From my last blog Theological Coherence (Theology matters) I compared the views of Calvinism and Arminianism briefly. I implied that these two positions essentially hold different views regarding the nature of man and the nature of sin. How we view mankind and sin will impact how we develop our theology.
It is my view that the bible doesn’t paint a positive picture of man. I would go so far as to say the bible really doesn’t have anything good to say about the nature of humanity at all. The bible lacks a certain egoism on the part of its authors to gloss over and sensationalize the attributes of the characters it portrays. The bible could have said all the good things about Solomon and his great wisdom and left out the part where he married all those wives that believed in false gods that ultimately led him astray. Solomon is quoted by many as being the wisest man that ever lived… Those who say this must not have read his biography very well. My point is that these facts are not hidden.
The biographer of King David said David was a man after God’s own heart. The biographer could have neglected to say that David was also an adulterous murderer with blood on his hands who was not permitted to build the Temple, but this embarrassing detail is not omitted.
One more example is that of Samson the Hercules of the bible. Why is Samson even mentioned? Samson was a violent, hedonistic womanizer. It appears at the end of his life he showed faith and acknowledged the Lord as the source of his great strength.
My point here is if you compare the bible to many of the religious texts of false religions both ancient and modern, and cults there is an absence of grandiose self-centredness. The bible doesn’t dress us up and make us look good.
What is clear is that we object to the idea that humanity is really that bad. We can acknowledge that there are bad individuals who do bad things, but our opinion of humanity and society is that it we aspire to do good. The positivist’s believe that we will overcome sickness and evil, that we will eventually solve life’s problems.
Some popular television programs over the decades have postulated the idea that in a progressive society where science and logic dominate, religion and faith will decrease or disappear altogether. However with the advent of postmodernism over the last decade or so who can be sure of anything? The point here is to say neither humanity or the future is really that good or positive, we are beyond the point of being that positive.
So how does this relate to man and sin you may ask? The bible both explicitly and implicitly implies that man is incapable of doing any real good either for himself or the culture and society he lives in. You may think that is a very pessimistic view, yes it is, but it is also an accurate commentary on much of what history tells us about man and his actions.
Many of the great thinkers and philosophers throughout history thought towards the future and a better society. Through history we as humans have experimented with their great designs politically, economically and even socially but as great as many of these ideas may have been how have we really improved on the person’s portrayed in the bible as great followers, thinkers and lovers of the Lord God? The simple answer is that in terms of morality and behavior we are exactly where we were the day Adam sinned. In other words our nature hasn’t changed since that moment in time. Improvement in technology and innovation, improvement in living standards and or even our treatment of others bears no reflection on our basic nature.
Where Calvinism and Arminianism are concerned the nature of man and the nature of sin are central themes for both positions, in fact they are essential elements of their theology. I would say the nature of man and his sin are part of the foundation from which both positions develop their theology.
One can’t address this however without first addressing the other foundational imperative which is Jesus Christ. The bible tells us that Jesus came to die for the sins of the world. Jesus is God who humbled Himself to becoming a man to die in our place to turn aside the wrath of God towards sinners so that we as sinners might receive forgiveness and enter into fellowship with God the Father once more. When Adam sinned, that sin effected all of creation. Adam’s disobedience became our disobedience, Adam’s sin became our sin and we were all cursed because of it. The punishment of that curse is death and separation from God and eternal life. Now however through Jesus Christ our sin has been dealt with. Through Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death on the cross we are once again able to enter into a relationship with the Father by confessing our sin and repenting of it and confessing faith in Jesus Christ as our savior. This is the central theme of all serious Christian doctrine and theology. Without Jesus as the object of our faith and without God the Father as the author of our faith we are dead in our sin, we have no hope.
This begs the question as to how far or how much sin has effected us and our nature. The debate between Calvinism and Arminianism on this one issue sets them apart even if one of these denies there is a difference. Both will agree that sins curse is death and separation from God. Both will agree that Jesus Christ is the solution that only through repentance can we receive forgiveness of our sins by placing our trust in what Christ has done for us. What they can’t agree on is whether sin makes us incapable of choosing to repent and believe without God first intervening through His Holy Spirit. Or if by the act of our own free will we can choose to repent and follow Jesus Christ. One view assumes that man can and does desire to please God and seeks Him out. The other view is that man left to himself without any intervention on God’s part will never seek God out and has no desire to please God but his happy to stay spiritually dead in his sin.
Both claim the bible as support for their arguments but seeing as they are antithetical (opposite) to each other can one draw a consistent argument from scripture for both positions? I can’t see how both can be true. Once more we need to return to the sources from which these views come from.
Pelagius appears to be the primary source of the view that man has free will to choose between right and wrong, good and evil. Without repeating what has been said in my previous blogs we can’t say for certain that Pelagius originated the idea of free will we can only cite him as our earliest source. What we do know is that Pelagius denied the idea of original sin, how he arrives at this conclusion we can’t fully know because not enough of his writings have survived for us to know this. Pelagius lived an extremely ascetic life style and was accused of teaching heresy that man could achieve salvation through his own good works. More recently Ian Bradley is his work The Celtic Way challenged this view denying Pelagius taught salvation by works. Bradley goes on to say that Pelagius’ view of free will was actually the orthodox position and held by Pelagius’ contemporaries as well. One has to criticize this claim because Bradley doesn’t say whom these contemporaries were only that there were others who agreed with Pelagius. The fact that others may have agreed with and defended Pelagius doesn’t make his view any more correct than millions of children believing in the tooth fairy makes that true.
