Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Both Determined and Free? A Conversation with Dr. Roger Olson

Recently I have been enjoying some conversation with Roger Olson, the "irenic Arminian" theologian and scholar, at his blog. I always find conversation with Dr. Olson to be interesting and informative. He is one of my favorite non-Calvinist discussion partners, although we disagree rather thoroughly in many areas. 

We have recently engaged profitably in discussion in the comment box at this post on Dr. Olson's blog:

Today, Dr. Olson has responded to me directly with this blog post:

I have posted my reply, as follows:
Dr. Olson, 
Thank you for giving attention to this important issue, which seems to be a key point of disagreement between Calvinistic and Arminian/non-Calvinistic thought.
Like most other Calvinists, I would point to multiple "fine distinctions" in order to sustain the appeal to compatibilism.
I would begin by defining compatibilism a little differently, as the basic belief that free will and determinism are not mutually exclusive. The theory that "freedom" is being free to do as one chooses despite having no ability to do otherwise is just one form of compatibilism among many interesting options. Personally, I do not prefer that approach, and only oppose "Libertarian Free Will" or "power of contrary choice" to the extent that they, by definition, rule out compatibilism (in the broad sense). I agree with your contention that "free will" is mysterious, that it is "situated" within a context of limitations, that it is fully realized only by Christian conversion, and I believe that it is much more "genuine" than most of today's Calvinists will admit. Augustine was not afraid to use the term, and even Calvin hinted at a broader freedom of choice. There was a stream of historic Reformed thought along this line (Jeongmo Yoo has an interesting book on this topic).
Next, I would appeal to a distinction between "natural ability" and "moral ability" in saying that we are naturally capable of choosing other than we do, even if not morally capable (thus, in some sense we have the power of contrary choice). I have the natural ability to give away my possessions or to steal, but I might only have the moral ability to do one of them in a given set of circumstances. I don't have the natural or moral ability to choose to jump to the moon (although I do have the ability to attempt to jump to the moon). Moral ability is limited, not necessarily by God's decree, but by our own will (or moral character). In essence, ironically, the very will to choose is what limits the range of choices!
Finally, I would appeal to a distinction within God's secret decree between the foreordination of good and the foreordination of evil. Good arises always with God's direct action and involvement, by grace, and not from the creature alone. Evil arises only with God's inaction, from the creature's own moral nature, as God permits the creature to act on its own independent will. In other words, He ordains to allow evil to occur apart from His own direct action, by permission only (yet with complete foreknowledge and a design to permit--and then remedy--all of the evil that occurs). Thus, nothing happens because it is merely pre-determined. Good happens by God's predestination, providence and promise, while evil happens by His permitted purpose (with both good and evil being thus pre-determined in some sense, and worked into His overarching plan). As you know, the origin of the first evil remains mysterious on these grounds; however, we would categorically deny any possibility or implication that evil arose from God Himself (perish the thought).
This is, of course, a very abbreviated form of a more complex argument (actually an entire philosophical construct) that is employed by Augustinian thinkers to explain how God could foreordain (or decree, pre-determine/pre-program, etc.) all things without ever touching, committing, positively willing or becoming culpable for moral evil. There are plenty of Calvinists, Lutherans, and other Augustinians, who can expound these topics much better than I.
As a concluding note, I want to make it clear that I am not attempting to refute what you have written or formally debate the issue (doubtless you would outmaneuver me!). We are laying out two very different and incompatible philosophical approaches that are employed to make our theologies tenable in our own minds. As a part of my ongoing education and understanding of the Arminian viewpoint, I very much appreciate your time and care in stating your position clearly, and in treating the other position charitably. Great stuff!
Blessings in Christ,

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Isaiah 55:9 - What does it Mean?

Recently, a visitor to this blog asked about the theme verse displayed in the blog header:

Isaiah 55:9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.

The questioner specifically asked what I think this verse means.

Disclaimer and Clarification

Before answering this question, I should note that it matters very little what I think this verse means. God's Word is, at the most basic level, a communication of what He thinks. The verse does, after all, address the subject of His "thoughts." The meaning given by the Holy Spirit to Isaiah 55:9 is much more significant, and vastly more important, than anything I think. And, as He, the Spirit of Revelation, has given us the mind of Christ, we can know with a great degree of certainty what the verse actually, and objectively, signifies.

Too often, theological reflection has been downgraded to the level of opinion and conjecture. The speculations of favored theologians and scholars are discussed, and then someone's feelings about their mesmerizing extra-Biblical theories are recorded with grand intellectual flourishes. This futile endeavor leaves us wise in our own eyes and pathetically self-satisfied. However, when we approach the sacred text of the Bible, we are not dealing with human philosophy. We are not working with a man-made construction. We are considering the word of the prophets "more fully confirmed," to which we will do well to "pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place . . . knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." (II Peter 1:19-21, ESV). This is the WORD OF GOD, and it renders our worldly and man-centered thinking totally bankrupt. It reveals our depravity, shatters our self-conceit, demolishes our pride. It is God's MESSAGE, hidden from the wise and lofty, and powerfully manifested to the simple-hearted -- for those with ears to hear.

