Monday, April 24, 2017

The Flexibility of Middle Knowledge

Middle knowledge is, roughly, the thesis that God has knowledge of what his free creatures would freely do in any set of freedom-permitting circumstances in which they might find themselves, and this knowledge is pre-volitional; that is to say, it comes logically prior to God’s decree to create the world, so that God is not causing them to do it. This doctrine is most often found in the context of Molinism, but there are many Molinists who are all over the theological spectrum when it comes to various topics, including soteriology (the study of salvation). There are Arminian-Molinists and Calvinist-Molinists, interestingly. It is my brief burden to show that middle knowledge can be applied not only to more Arminian-leaning teachings (of libertarian free will, for example), but also some Calvinist teachings (though there are obviously some that are off-limits for the Molinist—for just one, divine causal determinism being compatible with free actions).

First, middle knowledge is compatible with regeneration preceding faith.

One of the classic debates in soteriology is whether regeneration comes as a result of faith, or faith comes as a result of regeneration. On the former, proponents emphasize that God saves only because the person responds; a person who has not responded is not regenerate. On the latter, advocates contend that only a regenerate person can respond, so that it is necessary for faith in the first place. Which is right? For middle knowledge proponents, it may not matter. Suppose God uses his middle knowledge, logically prior to his decree, and knows each and every person who would freely place their trust in him if given a new heart. Suppose also, for the sake of argument, that regeneration prior to faith is necessary. God could then regenerate just these persons who would then libertarianly come to him. What about irresistible grace? The Synod of Dordt does seem to make this difficult. Hey, I didn’t say you’d fit in at Presbyterian potlucks!

Second, middle knowledge is compatible with limited atonement.

This may surprise some people, again, especially since very few Molinists accept limited atonement. Limited atonement is the thesis that Christ died for all of the sins of a specific group of people, all of whom will be saved (nearly word-for-word from Dr. John Hammett’s definition). The issue again is the same: God could use his middle knowledge to know precisely which people would believe in appropriate divinely selected circumstances, and only have Christ’s death atone for these sins.

Third, middle knowledge is compatible with unconditional election.

This is, admittedly, fudging a little. That is to say, you might have to ignore a pretty major definition of unconditional election that most Calvinists use ubiquitously. Instead, you’ll have to view unconditional election more along the lines of God getting the precise set of the saved that he wants. A better way to comport with the Westminster Confession’s definition is to emphasize God’s sovereign choice and omnipotence. So, suppose God can work circumstances such that anyone can freely (in the libertarian sense) come to him (say, because regeneration infallibly works to produce a new heart, and that new heart will always libertarianly choose God); in this case, God isn’t decreeing that the set of the saved will be so because of foreseen faith; indeed, they will have faith because they were chosen to be redeemed (it just so happens redemption always accomplishes this libertarian goal non-causally). In that case, you still have an unconditional election of sorts.

What does this all mean? Does it mean I’m a Calvinist now? No. In fact, I still reject these Calvinist teachings myself. My point is two-fold: 1. Sometimes the reasons people have for rejecting middle knowledge are not as good as they think they are; middle knowledge is flexible! 2. This means the debate on these Calvinist doctrines lies along lines not identical to middle knowledge. In other words, I believe God’s giving a well-meant offer precludes limited atonement (as well as the biblical evidence); I believe if God would have a world similar to this one in which everyone would freely be saved, then that’s the world we would have, etc. Something to think about!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Baptism and Submission to God the Holy Spirit

So lately I have tried to be more responsive to the Spirit of God in his promptings in my life. This is as opposed to being dismissive outright or just not engaging in thought on the topic. In my life (as is common to many) I have struggled with assurance of salvation. I prayed the prayer “just in case” but generally knew of course that didn’t save me. I settled the issue of assurance mostly during college, when I had heard someone say that if the struggle results in wanting to commit to God, then it’s probably conviction of God; if it’s merely of guilt and despair, it’s probably of Satan. That resonated with me. I also made a profession of faith when I was very young, and it’s hard for me to remember a whole lot about it. I further realized that, whether that conversion was real or not (if it wasn’t, it is hard for me to point to one specific place that I was), I am converted: I am trusting in Jesus Christ, his finished work on the cross, that he is God the Son, lived a perfect life, died for my sins and was raised the third day. I further want to follow him and have seen evidence of the Spirit’s work in my own life. I may have prayed the prayer a hundred times, but none of those prayers have ever saved me; none ever could.

