Arminianism and Predestination Blog 5: Jews, Gentiles, and the Remnant in Romans 9-11

Ancient_Olive_Tree_in_Pelion,_GreeceArminianism and Predestination – A Suggestion

Blog 5:  Jews, Gentiles, and the Remnant in Romans 9-11

Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.[1]

For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.[2]

How did Paul migrate from Romans 9:18 to Romans 11:32?  Paul, in Romans 9:18, declared that it is God’s sovereign right to have mercy on whomever He wishes and to harden whomever He desires.  Then Paul went on to conclude in 11:32 that God has bound all people over to disobedience so that He could have mercy on them all.

Perplexingly, it is difficult to find much agreement as to the referent of the ‘all’ on whom God has mercy in Romans 11:32 among readers of Romans.  Some have argued that ‘all’ refers to the elect in Jesus generally.  Others have contended that the ‘all’ in this passage refers to the remnant of faithful Israel.  There are traditions which prefer to understand the ‘all’ in this context as those God predestined for salvation before the creation of the world.  And there are a number who maintain that the ‘all’ in 11:32 refers to ethnic Israel generally.  A few have asserted that the ‘all’ is merely Paul’s way of including both Jews and Gentiles in his conclusion.  And finally, there are others who have concluded that the ‘all’ refers to every human individual.

My intention in this blog is to attempt to trace Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 in brief by situating it deeply in conceptualities that arise out Paul’s and early Christianity’s Hebraic culture and tradition.  I am particularly interested in the conceptuality of Israel and Israel’s election in the prophetic oracles of Isaiah (a prophet from which Paul quotes extensively).  Essentially I intend to argue that God has not exercised His Sovereignty to predestine some to eternal life and others to eternal damnation, but rather that God, through His sovereign choice of specific individuals, has had mercy on the entirety of the human race.

It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.[3]

The heart of Paul’s argument, to my reading, lies in his understanding of Israel.  How did Paul understand Israel?  What was Israel’s purpose?  When Paul spoke of Israel, did he see them as different from the Gentile nations who received mercy because of Israel’s hardness of heart?  Why did God choose Israel?  These sorts of questions have often led the writers of the New Testament back to the Song of the Servant in the book of Isaiah.

“But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you.  I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you.  10 So do not fear, for I am with you;  do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. [4]

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.  He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.  A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.  In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”

. . . .“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand.  I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. [5]

Biblically, Israel was chosen to be a vessel through which light would be given to the rest of the world.  Israel was to bring justice to the nations, and reveal the truth and knowledge of Yahweh to an ignorant world.  Israel is the result of God’s divine election, but Israel was not simply chosen for eternal life.  Israel’s primary purpose, according to Isaiah, was to mediate the knowledge and presence of God to a rebellious world.  According to the oracles of Isaiah, Israel failed in this missional calling.

1Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.  He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.  He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”  But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all.  Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.”

And now the Lord says—he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength—he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept.  I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”[6]

Israel failed in its purpose—i.e., to mediate God’s word and presence to all nations.  In this passage from Isaiah a new servant was to be sent to bring back the tribes of Jacob to God.  For the writers of the New Testament, this new servant—this embodiment of Israel—was and is Jesus.  Even more, Isaiah has told us that this chosen one, this Messiah, would not merely restore Israel.*  He would also bring salvation to the Gentiles.  This may be what underlies Paul’s insistence in Romans 11:11-12 & 25 that the hardening of Israel has provided a way for the Gentiles to be grafted into the olive tree.

So, for Paul, the nomenclature of Israel was more than simply a national or ethnic designation.  Israel represented a people specially chosen by God to mediate God’s word and presence to those who were ‘not a people.’

From this starting point, Paul proceeded to highlight particular examples of God’s sovereign election.  In Romans 9 Paul made specific mention of Isaac, Jacob, and Pharaoh.

Perhaps most surprising in the development of Paul’s argument is the contention that true Israel has always been a remnant within ethnic Israel.  Paul has observed that not all of Abraham’s descendants were elect, but only the children of Isaac.  Additionally, not even all of Isaac’s descendants were chosen.

10 Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. 11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”[7]

If I am reading Paul adequately, the trajectory of his argument to this point is that God’s ‘purpose in election’ in light both of the call of Abraham and of the Song of the Servant in the book of Isaiah was to elect a vessel to bring salvation to the world.  Consequently, the argument that I am constructing is not that none are predestined without respect to their free will, nor that all are predestined without respect to their free will.  Rather, I am contending that some are predestined without respect to their free will.

Those who are predestined in this way are not merely predestined to salvation (as is made clear in Paul’s example of Pharaoh).  The predestined are predestined to bring God’s saving message to the rest of the world.  Furthermore, this categorization does not extend to all of Israel ethnically.  In the words of Paul, “6It is not as though God’s word had failed.  For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.”[8]

Paul’s example of Pharaoh furthers the assertion that divine predestination without respect to free will does not necessary result in salvation.

16 It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17 For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”[9]

Notice the nature of God’s sovereign choice of Pharaoh.  Pharaoh was chosen (‘raised up’) for the purpose of declaring God’s name in all the earth.  This is the nature of Israel—i.e. chosen as a vessel for the declaration of God.  The Pharaoh example is interesting because just as through his unbelief God’s name was declared to the nations (a hardness not insignificantly allotted to God in the language of Exodus), through the unbelief of the Israelites salvation has been offered to the Gentiles.

21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?[10]

To my reading, Paul’s language of ‘noble purposes’ references those chosen to bring the salvation message, and his phrase ‘common use’ refers to those who hear the message and freely accept or reject it.  In Romans 10, Paul again picked up on this theme when he went through the sequence of experience necessary for one to receive salvation in Romans 10:12-15.  Paul’s emphasis in this section of Romans 10 appears to have been again on those sent to preach the Gospel—a group I believe Paul has previously defined as true Israel, and in Romans 10 has termed the remnant.

22 What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23 What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—24 even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?[11]

Presumably, Paul’s argument to this point has prepared us to understand the objects of wrath in this passage to be those Israelites and Gentiles that have rejected God and been disobedient to Him.  What is more interesting, however, is the observation that these objects of wrath, prepared for destruction, have not in fact been destroyed.  Instead Paul has insisted that God has borne them with great patience.

For Paul, God did not destroy these objects of wrath so that He could make the riches of His glory known to the objects of His mercy.  I believe Paul was contending that God’s patience with those whom He should have destroyed has revealed to the objects of His mercy the full extent of His mercy.

When Paul wrote “choosing to show his wrath and make his power known,” he appears to have been referring back to Romans 3:25-26 where he argued that God’s justice was displayed even in His forbearance.  In bearing these vessels of wrath with great patience God would appear to have been unjust, but justice was done and God’s wrath and power were made known by the atoning death of Jesus through which God exercised the just penalty of human sinfulness.  This action revealed the true extent of God’s mercy to the objects of His mercy.  In an interesting rhetorical slight of hand, Paul seems to have conflated objects of wrath with objects of mercy.  As the argument builds, it seems necessary to interpret Paul as having argued that the objects of mercy are in fact those who formerly were objects of wrath.

As I have been stating, I am convinced that Paul understood some humans to be predestined in the way Luther and Calvin understood predestination.  But, I think both, to varying degrees, universalized Paul at a point in which Paul intended to be particular.  In other words, those predestined people are to be distinguished not only from the mass of humanity, but also from the mass of those who will one day inhabit the new heaven and the new earth.

In Romans 9:11-12, Paul has observed that the text of Genesis narrates Jacob’s pre-birth election.  Paul made a similar claim about his own origins in Galatians 1:15.  Similarly, in Jeremiah 1:4-5 God revealed to Jeremiah that he was called and chosen before he was even in the womb.  I am persuaded to agree with Luther and Calvin that the most natural reading of these passages suggests that all of these men experienced what Calvinists would later call irresistible grace.  More significant to me, however, is the reality that these same men seemed convinced that these claims distinguished them from those to whom they were called to minister.

Throughout the Pauline corpus, Paul consistently declared himself an Apostle—a title which he seems to have believed distinguished him in some way.  Jacob was a son of the covenant—a covenant designed to bring salvation to the whole world (see Genesis 12:2-3).  Jeremiah was a prophet, and the Hebrew Scriptures make it clear that prophets had a special calling and a special anointing not given to everyone.

More interesting still is the observation that these examples of Calvinist predestination never appear to have understood their election in terms of eternal destiny.  Rather, without exception, those who make these claims of pre-ordination associate that election with the bringing of the message of salvation to transgressors.

Now, admittedly, the biblical texts variously do indicate that many of the elect are expected to inherit eternal life.[12]  Nevertheless, the essence of election does not appear to be personal salvation.  After all, Paul has used Pharaoh as an example of the elect (Romans 9:16-18).  Similarly, King Nebuchadnezzar and the peoples of Babylon were raised up by God to destroy the Jews, send them into exile, and hence force them to spread God’s influence all over the known world (see Habakkuk 1:6,7).  Even Pharaoh Neco (see 2 Kings 23:29-30) seems to have been commissioned by God quite apart from any explicit comment on his eternal destiny.

I am persuaded that Luther and Calvin were correct to understand election and predestination in Scripture as sovereign acts of God quite apart from human merit or free-willing.   However, where I believe Luther and Calvin failed to read Paul adequately was in their tendency to universalize these particular individuals and to associate their election with personal salvation.

Contrarily, I am contending that these predestined vessels have been predestined to bring the message of salvation to a world of people who are not predestined, but rather have been graced free will in the Arminian/Wesleyan sense.

I believe this essential conviction lies at the heart of Paul’s conception of the remnant in Romans 10 and 11.  Of whom is the remnant comprised?  The remnant are those Israelites, and possibly even some from among the Gentiles,[13] whom God has specially chosen to be ‘those who bring good news.’  I’m not convinced that salvation and eternal life is a guarantee even for these elect.  For instance, Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 has indicated that his own eternal destiny may not have been a certainty in his thinking.

Nonetheless, I do think it makes best sense of Paul’s argument to understand true Israel as the remnant, and they are those who have been predestined without respect to their worthiness or the exercise of their free will to be the bearers and preservers of the word of God to the rest of humanity.  More importantly, it seems essential to distinguish their election from that of those to whom they have been sent.  In other words, true Israel, the elect, the remnant, the predestined are not representative of all who will inherit eternal life.

After making this strong argument regarding God’s sovereign choice of the remnant, Paul went into a passage in Romans 11 which, apart from the trajectory I’ve suggested, does not fit easily with his previous statements (see Romans 11:13-24).  Paul instructed the Gentiles that Israelites had been cut off, and if they (the Gentiles) were not careful, they could be cut off also.  I believe that Paul could use this language because not all of the body of Christ should be understood as predestined.  Quite to the contrary, most in the Christian Church have been grafted into Israel as a consequence of God’s grace in enabling them to make a contingent choice.

