Middle Knowledge Thursday, Feb 26 2009 

I first came across the term “Middle Knowledge” only a couple of years ago. To put it in simple terms, this is basically the view that God’s omniscience encompasses things which — from our time-bound perspective — we would call counterfactuals. In other words, if I’d come straight home from work today instead of going to the grocery store first, what would I have done? What would I be doing now? If I’d added political science as a second major as an undergrad instead of linguistics, what would I have done after graduation? Etc.

I read about this in the context of a book on theology from the Arminian perspective, so I took this as a typical part of Arminian theology. Indeed, although pulling yourself out of the space-time continuum is quite a mind stretch, I think having Middle Knowledge as part of Arminian theology makes a lot of seeming contradictions go away. How does man choose God, but God chose man first? Because God created the particular world that would eventually lead to that man choosing God. Why do I give God all the ultimate glory and credit for something I physically did myself (ie., God didn’t supernaturally swoop down and do it for me)? Because He is ultimately responsible for every single factor that led to my success. The first time I heard about the Middle Knowledge concept, and thought it through a bit, I was overwhelmed by a sense of God’s omniscience and omnipotence, simply His greatness, in a way I probably hadn’t been in a long time (it’s easy to take that for granted as a long-time Christian). And, I suppose it’s something I’d always believed, but never really thought about it, certainly never thought through its implications.

So, I never really thought about whether Calvinists believe in Middle Knowledge. Recently though I came across this blog post, which provides a lengthy quote from noted Calvinist RC Sproul which indicates it is indeed a part of Calvinism. And, with only a half-second’s thought, it makes sense. This basically gets at the omniscience of God, and I certainly don’t believe orthodox Calvinists believe in any less (or more) of an omniscient God than orthodox Arminians do.

I suppose, then, it’s in the implications of Middle Knowledge where we differ. It seems to me that M.K. is less impactful (which is not to say less glorious or awe-inspiring!) within Calvinism, because God’s choosing of man is viewed much more “directly,” if that’s the word. In Arminianism, even if you apply M.K. in quite a deterministic way, you still have God permitting man a genuinely free choice (=he could have decided otherwise, but God, not bound by time, knew exactly which choice he would make in the particular world He created), whereas in Calvinism “freedom” is redefined to entail someone “freely” choosing what God has decreed he choose.

Just something I’ve been thinking about lately. As always, I’m looking forward to the day when we’re seated at Jesus’s feet and he corrects all of us. “Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus!”

Arminianism, Calvinism, Non-Calvinism, and Perseverance Wednesday, Aug 6 2008 

I recently tried to post the following comment to a blog that wouldn’t allow posts unless you had a Google account. Because I spit on Google accounts (long story), I decided to write my own post.

BTW, Arminius himself never taught the possibility of apostasy, though he admitted he had some questions about it. (This according to an excellent book by Picirilli.) I stand very comfortably with Arminius here, and thus with the label (Orthodox or Reformed) Arminian. My chief concern is not the degree of comfort — we tend to be comforted most by what we already believe to be correct, it seems to me — but the weight of Scripture. And despite some passages (particularly the Hebrews one) that do seem to be saying believers can apostatize, I believe the weight of Scripture supports perseverance. And…I do find that more comforting!

The comment was in response to a post written and responded to by several Arminians who call themselves non-Calvinists and talk about their distaste for Arminianism. Why do they dislike “Arminianism” so (when they are clearly Arminian in belief)?

Could it be for the reasons Roger Olson cites in his book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, the highly inaccurate (and of course negative) portrayals of Arminian theology presented so often by Calvinists (probably often as not unintentionally, because that’s what they were taught too, without going back and reading orthodox Arminian works) — to the point that even some theologians began calling themselves “non-Calvinists” or “moderate Calvinists” or “Calminians” to avoid that label?

