Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Christmas Calvinist: A Surrejoinder

James White has responded to my blog entry on 4.5 Calvinism (LINK), and I thought I’d offer one or two comments in return. I want to say a few things right up front, however. First, I’ll play Scrooge here and say “bah, humbug” to viewing my position as that of a Christmas Calvinist (No “L” = Noel”). Cute; but my position is more of a Partial “L” (PL), and as every Hebrew scholar knows, PL means it’s very right indeed! (PL = piel)—oh, never mind : )

Second, I have, on the NTRMin Discussion Forum, attempted to clarify my thoughts and to alleviate many of the concerns some have had about my view on this. Those of you who have been following that discussion know that I place my view of 4.5 Calvinism just slightly above the issue of whether we should choose a red or a green carpet for the church foyer. In many respects, I’m still thinking this issue through (and have been over the past 15 years) and I haven’t come to any firm conclusions about all the ramifications of the view. I included it in my blog entry only because I was asked to clarify my view after alluding to it in a previous entry.

Third, I have already indicated (in both the blog and the discussion forum) that I am willing to live with a certain amount of theological tension (as all of us must do with at least some of our beliefs) if I can resolve the greater exegetical tension of the key passages. Hence, this discussion (at least for me) is an attempt to “prove” (I’m using the archaic sense of the word) the commonly accepted theological construct of five-point Calvinism. Why? Because while I find an enormous amount of exegetical support for the other four points, I do not find that same support for limited atonement. In fact, I find the passages opposing that point to be much stronger. In any case, this issue (to me) is an exercise in carving away what may be nothing more than a deeply entrenched theological presupposition that, while making sense theologically, conflicts with the exegesis of the text. As I’m sure Dr. White would agree, there is little to be gained by holding to a theological tradition if that tradition ends up being exegetically deficient.

Finally, I need to say here that I have a great deal of respect for Dr. White’s work and ministry. My disagreement with him on the relative exegetical merits of limited atonement does not constitute anything more than that, and I think he knows that. Moreover, I have deep respect for the five-point Calvinist position. As the saying goes, “Some of my best friends are five-pointers”—in fact, most of them are. With those caveats in place, I will proceed to Dr. White’s objections.
First, regarding 1 Timothy 4:10: This passage is not, in fact, in a soteriological context, and unless we are going to read it in a universalistic perspective, are we not forced to suggest that God is the potential Savior of all men, but really the Savior only of those who believe? Where else is the Greek term "Savior" used to refer to a hypothetical Saviorhood rather than a true one? In reality, this is a general statement about God (notice Paul does not specifically designate Christ as the Savior here).
I am not positing some kind of hypothetical saviorhood. That would apply only if I didn’t believe Jesus actually accomplished something for all mankind (viz., atoning for their sins). “Hypothetical saviorhood” much more aptly applies to those who affirm (per 1 Tim 4:10) that God is the savior of all men, but then go on to suggest that there is no sense in which God has actually acted as savior to some men—that he is not actually the savior of all men. Dr. White suggests that the word “savior” is not here being used in a soteriological context. I confess, I have no idea just what that means or how it might support his subsequent point. In what sense is God “savior of all men, especially those who believe” if not in a “soteriological” way? The very word “savior” is soter, from whence we derive the word soteriological. What Dr. White may mean here (though he does not say) is that soter is not being used in a redemptive sense but rather in the general sense that God delivers people out of their troubles (such as we find in some OT contexts). I think we’ll need to break this one down a bit:
Just as God is Creator of all, even of those who do not acknowledge His creatorship, and Lord of all, even over those who refuse to bow the knee to Him, and just as He is King of kings and Lord of lords, so too, since He is the only Savior that exists, He is Savior of all men.
Dr. White previously argued that this was not a soteriological (by which I take it he means redemptive) context. But here Dr. White seems to affirm that God is indeed the only soter available to men in a soteriological way (he is the only Savior available). I think this is wise given the fact that there doesn't seem to be even one instance of soter in the NT that clearly carries some other meaning. Yet the moment he acknowledges this Dr. White cannot (it seems to me) escape the ramification that God is the very thing he has insisted God is not; namely, a mere hypothetical savior to some. In other words, while I certainly understand Dr. White’s argument that God is Savior of all men in the sense that there is no other Savior available to man—and agree with it, by the way—I don’t believe Dr. White has fully grasped the ramification of that statement; for to suggest such a thing is tantamount to saying the very thing Dr. White has already rejected. God ends up being the actual Savior of the elect and the hypothetical (or mere potential) Savior of the non-elect.