The root that Paul speaks about in this section of Romans into which all the branches are grafted seems to be, in context, all of the predestined remnant found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and extending into the New Testament of Jesus.  The Patriarchs, the prophets, Jesus, and the disciples all make up the root.  They are predestined to their positions.  The branches, then, would be those who have freely accepted the message they have borne.

So, Paul concludes his argument with the declaration, “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”.  My sense of the ‘all’ terminology here is that Paul means to suggest that all those who are not of the remnant have been bound over to disobedience so that through true Israel all might be saved.

J. Thomas

[1] The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Romans 9:18.

[2] Ibid, Romans 11:32.

[3] Ibid, Romans 9:6.

[4] Ibid, Isaiah 41:8–10.

[5] Ibid, Isaiah 42:1-5 & 6.

[6] Ibid, Isaiah 49:1–6.

 *see Hosea 11:1,2.  The Gospel of Matthew has interpreted these verses as prophetic oracles which are fulfilled in Jesus, but the original context was speaking of Israel.  This implies to me that, for the Gospel writer, Jesus has done what Israel failed to do.

[7] Ibid, Romans 9:10–13.

[8] Ibid, Romans 9:6.

[9] Ibid, Romans 9:16–17.

[10] Ibid, Romans 9:21.

[11] Ibid, Romans 9:22–24.

[12] See e.g., Hebrews 11.

[13] See Romans 9:24.

Let’s not be a community which devours itself

church-falling-downThe Devouring of the Church (Galatians 5:1-25)

 How might we use the small bit of opportunity which we have been graced to make the world a bit better for our having been here?  In many ways this is a fundamental question of human existence, and it was of principal concern to the prophets and apostles who delivered the Christian Bible to us.

In the book of Galatians, for instance, the Apostle Paul found himself in confrontation with a group of teachers in the earliest Christian Church who were using their short time on this planet to war against the Gospel of Jesus.  Now, even though Paul continued to insist that these men were acting as enemies of God, they certainly didn’t believe they were God’s enemies.  Quite to the contrary, they probably thought they were advocating for faithfulness to God.

Why get into all this?  Well, I think Paul’s argument with these false teachers might help us as individual Christians and as a church to understand more fully what God believes to be the best use of our time on this side of eternity.  For the purposes of this blog, I am going to be dealing primarily with Galatians, chapter 5, but this short article is really a summary engagement with Paul’s central thesis in the book of Galatians generally.  The convenience of engaging with Galatians 5 is that the chapter serves in many ways both as a summary of Paul’s primary contention and as a fleshing out of what Paul’s teachings might look like in real life.

Verse 1 of Galatians 5 is Paul’s summary of the core message of the Gospel of Jesus as it relates to the central issue of Galatians, and it reads like this:

 1It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.[1]

If I have understood Paul’s argument in the book of Galatians adequately, I believe Paul has suggested that there are at least three ways in which we might live in response to this Gospel of Jesus.  Two of those ways would be a waste of the time we have been given.  Two of those ways would be tantamount to declaring war against God and partnering with those who would keep God’s kingdom from being realized.  Only one represents partnership with God, commitment to the Gospel of Jesus, the repairing of the world.

We find a first response to the Gospel in Galatians 5, verses 2-6, and it is this:  We could spend our time on this earth being antagonized by grace:

2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.[2]

Well, what’s going on here?  What’s the deal with circumcision?  For the Jewish community of Paul’s day, circumcision was a physical sign in the flesh of one’s commitment to the Law of Moses, the Covenant of Mount Sinai, the Torah, the stipulations and laws that we find today in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Circumcision was an act that committed an eight-day old male child or an adult male convert to follow this Law all the days of his life.

It would appear that some early Jewish followers of Jesus assumed that anybody who wanted to follow Jesus must first submit to this sign of commitment to the Law of Moses.  In the churches of Galatia these teachers were encouraging non-Jewish converts to Christianity to be circumcised, and Paul, as an Apostle of Jesus, refused to allow it.  Did you catch Paul’s arguments against requiring Christians to be religiously circumcised?

First, Paul argued that the Law of Moses was not an agreement from which one could pick and choose.  It was an all-or-nothing agreement.  Now, some have argued that this was a presumption of the Judaism of Paul’s day, and others have contended that first century Judaism would have disagreed with Paul’s understanding here.  And I suppose it is possible that Paul has reflected an understanding of Torah that was peculiar to an early Christian understanding of the Law of Moses.

Nonetheless, however Paul came to this comprehension of Torah originally, it does seem that Paul has done little more than paraphrase the Law itself in these verses.  Deuteronomy 28:15 has said:

15 However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you: [3]

What did Moses say there?  If you do not obey at least one of the commands…?  If you do not obey some of the commands?  No.  Moses taught the Israelites that they were to obey all of the commands.  If they did not obey them all, then Deuteronomy seems to have suggested that the covenant of Sinai would result in a curse.

According to Paul, this means that under the Law of Moses tithing[4] was no more important than stoning someone who committed adultery[5], than bathing in the blood of a red, female cow after touching a dead body,[6] than cancelling all debts in the country every 50 years[7], than making animal sacrifices,[8] than honoring the Sabbath,[9] than secretly desiring things that belonged to your neighbor.[10]  The law says, obey all of these and you will be blessed.[11]  Violate even one, and you will be cursed.  This is the Covenant of Sinai.

For Paul, if Christians were to commit themselves to the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai, which would be indicated by religious circumcision, then they would become responsible to obey every detail of that covenant.  For Paul, Israel itself had not obeyed that covenant, and consequently, the covenant had become a curse.

According to Paul, that is in part why Jesus came and died—to free Israel from the requirements of Sinai.  So, for Paul, to commit oneself again to that covenant would be to undo all that Jesus came to do.  Paul called it, falling away from grace.

Apparently, these early followers of Jesus were uncomfortable with the freedom for which Jesus died.  They were being antagonized by God’s grace—by the new set of expectations that accompanied the New Covenant of Jesus.  But, that was them, right?

Sure, but it can be us, as well.  Any of us who place justice before mercy, who place rules and regulations before grace, who place the letter of the law over against its spirit—we, too, like these early followers of Jesus can find ourselves antagonized by grace.

In the Gospel of Mark we find a story of a confrontation that Jesus had with the Jewish Pharisees that might help to flesh out Paul’s concern here.  The incidents come from Mark 2:23 – 3:6:

23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

3:  1Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”

4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. [12]

The Ten Commandments, which are part of the Torah of Moses, required the Israelites to do no work on the seventh day of the week—the Sabbath (our Saturday).  The Gospel of Mark has recounted at least two instances in which Jesus broke that requirement in the eyes of His Jewish contemporaries.  First, Jesus allowed His disciples to pluck and eat un-harvested grain on the Sabbath, and second, He healed a person with a withered hand on the Sabbath.

When confronted about the grain, Jesus did not try to argue that His disciples had not broken the Sabbath.  Instead, He pointed out a story from the First Testament in which David and his companions broke the Torah of Moses by eating grain that had been tithed to the priests.

Jesus’ point seems to have been that in terms of enforcement God had not treated the letter of the Law as absolute, even in the First Testament.  As in the case of David, people were allowed to violate the Torah without penalty from God coming upon themselves in certain circumstances.  If Jesus saw Himself as comparable to God and wanted to permit His disciples to violate the Law on an occasion, it was hardly unprecedented.  I imagine the Pharisees might have been willing to concede the principle Jesus was highlighting.  What they could not accept, of course, was that Jesus had the authority to authorize such exceptions.

The issue of healing on the Sabbath was a bit more complicated.  The rabbinic tradition seems to suggest that first century Judaism did not object to healing on the Sabbath in every circumstance.  The issue seems to have centered around the urgency of the need.  If the healing was a matter of life and death, it seems to have been allowed on the Sabbath.  But, if a person could survive until the next day, then no work should be done on the Sabbath, as the Torah required.  Certainly, this man with a withered hand was in no immediate danger of death, so his healing could wait.  In that case the Torah should have been followed.

This is one of the few instances in the Gospels in which we are told specifically that Jesus became angry.  His argument seems to have been that the Sabbath law should never have been used as an excuse not to help someone in need.  The Sabbath was to be a day of no work, but not a day of no mercy or grace.  So, Jesus healed him.

However, what the Jewish leaders knew and Paul seems to have appreciated (he was a Pharisee, after all) is that the grace Jesus was asking for did in fact violate the Law of Moses, technically.  Under the Torah of Moses, the Israelites didn’t really have the authority to extend that sort of grace.  They had to obey the Torah first and foremost.

Therefore, if Jesus was going to initiate a kingdom in which grace and mercy would supersede obedience to a set of rules and regulations, then it could not be accomplished under the Law of Moses.  It would require a New Covenant, a new agreement, a new set of expectations.

How many of us, Christians, have failed to appreciate these teachings of Jesus and of Paul.  How many of us still want the wicked to be punished, the law-breakers to suffer, the evil to get their just desserts.  How many of us would wield the law of God as a sword to attack our adversaries?

For Jesus and for Paul, these are the kinds of values and the kind of world from which Jesus died to free us.  To think and act in these ways, after being freed by the blood of Jesus, is, for Paul, to fall away from grace.

It’s not that there are no requirements in this New Covenant of Jesus, as we’ll see shortly, but it is a covenant in which grace and mercy come first.  This is the principle gospel-problem when we refuse to forgive those who have sinned against us or when we refuse to pray for our enemies.  When we refuse to do these things we put law and justice before grace and mercy.

Some of us are rule people.  We like guidelines and expectations, and we don’t like exceptions or compromise.  When we hear that it is for freedom from the worldly principles which underlie the very nature of law that Jesus set us free by His blood, we can be antagonized by such grace.  We don’t want to live in a world filled with such uncertainty; a world in which we can’t simply turn to a rule or regulation to tell us what to do in every circumstance; a world in which grace might be more important to God than rules; a world in which the right thing and the wrong thing might vary from situation to situation.

Now, it’s one thing to be scared, unnerved, confused, frustrated, or even angered by this freedom of the Gospel.  But, it is quite another thing to try and convince people freed by Jesus to become slaves again to the tyranny of Law.  When we hear that it is for freedom that Jesus has set us free, we might be more than antagonized by grace, we might actually ally ourselves with God’s enemies.

7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? 8 That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9 “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” 10 I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. 11 Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. 12 As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves![13]

This is some of the most venomous Pauline language in the New Testament.  And notice that Paul didn’t accuse those who are advocating for a return to Mount Sinai by way of religious circumcision simply as differing with him in opinion.  Paul labeled these individuals as enemies of God.

Seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it?  Well, perhaps not.  Paul had personal experience with this way of viewing holiness and righteousness before God.  Paul was an expert in the Torah–a Pharisee–and, traditionally, a student of a renowned Jewish rabbi.  Initially, Paul had studied Jesus’ teachings and had decided that Jesus was a heretic, a violator of the Law of Moses, a man who was killed justly.

Even more, Paul had spent the early days of Christian history hunting down Christians, imprisoning them, and approving of their executions.  Paul knew what the Law of Sinai required.  Paul was an expert in the Law of Moses.  And Paul knew that obedience to the Law of Moses was not compatible with the way of life commended by Jesus and His Apostles.

