Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Christian Apostasy

Warning: I'm not advocating what I post in the next paragraphs, I'm only putting it out there as a possibility, as something to be considered. I just haven't thought enough about this proposal to dismiss it or promote it, but I do find it interesting and potentially helpful.

There are several troublesome passages throughout the New Testament, especially in Hebrews, but not limited to Hebrews, which offer stern warnings regarding the danger of apostasy. See, for example, Heb. 6:1-12, Heb. 10:26-31, 1 Cor. 15:2, 2 John 7-8, and also passages like Matt 10:22, 2 Tim 2:11-13, . How do we reconcile those passages with the seemingly contradictory claims of of the Bible that saints are eternally secure and will persevere (be preserved) till the very end? This encouragement comes from nearly all corners of the NT - from Peter (1 Peter 1:5),Paul (Rom. 8:30, Eph. 1:13-14, Phil. 1:6), John (1 John 5:13), and Jesus (John 6:38-40, John 10:27-29). How do we hold these things together in proper tension?

Some, from the Arminian/Wesleyan theological camp, argue that the warnings are indeed warnings to true Christians that they can forfeit their salvation through apostasy or continuing patterns of sin (some going so far as to say you loose your salvation every time you commit a willful sin). Thus, the warning passages are given tremendous weight while the comforting passages which emphasis security are given short shrift. Obviously, that is overly simplistic, but serves to set the contrast of the other views.

Some theologians from the Reformed standpoint (including Baptists) tend to emphasize the security side of the equation, explaining away the warnings in various ways. Some explain away the warnings of Hebrews as hypothetical warnings - "if you, as a believer, were to turn away from the faith, this would happen. If you, as a believer, were to keep on in your sinful ways, you'd be in deep trouble. It's not possible, but for the sake of argument, if it did, there'd be no hope for you." Others from Reformed camp explain the warnings against apostasy away arguing that those who fall away weren't really and truly Christians at all. They may have been upstanding members of the local church, but not of the invisible church. They weren't truly Christians, but only appeared to be so.

There's other variations on those above positions. I don't think I've ever held the first (Wesleyan/Arminian) position - not even in my unReformed wandering years. The second position which was presented only in brief (and caricature form) above has been/is my position. Today (5/31/11), however, I heard a third position that I think demands some attention. Doug Wilson argues that you can't simply explain away the warning passages, but you can't neglect those passages which promise security either. The solution: realize that the Bible is speaks in two different ways about being a Christian.

There are those who are apart of the covenant community of the church. They are Christian in this sense - they bear the marks of the covenant, meaning they have been baptized and partake of the Lord's Supper. They participate in the corporate life of the covenant community.

But, there is another sense which we can't ignore if we are to make sense of the biblical tension. This other sense we can term the 'decreetal' sense. Those who are Christians in the decreetal have been elect (predestined) before the foundation of the world, find their way into the covenant community by God's providence and are kept from falling by God's providence. They are 'in Christ' by God's eternal decree.

Here's why understanding these two senses is important. Those who are Christians in the covenantal sense are truly Christian in some sense, but not necessarily Christian in the decreetal sense. Therefore, when they are warned against falling away, it is a genuine warning. Don't loose what you have in the covenant community. If you do, you've lost something real and valuable. Those who believers in the decreetal sense cannot fall away, but since we aren't privy to the council and decrees of God, everyone must take these warnings seriously. Falling away is proof that though one may be a Christian in the covenantal sense, they were certainly not one in the decreetal sense.

To support his view, Wilson points again to two different kinds of metaphors in the Bible. There are those that talk of believers and unbelievers as 'ontologically different'. So, Peter can refer to unbelievers as sows and dogs (not sheep). Jesus can refer to them as goats (not sheep), or as tares (not wheat). Though they can be washed up, they aren't changed from a pig to a sheep; though they are in the same field, they aren't of the same seed. These metaphors which point to the ontological difference between believers and nonbelievers is viewing them from a decreetal perspective. Some are elect, others are not.

On the other hand, other metaphors can view believers and unbelievers as of the same stock, but different with regards to fruitfulness. So Jesus can refer to branches being broken off and tossed aside. There isn't a distinction between the branches kept and those lopped off except that one is fruitless and the other fruitful. This is a view from a covenantal perspective.

I want to do a lot more thinking and reading on this perspective. As I see it now, this understanding seems to 1) value the church as the covenant community - it is something valuable and real, 2) take the warnings against falling away seriously, 3) fits those warnings with the passages promising preservation by God in a healthy way. This understanding does flow from a controversial movement called Federal Vision, hence my reservations about recommending it wholesale. I'm honestly out of the loop on this, but it's a hot button issue in the Presbyterian Church of America. I'm open to thoughts, suggestions for further readings, push backs, etc.

Here's a short interview with Doug Wilson on this issue:

Perseverance of the Saint and Apostasy from Canon Wired on Vimeo.


Tim said...

Yikes. So how do I know if I'm just a run-of-the-mill covenental Christian or one of these special-elect decreetal Christians?

But seriously, this is the first I've heard of this position – and maybe it's just a lack of knowledge about it, but I find it quite disturbing.

In the Christian faith we're often called to believe in two truths that, to us, seem to be diametrically opposed. God is three. But he's also one. Jesus is man. But, oh yeah, he's also God.