Could it be because esteemed Christian writers such as R.C. Sproul have compared the two by holding up people like Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeons as good examples of Calvinist leaders and people like Joel Osteen (and others I pay no attention to) as good examples of Arminian leaders?

Frankly I think for many of these folks it’s pretty simple — it’s all about the P. Arminians are the ones who think every time you sin you lose your salvation, right? Wow, no. Not at all. Not that I’m saying there aren’t a few out there who believe that — you can find a few out there who believe just about anything. (I have come across someone online whose comments I very much enjoy reading, who is a 4-point Calvinist whose missing 4th point is not the L but the P!) There are without a doubt many Arminians who don’t believe in P. I think it includes most Methodists. It includes some (I’m really unsure of the percentages) in the remaining orthodox Restoration Movement churches. I’m pretty confident it doesn’t include too many Baptists. If I had to guess, in fact, I’d say more Arminians believe in the security of the believer than not. Now, if you first asked all of America’s Christians to stick their hands up if they were Arminians, and only ask that crowd, you would get a much lower percentage of saying they hold to P.

I blame the close association of non-P with Arminian theology on John Wesley and Methodism. (I don’t mean that in a harsh way — it’s not like that was their goal!) It seems like really Christians who are not Calvinists but don’t want to be associated with non-P should say “I’m not a Methodist” or better yet “I’ll keep the P” — that would be more accurate.

“Moderate Calvinism” is bunk. It usually means keeping the “T” and the “P.” Two major problems — (1) “U” is the heart of Calvinism. If you don’t have Unconditional Election, you don’t have Calvinism. Period. Arminians believe in Conditional Election (the condition being faith). (2) Arminius — that’s right, the theologian after whom the theological understanding is named — also kept the “T” and the “P.” (I am going on Picirilli’s word here — I am not claiming to have gone back and read Arminius’s writings; I am not a theologian and don’t lose sleep at night over what people in the 16th or whatever century thought about the Bible. I’m not saying I have no respect for or curiosity about it — I’m saying I have a job and dishes to wash and can only read so many books. 🙂 )

Frankly, from just the quotes (sometimes lengthy) I have read from Arminius, I think many of today’s Arminians (perhaps especially those who are strongly anti-Calvinist) would read Arminius and reject him within a paragraph or two as too Calvinist. His rhetoric was virtually identical to Calvinist rhetoric — this was long before the days when (at least according to many Calvinists) only Calvinists believe in a sovereign God and when (sigh…according to many uninformed Arminians…who haven’t read their Bibles all the way through) predestination is a Calvinist fabrication.

“Calminianism”…goodness gracious. I definitely appreciate the spirit of unity that I presume lies behind such a label — we all need to yearn for Christian unity far more than we do now (another reason why heaven will be wonderful!). But this doesn’t embrace unity. It basically says “I’ll keep the P, and maybe the T.” This is not Calvinism. No “U” = no Calvinism. You know what it is? You guessed it. Arminianism.

There are definitely different streams of thought within both Calvinism and Arminianism, some are larger streams and some are little tiny brooks with just a few odd-looking fish in them. Neither is a monolithic system. Some of them I view as creeping to the edge of Christianity, if not already flying off it. I would include here Open Theism, which of course itself has several different streams and branches. Followers of OT would probably call themselves Arminian…and maybe they are, in that they reject the “U.” But they’re pretty far from Arminius’s views, and when I think of what Arminianism is I’m definitely not thinking of OT. Calvinists, BTW, have the same “problems” — the “father of liberal theology” was a Calvinist…and maybe he really was, if we mean that he accepted “U” (“U” in and of itself, BTW, does not rule out universalism).