In any case, I had occasionally wondered if I was saved at the time I had my baptism as a child. If you made me guess, to this day, I’d probably say 60-40 that I was. However, I wasn’t sure. In times past, I had really not entertained it much, and just dismissed it out of mind. However, this time, I knew that God wanted me to reach out to a member of the pastoral staff at my church.

So I crafted an email to one of the pastors and explained my situation. We determined we would meet up at church to talk about it briefly. I told God my responses to the three possible outcomes: 1. If he told me I should undergo baptism, I would gladly submit. 2. If he told me not to worry about it, then I wasn’t going to worry about it. 3. If he told me it was up to me, I would pray about it for a week and get back to him. I honestly expected him to go the route of (3), or maybe (2). So I was surprised when he said, “Let’s do it!” For a moment, I worried about what people would think. Then I realized that it doesn’t matter; what matters is that I follow God and do what I told him I would do, in response to how I believed he was working things out.

So this past Sunday (Easter!) I was baptized. There’s a chance (see above) that I was just “getting wet,” but let me explain the idea. If this was my baptism, then I was being obedient to the Lord. I obviously have no regrets about that. If this wasn’t—that is, if I was saved when I was baptized as a child—then my testimony is one of being willing to follow God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as they lead, and being willing to submit to the authority of my local body of believers (the church). It may even resonate with others in the church. I obviously have no regrets about that!

In any case, it is by no means my mission to make someone doubt whether they are saved or have been properly baptized. That would be to miss my point. My point is that whatever the Lord is asking you to do, don’t ignore it. Let the Holy Spirit have his work in you, so that you will be the kind of person he wants you to be: conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Notes about the Ninth and Tenth Commandments

The following is my lesson outline for a recent Life Group series I did at Providence Baptist Church on the Ten Commandments. Specifically, this lesson covers the Ninth and Tenth Commandments. It's fairly self-explanatory, but I'd love to read your comments and respond!

The Ninth and Tenth Commandments
Exodus 20:16-17

I.               The Ninth Commandment.
A.   You shall not bear false witness.
B.    Jones mentions this concerns the “sanctity of the truth.”
C.    Question: Was what Rahab did justified? Cf. Joshua 2.
D.   It is clear lying is generally frowned upon (cf. John 8:44).
E.    What is lying?
i.               Is it all non-truth-telling?
ii.              No! Jokes, fiction, sports, etc.
iii.            In the context, it is legal, according to Frame. See Exodus 23:1-2.
iv.            The idea is that we are to avoid malicious non-truth-telling designed to harm our neighbor (interestingly, Mark Rooker contends that the entire OT legal system in Israel depended on accurate truth-telling in trials).
v.              The positive principle, then, is caring for our neighbor in our truth-telling.
F.    This means, in my view, Rahab was not telling a lie (and she was justified).
G.   What are some ways we violate the ninth commandment?
i.               When we directly lie about someone (slander).
ii.              When we engage in gossip, or cruel jokes (even if it turns out to be true!).
iii.            When we fail to tell them truths they need to hear.
iv.            Could evangelism be a failure to uphold the ninth commandment in this way?
v.              Hypocrisy.
H.   Let’s be committed to upholding our relationships with others in lovingkindness and truth.