But, Paul had an encounter that changed his life forever.  In the middle of a journey to hunt down more Christians, Paul met the risen Jesus face-to-face.  On that day, Paul realized not that he had been wrong about the Law of Moses, but that he had been wrong about Jesus.  As a man, Jesus had no authority to alter or to amend the Torah of Moses, and he certainly had no authority to author a New Covenant between God and humanity.  But that day on the road, Paul found out that Jesus was no mere human.  Jesus was God, and as God, Jesus had the authority to do all of that and more.

Paul had personal reason to call advocates for lingering submission to the Law of Moses enemies of God.  He had been such a person; he had been an enemy of God.  Paul had tried to destroy the church from the outside.  And now, as an ambassador of the Gospel of Jesus, he was certainly not going to allow a person like his former self to destroy the church from the inside out.  As Paul insisted in verse 6, true followers of God recognize that “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

So, when we hear Paul’s summary of the Gospel, “1It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery,” we can be antagonized by such grace, or we can even become allied with God’s enemies against Jesus.  But thankfully, there is a third way of living in response to this Gospel of grace.  We can abandon ourselves to the Law of love.

13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” k 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. [14]

The spirit of the Law of Moses has become the letter of the Law of Jesus:  ‘serve one another in love’.  There are guidelines for behavior in the New Covenant of Jesus.  As we’ve just read, there are ways to distinguish between those who have received God’s Spirit and those who have not—between those who are citizens of the Kingdom of God and those who are still slaves to the world.  But, the key difference between true followers of God and the rest is not adherence to a cold set of rules and regulations.  The key distinction is to be found in the capacity Jesus’ followers have for mercy and grace.

What’s the key difference between what Paul calls the acts of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit?  The acts of the flesh are self-centered, self-gratifying, self-focused, self-obsessed, self-righteous.  Law alone cannot free us from these evil self-absorptions.  If anything, the Law often enhances them.  If we are obsessed with our own happiness, our own gratification, our own blessings, our own suffering, or even our own salvation or our own righteousness, then, according to Paul, we are slaves to the flesh.

The Spirit frees us to place the needs of others alongside of ourselves.  We have been set free to love.  The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.   These are behaviors full of grace, full of mercy, full of the love of others.  The evidence of our faith is not abandonment to rules and regulations.  It is abandonment to love—abandonment to the extending to others what has been extended to us in Jesus without limit and without end.

Does Jesus have expectations for His people which Christians should be concerned with embodying?  Yes, He does.  We can read the Gospels.  We can sit at Jesus’ feet and hear His teachings during the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  In fact, in many ways the moral requirements of Jesus’ New Covenant are far stricter and more difficult to embody than those of the Covenant of Sinai.

The Torah of Moses said, “Do not murder,” but the Torah of Jesus says, “Do not hate.”  The Torah of Moses said, “Do not commit adultery,” but the Torah of Jesus says, “Do not lust in your heart.”  The Torah of Moses said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but the Torah of Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” But, this covenant places grace and mercy first, and so, though the expectations may be infinitely higher, the criteria of judgment is far more gracious and merciful.

How will each of us use the time we have been given?  Will we use it in service of God and of His kingdom, or will we use it to pursue desires and agendas of our own.  Will we partner with God to remake the world and our place in it as He has commanded, or will we labor to create a world which meets our standards and expectations?

I hope you will choose to follow a God who died to save those who were killing Him, who prayed for His enemies, who broke the Law of Sinai on occasion out of His love and care for others, and who showed us the way of love.  I hope that you will spend the few days you have been graced abandoned to love and not to law.  In the words of Paul:

14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” k15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

J. Thomas

[1] The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Galatians 5:1.

[2] Ibid, Galatians 5:2–6.

[3] Deuteronomy 28:15.

[4] See e.g., Deuteronomy 14:22-29.

[5] See e.g., Deuteronomy 22:22.

[6] See e.g., Numbers 19:1-22.

[7] See e.g., Deuteronomy 15:1-11.

[8] See e.g., Leviticus 1-7.

[9] See e.g., Exodus 20:8-11.

[10] See e.g., Deuteronomy 5:21.

[11] See e.g., Deuteronomy 28:1-2.

[12] Ibid., Mark 2:23–3:6.

[13] Ibid, Galatians 5:7–12.

[14] NIV, Galatians 5:13–26.

Arminianism and Predestination: A Suggestion – Some Clarifying Comments

For those who are waiting anxiously for the next blog in our Arminianism and Predestination series, Blog #5 should be posted by the end of this next week (Feb. 4 – 8, 2013).  The next two blogs will deal with Romans 9-11 and Ephesians 1 respectively.  I’m fairly excited about both studies, and I’ll look forward to sharing them soon.

However, I wanted to pause at this point in our series to make some clarifying comments.  I have been engaging with some respected theological colleagues over two issues that have arisen out of the first blog of this series.  The subject of that blog was free will.  I hope these next words will be helpful for those who might have found cause for concern.

First, several of my readers have expressed concern over the definition of libertarian free will that I linked to at the onset of that article.  The issue under consideration was whether the first line of that definition might be irredeemably misleading.  It read:

Libertarian free will means that our choices are free from the determination or constraints of human nature. . . .

To that point, let me insist that libertarian free will should not be understood as incompatible with human nature.  I think what is implied in that definition is the realization that a libertarian free choice requires a capacity to choose contrary to fallen human nature.  If that’s all that’s intended, then the definition is passible.  That’s the way I read it, and that’s the reason I utilized it.

However, the way the definition is worded could imply that proponents of libertarian free will believe that human choosing has no limits whatsoever.  That would be a distortion of what is meant by libertarian free will.  Proponents of libertarian free will do believe that human freedom operates within the confines of human nature and within the broader limits of the created order.  What is essential to a proper understanding of libertarian free will is the insistence that moral responsibility requires that a person could have chosen otherwise.

Second, in that first blog of the series I suggested what I put forward as another way of understanding human freedom–a position I called divinely graced contingent freedom, or less precisely but also less cumbersome contingent indeterminateness.  I still prefer this terminology and the way of conceiving of human freedom that it entails.

However, I was probably too strong in trying to distinguish my own view from the view of libertarian free will.  It’s not so much that my position is in opposition to libertarian free will precisely.  It would perhaps be more accurate to say that the perspective I have been advocating is a variety of libertarian free will.

I have been advocating that the human will can be free in a libertarian way.  My only insistence has been that this sort of freedom is not natural–it is a consequence of grace–, and this sort of freedom is not continual, but only an occassional gift of God.  It should be understood that I am still speaking of libertarian free will when God graces humans that freedom.  I’ve only insisted that freedom’s occasional and grace-based qualities makes contingent inderminateness a more precise terminology for what I’m advocating.

It’s not my habit to make these sorts of explanatory comments routinely.  However, I have been persuaded that these comments could be helpful for some.  So, if anyone were to find them useful, I offer them gladly.

On to Romans and Ephesians… I hope you’ll keep reading and commenting.  It’s getting interesting ;-).


J. Thomas

Arminianism and Predestination Blog 4: Cosmos in Johannine Literature

Arminianism and Predestination – A Suggestion

Blog 4:  Cosmos in Johannine Literature

In case a reminder of my root assumptions is necessary, here they are again:

In the first three blogs of this series, I have tried to provide some evidence for a perspective on human freedom that underlies the rest of what I intend to discuss under the heading “Arminianism and Predestination – A Suggestion.”  That perspective is rooted in the conviction that human freedom is not metaphysically libertarian—that is, humans have not been, from the moment of their creation, autonomously free.  Humans, as is true of the larger universe which we inhabit, have been narrated in Genesis 1 and 2 as subordinated to the word of God.  I have argued, and continue to maintain, that human freedom is a consequence of grace—of God’s continued activity in the universe He has created—and not an essential and inherent quality of human nature.

Humans, as all creatures in the universe, have some capacity for self-determination naturally.  My point has not been to argue that creatures in the universe do nothing whatsoever except by the specific decree of God.  However, in qualified agreement with those who call themselves compatibilists, I do believe that God has set limits which constrain human freedom to such a degree that the concept of metaphysical libertarianism is simply inconsistent with the way in which human choice has been narrated in the Christian Scriptures.  Any truly libertarian choice that a person makes, in this way of thinking, is a consequence of God’s grace and not an endowment of human nature.

This blog deals exclusively with what has been traditionally called Johannine Literature—that is, the body of New Testament texts that have been ascribed to the Apostle John (John, 1, 2, 3 John, and Revelation).  And our exploration will focus primarily on the Gospel of John—though I do believe that the reading I will suggest remains consistent throughout the writings of the Johannist.

My interest in this installment of our series is on the Johannine usage of the Greek word cosmos—often, though not always, translated as world in English.  The significance of cosmos in Johannine Literature can be illustrated in a number of ways.

Statistically, of the 186 occurrences of cosmos in the New Testament, 105 have been used in the Johannine corpus (78 in the Gospel, and 27 in the remaining texts).  In fact, cosmos occurs more times in John’s Gospel (78) than in the entire Greek translation of the First Testament (71).  Suffice it to say that cosmos figures prominently in the Johannine linguistic tradition.

Now to be sure, some readers of Johannine Literature have correlated the profundity of cosmos to the Johannist’s admittedly limited vocabulary.  Repetition of words and phrases is common in the Johannine corpus, so perhaps the Johannist simply didn’t have access to synonyms.  That contention seems dubious to me in that words with near meanings to cosmos can be found in John’s writings.  The word ge, for instance—often translated earth, land, or region—, has lexical overlap with cosmos and occurs 13 times in John’s Gospel and 95 times in the entire corpus.

With that said, perhaps statistical surveys do not constitute proof of a term’s significance.  After all, the definite article occurs more times in the New Testament than any other word (19,863), and it would be hard to maintain that the is the most theologically significant term in the New Testament.

Cosmos, however, is not distinguished in Johannine Literature simply by the frequency of its usage.  In fact, cosmos is a key lexical term in many of the more significant passages in the Literature of John.  The most culturally prominent passage today to feature cosmos is probably John 3:16-17, which reads in the NIV:

16 For God so loved the world [cosmos] that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world [cosmos] to condemn the world [cosmos], but to save the world [cosmos] through him.[1]

So, if cosmos occurs with such regularity in Johannine Literature, and the definition of cosmos seems to be of pivotal importance to theologically rich texts such as John 3:16-17, then what does cosmos mean?  Well, therein is the rub.

Cosmos is a slippery term to define lexically.  In the Jewish writings of the intertestimental period, cosmos seems to have been the preferred term for the older Hebraism ‘heavens and earth’ and appears most commonly to refer to the entirety of the created order.[2]  Perhaps the Johannist’s usage reflects this Jewish preference.