I’ll illustrate that point by using the same analogies Dr. White used, all of which I think work against his view. The statement “God is creator of all men” implies that all men were actually created by God. It does not mean that God is the only creator available even if he hasn’t actually created some. Rather it means that God actually created the atheist who denies he was created. The title “Lord of all” does not mean he is the only Lord available even if some are not really under his rule and authority. It means he actually rules over every living creature, including over those who do not acknowledge his lordship. Whether or not the creature happens to acknowledge that rule does not change the fact that he is being ruled. Hence, once we get to the title “God is Savior of all men,” it is inconsistent with the previous analogies to suggest that this statement means only that God is the only Savior available to men even if some men do not actually partake in that activity in some sense.
If this term was meant in a hypothetical sense, the following phrase "but especially" would make no sense. "Malista" does not take one from the hypothetical to the real. Instead, the point is that since God is the only Savior that exists, He is the Savior of all, but only those who believe know Him in that role as Savior. Nothing in the text is speaking to the issue of the atonement, its scope, or purpose.
I maintain that it is Dr. White’s understanding of this phrase that ends up positing that God is only a hypothetical Savior to some men. If Paul had intended Dr. White's sense of this—namely, that God is the only savior available but is in no sense the actual savior of the non-elect—then we might expect Paul to use the phrase “God our Savior” (as he does in 1 Tim 2:3), or to say simply “God is the Savior” without adding the modifier “of all men.” The modifier strongly suggests that God’s role as Savior has actually been applied in some sense to “all men.” Now, if Paul had at that point added the phrase “especially to the Jew” (see Rom 2:9-10 where he does something similar), then of course we would take the phrase “all men” as “all kinds of men (without distinction)” rather than as “all men (without exception),” and rightly limit the application to the elect, some of which are Jews and others of which are Gentiles. But that’s not what Paul does here. Instead, he introduces a major category (“all men”) and a subcategory within that major category (“those who believe”), and he asserts that God is in a lesser sense the Savior of the main category and in a greater sense the Savior of the subcategory. Paul’s statement makes God in some real, applied sense the actual Savior of all men. By contrast, Dr. White’s view envisions God as the Savior of the subcategory (“those who believe”) in a real, actual and applied sense, while maintaining that God is the Savior of the main category (“all men”) in no real, actual or applied sense. Hence, I believe the nomenclature “hypothetical Savior” much more readily applies to Dr. White’s own view.
I don't agree that fully Reformed soteriology ignores the fact that salvation, especially in those aspects that are by definition temporal in application, includes "stages" in that sense. I have consistently opposed those, for example, who have promoted "eternal justification," based upon the idea that if the elect were united with Christ, then it must follow that they were never the children of wrath (Paul says otherwise, Eph. 2:1-2). God applies the perfect work of Christ in time, of that there is no doubt.
I’m glad to hear this. My comments were directed toward those who view Christ’s atoning work on the cross as completed redemption. Normally they are easily identified by a failure to see the distinction between Christ’s atonement for the sins of the world and the application of that atonement to each individual. Since Dr. White agrees with me that the benefits of the atonement are applied to each individual in time—at the point of belief, I will assume—then we can proceed from that ground.
But I do not see how Dr. Svendsen can hold firmly to the unconditional electing grace of God, and His work of irresistible grace, whereby God raises His elect to life without fail, and yet then say that Christ bore the sin of one not so elected, did not intend to save that person, seemingly (this is where my presentation was not addressed and hence I can only ask rhetorically) intercedes for that person but to no avail (since neither the Father, nor the Son, nor the Spirit, intends to save the person, contra Heb. 7:24-25), and, even though the grounds for a perfect salvation have been laid in the work of Christ on behalf of that person, the Spirit will not apply it in regeneration.
Okay, let’s take this a point at a time. First of all, I do not see any necessary dependence between (1a) the unconditional choice of God’s elect and his effectual drawing of them, and (2a) the extent of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Christ can (2b) die to pay for the sins of his elect and (by virtue of the immeasurable and eternal value of that death) incidentally pay for the sins of the entire world in the process, AND (1b) unconditionally elect and draw his chosen ones to himself without doing the same for the non-elect. What, pray tell, is inconsistent about that?

Second, I do not believe there is any necessary dependence between the extent of Christ’s atonement and the objects of his intercession. I am not suggesting for a moment that Christ is interceding for the non-elect (Heb 7:24-25)—he most emphatically is not; and if he were, they would be saved. I think Dr. White’s concern over this point is misdirected because I don’t think he has understood the distinction I am making between those for whom Christ intended to die (his elect), and those who (due to the eternal value of the sacrifice) are actual benefactors of Christ’s death (“all men”). Christ fully accomplished his salvific purpose in his death, which (in the words of Dr. White) was to “lay the ground for perfect salvation” for his elect. But in the process, the far-reaching and eternal value of the sacrifice could not help but atone for the “sins of the world.”