None of this really matters, only one label (Christian!) is of real importance. And yet labels do remain important to us. Especially in times when “Christian” may be used to mean “I believe in God and I think Jesus had some cool things to say and, well, I’m not Muslim or Jewish.” And we can’t help but use labels to find people who think like us (thus proving how smart they are and how well they’ve studied their Bibles) and to distance ourselves from people who don’t think like us (thus proving how dumb they are, or how poorly they’ve studied their Bibles). I resisted labels for a long time. I knew I wasn’t a Calvinist, because I knew I didn’t believe in “U” or “L” (I was fuzzy on what exactly “T” and “I” meant in the Calvinist system at the time). But I really had no idea what Arminianism was. I never heard of it until one day discussing theology (basically U-L-I concepts) with a Calvinist friend I was told I was an Arminian. Huh? Well, okay, if you say so! She seemed to know more about the labels than I did. It was only when I read Picirilli’s book that I was able to really get a fuller picture of what the labels meant, and realize that I was in fact a “Reformed Arminian” (who stands with Arminius on “P,” unlike Picirilli, actually).

And that got me to thinking about the word “Reformed,” which was a new word to me as well. Why does “Reformed” tend to be used by Calvinists as a synonym for Calvinism? (I understand from a very interesting book by a Calvinist author that for some Calvinists there is in fact a distinction, but I don’t think this is a majority.) After all, what did Calvinists “reform” from? I’m pretty sure it was Catholicism — the error that had crept into and been enshrined in the Catholic Church. In any event it wasn’t Arminianism (both “Calvinist” and “Arminian” thought did long precede the Reformation — and oh how proponents of both love to argue over how their theology came first in church history! — as if that’s what proves it’s correctness). So shouldn’t “Reformed” be a synonym for “Protestant,” rather than “Calvinist”? It was my Reformation, too. It is a critical part of my (Arminian) church history, too. I am Reformed, too — I am not Roman Catholic; I believe in Bible only, Christ only, by faith through grace only. I reject indulgences, purgatory, the equivalence of any church culture and any mere human with the Word. If I am not Reformed…am I unreformed? Doesn’t that make me Roman Catholic, and an acceptor of indulgences, purgatory, etc.? And yet Arminians on the whole don’t seem too bothered by this. My friend’s church in Texas celebrates Reformation Day every year. How cool is that! Do any Arminian churches celebrate the Reformation? We should! It doesn’t mean we embrace Calvinism or TULIP. It doesn’t even mean we embrace everything Martin Luther believed. (He is inspiring and so much of what he wrote sounds exactly like what I hear in the pulpit and from other believers today, but he wasn’t perfect and I can’t agree with everything he said. He basically agreed with the Catholic Church on transsubstatiation [okay his view was closer to “consubstantiation,” but the point is his is not the view held by the vast majority of Protestantism], he at one point advocated bigamy, and he said some pretty anti-Semitic things during a later period of his life.) But all Protestants (and frankly all Catholics too — some things within Catholicism were cleaned up because of him) owe a great deal to the courage, faith, and persistence of Martin Luther and to other figures of the Reformation (Wycliffe, Hus, Zwingli…). My church did actually once recognize the anniversary of the 95 theses and sang “A Mighty Fortress” in honor of the event, but I’m pretty sure this is the closest any of my churches (all Arminian in theology) ever came to saying much about the Reformation.

So, this Christian (Reformed Arminian) gal is eager to honor the Reformation — to mourn the division and the violence but to celebrate the resulting freedom and the return to Scripture as the ultimate source of Truth.

I desire to ramble further but I more strongly desire to go to sleep. And my kitties more strongly desire to be fed. Good night and God bless you whether you are Arminian, Calvinist, or non-Calvinist and I just haven’t convinced you you’re really an Arminian. 😉 Can’t wait ’til all those labels disappear in heaven.

Olson on Calvinism & Arminianism Saturday, May 3 2008 

I don’t agree with Roger Olson on absolutely everything…but I come close. And man-oh-man, do I appreciate the tone in which he writes. We would all do well to emulate it. This is almost a decade old, but I just came across it today. The title is silly, but the article is a really good read.