BDAG identifies no less than eight somewhat distinct lexical uses of cosmos in the writings of the early Christian era,[3] and consequently, it would appear that the semantic range of cosmos is quite broad.  Context, then, would become the key indicator of range of meaning in a particular passage.  And, since Johannine Greek is somewhat rudimentary in vocabulary and style, many have argued that the meaning of cosmos in the Johannine corpus is quite fluid.

My contention in this article, however, is that the meaning of cosmos in the Gospel of John particularly is fairly stable and correlates best with the sixth of the suggested spheres of meaning for cosmos in BDAG—namely, the “humanity in general.”[4]  However, I believe that the Johannist has nuanced this meaning in an idiosyncratic way–that is, a way unique to the Johannine Literature.  For the Gospel of John, as I’ll demonstrate, cosmos is a term used to distinguish two human sub-groups.

Of significance to me, therefore, is the following question:  What constitues a person’s inclusion in the cosmos in Johannine Literature, and how should that influence our reading of John 3:16-17?   Some, of the more Calvinist persuasion, have argued that cosmos in John 3:16 refers to the elect—that is, those predestined by God from eternity to be saved.  Others, of the more Arminian persuasion, have argued, more in line with the typical lexical use of cosmos, that cosmos refers to humanity generally without distinction, and therefore John 3:16-17 is a declaration of God’s love for all humanity and of His desire to save all humans.  I disagree with both of these contentions.

To my reading, the term cosmos in the Gospel of John refers neither to the elect nor to all humanity generally.  I would argue that cosmos in John refers specifically to those who do not recognize Jesus, to those who do not follow Jesus, to those who reject the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Allow me to defend this contention briefly.

The first occurrence of cosmos in John is in 1:9.  The passage reads as follows:

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.[5]

In my opinion, the Johannist has introduced a basic division in these opening verses that will be prominent throughout the remainder of the Gospel.  It is a division between those who recognize Jesus and those who do not.  In these opening verses, the Johannist labels those who recognize and receive Jesus as ‘children of God’, born not of natural descent or human decision but born of God.  This group, in John, will be most closely associated with the disciples of Jesus, and, to my reading, correlates with what many Calvinists call ‘the predestined elect’.

However, there is another group highlighted in these early verses, and this group is characterized by their failure to recognize Jesus, by their refusal to receive Jesus.  This group in John 1:10 has been called the world (cosmos, in Greek).

Whenever humanity is in view, this distinction between the world (cosmos) and the children of God in John remains overt throughout the Gospel, and it reaches its pinnacle in a question asked by one of Jesus’ disciples in John 14:

15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

 22 Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”. . . .

. . . .30 I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, 31 but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.[6]

And then, if the distinction between the children of God and the world was not strong enough, the division drawn by the Johannist becomes stronger still in the longest recorded prayer of Jesus in the New Testament—Jesus’ so-called high priestly prayer in John 17:

“I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. . . .

. . . .13 “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. 14 I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. . . .

. . . .20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.[7]

It seems to me most natural to read John as having drawn a distinction between humans.  Those who believed in Jesus and received Him in John were called children of God—born not of a human decision, but born of God.  Those who did not recognize Jesus; those who refused to receive Him and His Apostles; they were the world.  If this observation proves adequate, then the implications are plentiful.

First, the somewhat common Arminian/Wesleyan insistence that God either cannot or will not violate the metaphysically free will of the human must be evacuated.  It seems to me that, for the Johannist, the Apostles of Jesus, including Judas Iscariot, represent a group akin to the prophets of the First Testament and the remnant in Pauline theology.  To my reading, none of the Gospel writers indicate that the disciples who became Apostles ever deliberated about their choice to follow Jesus.  For the Johannist, I would argue that this area of silence is no narrative omission.  For the Johannist, the failure to deliberate has been intimately connected to the disciples’ elect status.  They have been chosen; they have not been graced a choice to follow.  Here, I think the Calvinist tradition has proven more faithful in reading the text of John than many of us who consider ourselves Arminians and Wesleyans.

However, the second implication of the reading I’ve suggested seems to me to be profoundly Arminian in consequence.  According to John 3:16-17, God did not send His Son out of love of the elect, nor did He send His Son to save the elect specifically.  The Johannist has insisted that God loved the world in this way:  that He sent His Son not to condemn the world but to save the world through Him.  If for John the world is to be distinguished from the disciples, then the implication for me is not that the Calvinist tradition has misunderstood the mechanism of election, but it has failed to appreciate election’s purpose.

The purpose of election, according to this reading of John, is not salvation of the elect, but the deliverance of the Gospel to the non-elect.  In other words, God elects some, apart from their will or willingness, in order to grace those not so elected with the freedom to choose to respond to God’s work on their behalves in Jesus.  Election, then, to use Wesleyan terminology, is a ministry of God’s prevenient grace.

Questions?  Comments?  Contributions?  Stones?


J. Thomas

[1] The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), John 3:16–17.

[2] Hermann Sasse, “kosmeo, kosmos, kosmios, kosmikos,” ed., Gerhard Kittel, trans. & ed., Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Volume III (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), 880-883.

[3] Walter Bauer, rev. & ed., Frederick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature: 3rd Edition (Chicago, IL:  The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 561-563).  For those who are interested the eight are: (1) adornment, (2) orderliness, (3) the universe, (4) all beings above the level of animal, (5) planet earth, (6) humanity in general, (7) the system of human existence, and (8) collective aspect of an entity.

[4] Ibid, 562.

[5] NIV, John 1:9–13.

[6] Ibid, John 14:15-22, 30–31.

[7] Ibid, John 17:6-9, 13-19, 20–23.

Blog 4 in the Arminianism series is coming… My apologies for the delay

I’m not really sure how many have been following this series of blogs, and I certainly haven’t received any emails begging for more installments.  So, perhaps this explanation and apology is unnecessary.  But, I offer it in any case.

I have recently moved from ministering in the Kansas City area to the senior pastor position at New Beginnings Church of the Nazarene in Loudon, New Hampshire.  The transition has been both rewarding and overwhelming, and it is for these reasons that I have failed to post any new blog entries for several months.

With that said, I am presently finding some sense of equilibrium, and my intention is finally to continue the series of blogs on Armininianism that I began during the summer of 2012.  So, for those who have been waiting with baited breath, my goal is to have blog #4 in the Arminianism series posted by the end of next week.

Interestingly, since the posting of blog #2 in this series on Arminius’ doctrine of divine concurrence, there has been a significant uptick in the discussion of that doctrine on both Calvinist and Arminian blogs and discussion groups.  I don’t think I can take any credit for initiating the renewed interest in this oft-overlooked doctrine of Arminius, but I am pleased that the doctrine is getting a fresh look.

However, it is disappointing for me to observe that Calvinist bloggers seem much more appreciative of the doctrine than my Arminian sisters and brothers.  I guess I can understand the resistance, since divine concurrence most certainly involves God, to some degree, in the actual realization of evil acts.

We, as Arminians, have often consoled ourselves with the belief that the doctrine of free will (be it libertarian free will or contingent [as I have argued in this series]) somehow absolves God of any participation whatsoever in evil acts apart from purely mundane maintenance involvement–that is, God grants or enables free will, sustains the life of the individual(s) who choose evil, and so on.

Divine Concurrence probably appeals to me to some degree because I am admittedly much closer to Calvinist conceptions of God’s Sovereignty and Providence than I am to the stereotypical Arminian stances on the subjects.  Here I believe I am more in line with Arminius himself than many Arminians.  But, since Arminius was only a man and far from infallible in any of his doctrinal positions, that is more an observation than a defense of my position.

Moving from Scriptural language to doctrinal confessions is a complicated, sometimes circular, and ideally a spiralling process.  For these reasons, I labor to follow the maxim that doctrine should be written in pencil.  For those who are interested, I’ll be pencilling out another installment of this series on Arminianism in the next week.


J. Thomas

Arminianism and Predestination Blog 3: Contingent Human Freedom – What’s at Stake?

Arminianism and Predestination – A Suggestion

Blog 3:  Contingent Human Freedom – What’s at Stake?

In the first two blogs of this series, I have tried to provide some evidence for a perspective on human freedom that underlies the rest of what I intend to discuss under the heading “Arminianism and Predestination – A Suggestion.”  That perspective is rooted in the conviction that human freedom is not metaphysically libertarian—that is, humans have not been, from the moment of their creation, autonomously free.  Humans, as is true of the larger universe which we inhabit, have been narrated in Genesis 1 and 2 as subordinated to the Word of God.  I have argued, and continue to maintain, that human freedom is a consequence of grace—of God’s continued activity in the universe He has created—and not an essential and inherent quality of human nature.

Humans, as all creatures in the universe, have some capacity for self-determination naturally.  My point has not been to argue that creatures in the universe do nothing whatsoever except by the specific decree of God.  However, in qualified agreement with those who call themselves compatibilists, I do believe that God has set limits which constrain human freedom to such a degree that the concept of metaphysical libertarianism is simply inconsistent with the way in which human choice has been narrated in the Christian Scriptures.  Any truly libertarian choice that a person makes, in this way of thinking, is a consequence of God’s grace and not an endowment of human nature.

Though this sort of medium does not lend itself to the defense of these positions exhaustively, I have endeavored to support these contentions in the first two blogs in two different ways.  In blog 1, I attempted to illustrate this distinction between nature and grace in human freedom narratively and biblically.  In blog 2, I struggled to explain the nuanced logic of James Arminius which leads inevitably, in my reading, to this sort of an understanding of human freedom.

What is at stake in this issue for me, however, should really begin to take shape in these next few blog entries.  Of principle importance for this installment is the dismissing of a commonly held Arminian conviction that I believe has proven to be particularly difficult to reconcile with the testimony of Christian Scripture.  And, it is the belief that God either cannot or will not violate the so-called ‘integrity of the human person’ by compelling her or him to do this or that.

If one accepts metaphysical libertarianism or believes that libertarian free will is an endowment of human nature guaranteed by God in all circumstances, then this idea that God will not violate human freedom makes a great deal of sense.  However, if human freedom is understood in ways similar to the one I am advocating in this series of blogs, then the question of God’s overriding of human freedom becomes somewhat nonsensical.

Why is that?  Well, in my opinion, the natural state of humanity is to be overridden by the Word of God.  Only God’s grace can grant truly free choices—i.e., choices undetermined by the specific will of God or the natural restraints God has set in place.  Therefore, in this way of thinking, it is not problematic at all if God were to elect, predestine, or forcibly cause a human agent to do almost anything.  That, if I am correct, would be the most natural relationship anything in creation has to God, including humanity itself.  Here I believe that the Calvinist tradition has observed something in Scripture that we, as Arminians, must also confess:  God’s Sovereignty is not subordinated to human freedom in the narratives of Scripture.  As Arminius himself has argued to the contrary, human freedom, rightly construed, is naturally subordinated to the Providence and Sovereignty of God.

