Friday, March 14, 2014

Predestination and the Chrysippus Cylinder

HT:  Pastor Cooper on Election

The Lutheran view of election is consistent with some philosophical views of destiny that would have been already established in Greek culture during the apostolic age.

If you look at traditional Calvinism views as a “fatalistic” school where fate is determined by an outside agency (typically “the gods”) that cannot be changed no matter what we do, you can see that alive and well in the Greek thought of Paul’s day.  The best example would be Oedipus who was doomed from birth to a tragic fate and all his attempts to avoid it only lead to the very outcome that could not be avoided.

You can also see the Arminian view in the “free will” schools of indeterminism where causality was removed from fate in varying degrees among the teachings of Aristotle and the Epicureans.

But rising out of the stoic schools in the centuries leading up to the time of Christ you see a “third way” that one could reasonably assume that the original readers of the epistles would be exposed to.  This “causal determinism” is a moderating view between the two that sought to resolve the inconsistencies found in both extremes by describing fate in time based on actual causes instead of alien divine decrees or internal self-determination.

In particular you have Chrysippus of Soli (200 BC) and his famous cylinder example.  Chyrsippus explains that, if a cylinder is on a hill it rolls down that hill because of logical causes that could be considered both external and internal.  If you kick the cylinder, it would roll because of your external activity up on it but also because of its internal quality (namely its “roundness”).  So nature and external action are the causes of fate.  If the cylinder is sufficiently round and you kick it, it will roll down the hill and it can’t not roll down the hill unless other causes present a different outcome.  The cylinder was not “doomed” to roll down the hill in a fatalistic sense nor did it roll down the hill on its own accord because its fate is determined in time and is based on logical causality.

Of these three opinions of “destiny”, you see Paul’s line of thinking communicating what is more in line with a causal determinism in which Christ and His redemptive work are simultaneously the internal and external causes of salvation.  To borrow Chrysippus’ cylinder as a metaphor for conversion, Christ both “kicks” the Christian to salvation by His external saving act and (through the work of the Holy Spirit) determines the roundness of the Christian’s nature through sanctification and the sacraments.  The elect are the elect because they are kicked and they are made round… and roll down the hill because of temporal causes that were foreknown beforehand.  The elect could be known to be elect from eternity because God’s work as both internal and external cause is perfect and irresistible.

But this does not upset Paul’s teachings of the falling away of some Christians nor does it make his exhortation to remain steadfast in the faith a waste of time.  The Lutheran denial of double predestination can also be upheld in light of Chrysippus… because a cylinder that ceased to be round would no longer roll down the hill in the stoic understanding of causality... or to put it another way, what happens when salt loses its saltiness? The Lutheran understanding of the predestination paradox and irresistable grace that can be resisted would not be anachronistic to ancient Greece if understood this way.

I think that an ancient Greek mind would understand this causal nature of Paul’s description of our divine election in ways that westerners did not really grasp thousands of years after these philosophical debates took place. I don’t think that the original readers would hear Paul’s description of causal election in time and think Oedipus-style fatalism or Aristotelian free will.  They had access to a popular philosophical background that would agree with Pastor Cooper’s analysis of the text… that all election is centered in God as both the external and internal causes of man’s election as found in the work of Christ.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Fasting and Self Control

We live in a world that is defined by "have to" and "can't".

It is a clever word game that we all play in how we think and what we say to explain our behavior.  You hear it all the time...

"I have to do something about this."

"Well, I had to say that.  She was asking for it."

"It's just business.  We have to do this in order to compete."

"I'm a guy.  I have to do this once in a while."

"I can't let them get away with what they've done to me."

"...we have to live together for now.  God will understand."

"I have got to leave her... It's not like I really have a choice at this point."

"I'm sorry, pastor, I just can't seem to get up on time these days."

"I must have that."

"Well, he gave me no choice when he did that to me... so I punched him."

"After a day like that, I need to get drunk tonight."

This is a very effective way of shifting blame for our actions from ourselves over to the circumstances.  It allows us to employ situational ethics where we are mere victims of our situation and are forced to act in only one way.  It is a form of self justification that frees us of the responsibility for our actions.

...but the truth is that these are purposeful choices.  The vast majority of times, we are not forced do the things that we decide to do.  We are not mere victims on our circumstances or pawns of the conditions in which we find ourselves.

