So you think you have free will?

I’ve been thinking again, this time about the nature of free will as it applies to salvation (following up on my last post)–specifically, the concept of universal salvation. The basic Christian concept of universal salvation, that is, the concept of universal salvation in the context of Christianity, is that Christ died for all. There are a number of Bible passages that would support this, including:

This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…

1 Timothy 2:3-6

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…

John 3:16

and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

2 Corinthians 5:15

To name a few.

back to free will

The fact that not all agree with the concept is pretty obvious, and there are reasons for those disagreements. My personal assessment is that the “ayes” outweigh the “nays,” but that’s beside the point (for now).

Believing that God will “save” everyone, whether they like it or not, logically means that free will when it comes to salvation is illusory. I should mention that Calvinists also teach that whether you are saved or not is solely up to God’s will, but that He only chooses to save some. (This ugly teaching is, I believe, based on some very evil theology, but that, too, is an issue for another time.)

It is natural for us, especially those born into the Cartesian, Western world, to have a viscerally negative response to this concept. What do you mean, we don’t control our own destiny? How can God be so presumptuous? We are not puppets!

Now, both philosophers and scientists have been dealing with this issue of free will on secular levels, which is interesting, but not necessarily relevant to this discussion, as we’re dealing specifically with God’s will versus man’s will. (Clue, I think God has the advantage here.) So, let’s set aside the question of whether what we have for breakfast is a choice or scripted by either God or genetics.

The issue of whether or not we have the freedom to choose to be “saved” or not needs to be viewed in the context of a few undeniable truths:

  • We had absolutely no say in our own birth. None. We all were incepted, and about 9 months later, hello world.
  • We did not choose our parents. Seriously. Totally out of our hands.
  • We didn’t have any say on when we were born. You could have been a cave dweller, but instead, you have iPhones.
  • We had no input into where we were born. Proud to be an American? You had nothing to do with it.
  • Ditto with race. Proud to be white? You should be thankful.

And the list goes on. Who you are, whether due to God’s specific input or genetics based on a totally random sperm making it first to an egg (I mean, think of the odds), was handed to you at birth.

So, already free will not in the race. Later on, we start being faced with choices. And now, the philosophical and scientific questions arise–what part of our choices are still tied to genetics?

Free what?

I personally (or impersonally) believe that we have a great deal of free will (and the philosopher in me asks, “is this belief programmed?”). And what about universal salvation? What if I don’t want to go to Heaven (for lack of a better term)?

I think of it this way: We are told that we live in an imperfect world, because mankind chose to exercise free will. So, God allows that, because it was our choice. He also allows the natural consequences of our choices to exist (war, hunger, etc.). But God has promised to put things right, by saving not only all of mankind, but creation itself. Why shouldn’t we all benefit from that?

The word for salvation, or saving, essentially means rescue. What would you think of a God who says he will only rescue a few that He picks? Or only those who ask the right way? Food for thought.

I think of salvation as healing. Jesus once asked a lame man, “Do you want to be healed?” The man may not have been sure; presumably, he made his living by begging, and laying near a spring that supposedly had healing powers. It was a good question… did he want to be healed, or did he really want to continue as he was? Maybe he didn’t know, or didn’t even have the capacity to choose at that point.

It’s something to think about. Do we want rescue/saving/healing? Do we even know, without being healed first?

When it comes right down to it, I think free will is highly over-rated.

Will the real Christian please stand up?

Christianity is weird

Christianity is a weird religion. I know, I’ve been a part of it for nearly 65 years. And don’t give me that “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship” crap–it’s a very real religion by any standards. And, it’s chock full of really weird people, who believe some really weird things. My goal, over the last several years, has been to de-weird it.

Actually, Christianity more than one religion, if you want to get right down to it. There is no way, for example, to look at the Eastern Orthodox churches and any American fundamentalist church and conclude they were the same religion. Yet, each considers themselves to be Christian (and would perhaps doubt the status of the other).

And beyond that, it’s clear to perhaps most non-Christians that Christianity is weird, but for many different reasons. From a modern perspective, the Eastern church as well as the Roman Catholic Church are weird due to their rituals, incense and chanting, and their apparent idolatry of odd paintings. The Protestant movement created new weirdness by making up their own rules and throwing out the books of the Bible they didn’t like. As the protestant church evolved into various streams of fundamentalism, evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and postmodernism, the rules changed even more.

