they believe about divine predestination, they would have no compulsion to argue other people into their doctrinal perspective, because God has presumably already decided their fate and whether or not people change their minds about their doctrinal views shouldn’t make any difference. In other words, hyper-Calvinist behavior reveals an unstated and unacknowledged functional belief at play underneath the officially professed predestinarian doctrine.

What Marc Carpenter and his ilk demonstrate is that their version of earning salvation consists in taking the most radically unpalatable doctrinal position possible. That is the works-righteousness of doctrinal Pelagianism: believing “hard truths” that are unacceptable to the “anything goes” perspective of the postmodern world as well as lukewarm Christians who refuse to “stand against” the world. The “work” that Carpenter is doing to earn his salvation is a sort of faux martyrdom in which he solicits others’ attacks by saying ridiculous things like Billy Graham is going to hell because he wasn’t vociferous enough in proclaiming the damnation of Hindus.

Jesus does say in John that “the world will hate you because you are my disciples.” What He doesn’t say is that by making the world hate you (however you do it), you earn the right to call yourself my disciple. Just because Fred Phelps, the “God hates fags” preacher, is more hated than any other preacher in America doesn’t mean by some bizarre logic that he’s more fervently proved his loyalty to Christ than any other preacher. Christians like Phelps and Carpenter are simply at the most extreme end of a scale of doctrinal loyalty through anti-worldliness that many conservative evangelical Christians use to evaluate the status of their salvation without recognizing that they are doing so. The reason that doctrinal Pelagianism is so pernicious is because it creates the political power games of doctrinal loyalty tests. The self-promotional doctrinal infighting that goes on in the Christian blogosphere is at least as blasphemous to God’s name and as big a waste of God’s time as the scandalous indulgence sales were in the 1500′s. The reason a doctrinal Pelagian cannot fathom the possibility of any theological diversity within Christian orthodoxy whatsoever is because he needs to know that he’s right in order to feel saved, which is  exactly the kind of dangerous spiritual insecurity we are supposed to be saved from.

The sad comedy is that the whole point of justification by faith is to clip the wings of our egos and keep us from being snippy, argumentative demagogues. Ephesians 2:8-9 provides the best summary of the true Biblical doctrine of justification by faith: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” That last clause needs to be in bold-face in a larger font than the rest of the text in every Bible. God’s whole purpose in making salvation something that we cannot earn but only receive as a gift is to prevent us from becoming the people who damn everyone to hell who disagrees with them. So to put it in 21st century text-speak, hyper-Calvinism = complete justification-by-faith FAIL!

So are there fruits of spiritual regeneration that show we belong to Christ? YES! By all means! But we don’t need to make these fruits out to be the assented propositions of some extra-Biblical doctrinal system that uses as many tough-sounding words like total depravity, penal substitution, and infinite wrath as possible. Paul gives us a listing of the fruits of our regeneration in Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” These fruits have nothing to do with the particulars of our doctrine; they have to do with the spiritual dispositions we exude in our treatment of others. Now our doctrine is not unrelated to this. But what I would contend is that whatever doctrine results in the cultivation of the fruits of the Spirit is for that reason the right doctrine. Heresy is whatever doctrine produces the poisonous fruit of un-Christlike behavior, no matter how many Biblical proof-texts it can claim. Orthodoxy (right teaching) is confirmed by orthopraxis (right practice). See my post on this specific topic. The reason why the doctrine of justification by faith is so important and worth defending is, because without it, Christians become snotty brats who are utterly useless to the Savior who wants to incorporate us into His body.

So the next time you’re absolutely sure you’re right about something theological and you’re sure that the person you’re arguing with is not only wrong but bound for eternal damnation, then take a look at Galatians 5:22 to examine whether you are indeed regenerate. Maybe you need to pray Jesus back into your heart again (I’ve had to do that quite often myself). Of course being a Wesleyan, I’m not worried about the number of times I’ve had to say that prayer and which time it “counted,” because I know it’s a prayer that God will never lose patience with.

[Note: if I just used too much shorthand and jargon for you to know what in the world I'm talking about, my apologies. I can explain in more depth if you're interested. Otherwise sorry to have bored you with seminarian dribble-drabble.]