So, I'd like to begin by redirecting the question. Rather than discussing what I think this verse means, I will instead attempt to answer, at least in part (yet accurately), the following questions:

  • What meaning has the Holy Spirit poured into Isaiah 55:9? 
  • What meaning will He help us to draw out by careful study?
May God guide us in the study of His Truth.

Contexts and Outline

Now that we have begun to think of the verse in its wide context as a part of the inerrant and infallible, God-breathed text of Scripture, we may begin to narrow in further and view it in a variety of additional contexts:
  • Bible Context: Old Testament - the verse appears several hundred years prior to the birth of the incarnate Christ, the establishment of the New Covenant and the inception of the Church.
  • Genre Context: Prophecy - the verse is the utterance of a prophet, speaking for God in the "first person" voice. It fulfills a dual prophetic role of calling God's covenant people to repentance and foretelling the glories of God's future Kingdom.
  • Book/Historical Context: Isaiah - the verse appears within the prophecies of Isaiah, the son of Amoz, who prophesied over a period exceeding 50 years, during which Israel was characterized by corruption, apostasy and political turmoil. In Isaiah's lifetime, the Northern Kingdom was destroyed, and he saw multiple threats rise against the Southern kingdom of Judah while dwelling in its capital city of Jerusalem. 
  • Book Section Context: Isaiah 40-66 - the verse appears in a section characterized by prophecies of hope and restoration.
  • Chapter Context: Isaiah 55 - the verse appears in the center of a chapter which may be outlined as follows:
  1. Call to Draw Near to God (55:1-3)
    • Invitation to the Thirsty
    • Invitation to the Impoverished
    • Contrast of False and True Satisfaction
    • A New Covenant Promised
      • Made by God
      • Faithfulness and Mercy
      • Everlasting
  2. Declaration of Israel's Role (55:4-5)
    • As Witness
    • As Leader and Commander
    • As Caller 
    • As God's Glorified People
    • Target Audience: The Gentiles! (The "People" and "a Nation" not known)
  3. Instructions for Those Seeking God (55:6-7)
    • Seek the LORD
    • Call on Him
    • Forsake your own Ways and Thoughts
    • Return to the LORD
    • Results: Compassion and Abundant Pardon
  4. Description of God's Thoughts and Ways (55:8-9)
    • Not Your Thoughts
    • Not Your Ways
    • Higher than Your Thoughts and Ways
      • As the Heavens are Above the Earth
  5. Illustration of God's Thoughts and Ways (55:10-11)
    • God's Word is Given as Rain and Snow from Heaven
    • God's Word Infallibly Produces its Intended Effect on the Earth
      • Water
      • Sprout
      • Seed
      • Bread
  6. Promise of Israel's Future Hope (55:12-13)
    • Joy
    • Peace
    • Nature Celebrating
    • A Name for the Lord
    • An Everlasting Sign

Summary of the Passage

We may conclude, from the above discussion of contexts and the outline of the passage, that the broad theme of the chapter is Israel's restoration and the call of the Gentiles. The passage makes clear that Israel is to be used as God's witness so that the Gentiles may partake in the blessings of David, the New Covenant of God's mercy and truth, the compassion and the forgiveness of God.

This divine purpose, though mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament, would have been foreign to the thinking of most ancient Hebrews. In fact, it was even shocking to the early New Testament church, as demonstrated by Peter's initial hesitation and later surprise when preaching to the household of Cornelius, in seeing the Spirit poured out on the Gentiles. Paul's unique, unexpected, and God-initiated mission to preach the Gospel of grace to the nations also illustrates this chapter's message with some clarity.

The consistent theme in the passage is this: God calls sinners to Himself and will receive them with overflowing mercy, whether they are ethnically Jewish or Gentile.

The Lord forthrightly explains the reason that underlies this astonishing mercy: His thoughts and His ways, which are categorically opposite to ours, and radically exalted above ours, tend toward displays of extravagant mercy.

Exegetical Considerations

When God speaks of His "thoughts" in this passage, He uses the Hebrew term machashabah, which refers to counsel, plan or purpose (sometimes carrying the connotation of "invention"). When He speaks of His "ways," He uses the Hebrew word derek, which is a path or a road (figuratively, a course of life or one's moral character -- what we might call a "lifestyle" or a "walk of life" in today's vernacular). God is therefore describing something much deeper and more significant than a mere passing thought or intellectual pursuit. He is describing His very WILL, and His PERSONAL HABITS. And when He speaks of these things, thus revealing HIMSELF, He declares vehemently that His ways are not ours! In doing so, He uses the absolute negation (Heb. lo). Additionally, in verses 8 and 9, the repetition of the words "thoughts" (4 times) and "ways" (4 times) emphatically magnifies the message: "I am not like you! I am different! I am infinitely higher!" And yet, by forsaking his own ways and thoughts, and seeking after the Lord, even the unrighteous person (in point of fact, only the unrighteous person) can discover and enjoy these higher ways and thoughts.