Besides the rules, beliefs changed as well. Many contemporary churches don’t “confess” the historic creeds, and many contemporary church members (I’ll avoid the ‘C’ word for now) couldn’t even tell you what they are. Many are actually down-right heretics in what they believe about the nature of God. And trying to get any consensus on what the Bible means, or even is, is out of the question. It’s my guess that no 1st Century Christian would claim any evangelical church as Christian.

So how can Christianity be considered one religion? The only real commonality is a belief that there was a man named Jesus who was (more or less) the son of God (whatever that means), who taught a lot of good things and was crucified for either political, religious, or prophetic reasons. And, all hold that the Bible is important, was inspired to some extent (with the exception of those several books which are only accepted by half of the church), and may or may not be inerrant.

A little history

According to Acts 11:26, the disciples were first called “Christians” in Antioch, where the church was rapidly growing. The word translated as “Christian” is “Christianus’ (English spelling) of a Greek word with a Latin suffix. The resulting word literally means “belonging to Christ,” denoting a possession / slave. The name was obviously adopted by the church as they thought it was appropriate.

So, who were these Christians? Did they accept the creeds of the church? No, because they hadn’t yet been written. So, did they believe the trinity? Probably not. In all likelihood, they were nearly all heretics by today’s standards, or even 4th Century standards. They probably had not contemplated the dual nature of Jesus (fully God and fully man), and some may not even have believed Jesus was “of the same substance as the Father.” Oh, dear.

In the 4th Century, various conflicts had arisen about the nature of Jesus (was he God or not?), so in 325AD what is known as the Nicean Council was held with all of the church leaders. They discussed, and argued, and at least one fist-fight broke out. At the end, they had drafted what is now known as the Nicean Creed, which stated the acceptable belief of the one universal church. Until that time, perhaps 1/3 of the church members were heretics, by post-Nicean standards.

“It’s the question that drives us”

So, were they, in fact, Christians? Or, in today’s evangelical parlance, were they “saved?”

This, then, begs the question: by what standard do we judge who is or who isn’t a Christian/saved?

As with many things Christians, it depends who you ask. Note that these are over-simplified summaries; please feel free to correct me on any points.

  • Eastern Orthodox: First, Orthodox theology does not translate well into western, modernist thought. That being said, the basic teaching of the Orthodox is that they are the only true Church, and that there is no salvation apart from the Church. Salvation is by grace, which comes through the sacraments (baptism, eucharist, etc.), and by cooperating with grace in doing good works. It’s a lifelong process, and there are no guarantees should one turn away from the Orthodox Church or faith.
  • Roman Catholic: The first splinter group, the RCC claims that it is the one, true, apostolic church, and that salvation comes through Jesus, the head, through the body, the church. This is through the sacraments, baptism, confession, and communion (eucharist). Non-catholics can be saved, but only because they are ignorant of the truth.
  • Lutherans: Lutherans believe, as taught by Martin Luther, than other we are saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ. Grace comes through faith, supplemented, as it were, by baptism and communion. Works do not add to our salvation. Salvation is available to all men, regardless of church membership.
  • Calvinism: Calvinists come in various stripes, but all believe that the saved are predestined. One cannot be saved if they weren’t predestined, but rather being saved is proof that you were predestined. There are disputes as to whether some are predestined for hell. In Calvinism, one can only be sure of their chosen status by persevering to the end (“eternal insecurity”).
  • Evangelicals: This is a large, hodge-podge of groups, which can include Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, and most non-denominational groups. Typically, there is a rejection of predestination, and a belief that an individual needs to be converted from a sinful state to a Christian, by making a personal choice and confession of faith, followed by baptism (this order is important). There are disagreements about whether one can lose their salvation, or if they are “once saved, always saved.”

Now what?

So, how do we know that someone is a Christian? Is it because someone prayed a prayer “accepting” Jesus, or because they are a baptized member in good standing of a church? Is it someone who simply believes the right things? Or, is it something else?

Is, in fact, being “saved” and being a Christian the same thing?

The Bible contains some interesting passages, like this one from 1 John:

Beloved, love one another, for love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

1 John 4:7,8

Or this one, from Jesus:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:41-46

And there are plenty more texts which challenge many current beliefs about who (or who isn’t) being saved. Some read them exclusively, others see more inclusion. But, does this impact who is or isn’t a Christian?

Final thoughts

There are many from various diverse backgrounds, going back to the early church, who believe that “Heaven” (for lack of a better term) is available and open to all, including those who have believed differently than the standard Christian groups. Read the 1 John passage again, and think about it. Can a Jew, or a Buddhist, or a Muslim end up in Heaven if the love they show demonstrate that they “know God?”