Now, don’t read me wrongly.  I do believe that, in His grace, God grants the larger portion of humanity such libertarian freedom that from a certain, very human, perspective it can appear as though human freedom is an endowment of human nature.  The point I am trying to make is that this very freedom that so many of us enjoy is not a natural endowment, but a gracious gift of God’s continuing activity in the universe.  Therefore, when Scripture narrates God as not permitting that sort of freedom to a person, what we are witnessing is not God abnormally over-riding human autonomy.  Rather, those narratives illustrate instances in which God refused to intervene to permit the human being in question to act unnaturally—to act freely.

In the next blog, I will return to a biblical, narrative approach and deal with the Gospel of John—a book, to my reading, which makes little sense apart from the perspective on human freedom that I am trying to advocate.

J. Thomas

Arminianism and Predestination – Blog 2: Divine Concurrence

Arminianism and Predestination – A Suggestion

Blog 2:  Divine Concurrence

In the first blog of this series, I argued that from a biblical, narrative perspective human freedom is a consequence not of creation proper, but of God’s continued gracious intervention in the universe he has created.  I also contended that the natural state of the universe is to be entirely in subjugation to the word of God.  Any indeterminate freedom that humanity, or any other creature, experiences is rightly understood as a consequence of grace and not as a component of nature.

In this second blog of the series, I am going to deviate a bit from my biblical, narrative approach.  In fact, for some readers, this blog may be a bit too academic and nuanced to be useful.  If you find it to be such, then I’d encourage you to skip it and wait for future blogs to continue the series.  However, for those who are a bit more adventurous and aren’t afraid of a little academic rigor, I hope this blog will prove both challenging and exciting.

I want to explore a little discussed doctrine posited by James Arminius that, in my view, has attempted to balance a Reformed understanding of God’s sovereignty and providence with what he and I have understood to be a more biblical understanding of human responsibility.  The doctrine seems best described by the phrase divine concurrence.

Most of what follows comes from a much longer essay that I wrote on the subject, and that essay began with a detailed exploration of the writings of John Calvin and his theological successor Theodore Beza.  Consequently, my footnoting of Calvin and Beza occurred in the first two parts of the essay and was not reduplicated in this final section.  For those who are interested, I will provide a link to the full essay at the conclusion of this blog.

James Arminius – Divine Concurrence

As had been true of the Calvinist tradition in the 16th century generally, Arminius rarely spoke of the concept of human will apart from the doctrine of Divine Providence.  In his “A Declaration of Sentiments,” Arminius maintained:

. . . . I declare, that [God’s Providence] preserves, regulates, governs, and directs all things, and that nothing in the world happens fortuitously or by chance.  Beside this, I place in subjection to Divine Providence both the free-will and even the actions of a rational creature: So that nothing can be done without the will of God, not even any of those things which are done in opposition to it;. . . .[1]

Here, Arminius clearly stood in agreement both with the Calvinist tradition in his denial of fortune and chance and in his affirmation that both the will and the actions of a rational creature are subject to Divine Providence and cannot be actualized apart from the will of God.

However, Arminius departed from the language Calvinism when he continued:

. . . .—only we must observe a distinction between good actions and evil ones, by saying, that “God both wills and performs good acts,” but that “He only freely permits those which are evil.”  Still farther than this, I very readily grant, that even all actions whatever concerning evil that can possibly be devised or invented, may be attributed to Divine Providence,—employing solely one caution, “not to conclude from this concession that God is the cause of sin.”[2]

Calvinism in his day would have been comfortable with Arminius’ final caution—i.e., God is not the cause of sin.  Even so, the idea that God’s Providence in relation to evil must be understood as free permission was a conclusion specifically denied by Calvin, and carefully qualified by the leading Calvinist theologian of Arminius’ day, Theodore Beza.  It seems apparent that, for Arminius, the human will, though subject to Divine Providence, must have some measure of autonomy in order to avoid the conclusion that God, in His Providence, is the cause of sin.  It is as a consequence of this conviction, in my view, that Arminius’ most significant contribution to the Calvinist concept of human will began to take shape.  I’ll return to this point momentarily.

Arminius’ description of the human being both before and after the Fall remained very close to that of Calvin himself:

In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his Creator, man [sic] was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness, and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him: Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace.—But in his lapsed and sinful state, man [sic] is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good.  When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing, and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.[3]

What was unique in Arminius’ discussion was his insistence that both before the Fall and after regeneration, the human will continues to depend on the perpetual aid of Divine Grace.  Certainly one could argue that Calvin’s comprehension of Divine Providence may have assumed such a conclusion.  Nevertheless, whereas Calvin located the will in the soul of humanity, Arminius seems to have conceived of the human will, as both naturally and spiritually endowed, as impotent (or perhaps even non-existent) apart from the continual grace of God.  For this reason Dr. Paul Bassett has argued that Arminius’ understanding of free will might better be termed free grace.

Despite the differences of emphasis that I have delineated, to this point Arminius stood well within the Calvinist tradition.  However, Arminius’ discussion of free will was far from complete.  As we have observed previously, Calvinism at the time generally taught that the conclusion that God was the author of sin could be avoided by drawing a careful distinction between necessity and compulsion.  For Arminius, at the heart of this contention was the assumption that a thing can be simultaneously necessary and contingent.  In the opinion of Arminius, such an assertion is logically untenable.[4]

Rather, Arminius believed that one is left with only two options regarding human sinfulness:

For if God resolve to use an irresistible power in the execution of his Decree, or if he determine to employ such a quantum of power as nothing can resist or can hinder it from completing his purpose, it will follow that the thing will necessarily be brought into existence:. . . . –But if he resolve to use a force that is not irresistible, but that can be resisted by the creature, then that thing is said to be done, not necessarily, but contingently,. . . .[5]

For Arminius, regardless of whether an act is done freely or under compulsion, if it is done necessarily, then God must be its efficient and principal cause.  Arminius was convinced that such a contention proclaims necessarily that God is the author, originator, and creator of sin.

However, Arminius did not believe that the contingency of a particular will or action effectively constrained God’s Providence.  Quite to the contrary, Arminius was insistent that God could work His will and fulfill his decree in spite of the contingency of individual events.  Arminius concluded:

Indeed if the Divine Wisdom knows how to effect that which it has decreed, by employing causes according to their nature and motion,—whether their nature and motion be contingent or free,—the praise due to such Wisdom is far greater than if it employ a power which no creature can possibly resist: Although God can employ such a power whensoever it may seem expedient to his Wisdom.[6]

Arminius embraced the idea of God’s determination, if it were understood to mean that God can accomplish whatever He has determined to do, irrespective of the contingency of the behaviors involved therein.  In Arminius’s words:

And this contingency and freedom of second causes does not prevent that from being certainly done, or coming to pass, which God in this manner works by them; and therefore the certain futurition of an event does not include its necessity.[7]

However, Arminius professed to “abominate” the idea of Divine Determination if it were taken to mean that “God by his eternal decree has determined to the one part or to the other future contingent things”—i.e., “those things which are performed by the free will of the creature.”[8]  According to Arminius, contingent things cannot be determined—they would be, by definition, necessary.[9]

It is at this point that we must return to Arminius’ conviction that God freely permits evil acts.  Calvin’s objection to the idea of Divine permission was that it seems to imply some sort of passivity on the part of God.  Calvin insisted that God’s Providence was active and contemporary in all things.  Permission, therefore, seems to suggest that God is not the principal cause of some events, but rather a passive observer.

Theodore Beza, similarly, was hesitant to use the term permission, but for slightly different reasons.  For Beza, permission seemed to imply that God was willing to permit certain activities which were either contrary to His will or regarding which He had little concern.  Beza was comfortable with the term permission provided it did not assume either of these conclusions.

Arminius seems to have attempted to settle both concerns in his articulation of Divine Permission.  He insisted that “. . . . whatever God permits, He permits it designedly and willingly,—His Will being immediately occupied about its Permission, but His Permission itself is occupied about sin; and this order cannot be inverted without great peril.”[10]

To say it another way, for Arminius, God’s Permission is both immediate and active, and it is always an act of His Will, even when it permits activity that is contrary to His Will.  Furthermore, Arminius did not conclude that God’s Permission results in providential passivity once it is willed.  Even after willing Permission, God, in His determination, both sets boundaries on the activity performed and works that activity to His own end.[11]

So, for Arminius, what role does God play in the evil that humans do?  It is at this point that Arminius both displays his thoroughgoing commitment to a Calvinist conception of Divine Sovereignty and Providence and makes his most significant contribution to the balancing of the doctrine of Divine Providence and the concept of human will.  Arminius agreed with Calvin, though perhaps not with Beza, that God is the principal and efficient cause of all things and that His Providence is active and immediate.  However, as we have already seen, Arminius was also convinced that these very convictions led necessarily to the conclusion that God, not humanity, is responsible, ultimately, for sin.

Arminius’ solution to the dilemma was to be found in the concept of, what he called, Divine Concurrence.  He defined the doctrine in the following way:

The Concurrence of God is not his immediate influx into a second or inferior cause, but it is an action of God immediately [influens] flowing into the effect of the creature, so that the same effect in one and the same entire action may be produced [simul] simultaneously by God and the creature.[12]

For Arminius, no activity of humanity can be brought to fruition without Divine Concurrence.  Arminius concluded, “And therefore God is at once the Effector and the Permitter of the same act, and the Permitter of it before He is the Effector.”[13]

According to Arminius, when God wills to grace a human being with the freedom to choose to act—i.e., to act contingently—, in order for that act to take place, God must will concurrently with the human to the realization of the consequent effect.  In this way, there is nothing that occurs apart from the Will of God, not even activities of wickedness.

God, therefore, can be said to perform acts of evil.  However, despite God’s responsibility in Divine Concurrence for the realization of evil, the origin of the evil lies in the contingent willing of the human, and therefore, though God may be responsible, to some degree, for reality of evil, He is not culpable for it.  In other words, the guilt lies in the human, but the effect lies in the Will of God as it wills concurrently with the human will.

As is perhaps clear, for Arminius the source of the Fall of humanity was contingent human will.  Consequently, salvation must also be offered to a contingent human will.  Yet again, we must remind ourselves that, for Arminius, the human will is only effective when God, through Divine Concurrence, both permits and effects its desires.  Furthermore, as we have observed previously, there is no human will, according to Arminius, apart from the perpetual grace of God.  In other words, Human willing is dependent continually on God, both in its origins and in its results.

Nonetheless, for Arminius, God both wills that the human response to incorporation in Christ to be a contingent response of a free human will and providentially acts in grace to guarantee such a response.  Arminius’ disputation on human will concludes with the following summary:

What then, you ask, does Free Will do?  I reply with brevity, It saves.  Take away Free Will, and nothing will be left to be saved: Take away Grace, and nothing will be left [unde salvetur] as the source of salvation.  This work [of salvation] cannot be effected without two parties—One, from whom [sit] it may come:—The Other, to whom or in whom it may be [wrought.]  God is the Author of salvation:  Free Will [tantum capere] is only capable of being saved.  No one, except God, is able to bestow salvation; and nothing except Free Will, is capable of receiving it.[14]

I cannot discern whether this final summation was original with Arminius, was a quotation placed by Arminius at the end of his disputation, or was inserted by the editors of his works.  Furthermore, I remain convinced that it states the soteriological significance of human will in stronger terms than was consistent generally with Arminius.  Nonetheless, it does appear to run consistent with the trajectory of his thought.