One Person’s Definition of the -Isms Saturday, May 3 2008 

…those being Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism, Sublapsarian Calvinism, and Supralapsarian Calvinism.

The definitions are intended to simplify complex positions, and in some cases are perhaps pretty accurate, while in others…not so sure. I’ll give my reactions here, and Amy (the invite is for all — literally meaning all though I know all won’t respond…I’m just hoping Amy will 😉 — did you get my Calvinism/Arminianism joke?), I’m so curious to hear what you think! Especially since I’ve never quite gotten the supra/sub thing…why does Calvinism so prefer Latin terminology? These words are too difficult for me! 😉 Everything below should be understood to include the caveat “as best I understand,” to save me from writing it 10 times.

  1. Pelagianism looks pretty accurate to me (though I’m no expert). Pelagianism is generally held to be a heresy by all orthodox Christians, as far as I know…those who’ve heard of it anyway. 😉
  2. Semi-pelagianism — mostly accurate, though I don’t think the semi-Pelagian view is that man (or Matt) does any struggling, as this implies “work” — semi-pelagianism is generally understood to be within Christian orthodoxy, but a works-based salvation would negate that. The distinctive of semi-Pelagianism is that the corruption resulting from the fall does not prevent from being able to choose Christ. I read one article presenting a biblical defense of this position, and I have to say it was a fairly good argument (surprisingly so to me, actually, since this is not my view…ah, well, if we could not put up good biblically defensible views of these positions then this debate among believers would not have lasted all this time, would it?) Anyway, I feel pretty confidant that “God helps those who help themselves” is Pelagian, not semi-Pelagian. It is definitely a man-first, God-second saying. Or really, if we think about how we typically use this phrase, it is a man-only, God as passive witness saying. Yikes, that’s not even Christianity.
  3. Arminianism — Totally missing here is the Reformed (or Orthodox, or Classical, as you like) Arminian concept of prevenient grace. In other words, Matt was unconscious (too corrupted by the fall to seek God on his own), then George brings him back to consciousness — I don’t know how but then “George” is just a dude and not an omnipotent God (prevenient grace offered to all), and then we can continue with the second Arminian analogy. The only difference between #1 and #2 is Matt grabs hold of George while George pulls, or Matt just lets George pull. I’m not sure there’s a big difference, but I guess it depends out whether you mean Matt is straining his muscles in his “grabbing hold of”. No Reformed Arminian would say man strains his muscles in choosing Christ. I like Roger Olson’s analogy of endorsing a check — man doesn’t earn the money for the check, print the check, issue the check, deliver the check, or pay out the check, he merely endorses it. Thus the real, fundamental difference between Orthodox Calvinism (which also requires man’s responsibility to “endorse the check,” and this is not a “work” in either system — it is faith) and Orthodox Arminianism is whether God provides prevenient grace enabling all to choose Him or He has provided effectual grace to a limited number based not on man’s free will choice but on something known only to Him. This is in one sense a very tiny difference and in once sense an enormous difference. I am convinced that Un/Conditional Election is the only real (substantive) difference between the two systems, and that all other differences flow from that one. But back on topic, I think neither definition here is quite right, and I think the first one is actually close to semi-Pelagianism.
  4. Sub-lapsarianism — I don’t think this one is quite right either. The part that I think mischaracterizes Calvinism is the word “if” — “if Matt starts to resist.” My understanding of the Calvinist interpretation of T is that all men will resist if left to their fallen nature, so all men require “the morphine shot.” That is of course the Reformed Arminian position as well, the difference being, again, whether the morphine shot is (a) available to all and of such nature (I don’t say strength because it’s not an issue of the strength of God’s grace — all Orthodox Christians agree God is powerful enough to do anything He chooses to — it’s an issue of the nature or type of grace, cf. God’s “will” — He wills that all are saved but we know that not all are saved) that some will accept its effects, allowing themselves to be pulled out, while others will merely thrash about and resist their rescue OR (b) available unconditionally to a select number, in whom it is of such nature that all who receive it will come to the surface and be rescued, while those who do not receive it never regain consciousness in the first place.
  5. Supra-lapsarianism (you don’t know how hard it is for me to type these strange words!) — I think this one pretty accurately portrays a common Arminian *perception* of Calvinism, but I don’t think any Calvinist would accept it as accurate. It paints God as…well…Munchausen-by-proxy comes to mind, that psychiatric disorder whereby parents deliberately give their children illnesses so they can comfort and save them. There may be Calvinists out there who do view God this way, but I’m pretty sure they’re on some far-flung fringe (just like there are some “Arminians” out there who believe in open theism and so forth — I don’t claim them and I’m sure Orthodox Calvinists wouldn’t claim someone who held this view as presented here). Formal Calvinist theology is very “into” ordering things, and I think this is where the sub/supra thing comes in. Is it really that big of a difference from Sub? I must profess ignorance, though I’m sure this definition is biased in presentation, even if not entirely inaccurate. Can someone (read: Amy) clear it up? I haven’t heard you say much about the sub/supra thing but I’m sure you know more about it than I do. (Hah, but maybe we’ll have talked about it by phone by the time you see this!)