I am one of those people who see a bigger salvation, a bigger God, a bigger love than the belief systems that focus on who doesn’t belong. However, I don’t believe that calling oneself a Christian has any meaning whatsoever in that respect.

If we go back to the original meaning of the word, I would propose that “Christian” applies to someone who belongs to, or is a slave of, Christ, regardless of whether they call themselves one or even believe in Jesus. James 2:19 says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”

“Christian,” then, would appear to be a functional or descriptive term rather than ontological. Or, we could say that the word “Christian” has a non-ontological meaning as well as an ontological one. I think with the way many who are labeled “Christians” act, we need to be aware of which sense of the word we are using, and not to confuse the two.

The key to knowing who is an ontological Christian, I propose, is that they demonstrate love and try to model their lives after the teachings of Jesus, as much as they are able. As the song goes, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Some have started to refer to themselves as “Red-letter Christians,” referring to those Bibles who put Jesus’ words in red. I find the term unwieldy, but I understand its use.

So does that mean that someone who claims to be a Christian but acts contrary to the basic teachings of Jesus not “saved?” I would never say that. God’s grace is unfathomable, and as 1 John 2:2 states, “He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.” All that we can say is certain words and actions do not reflect Christianity.

The Progressive Problem

“… progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be and if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” ~C.S. Lewis

I tend to relate to a lot of people who fall under the “progressive” Christian category, probably moreso that most other categories in current use.  I’m definitely not a fundamentalist, and am not a good fit in the contemporary evangelical category either (something which will be the subject of another post).  I’m too conservative to be liberal, and too liberal to be conservative.   And “moderate” is just too lukewarm-ish.   Like I said, I tend to relate the most to people who fall into the progressive category, but unfortunately I don’t belong there either.

The term “progressive” obviously comes from the root “progress,” and I guess that’s my issue.  I simply reject the enlightenment notion of progress.  A wise man once wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  I tend to believe that assessment. While progressives may be moving on from the status quo (which is usually the remnants of the last progressive movement), I don’t believe they are actually “progressing.”  Moving is not necessarily going forward, and not all evolution is a step forward.

Progressing implies improvement, or leveling-up, if you will.  Each generations progressive movement has moved away from the status quo of its day, but it’s debatable whether any such movement has actually moved forward, or if Christianity has actually gotten any better because of it. Luther’s Evangelical movement (which I do identify with) did not claim to be progressing, but the goal was to actually regress (i.e. reform) to the gospel evident in the New Testament that had been lost in years of Western nonsense. As the Lewis quote above indicates, moving backwards can be progress from a certain point of view. But, nothing that Luther taught was new, at least intentionally.  If a movement does, in fact, come up with something new and different, I would argue that it’s not progressive, it’s just possibly heretical.

There are some contemporary progressives which I think may be borderline heretics, having thrown out too many things with the bath water.  Perhaps more importantly, I think there are more than a few non-progressive evangelicals who are possible heretics as well–at the very least, they are terribly mistaken about a number of things.  Conservatives, for the most part, are those who hold on to yesterday’s progressivism. The thing I like the most about those under the current progressive banner is that they are willing to toss out the heresies of the status quo evangelicals, and in the process discover some of the attitudes and truths that were expressed by Jesus and the early church. But as far as becoming “a new kind of Christian,” that simply isn’t happening.

Jesus, and Paul, perhaps, were the only true progressives in that the revelation of Jesus was a new understanding of something old.  The Gospels, especially, are very progressive books, from Jesus’ interpretations of the Old Testament to how he viewed people.  Referring to the Law of Moses as “you have heard it said?” Refusing to judge sinners? Forgive, turn the other cheek? A Samaritan is your neighbor?   Then, of course, there’s Paul, breaking down racial, cultural and sexual barriers even further, and declaring the Law, for all practical purposes, dead.  I suppose, in that sense, anyone who follows this radical gospel of grace and reconciliation is a progressive, in that Christianity is itself the only true progressive movement. Humanity has always been going to hell in a hand basket, and we’re not any better or worse than at any prior age. However the New Covenant is the progression from the old, and sets the only way of true progress: redemption of creation and the full revelation of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the only way of true progress. Apart from this, mankind has not progressed at all, in spite of science, technology and knowledge.