In my reading, human will, for Arminius, has never been natural, nor is it essentially free, if freedom is to be understood in terms of autonomy.  Rather, the human will is subjected to the Providence of God and depends continually on the gracious activity of God.

Thoughts?  Responses?  Stones?

Oh, and here’s the link to the full essay:

Human Will: Ephemeral or Efficacious?

J. Thomas Johnson

[1] James Arminius, “A Declaration of the Sentiments of Arminius, on Predestination, Divine Providence, the Freedom of the Will, the Grace of God, the Divinity of the Son of God, and the Justification of Man before God,” trans., James Nichols & William Nichols, The Works of James Arminius: The London Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:657-658.

[2] Arminius, “A Declaration of the Sentiments of Arminius,” 1:658.

[3] Ibid., 1:659-660.

[4] see Arminius, “The Apology or Defense of James Arminius against Certain Theological Articles Extensively Distributed, and Currently Circulated at least through the Hands of Some Persons in the Low Countries and beyond Their Confines: In Which Both Arminius, and Adrian Borrius a Minister of Leyden, Are Rendered Suspected of Novelty and Heterodoxy, of Error and Heresy, on the Subject of Religion,” Nichols & Nichols, 1:750-752, 2:33.

[5] Ibid., 1:753.

[6] Ibid., 1:755.

[7] Arminius, “Disputations on Some of the Principal Subjects of the Christian Religion,” Nichols & Nichols, 2:127.

[8] Arminius, “The Apology or Defense of James Arminius,” 1:760-761.

[9] Arminius summarized neatly this entire trajectory of thought in “Disputation IV: On the Nature of God” in his “Public Disputations;” see Arminius, “Disputations,”  2:122-129.

[10] Ibid., 2:167-168.

[11] see ibid., 2:167-174.

[12] Ibid., 2:183.

[13] Ibid., 2:183.

[14] This appears to be a quotation from Bernardus.  Nonetheless, it is placed at the conclusion of Arminius’ “Disputation XI: On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers;” ibid., 2:196.

Arminianism and Predestination – Blog 01 Free Will

Arminianism and Predestination – A Suggestion

Blog 1:  Free Will

It is often presumed that to be an Arminian one needs to affirm what is commonly called libertarian free will or, more philosophically, metaphysical libertarianism.  The contributors of have defined libertarian free will in the following way:

Libertarian free will means that our choices are free from the determination or constraints of human nature and free from any predetermination by God. All “free will theists” hold that libertarian freedom is essential for moral responsibility, for if our choice is determined or caused by anything, including our own desires, they reason, it cannot properly be called a free choice. Libertarian freedom is, therefore, the freedom to act contrary to one’s nature, predisposition and greatest desires. Responsibility, in this view, always means that one could have done otherwise.[1]

Of course, there is a lot implied in that definition, and the definition itself could be nuanced a bit further.  Even so, this seems accurate to me so far as it goes, and it is readily accessible online to any who might want to find it.  So, there it is.

Now, if this were another venue, I would be tempted to venture into the terrain of incompatibilism verses compatibilism, metaphysical determinism verses metaphysical libertarianism, and so on.  In fact, it is hard to discuss the issue of libertarian free will with any integrity without interacting first with the rich variety of opinion represented in these philosophical perspectives.  For those who are interested, Wikipedia actually has a passable article that does a fair job of providing an outline of these positions.  It’s neither comprehensive nor sufficiently nuanced, to my reading, but the article seems helpful as a primer.[2]

In any case, I don’t intend this blog to be an academic article, nor do I wish for it to get bogged down in philosophical jargon.  At heart, I am a biblical theologian of a narrative sort, and I prefer to engage with the concept of human freedom within the context of biblical narrative.

The philosophical positions I’ve alluded to above, in my opinion, are best seen as derivative perspectives.  In other words, I approach the issue of human freedom as one rooted in the narratives and teachings of the prophetic tradition of Israel and the Apostolic testimony of Jesus (that is, the First and New Testaments).

Philosophy, for me, attempts to help us better understand, better conceptualize, and, in some cases, better systematize what the Christian Scriptures have delivered to us.  Therefore, for the purposes of this blog series I will be wrestling, primarily, with the narratives of the Christian Bible.

Let me begin by saying that despite being an Arminian, I am not persuaded that libertarian free will (or metaphysical libertarianism) is a helpful way of understanding human freedom in Christian Scripture.  Now, this is not to say that I am a determinist.  Quite to the contrary, I affirm that humans can have the capacity to make choices that have not been predestined or determined by God.

I am also not really a compatibilist.  Though I agree with compatibilists that humans, in our natural condition, are only free in a very mitigated and bounded sense, I embrace the belief that God can, has, and continues to intervene in human nature in such a way that human freedom, particularly when it comes to the human response to the Gospel, cannot be defined simply in terms of biology, physics, opportunity, and so on.

In any case, permit me to engage briefly with the early narratives of the First Testament in order to illustrate what I do believe in regard to human freedom.

To my reading, the initial accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 narrate a universe which is entirely in submission to God.  When God spoke in Genesis 1 and 2, the universe obeyed.  Unlike the creation myths that we find in the surrounding cultures of the Ancient Near East (such as Enuma Elish), there is no yang to God’s yin.  There is no rebellious force in the universe, no antagonist, no rebel faction.  The consistent pattern in Hebrew remains, “vayy’omer ‘elohim yehi. . . .,” or “And God said let there be. . . .” in English.  And with each utterance of God creation obeyed without pause and without resistance.  The universe, in its creation for the Hebrew prophetic tradition, existed in complete subordination to the word of God.

I can see no reason to argue within the narrative that humanity should be viewed as somehow exempted from this natural state of the universe.  Humanity’s distinctiveness has been explained with respect to its creation as a being made in the tselem, the image, of God.  Whatever that is meant to imply, it does not seem to imply a natural capacity for self-determination. When that declaration was followed by a series of commands directing human life on earth in Genesis 1:28-30, the narrative betrays no hint that humans, in their natural state, would be free to refuse these directives.  In fact, the text itself concludes with the phrase, “vayhi-ken,” or “And it was so.”

Instead, the human capacity to disobey God seems to have been narrated as contingent, not on some facet of human nature, but on a later act of God.  It was God, in Genesis 2, who planted a garden in Eden, and it was God who placed the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life in its midst.  It was God who then provided the first humans with a choice through creation and law.  God created the opportunity for disobedience first by placing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the midst of the garden and then by proceeding to prohibit the eating of it.

The first opportunity for humanity to make a decision in which our first ancestors were free either to follow God’s edict or to transgress it seems to have been created and facilitated by activities of God which occurred after the original creation.  I believe the narratives of Genesis suggest to us that whatever it means for humans to be free in terms of following God or rebelling against him, that freedom lies not in human nature fundamentally, but in the ongoing activity of God.

Now, I do not believe that this recognition then necessitates the conclusion that God intended humanity to transgress the law He gave to Adam.  But, I do believe that it necessitates the conviction that humanity, in its natural condition, was created in submission to the word of God.  Only God could grace humanity with the ability to transgress His word, which Genesis seems to insist God did.

There appears to be no indication in the immediate context that the prophetic tradition of Israel believed that God caused or necessitated the ultimate decision that humanity made.  Even so, I think we must confess that the choice itself, as indeterminate as it appears to have been, was a consequence not of human nature, but of God’s activity—of God’s grace.

In other words, I’m suggesting that human freedom is not natural or metaphysical, but rather contingent on God’s willingness to grace it.  This implies, I believe, that human freedom is a consequence of grace as opposed to an inherent quality of human nature.  In fact, one could argue that in the garden God graced humanity with a choice of masters—that is, God invited humanity to choose to whom they would be enslaved.  Would humanity choose slavery to God or slavery to disobedience (perhaps even slavery to freedom itself)?

Humans do not appear to have been free before that choice, nor do we appear particularly free in its wake.  We were graced the opportunity to choose a master, and our ancestors chose freedom, autonomy, libertarianism over God.  Consequently, in the sentiments of Paul, we find ourselves slaves to sin.

I am sympathetic to understanding this state of fallenness in terms of the compatibilists.  Our freedom is quite mitigated in this fallen reality.  We are free to choose within limits—limits I would say, as natural as they may appear, set by God.  Even more, I would argue that our freedom to choose again loyalty to God and slavery to His Word depends fundamentally not on our nature, but on the intervening grace of God.  As in the garden, I would argue, God seems to have willed not to determine the outcome of those choices for most humans.  Even so, it is a choice in essence that depends entirely on His activity and not on ours.

In my opinion, no human is naturally free to transgress God’s word, nor in the wake of Adam and Eve’s response to God’s offer of choice are humans free any longer to embrace it consistently and entirely.  Any indeterminate freedom to choose that humans experience remains contingent on the ongoing activity and will of God.

In light of all of this, as opposed to the concept of libertarian free will (or metaphysical libertarianism), I am a proponent of what might be called, sort of inelegantly, divinely graced contingent freedom.  Less precisely but also less cumbersome might be the phrase contingent indeterminateness.

I invite your responses, critiques, and conversation if you wish to engage with this issue in the terms I’ve attempted to delineate.  My intention is to write one blog in this series each week.  I hope you’ll continue to journey with me.


J. Thomas

Perhaps I should write about my commitment to an evangelical Arminianism…

I have not found the time recently to blog independently of my sermon writing.  This is regrettable for me, since blogs and sermon manuscripts are two quite different literary genres.  So, I believe it is time once again for me to begin writing some true blogs, and the topic of the first series I’ll be working on is evangelical Arminianism.

For transparency’s sake I should confess that I was raised in a Wesleyan-Arminian tradition.  However, most of my education has been at the feet of Reformed and/or Calvinist teachers and professors.  I went to a private Christian Reformed high school, attended Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, and began my seminary studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Now, apart from my high school Bible classes, I have encountered Arminian scholars both at Gordon and at Trinity and, more recently and predominantly, at Nazarene Theological Seminary.  But, I think it is fair to say that the majority of the professors I have become close with and consider even today to be mentors have been from the Calvinist tradition.

This history led me into quite substantial Calvinist v. Arminian debates during the larger part of my young adult life.  During those years, I wrestled fiercely with these theological poles, at times not being sure where I would ultimately end up.

The fact that Arminianism won out in my early years was probably less due to biblical or theological conviction and more due to pragmatic and egocentric concerns.  First, I was raised in a Wesleyan-Arminian context, and I was following a call to pastor within that tradition.  Pragmatically, it would have been difficult to turn my back on that history even if I felt convicted that it was wrong.

Second, I simply could not stomach the idea of predestination and determinism given the world in which we live.  It was easier for me as a young person to accept the state of the world if I could excuse its darkness and evil as the results of human freedom.  In my teens and twenties I desired God to be more or less absent from the evil in the world, and, to my thinking then, only a form of Arminianism could absolve God of culpability for the horrors that have littered and continue to litter human history.