The Meaning of Isaiah 55:9

The ancient Hebrew mind could perhaps think of no greater distance and no greater difference than that existing between heaven and earth. In this verse, the prophet shows us that God in His wise and holy counsels is far above us. His eternal plans do not originate within our familiar sphere, but enter it from without and from above. They are beyond our reach. They transcend us! His actions, characteristics, counsels and purposes are thus apt to surprise us when they break through. Yet they are ultimately intended to nourish us, to initiate growth, to produce fruitfulness in us, and to feed others. That is what mercy does. When the revelation of His ways is received within, it satisfies our need and give us life. It furnishes peace and instills joy. It gives us something to give.

Isaiah 55:9 teaches us that God's thinking is incomparable and incomprehensible, yet penetrating and available. It shows us the fine balance of a mysterious, and yet perspicuous, Word from our gracious Creator -- a Word sent to restore His fallen creation by the strange working of an unearthly power. And that power is called mercy.

May you, dear reader, be flooded with His grace today!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

My First Visit to a Primitive Baptist Church

On vacation in the Smoky Mountains this week, we visited the old Primitive Baptist church in Cades Cove. After I delivered an impromptu call to worship, my daughter and I took the opportunity to sing a few hymns. A couple actually came into the church and started filming us!

Years ago, the Primitive Baptist church in Cades Cove split when some members became involved in missions, and we're thus disfellowshipped. Sad but true, folks.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Until You've Been There, There's Not Much Point in Going Anywhere Else

"Now, I've written books on the cross, you know that. And people say, 'well, that's just a favorite theme, the cross.' Well, I pray it will be, because Paul said, 'God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross.' So I'm in pretty good company, you see. But it's not that I have a thing about the cross. It is that I know that until you've been there, there's not much point in going anywhere else. Though when you go there and you know the transformation, you know what he's done . . . If you major on that cross, if the Holy Spirit gives you an understanding there, all the rest of the truth comes to you." 
(Geoffrey C. Bingham, from a sermon entitled The meaning of Pentecost)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bashing Beelzebub?

I recently found this great recording from Tony Hayling:

Given some of the recent controversies and discussions regarding certain aberrations of the broader "Charismatic Movement," this seems to be a good, timely word. Highly edifying.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

PUPPETS: Another Epic Calvinist-Arminian "Debate"

Having a little "chat" with some Arminian brothers over here:

I do not know how I get myself into these tangles. Well, maybe I do know how, and should instead wonder "why?" Admittedly, it was hard to resist commenting on the graphic that was posted as a discussion starter:

Lovely Caricature, eh?

Whatever the case, the discussion may be helpful for those who want to understand how the Bible affirms human freedom in compatibility with a robust, meticulous and exhaustive divine sovereignty. The question on the table is: "Does Calvinistic theology make man into a mere puppet?"

A proper understanding of Calvinistic theology (the non-hyper variety), divine sovereignty, human responsibility and Biblical compatibilism (which is not necessarily equivalent to the many forms of philosophical compatibilism) will lead to a decisive "NO" on this question. However, some who argue against Calvinism delight in throwing up the old canard of "Your theology makes us into puppets!"

I would like to take a moment to roundly scold those vocal Calvinist apologists who haven't sufficiently nuanced their compatibilism, and would seem to lend support to the charge. While I am at it, I'll also scold those Arminians who know what Calvinistic theology teaches and refuse to admit that their puppet analogy is a ridiculous caricature.

Then again, who in this world even cares if some obscure Calvinist scolds them?

II Samuel 7:18 Then King David went in and sat before the LORD and said, “Who am I, O Lord GOD, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

What Do You Mean When You Say "PARADOX"?

I use "paradox" to describe situations where the Truth can rightly be stated in apparently contradictory terms. For example:

P1 Jesus is fully human
P2 Jesus is fully divine

If used to describe anyone else, these statements would be contradictory and at least one of them would be untrue. In the case of God's Son, they are both 100% true. Scripture teaches them clearly, and does not tell us exactly how they relate or coexist. How can we fathom it? The lack of information allows the two true statements to form a paradox that has a mystery behind it. The paradox is only possible because of the mystery. If the mystery were revealed, the paradox would no longer appear contradictory. And yet the mystery and the paradox do not in any way obscure the Truth revealed by God in Scripture, which happens to be the only correct conclusion: namely, that Jesus Christ is the unique God-Man, thus the One Mediator, and Lord of All.

In my studies of the Word, I find a similar situation regarding exhaustive divine sovereignty and the measure of genuine freedom/responsibility that we are given as human beings. I find the same kind of paradox with regard to the divine and human origins of the Bible, the Three-in-One concept of the Trinity, and the sanctification of believers, among other core theological tenets which lie at the very heart of the historic Christian faith and the Gospel.