I really dislike labels, but understand why they are necessary, or at least convenient. “Postmodern” was a very unfortunate term, and “emerging” was even more so. Postmodernism was post-nothing, and you can only be emerging for a moment before you become the past. As hard as people try, we can’t escape the past, or we risk following the flight path of Icarus. “Progressive” is somewhat unfortunate as it is a relative term; the challenge, it seems, is not defining “progressive,” but rather to define what it is you’re progressing from, and what you think you are progressing to.

I can’t claim to be a progressive, because I am not sure that I am in fact progressing. I’ve thought I was many times in my past, and I’ve spent a great deal of time doubling-back to venture out in a new direction, hopefully just a tad bit wiser. But, the only thing I can be really sure of is that I’m probably wrong about a great many things.

 

 

A Look at the Progressive Nature of Western Christianity

I’ve been thinking lately about the concept of Progressive Christianity; not necessarily about any current person or group using the designation, but just about the concept. There are some Christians who proudly refer to themselves as Progressives, to distinguish themselves from the staid, Evangelical Status Quo. There are others, such as the aforementioned evangelical Status Quo, who use the word perjoratively in reference to the liberals who would destroy the SQ (Status Quo) and Christianity As We Know It.  

The truth of the matter is, western Christianity is progressive. Evangelicals, today’s SQ,  were once the progressives. Today’s progressives may be tomorrow’s SQ.  The fundamentalists, believe it or not, were once the progressives. Calvinists were progressives, Lutherans were progressives, and Roman Catholics were once progressives.

What this means is that Christianity As We Know It in the West includes many beliefs that are later inventions. I think it safe to say that the New Testament Christians would not recognize today’s church or it’s teachings. And, ironically, many contemporary progressives are merely rejecting many of these relatively late-breaking beliefs which were at one time rejected by the existing church. 

Here are a few examples of commonly-held beliefs which are later inventions & additions, which much of the contemporary evangelical church accepts as “orthodox”:

  1. Dispensationalism and the Rapture
  2. Biblical Innerancy
  3. Literal readings of Genesis, Revelation, and other passages
  4. Rejection of infant baptism
  5. Predestination
  6. Original sin & total depravity
  7. Penal Substitution theory of atonement
  8. Accepting Jesus as your personal savior

There are more, but as you can see, these represent many of the key tenets of contemporary Evangelicalism.  And yes, they can all be traced to a specific point in church history, although attempts are made to support some of these from snippets of writngs from the church fathers.  

Original sin, for example, was a concept developed by Augustine, who also laid the foundation for total depravity and predestination.  Augustine’s teachings were not accepted by the majority of the church at that time, and he is only considered to be a “saint” by the Roman Catholic church (which split from the Eastern church in 1054).  The Eastern church doesn’t consider him a heretic, but many of his new ideas were rejected.

Penal Substitution was developed by Anselm (11th Century).  John Calvin further developed Augustine’s ideas of total depravity and predestination, and also affirmed Anselm’s penal substitution theory.  Doctrines such as Dispensationalism and the Rapture originated sometime in the mid-1800’s and were popularized by Scofield who included the teaching in notes in his study Bible. (The concept that Revelation was about the future was first taught by a Jesuit priest in the 16th Century.) Biblical inerrancy and literalism are also later developments, being positions adopted by fundamentalists and evangelicals in the 19th and 20th centuries.

With Christianity (especially Protestant Christianity) being progressive in nature, it’s interesting to note the various time periods where certain groups have stopped progressing and become vaious “status quos.” My wife uses the phrase “leaving the conversation.”  The Amish, for example, left the conversation at some point in the 1800’s, both culturally and theologically.  There are some Lutheran groups who left the conversation theologically at the creation of the Book of Concord, the collection of early Lutheran works that establish Lutheran doctrine. 

Some fundamentalist groups and Pentecostal groups left the conversation theologically in the early 1900’s, and culturally about 1946.  And, contemporary Evangelical churches that I’ve been visiting seem to have left the conversation in the 1980’s, and culturally and musically in the 90’s.

Many contemporary “progressives” may only be progressive in that they are casting off dead conversations, rediscovering things like the christus victor concept of atonement, creedal statements, and reading the Bible like the 1st Century Jews read the Old Testament. The voices of the past – the “great cloud of witnesses” – are still a part of the conversation.  

When you look at how Christianity has evolved over the years (to me, a more accurate word than “progressed,” which implies getting better), you have to ask yourself who the real progressives are.  Perhaps the progressives are really the ones who simply refuse to leave the conversation.