Now, I am not trying to intonate that I no longer feel the pull of these convictions.  I do.  But, as I have continued to wrestle with the Scriptural texts over the years, at least three convictions have become increasingly pronounced for me, and I believe they have somewhat muted these more youthful concerns.

First, my desire for a coherent biblical theology has become a stronger motivation than my commitment to a particular Christian tradition.  Second, my desire to encounter God as He is, as opposed to how I feel I need or desire Him to be, has grown exponentially, particularly since my run-in with cancer some eight years ago.  And third, as I have continued to wrestle with the Christian Scriptures over the course of living, learning, experiencing, and thinking in more sophisticated ways, I have become increasingly convinced that an Arminian understanding of Scripture is the most biblically and experientially likely reading of God’s Word.

Since having left more diverse academic contexts and having moved into a more homogenously Wesleyan-Arminian tradition some eight years ago now, I have not had occassion to discuss Arminianism and my commitment to its fundamental tenets for some time.  Recently, I have been much more absorbed in arguing for an evangelical Arminianism, since for some in my tradition the two terms are mutually exclusive.

However, given the present debate and conversation in public venues such as this, I am becoming convinced that I can make some contributions to the dialogue.  So, all that is to say that I will be beginning a series of blogs on Arminianism and my commitment to it.  I will continue to update this introductory blog as the series develops with titles of the various entries and links to them in the list below.

Blog 1:  Free Will

Blog 2:  Divine Concurrence

Blog 3:  Contingent Human Freedom – What’s at Stake?

I look forward to dialoguing with you through comments and responses :).


J. Thomas

Demons: Myths, Misunderstandings, or Menaces Part 2

At the heart of this brief series on the subject of demons and/or unclean spirits is the Gospel according to Mark.  In Part 1 of the series we began with a brief survey of demons/unclean spirits in and around the context of the first century C.E. outside of Christian Scripture.   This week, I intend to complete our investigation with an exploration of these beings in the context of the Christian Bible, paying special attention to Mark.

Before we get to that, however, permit me again this week to begin by delineating some foundational presuppositions that I bring to the discussion of these sorts of issues.

First, to my reading the Bible presupposes the existence of beings that are not part of the narrated creation in Genesis 1 and 2–e.g., angels (in the sense of non-human messengers), unclean spirits, demons, Satan, etc.  With that said, however, apart from the historical necessity of their existence and the historical-narrative importance of the events in which they take part, the Biblical authors and editors have provided very little information as to the historical background or the essential natures of these creatures.

Secondly, I presuppose that to ask about the nature of these creatures is, in many ways, to step outside of the intention of the Biblical authors/editors and possibly even to step outside of their knowledge (whether we are speaking of inspired knowledge or otherwise).  I would argue that the Biblical authors/editors have been inspired to interpret the events which they have recorded and reflected on, and that they have even been inspired to identify correctly the principal actors in those events.  However, short of finding a Biblical author/editor whose intention was to preach the pre-history or essential nature of these sorts of beings, what exactly they are connects merely with a presumption of the Biblical contributors and may not be entirely accurate.

All that is to say that when we attempt to explore what precisely these creatures are, when, how, and why they were created, why they do what they do or want what they want, and so on, we are leaving the realm of inspired Biblical teaching/testimony, and we are engaging in conjecture.  For these reasons, this blog series  represents only my best guess as to what precisely these beings might or might not be.  I do, of course, believe these blogs represent educated estimations based on the scant information provided to us by the Biblical contributors.  Nevertheless, in the end I am merely exploring the historical circumstances narrated by these authors/editors and trying to piece together an undisclosed, unrevealed mystery.  For these reasons, in my opinion these blogs do not properly belong in the category of Bible study.

Demons and/or Unclean Spirits in the Canonical Christian Bible

(A great deal of the following material is dependent on Werner Foerster’s article on the Greek ‘daimonion’ in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, volume 2, pp 1-20.)

Beginning with the First Testament…

There is at least one reference to spirits of the dead in the First Testament (see 1 Samuel 28:3-25).  In the heart of this particular passage (1 Samuel 28:13) the term used for these creatures is actually elohim (the same Hebrew name used for God and for false gods).  Even so, for the most part any discussion of malevolent spirits and/or demons is on the fringes of the First Testament.

There are only two general Hebrew words that seem possibly to be associated with demons or evil/unclean spirits–namely, shedim and se’irim.  With that said, it is not clear whether these terms are meant to refer to actual entities or if they are terms which simply refer to idols.

Additionally, there are some proper names in the First Testament with are depicted possibly as malevalent spiritual beings and are associated with various Gentile nations.  For example, the names Lilith (see Isaiah 34:14), ‘aluqah (see Proverbs 30:15), and ‘aza’zel (see Leviticus 16:8, 10, & 26) all may refer to demon-like creatures.  But again, in reference to Lilith and ‘aluqah, there is no evidence that the authors/editors supported actual beliefs in these creatures, and the proper translation of ‘aza’zel is hard to determine (though, ‘scapegoat’ is the most common translation in contemporary English versions).

Whatever we conclude about these scant allusions to these sorts of creatures in the First Testament, to quote Foerster:

In general we may say that the O[ld] T[estament] knows no demons with whom one may have dealings in magic even for the purpose of warding them off (Foerster, 11).

Whereas the Greeks often associated destructive powers with demons, the First Testament ascribed those same powers to the rule of God.  (Compare, for example, the narratives of David’s numbering of the people in 2 Samuel 24:1-25 and 1 Chronicles 21:1 – 22:1.)  For the writers and editors of the First Testament, God was ultimately sovereign over all of life.

To focus more particularly on the language of demon (daimonion in Greek), the Greek translation of the First Testament–i.e., the Septuagint (often abbreviated LXX)–seems to have assumed that the Greek term daimonion referred negatively and generally to heathen/Gentile gods, as opposed to malevolent personal forces of evil.

More can be said, however, on the First Testament’s use of the word satan.  The term satan in Hebrew means “the accuser” or, in the context of a legal dispute, “the adversary,” and it is rarely used in reference to non-human agents in the First Testament.  In other words, in most cases, the term satan is used in reference to humans who are playing the roles of accusers or adversaries in various contexts.

With that said, there are a number of interesting passages in which satan has been used in reference to apparently non-human agents.  In Numbers 22:22 and 32, the angel of the LORD was called the satan (usually translated into English as “adversary”).  In Zechariah 3:1-10, the prophet described a scene in which a high priest named Joshua (the original Hebrew name later transliterated as Jesus) was standing before the angel of the LORD being accused by the satan, and in this context the word looks like it could refer to a particular being.  Of course, most of us are probably familiar with the story in the book of Job of the satan going before God to accuse Job.  And, finally, in 2 Samuel 24:1-25 the text indicates that God incited David to number the people of Israel in order to punish them.  When that story was re-narrated, however, in 1 Chronicles 21:1 – 22:1, God was replaced with the phrase “the satan.”

What I hope has become clear in this brief survey of the term satan in the First Testament is that satan appears to be more of a title to be associated with particular actions or roles than it is a name to be associated with a particular being.  To my study, it is only in the New Testament that the title becomes more specific and approaches the category of proper name.

Moving on to the broader category of spiritual warfare in general, there are only two overt references to these sorts of realities in the First Testament.  The first is found in 2 Kings 6:15-19, and the second is in Daniel 10:2-14.  I leave you to look up those narratives at your leisure.  Suffice it to say that in both cases some sort of spiritual reality seems to have been revealed, but we are given almost no detail as to what precisely these events have to do with the general unfolding of human history.

That’s about the extent of what we find in the First Testament in relation to demons and/or unclean spirits.

Moving on to the New Testament…

The New Testament follows the First Testament pretty closely in respect to demons and/or unclean spirits.  Demons have not been depicted as spirits of the dead in the New Testament.  Rather, the dead were more often described as sleeping until the resurrection (see, for example, 1 Thessalonians 4:15; 1 Corinthians 15:18; Hebrews 9:27; & Revelation 20:4, 11ff).  Furthermore, in the New Testament demons were never depicted as intermediaries between God and humanity.  In the New Testament (as in the First), only angels serve in this capacity (see, for example, Matthew 1:20-23; 2:13-15, 19-21; 4:11; 28:1-7; Luke 1:11-20, 26-38; 2:8-14; 22:43; Acts 5:17-21; 8:26; 10:1-8; 12:6-11, 20-23; 27:22-26; along with all the varied references in Revelation).

Jesus did not speak of individual seducing spirits (as some Jewish popular belief maintained).  Evil, in the teachings of Jesus, comes from the heart, not from without.  Notice Jesus’ teachings, for example, in Matthew 15:10-20:

10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11?What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

13?He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14?Leave them; they are blind guides.?y If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

15?Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

16?”Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17?“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18?But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19?For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20?These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

Jesus may have insisted that uncleanness and defilement come from within a person and not from without, but that does not imply that the New Testament contributors did not conceive of evil forces.  Among the writings attributed to the Apostle Paul, for instance, there is some sense that the Gospel and the Holy Spirit provide protection from the assaults of evil forces, depicted mostly as national/political forces, at least in Ephesians (see, for example, Ephesians 6:10-17).

The only significant references to demons in the New Testament occur in the context of possessed people.  Demons and/or unclean spirits were never depicted as wandering spirits, ghosts, or any other such thing.  Even so, to quote Foerster once again:

Nevertheless, the fact that demons are mentioned only with relative infrequency in the N[ew] T[estament] does not mean that their existence and operation are contested or doubted.  For Paul witchcraft is meddling with demons.  But there can also be intercourse with demons in the normal heathen cultus (1 C. 10:20 f.).  While idols are nothing, and the Christian enjoys freedom, demons stand behind paganism (Foerster, 17). 

As I’ve already indicated, the term satan occurs in the New Testament, as well.  In Ephesians 2:2 the satan has been called “the prince of the power of the air,” and all demonic activity appears to have been perceived as subject to that creature.  And though the satan was said to “masquerade as an angel of light” (see 2 Corinthians 11:1), there was no textual connection made between the satan and his demons (sometimes called his ‘angels’ or ‘messengers’) and God’s angels.

Some, but not all, sicknesses were connected overtly with the activity of demons in the New Testament.  However, there are passages in the New Testament that seem to have associated illness in general with the oppression of the satan, who was sometimes called diabolos–the devil or deceiver (see Acts 10:38).

Most demon possession in the Gospels and Acts related primarily to injurious spirits that had caused a person to harm him/herself and had overwhelmed his/her conscious mind and freedom of choice.  Furthermore, and somewhat curiously, demons in the New Testament often evidenced a knowledge of God that they were almost compelled to confess in the presence of Jesus.

With all that said, for followers of Jesus in the New Testament, there was no need to fear these evil forces.  Effectively, they have been conquered by Jesus’ ministry and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God.