It is a very hard thing to accept responsibility for our choices.  It is very easy to talk about "turning the other cheek" right up to the point where someone actually slaps you across the literal face... then... well, I can't be blamed for what happened next.  He slapped. me. in. the face!  What did he think was going to happen.  It is very easy to talk about giving to the poor... right up until someone in need presents you with the opportunity to part with what is yours...

Human exceptionalism, a gift from God, grants us with the power to rise above the stimuli that trigger our sinful instincts and act according to our moral choices.  When we speak in terms of what we "have to do" we not only attempt to justify ourselves but we enslave ourselves to our sin.  We make it the master of our decisions... and that--in itself--is yet another one of our choices.

Fasting is an excellent means to help break this habit of self-justification and excuse making.  Your body tells you "I must eat" this very moment... and you tell it, "No... I do not.  I can wait.  I decide when we eat."  By training the body and the mind to understand its role in making decisions, we better understand our direct role in our actions and inactions.  We make choices... and we use those choices to decide to sin.  Walking around on autopilot will not be an acceptable excuse before the Throne of Judgment.

This understanding of our participation in our sin intensifies our confession.  We are more keenly aware that we are not mere victims of circumstance.  The situation that we are in does not mitigate or remove God's holy law.  We now understand that, just like the impulse to satisfy our hunger, we are not forced to satisfy every impulse that our sinful flesh gives us.  We decide to satisfy it.

But Christ was not a victim of circumstance either.  He decided to come to earth and be born of a virgin.  He decided to live a perfect, sinless life on our behalf.  It was by His perfect, merciful will that He determined to enter Jerusalem into the hands of a hateful humanity.  The Son let Himself be mocked.  He allowed himself to be whipped.  He permitted Himself to stand under the judgment of Pilate.  He willingly picked up His cross... carried it to the hill... and was nailed to it.  He gave up His life as a ransom for all.

Where we choose only evil according to our sinful nature.  He chooses to forgive.  He chooses to save and grant faith to His sheep.  He grabs us against our will and snatches us from the jaws of hell and death.  He makes us new in the waters of holy baptism.  He sends His spirit into us and imparts living faith.

...and empowered by that faith and walking in the newness of life, we can finally choose to live as His chosen people.  By faith, we willingly take up our crosses and follow Him.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Fasting and the Gospel

In fasting, we hear the words of Christ when He says,

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."
Matthew 5:6
The man who has never truly hungered in his body cannot fully appreciate these words.

Fast.  Experience hunger in your body.  Deny yourself so that you truly know hunger and understand it.  Know what it is to be driven by want and lack.  Feel how your whole being aches and groans to be filled.  See how time slows and drags as every thought turns to the one thing that you lack and how everything in you longs to be filled.  See how empty everything else is because of hunger.  Feel how important this seemingly insignificant thing is to you.  Get to know this poverty first hand in your flesh.

Then, when you cannot endure the burden any longer, look to your pitiful spiritual condition.  Is not life more than food?  See how poor your soul is. You have far less righteousness in you than food in your belly during fasting.  In yourself you lack the life giving spiritual quality that you so desperately need in order to live.  Your soul aches for want of righteousness and you do not notice.

See how weak your conscience is.  How sad it is that we sinners can so easly ignore these pangs of great emptiness!  Skipping even one or two meals is unthinkable... but God's righteouness?  That can be easily skipped without so much as a glimmer of discomfort.  And yet all the while we are spiritually starving to eternal death.

"No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me. Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh...... Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.”
John 6:44-51, 53-58
When you break the fast, feel the satisfaction of finally being filled.  Know that Christ, the Bread of Life, gives us his righteousness in abundance as a free gift.  Rejoice that the time of want has ended. Christ saves us from our spiritual starvation by giving us what we truly need.  This righteousness... this thing that we lack and must receive externally like the body must receive food or die... is given freely on account of Christ through faith.

Fasting is not just an internal discipline that turns us inward.  It is an externally pointing one.  It serves as an example of what it is to hunger.  It reminds us of what it means to be truly in need.  It points us to Christ... the only thing that we must have in order to live.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Ahistorical Fallacy: American Evangelicalism, Baptist Successionism, And Lutheranism

There is a minority theory (largely discredited these days) in Baptist circles known as "Baptist Successionism".  Very generally speaking, this view holds that the first Christians all the way back to the apostles held to a theology we could define as "Baptist" in modern terms that that there has been an unbroken line of tiny, oppressed Baptists from the time of the apostles to the present day.