And, BTW, perhaps formal Arminian theology digs ordering things too, and I just haven’t come across it yet. When I start reading all these different ordering lists (I don’t mean sub/supra, but the long ones with 6 or 10 items) my head starts to spin. It reminds of what my former preacher once said about his millennial position — he was promillenial — for it, or pan-millennial — it’ll all pan out in the end. Lest you think this was too glib, he did have views on all this, he was making the point that this isn’t something to obsess over much less argue over — God will take care of it in whatever way He chooses. I kind of feel the same way about the ordering schemes I’ve seen — wow, I’m in Christ — how I got that way, how I stay that way and in what order it all happened…I’ll leave the specifics to God and marvel in his mercy and power. Besides, sometimes I really wonder about the point of what order something divine happens in when the Divine Being is outside of time (in my view — I did actually recently read an argument from an Orthodox Christian that God does not exist outside of time — I can’t agree but it was an interesting read).

My, my, my, there’s nothing like having a blog to be able to ramble to one’s heart’s content. 😉

And lookee! Smiley faces appeared!

Baby Dedications, Baptisms, & Initiation Rites Wednesday, Apr 30 2008 

Oh, my, why am I not in bed yet??!!

Because Marc’s (2005!!) posts at “Purgatorio” are so darn interesting and thought-provoking.

So, to set this up (of course Amy’s the only one who might actually read this…and you already know where I stand on all these issues!), I am, I suppose, a “credobaptist,” a term I only learned from that post, much like I only learned I was an “Arminian” from my dear friend Nicole (aka Burt) who is a Calvinist. I use quotes when applying such terms to me as I really don’t care for labels other than “Christian.” (Quotes there because writing about the word rather than using it.) But, distaste for labels aside, it’s silly to pretend I’m not a credobaptist or (Reformed/Orthodox [to be specific]) Arminian when those terms do pretty well encapsulate what I understand the Bible to teach. Credobaptist, apparently, means believers’ baptism as opposed to infant baptism (paedobaptism, a term I actually was familiar with!). But I don’t get the credo-part, as I’m not a big fan of creeds. Restoration Movement influence.

Anyway, I DIGRESS. I find no Scriptural evidence for infant baptism, and really don’t understand the common Calvinist (or “covenantal” which I think is exclusively Calvinist???…though I’m not sure since as I said I still really don’t understand it) belief that there is a special covenant for the children of believers — in fact I would think that within Calvinist theology the children of believers are no more (or less) likely to be elect than the children of non-believers, whereas I would think that Arminian theology would make one likely to expect that children of believers might be more likely to be part of the elect. Though truthfully I’ve never much thought about this with the Arminian hat on… Probably this just reflects my “Arminian” inability to grasp something that seems very obvious and logical to a Calvinist, much the same as many others have a “Calvinist” inability to grasp some tenet of Arminian understanding that seems obvious and logical to an Arminian.