Demons and/or Unclean Spirits in Isaiah 40-66…

So that is a general survey of the concepts of demons and/or unclean spirits in the First and New Testaments.  However, as we near our more particular interest of demons and/or unclean spirits in the Gospel according to Mark, we must first pay particular attention to this language in Isaiah 40-66.  This is necessary because it seems that Mark thematically depended quite heavily on these chapters from Isaiah.

There is an interesting use of a form of the word demon in the Greek translation of Isaiah 65:1-7 which may relate to the narrative of the Gentile demoniac possessed by a legion of demons in Mark 5:1-20.

1I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me.  I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that did not call on my name.  2I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; 3a people who provoke me to my face continually, sacrificing in gardens and offering incense on bricks [the Greek translation of the Hebrew has inserted the phrase “to the demons” here]; 4who sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh,  with broth of abominable things in their vessels; 5who say, “Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”

These are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all day long.  6See, it is written before me: I will not keep silent, but I will repay; I will indeed repay into their laps 7their iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together, says the Lord; (Isaiah 65:1-7 NRSV).

Notice the common themes in the two passages–e.g., tombs, secret places, pigs, and the insistence that God stay away.

Additionally, Mark’s favorite term for “demons” was unclean spirits.  There is another interesting passage in Isaiah 40-66 relating to uncleanness that may help to decipher Mark’s emphasis on demonic activity in Jesus’ ministry.

4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.  5You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways.  But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.  6We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.  We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  7There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.  9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever.  Now consider, we are all your people(Isaiah 64:4-9 NRSV).

We are probably not accustomed to associating uncleanness generally with demon possession, but this passage is significant because, as I’ll make clear momentarily, I believe Mark has made precisely this connection.

Demons and/or Unclean Spirits:  The Contributions of Mark

Well, we’ve tossed a lot of balls in the air to this point.  How might we understand demons and/or unclean spirits in light of all of this?  Permit me to make a suggestion…

A significant piece of the puzzle for me lies in the way in which Mark has narrated the demons as addressing Jesus.  I invite you to notice with me the difference in the ways in which the demons in Mark identified Jesus in 1:24/3:11 and the way in which Jesus has been identified in 5:7.

1:24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

3:11 Whenever the impure spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.”

5:7 He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!”

Both 1:24 and 3:11 record instances of demon confrontation within the context of Judaism–that is, both of the demoniacs were Jewish.  And, interestingly, the demons associated with these Jewish people identified Jesus using peculiarly Jewish phraseology.  However, in 5:7 Jesus was confronted by a Gentile demoniac, and in that context, the demons identified Jesus using language which was more commonly that of Gentiles–that is, the language of ‘Most High God’.  Might there be significant implications to the fact that the demons in these instances seem to have spoken with the language and worldview of the people they inhabited?

It also seems to me that we must include Jesus’ insistence that evil comes out of the heart, James’s insistence that each person is tempted by their own evil desires, and the implications in both Jesus’ life and Paul’s teaching that the satan is at work testing/tempting into account in our deliberations.

Demons and/or Unclean Spirits:  A Suggestion…

So, what I want to try to do in order to make a suggestion as to how we might understand the concepts of demons and/or unclean spirits both in Mark and in the canonical Christian Scriptures is to begin with Jesus’ insistence that evil comes out of the heart.  James has argued similarly:  evil is not something that comes from outside of us.  It is something that comes from within us.

Consequently, evil probably should not be associated with an external source.  However, we do need to piece that together with the New Testament insistence that the satan is at work testing and tempting humans and that there are such things as demons trying to harm us.  How might we hold these conceptualities together?

Well, to do this faithfully there are a number of additional things we need to be reminded of.  First, we need to recall the distinction between the Greek concept of the spirit/soul and their relationship to the flesh and the First Testament’s conception of these relationships.  For the First Testament, it would be inappropriate to say that spirit has been corrupted, impeded, or defiled by flesh.  Spirit was the ‘thing’ that animated flesh in the First Testament, and the quality of a person’s spirit, therefore, could be determined by the quality of that person’s life and behavior.  A person with a good or clean spirit, walked in ways faithful to Torah and honoring to God in the First Testament.  A person with an unclean or injurious spirit, walked in rebellious or injurious ways.

That’s pretty different from the Greek conception that the soul was the purified or ideal form of the person and that once it had been encased in flesh it suffered a number of debilitations.  For instance, the Greek philosophical tradition argued that the soul forgot some of the things it knew prior to being enfleshed; in the flesh it suffered the pull towards animalistic tendencies and passions, and so on.  The First Testament just didn’t operate from that sort of a perspective of the relationship between the soul, spirit and flesh, and, in my view, neither have the New Testament contributors.

So, again, this idea that a demon is a spiritual being entirely foreign to and independent of the human person may be reading quite a bit of Gentile or non-Jewish conceptualities into the way Mark has narrated these events.  For the First Testament, the spirit didn’t have an independent existence apart from the human person.  Rather, it was a force that animated the flesh and came together with it to make a living soul, a living being, a nephesh in Hebrew.

We also should recall the narrative of the Garden of Eden and the serpent’s role in that story.  This creature did tempt Adam and Eve to do something that they should not have done, but he has not been narrated as the source of their inclination to disobey.  They had it within them to want to be what the serpent offered them to become.  There is a sense in which the serpent pressured, but the desire to disobey has not been rooted in the serpent.  It has been rooted in Adam and Eve themselves.

And then we have to tie in, somehow, Paul’s teaching in Romans 1:18-32 in which he has said that Gentiles, when they failed to recognize God for who He was and thank Him for what He has done, have been turned over to their own evil desires.  It would seem both here and in the Isaiah 64 passage that I cited earlier that presumably God will hand people who determine to do evil over to the evil they have done, to the point that wickedness comes almost to control them from that point on.

And finally, we need to recall that a theme of wilderness and desert runs through the Gospel according to Mark.  Throughout the First Testament and in Mark, the wilderness represented a variety of things–for example, a place of testing, of learning, of intimacy with God, of judgment, and the list could go on.  Mark has associated the idea of wilderness with a new exodus of Jesus which has been symbolically represented in Jesus’ own baptism.

Through His baptism in Mark, Jesus leads His followers out of the permanent structures of human society and back into the wilderness.  In light of this, it seems fair to argue that Mark envisioned the existence of the Church in this time between the times in the unsettled and untamed spaces of wilderness.  And, more poignantly, this region has been associated with the work of the satan in Mark, so the Christian community does appear to have been led into hostile territory.

So, these are the primary themes and concerns that I am trying to hold together with the suggestion I’d like to make regarding the reality of demons and/or unclean spirits for contemporary Christians.

In light of all of this, it seems to me that, first, demons or unclean spirits should not be understood as independent or pre-existent beings that have their own history and their own background and their own reasons for doing what they’re doing, and so on.  I would suggest that there is a sense that the demon is the spirit that animates the human–our own spirit.  When we become bound to sin, and we begin to justify sin, and we begin to live in sinful ways, our own spirit begins to fracture.  We still retain, to some degree, what we originally have been created to be (Paul might associate this with some conception of conscience), but we become divided.  We begin to mutate–our heart begins to splinter.  Paul seems to suggest in Romans 1 that these distortions and fractures can become so severe, that we may no longer recognize the difference between good and evil.  And, for Paul, fundamentally it is God who turns us over to this type of slavery.

So, I might suggest that demons are not foreign to us, since, again, Jesus and James have insisted that evil is not an external reality in relation to the human.  Evil in both of their teachings seems to flow out of the human heart.  Perhaps, then, demons or unclean spirits are ways of speaking of an evil personality that grows out of us as we embrace sin and walk away from God.  And somehow the more we walk away from God the more injurious and twisted this evil personality (or even personalities) can become.  Perhaps in its final manifestation, it can almost take us over, and it can become an independent process within us to which we lose volitional control.

It is arguable, in my view, that Mark has described all sin as this sort of destructive force within us.  Individuals confidently identified as demon-possessed in Mark are those that have been so overwhelmed by the evil within them that their slavery to their twisted hearts has become impossible to conceal.

However, there seems to be a subversive realization in Mark, that in fact all who fail to follow Jesus reveal themselves to be animated and motivated by unclean spirits (note again the Isaiah 64 passage I quoted previously).  In Mark, it would seem, all are demon-possessed and all need a new animating spirit within them.  The great hope of the Gospel, is that God has offered to us, not simply a renewed human spirit, but the very Holy Spirit of God to replace the twisted and self-destructive spirit of the human.

Given the way that the Gospel according to Mark (and the rest of the New Testament) has depicted demons or unclean spirits, it seems to me that we do need to confess that this twisting and dividing of the human spirit can become, in extreme cases, supra-personal.  That is, they can almost take on a will and personality of their own within us and within societies, driving people and societies to do things even against their own conscious wills.

In fact, I am becoming convinced that when Paul spoke of the power that sin can have over human beings in Romans 7, describing it almost as a foreign force which dominates us, he was actually speaking of a reality that the Gospel writers have called demon possession.  The important observation, for me, however, is that we are the fundamental sources of these things–they did not find their origin prior to or apart from humanity.

I think the benefit of this suggestion (though it is only a suggestion) is that it permits us to conceive and speak of demons as supra-personal realities that can operate independent of their hosts without having to step away from Jesus’ and James’s insistence that the source of evil tendencies is from within us.  We can say both that we are the source of these things and that they can become independent powers controlling us apart from our wills.

However, more importantly, for Paul and for Mark, the dilemma that this creates is that humans have no hope of transformation without a spirit-replacement.  And, it would seem that this is the very hope of the Gospel.  God has promised to cast out these corrupted human spirits and replace them with the very Holy Spirit of God.  Even more, perhaps the satan‘s dominion over these spirits relates to the fact that they have come to share a common cause–i.e., the destruction of humanity.  In that way, our deliverance from our shared demon possession and the dominion of the satan involves the breathing in of the Holy Spirit of God into those who believe.

So, in the Church should we fear demon possession?  In light of this study, I don’t believe we need to fear some foreign entity that might sneak in somehow and take us over.  I don’t really think that’s what demons in essence are, despite centuries of mythologizing in the middle ages to the contrary.  I do think we need to be concerned with our own compromised spirits, our refusals to follow Jesus, our exercising of our own values without reference to the testimony of the prophets and apostles.  I do think we need to fear the twisting of our spirits–the dividing of our heart–because, in the end, I believe that the New Testament calls the condition that results from such twisting demon possession.

The only way, then, to remain free and to remain safe is to have the Holy Spirit of God animating us.  Who can rescue us from this divided heart, this twisted spirit, this slavery to sin, this demon possession?  Only God through the casting out of the unclean spirits that have resulted from our rebellion and taken us over and the breathing once again of a new spirit into our nostrils–this time, the very Holy Spirit of God.  I think this is what was at stake in Paul’s insistence in Romans 8 that those who do not have the spirit of Christ are not of Christ.

Controversial, I know, and all of this in the end is only a guess.  But, for what it’s worth, I hope it might prove helpful to some.

J. Thomas Johnson

A Christian interaction with Scripture, theology, and practical living.

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