This ahistorical fallacy allows the Baptists who hold to it to just "skip over" thousands of years of Christian history as aberrant and ignore theological developments and debates as part of the aberrant majority.  In practice, what this does (in my view) is disconnect modern Baptists from the larger part of Christian history.

You see the ahistorical fallacy again in generic American Evangelicalism.  Not only are many modern Christian protestants in America ignorant of ancient church history, they also do not truly know or appreciate their Puritan roots, the influence of the Enlightenment, the First and Second Great Awakenings, and the "new measures" introduced by Charles Fenny.

I grew up under both of these impressions and was completely ignorant of how the beliefs that I held so dear actually came about.  I did not understand that the overwhelming majority of Christians living and dead disagreed with what I believed and did not even know that I owed more to people like Finney, Wesley, and the Deists of the 1700s than the historic church.  This meant that I was unexposed to differing views and did not truly understand Christian theologies that disagreed with my own.  The lack of historical knowledge lead me to a kind of xenophobic proof texting that did not help me or the people that I encountered.

There are many ways in which theology is studied and expressed.  You have exegetical approaches, systematic approaches, historical approaches just to name a few.  I am not against emphasis, but I think that a well-rounded approach is best no matter your level of knowledge and anyone who tries to tackle theological questions and disputes from only one direction really cheats themselves.

To a much lesser extent, large parts of American Lutheranism suffers from the ahistorical fallacy and rely on the two legs of systematics and exegesis to support their beliefs.  I think this is probably not the best approach and become more and more convinced as I grow and encounter more Lutherans of various flavors and opinions.

Many Lutherans that I encounter have a 150+ year gap in their historical memory.  Their knowledge of the history of the church effectively begins and ends one generation from Luther himself.  If they have any historical knowledge beyond the Book of Concord, it is spotty at best.  It is a rare thing to hear anything about Lutheranism between the 1580s and the 1970s, it doesn't pick up until almost after the American Civil War with Lutheran and Reformed influences like Krauth, Walther, Sasse, Barth, Moltmann, etc.  By then, many significant differences and debates had already occurred.

There are large gaps in Lutheran history that are largely unknown on the popular level because Lutheran historical books are too academic to be accessible and Historical Theologians among the Lutherans are so few and far between.

Three added challenges make the Lutheran task more difficult.  Unlike many in the Reformed and Puritan traditions, large parts of the source material for Lutheran history exist in foreign languages (German, Sweedish, Finnish, etc) that fewer and fewer American Lutherans can just pick up and read.  This makes English translations time consuming and expensive to produce.  Add to the small number of Lutheran historians.  Add to those problems the fact that Lutheran History is often a very politically difficult challenge to approach impartially as these divisions and debates are the foundational differences that effect the various Lutheran synods and denominations today.

This ahistorical gap that exists in Lutheranism effects Lutheran understandings in the same way that the other two examples I have sited effect general American Protestantism to a greater degree.  This causes the same thing in my view: xenophobic proof-texting between various Lutheran circles that hampers dialogue and keeps various Lutherans from understanding each other.

This handicaps our understanding of how the various contemporary Lutheran beliefs (of which there are many) came to be.  Rather than protecting sound doctrine, I believe that this lack of context insulates others from its spread and undermines the foundations of it.  Why are the conservative churches and the liberal churches so different?  Why does a book by someone like Carl Braaten teach such a significantly different "Lutheranism" from Robert Preus?

Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it... and I think that skipping the history of the Lutheran church and relying on our dogmatics to do the heavy lifting has made our confessional movement weaker.

No doubt this makes me a "moderate" or an "ecumenical nut" in the mind of some.  But I think that there is no more danger in knowing about the unbiased history of a Lutheran branch that we disagree with and trying to at least understand their point of view than learning about the views of anyone else with which we disagree.

Perhaps what I am driving at is that there is not "one right approach" to theology.  I am of the opinion that sound theology is a holistic discipline that is simultaneously exegetical, systematic, historical, pastoral, and practical.