We don't take these truths and try to reconcile and hybridize them -- Jesus wasn't half-man, half-God -- he was somehow both fully man and fully God.

I'll be the first to admit I don't understand how to reconcile predestination with the idea of supported by scripture. But I think it can be dangerous to try to shoehorn the ideas together so they're able to be contained in our human minds.

This explanation, which seems to suggest that there are two tiers of Christians, seems a bit scary to me. But, if I'm misunderstanding his position, please let me know!

Tim said...

Left out a word...

"I'll be the first to admit I don't understand how to reconcile predestination with the idea of free will supported by scripture."

Dan Waugh said...

I understand your reluctance to 'shoehorn' truths together. However, our belief that God is a God of truth and not of lies, and that the Bible is truth and doesn't contradict itself compels us to ask, 'how can these two strands of teaching both be true?'

Even with the person of Christ, we put those things together affirming Christ was one person with two natures, not two people, not a person with a mixed nature. We reconcile the two truths together as friends.

The question of assurance is tough. We're taught that if we believe in Christ, we know we're saved. There's some Scripture to support that, but there's other places where were taught to examine our faith and test its genuinness, to make our calling and election sure. Till we've endured till the end, our assurance will be less than perfect (I believe).

Again, I don't want to advocate Wilson's position too hard, but there are plenty of Scriptures that teach that not everyone who identify themselves with Christ are actually his - some are goats. John says those who departed from us showed they weren't truly of us (though they thought they were for a time). Even in the parable of the sower/seed, many of the seed show signs of life and sprout, only to wither or get chocked out - images of people who identify with the church, but don't persist in belief.

Where Wilson differs with many is that he'd say those people were Christians in some sense. Others would say that though they were baptized, a part of the church, they weren't Christians in any sense.

Tim said...

Thanks for the quick response there, Dan.

And yes, I wholeheartedly agree with your first paragraph. I knew I should have put a caveat in there saying "... that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to reconcile and understand these truths." But we should avoid "forcing" them to fit.

Anyway, on to the meat: I'm prone to agree much more with what you've written in your response here than with Wilson. Granted, I haven't read his original source material, but your point about sheep and goats is well taken and addresses the dichotomy better than suggesting there are "tiers" (my word) of Christians.

Maybe your next song of the week should be "Sheep go to Heaven," by Cake.

Dan Waugh said...

If I understand Wilson correctly, the only difference between how I explained sheep and goats and how he would explain it is that he'd say (and I'm prone to agree) that the goats were Christian in some sense. They self-identified as Christians, probably received baptism and the Supper, went to church, etc. But they weren't Christians in another sense - they didn't receive eternal life, they hadn't been regenerated and had their hearts changed by the Spirit showing they weren't of the elect.
Make sense.

Keith said...

Dan and Tim,

Sometimes I get more out of the comments on Dan's posts than from the original post itself (no offense, Dan!) The spirited dialogue here is a perfect example.

Big caveat: I'm no theologian. My thoughts are my own, and are often poorly founded, but I can't deny that I've thought them.

As a young adult that was raised in the shadow of Calvin College, you can understand that I gravitate toward an understanding of election...but maybe don't know why. It's like a favorite old quilt--I know I find it comfortable, but I'm not able to defend why it's so great.

With that context, I've wrestled with the teaching that Jesus' death on the cross was sufficient for all the sins of the world's sinners, but my warm blanket tells me that there are 'elect' or decreetal Christians. Isn't there room for the life of these decreetal Christians to have an impact on the world around them (I almost said 'us', how arrogant) and increase the spread of God's grace to those not decreed?

I actually find some comfort in Wilson's postulation. It allows for an inclusive truth larger than I'm able to comprehend--which is consistent with most of God's revleaded truths to this point in my life.

I really like your pursuit of marrying the Parable of the Sower and the Sheep and Goats. I know I'm being too literal, but if a seed shows signs and sprouts but has not the rooting to endure, does it not resemble a healthy plant while sprouted? And really, doesn't a goat look a lot more like a sheep than a serpent? Are the goats the last to be seperated from the sheep because they bear the closest likeness? Might the population of the world (at time of judgement) include other metaphorical species also? Those that are sorted more easily? Perhaps the Goats are the last to be discriminated because their lives resembled so closely the called life of a Christian, but their unwillingness to impact the needy world around them revealed an underlying, unchanged nature of self-interest rather than of Christ-interest.

I'm just sayin'...

harpazo said...

How can we be "falling AWAY from Christ", and be "gathered TO Christ" at the same time?


Dan Waugh said...

I think you're attraction to the doctrine of election is because it's biblical. I'm not trying to be cute, but the word elect and other words that convey similar notions (predestined, chosen, etc) are found throughout Old and New Testaments. It's just a matter of how one understands those terms - ie. on what basis is someone or some group elect?

I think you are right - there is room for the elect (decreetal Christans) to have impact on the world. Moreover, we aren't privy to who is elect and who is not. I think we preach the good news to all, knowing that God uses means to bring his people (the elect) into the church and salvation. The preaching of the gospel is the means he most often uses. We don't withhold from people for fear that they might not be elect (that was a controversy from long ago called hyper-Calvinism).

Your final paragraph is very interesting. Good thoughts for a non-theologian (if there is such a thing)!