II.             The Tenth Commandment
A.   You shall not covet.
B.    Jones claims this relates to your motives (or desires).
C.    Rooker claims that OT Israel was the only Ancient Near Eastern culture with a law against coveting.
D.   J.I. Packer notes the positive principle is to be content with what one has (cf. Phil. 4:11).
E.    This is so because contentment is precisely the way we can avoid coveting, according to Jones.
F.    Interestingly, Jones has an insight that Hebrews 13:5 suggests that Jesus himself is the way we can learn contentment.
G.   How do we break the tenth commandment?
i.               When we want more money, more possessions, more status.
ii.              When we want different things than what we have.
iii.            When we fail to love our neighbor.
iv.            When we think that some thing is going to bring us joy.
v.              When we try to find contentment in anything other than Jesus.
H.   The first and last commandments concern the heart of the inner man (worship of God on one end and contentment with him on the other).

I.      Let’s seek to be content with him.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Defining God's Sovereignty and Applying Its Meaning

A hot-button issue in theological discussions involves the word “sovereignty.” God’s sovereignty is very important to Christians. It is so important that if a teaching appears to be denying God’s sovereignty, then it is grounds for dismissing—or at least being very skeptical of—the teaching. “If he’s not Lord of all,” some say, “then he’s not Lord at all!”

But I’ve found that it’s notoriously difficult to know what someone means by the word. Sometimes it’s clear that they mean something like causal determinism, where God causes the human person to do what they do. This determinism can be incompatibilistic (which means that the human person does not have free will) or it can be compatibilistic (which means that even though the human person is caused to do as he does, he is nonetheless still free). However, in theological debates, it is far from clear that Christians share a commitment to God’s causally determining things. So, in order to avoid question-begging in these cases, let’s at least start a different way.

I propose we begin with the idea of God’s sovereignty as God’s absolute right to rule his creation. Now this is not original with me, but I think all Christians should agree that sovereignty is at least this. With this definition in place, theological debate becomes far more interesting. Why?

Because we are no longer talking past each other. We know that we want to best represent God’s sovereignty, but how do we do that? We do that in three areas:

1.     Through the Bible

The Bible is our final rule of faith and practice. What that means is that if the Bible teaches it, we ought to believe it. If the Bible teaches against it, then we ought to be against it. What it doesn’t mean is that if the Bible is silent on the issue, we too must be silent (or worse, reject it!). It just means we always have a kind of tentative grip on the issue.

2.     Through Theology

Our theological beliefs should be shaped largely by the Bible. Now I’m not trying to get a full-blown hermeneutic here, just getting some truths out of the way. We should do theology in light of what God has revealed. God has revealed truths from his word. We should take them seriously, and apply themes that emerge from Scripture to areas of thought about God, what he is like, and his goals (the telos of God’s activity, as it were). Gaining theology from the Bible is one side of it. The other side is . . .

3.     Through Philosophy

Our philosophical beliefs come from how God has made us and what he has revealed to us in nature. I’m not speaking specifically and only of empirical reasoning, but natural rationality as well. Insofar as we are thinking truly and rationally, we are reflecting the very nature of God. Our philosophy can—and indeed must—help inform our theology. There is no such thing as a philosophy-free theology. This is at least in part due to the fact that we use our worldview (our own, personalized philosophy on life) in interpreting the Scriptures!

Applying this to our current discussion we can see that the debates aren’t going to be so clear. Those passages you think clearly teach causal determinism? Libertarians see those passages as affirming God’s sovereignty and active role in salvation and the world’s affairs but sees them as open to the how question of God’s accomplishing this. Those passages you think so clearly show free will? Compatibilists see these as affirming man’s responsibility, but not necessarily the particular kind of free will that you do.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us discussing our theology and philosophy, and our Bible and philosophy, and our Bible and theology. All of this will be in dialogue together, with the appropriate levels of authority. Finally, it should humble us, because it means the system we have so neatly put together may not be as compelling as we first thought. I am by no means saying there are no right answers, nor am I saying that we cannot know those right answers. I’m just calling for speaking with the same terms, and a dose of humility and charity.