I have wasted a lot of words, though, on late-night meanderings that were not my point at all. In a book I recently read, there was a fascinating article on church initiation rites. The comments on this blog post raised questions about baby dedications. Some were opposed because they think the baby should be baptized/sprinkled, one wrote (rather obnoxiously, I thought…is it obnoxious to say that?) that this was replacing a covenant between God and the baby with a covenant between man and they baby and God as an afterthought, or something like that. I have to confess to a little eye-rolling. But some of the posts were pretty interesting! Some were opposed, or questioning, for more interesting reasons. And, because we also don’t read about baby dedications in the Bible, is it not right to question why we do them, and whether we should do them?

Baby dedications are an initiation rite. It’s probably not what we’re thinking about when we do them, but from a sociological standpoint, I think that’s probably the real reason. The first Christians were not children. There weren’t bodies of believers with babies born into them as there are now. But as Christian communities grew and the “second generation” were born, according to the thesis of the book noted above, a need for an initiation rite was felt. The Jewish community had (and still has) this; I think this is a kind of parallel that people who believe in covenantal theology note.

Initiation rites are OK, I guess…as long as we understand what we believe is being initiated. I think…I hope…that everyone understands that “baby dedication” doesn’t save anybody. The same cannot be said of infant baptism. I was privileged to be present at an Anglican church christening at the Falls Church — the first time I’d ever seen infant baptism. I was so curious to see how they presented it. They had some literature on baptism in the bulletin that seemed very Biblical — they practiced both infant and believer’s baptism, and they made clear that infant baptism did not indicate salvation. But as each baby was sprinkled, the priest said something along the lines of “we welcome this child into the Church.” Unless he meant the physical premises of the building (?!) that sounds to me like “we now pronounced you saved/a believer.” Confusing, and I’ve been going to church all my life and am fairly familiar with the Bible and Christian theology. So, looking at it merely as an initiation rite, I prefer baby dedication because it is far less likely to confuse the parents, the parents’ family members in attendance, and the congregation at large about whether this rite has made this infant a Christian. And it’s certainly less likely to be confused with the Biblical commandment for believers to be baptized (every single recorded example of which is a believer’s baptism).

Other than an initiation rite, what are the nice things about baby dedication? Hmmm…Mom & Dad get to show off their beloved little baby to their church family. They publicly proclaim that they will raise this child in a Christian home and do their best to instill their beliefs and values — a kind of public commitment, like a wedding ceremony as one commenter noted. And, in this case “parent dedication” may in fact be the more appropriate term! In some congregations (including the Falls Church) the congregation is also asked to affirm that they will support the parents in their efforts as well — a nice sentiment, and a reminder that all members of that body whether they themselves have children or not have a responsibility to the children in their church family. It is an opportunity to teach about what baptism is (and is not) and what salvation is…especially when there may be non-believing church members in the congregation. I’m sure there are other nice things, but, gasp, it’s nearly 2 AM.

All in all, I see nothing wrong with baby dedications, though we do certainly have a responsibility to ensure we are clear about what is taking place. There is no “Go ye therefore and dedicate your babies” in Scripture, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it — there’s neither a “Thou shalt not dedicate thy babies.” There are lots of elements of our church services that aren’t specifically laid out in Scripture. But I do think these are the things we need to stop and question ourselves about, lest we forget we are the Scripture-Only people of the Reformation. And this one I must admit I’d never thought about before!

And, as a brief and hopefully thought-provoking note, the article noted above also talked about as forms of initiation rites: the sinner’s prayer, the card a new member/new believer may be asked to fill out, the experiential salvation testimony, the…guilty bench? (was that it?), and I think a couple of other things I’m too tired to remember. I found it really fascinating stuff!