Pelagius drew his view from Deuteronomy 24:16 which states, ” Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.” However in its context this verse is referring to servants and slaves and the idea of mercy not eternal punishment for sin. Contextually this verse does not support Pelagius’ assertion that we are only accountable for our own sins not the sins of Adam.
The view that Pelagius objected to was that of Augustine who upheld the doctrine of original sin and grace in Christ as the means of salvation. Augustine of Hippo before his conversion had been influenced by the Gnostic Manichaeism and also the Greek Philosophy Neo-Platonism developed by Plotinus. If these views had continued to influence Augustine as some still claim today we might have seen a very different Christianity emerge from the Patristic Era or Augustine would more than likely have been declared a heretic as Pelagius was.
This could very easily degenerate into a philosophical debate over the nature of man and sin. All kinds of subjective arguments can been drawn upon to support Pelagius’ free will position and his rejection of original sin. Although because Pelagius’ misuses scripture, in that his method was to proof text his argument rather than let scripture speak objectively and contextually I would accuse him of eisegesis. It is noted that Pelagius rejected the idea of original sin, was this before he discovered Deuteronomy 24: 16 or did he draw his conclusion afterwards? Of course we don’t know, but building a whole theology around a single verse is a very dangerous practice.
So where did Augustine draw his ideas from if not from the Gnostic’s and Greek philosophers? For one, original sin was not first postulated by Augustine. Augustine drew his thinking from Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons. Secondly Both Augustine and Irenaeus drew their ideas from the bible, Romans 5:12–21, 1 Corinthians 15:22, and Psalm 51:5. So far as reformers such a Luther and Calvin were concerned original sin destroyed freedom or the ability to freely choose to do good or right in God’s eyes our nature is bound by sin.
If one were to look at many other passages in the bible the implication is that our nature was so changed through the fall of Adam that we are helpless to help ourselves. Even the simplest of statements especially those made by Christ Himself before mentioned in John 15:1-16 have serious ramifications about whom chooses who and why John 15:5 where Jesus says “Apart from me you can do nothing.” and John 15:16 are consistent with each other “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.”
One has to ask why we are unable to do anything apart from Christ and why He chooses us and not us choose him Paul the Apostle put it this way Rom 3:10 as it is written, “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE;
Rom 3:11 THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD;
Rom 3:12 ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS; THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE.”
Rom 3:13 “THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE, WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING,” “THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS”;
Rom 3:14 “WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS”;
Rom 3:15 “THEIR FEET ARE SWIFT TO SHED BLOOD,
Rom 3:16 DESTRUCTION AND MISERY ARE IN THEIR PATHS,
Rom 3:17 AND THE PATH OF PEACE THEY HAVE NOT KNOWN.”
Rom 3:18 “THERE IS NO FEAR OF GOD BEFORE THEIR EYES.”
This says everything about our human nature. Where did Paul as an inspired writer get his ideas from? Obviously from the Old Testament which were his scriptures at the time. The theme of man’s sinfulness runs throughout the bible, it is a relentless thought continually battering away at our consciousness telling us we are not worthy by any measure. If I am to be a little provocative with the text, I would say sinners don’t care that they are sinners nor do they worry about their destination until the Holy Spirit takes the blinders off and convicts us of our sin. Jeremiah says this, Jer 17:5 Thus says the LORD, “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind And makes flesh his strength, And whose heart turns away from the LORD.
Jer 17:6 “For he will be like a bush in the desert And will not see when prosperity comes, But will live in stony wastes in the wilderness, A land of salt without inhabitant.
Jer 17:7 “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD And whose trust is the LORD.
Jer 17:8 “For he will be like a tree planted by the water, That extends its roots by a stream And will not fear when the heat comes; But its leaves will be green, And it will not be anxious in a year of drought Nor cease to yield fruit.
Jer 17:9 “The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?
Jer 17:10 “I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give to each man according to his ways, According to the results of his deeds.
Jer 17:11 “As a partridge that hatches eggs which it has not laid, So is he who makes a fortune, but unjustly; In the midst of his days it will forsake him, And in the end he will be a fool.”
Jer 17:12 A glorious throne on high from the beginning Is the place of our sanctuary.
Jer 17:13 O LORD, the hope of Israel, All who forsake You will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, Because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the LORD.
Jer 17:14 Heal me, O LORD, and I will be healed; Save me and I will be saved, For You are my praise.
Two things are contrasted here the man who trusts the Lord and the man who doesn’t, it shows that man’s heart is more deceitful than all else and desperately sick, No one can know the heart and mind except God and he searches and knows it. It dies say here we are rewarded according to our ways and results of our deeds. On the other hand the man who believes in and follows after the Lord is blessed. Be aware this is not saying mere works are rewarded Jeremiah 17:9 is pivotal in contrasting the person who has faith in God and the one who doesn’t.
Paul says in Rom 3:19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; Rom 3:20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. Rom 3:21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, Rom 3:22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; Rom 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Rom 3:24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; Rom 3:25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; Rom 3:26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
As this is a stream of thought I realize I haven’t fully concluded the issue of the nature of sin and the nature of man although the scriptures do say it much better than I can. I think there is very little evidence contextually that supports Pelagius and Arminius views. I think those views are based on proof texting, and subjective arguments based on human equivalency. Using human observation and then imposing it on scripture to make it say what you want or bringing it down to the level of human experience, which is not the way to exegete the bible.
Calvinism doesn’t leave much room for humanity to boast of itself. If we were to look at the bible from the stand point that it improves our self esteem and is a manual for life coaching we are missing the two most central themes that God has proposed to us the Bible deals with us on a spiritual level not a material level. Also that we are sinners in need of spiritual healing and regeneration because we are otherwise dead in our sins.