I think this can be illustrated by an OT example. When God delivered the children of Israel out of bondage to slavery in the land of Egypt, we know that many more than Israel benefited from that action; for we are told that many of the Egyptians also chose to go with them, even though they themselves were not in slavery. I think we can make a distinction here between God’s intent in his redemptive act (redeem the children of Israel—which intent he fully accomplished) and the incidental result of that action (others, not included in God’s salvific intent, benefited in some way by that redemptive act). Here is where the “stages of redemption” are most crucial. I think “the sins of the world” (including those of the non-elect) were fully paid at the cross—everyone is included in that stage of redemption, much like the rabble were redeemed from the land of Egypt along with the children of Israel. But that stage is not the end all and be all of salvation--not all who were led out into the desert entered the promised land. Rather, as Dr. White has acknowledged, it “lays the ground for perfect salvation.” More on the ramifications of this in a moment.

Stages of application I agree with: but I do not see how that changes the reality of the substitution and the fact that as High Priest the Son's substitutionary atonement requires further actions in behalf of all for whom Christ died (seen in the "I" and "P"). While redemption as a term can be used to describe a wider variety of things than just the soteriological result of the atonement in behalf of those who will be saved, that does not really address the reality that if Christ bears the sins of the non-elect, there is still no ground for their condemnation;

Here, I think, is the crux of the issue. How can someone still be condemned if Christ has borne his sins? Yet Dr. White’s view is no less required to answer this question than is mine. As Dr. White has rightly observed (against the “eternal justification” view), even the elect are called “children of wrath” before they believe. But how so? How is it possible, if Christ bore their sins on the cross in space-time history, that they could still be called “children of wrath” after Christ died and offered the perfect sacrifice? Once Christ has perfectly accomplished the sacrifice for the elect “once for all time,” then what is the ground for the elect’s continued status as “children of wrath”? If Christ bore their sin, after all, they should now be free from sin and condemnation.

This is the point at which Dr. White does the right thing exegetically; he rejects a purely theological ramification of the atonement because that ramification contradicts the exegesis of key passages that address the issue. In other words, Dr. White accepts in principle that it is indeed possible for someone to be under condemnation of wrath (in this case, the elect) even though Christ has already paid for his sins. And, I’m certain he would say in the case of those particular “children of wrath,” their status is changed at the moment of justification through faith, and that the merits of Christ’s death are “withheld” and not “applied” until the point of belief.

But once that principle is adopted, no objection to my view can stand any longer. All I am doing is applying the same principle to other “children of wrath.” What if some of those “children of wrath” never end up believing? Since we agree that one can still be under condemnation as a child of wrath even though Christ already died and paid for his sins, and since we agree that the point at which the benefits of Christ’s death are applied is the point of justification by faith, then all that is left in question is whether some of the “children of wrath” will fail to reach the point of justification by faith. I think we both agree that some indeed will fail to reach that point.

And so what it really boils down to is not whether there is a category of people walking the earth whose sin has been atoned for but who are still regarded as "children of wrath" (we both agree that there is this category). Rather, it boils down to whether the atonement is in some way effectual—that is, that there is something about the atonement itself that "works itself out," so to speak, in the justification of everyone for whom sin is atoned. That, I believe, is the basis for the error of eternal justification. And not only do I reject the notion that there is any theological necessity to that belief, but I also believe it is contradicted by the exegesis of the relevant passages. There is absolutely no exegetical evidence I am aware of that would lead us to the conclusion that everyone whose sins were borne by Christ on the cross will ultimately be justified.

I firmly agree that the issue should be handled on the exegetical level. I simply point out that the passages that truly need to be addressed are not so much "extent" passages as they are atonement passages, intercession passages, mediation passages, accomplishment passages. This is where the strength of real, robust, uncompromising Calvinism is to be found

I agree that all these passages need to be considered. But, again, I have found no passage that directly contradicts my thesis—that Christ intended to die to lay the foundation of salvation for his elect, fully accomplished that intent, and in the process atoned for the sins of the world. All the objections I have seen are theological ramifications of these points, not exegetical ones. Dr. White rightly rejects the theological ramifications regarding the continuing ground of condemnation for the elect once Christ has died as held by the proponents of eternal justification. Hence, he recognizes that exegesis has priority over theology. That, in a nutshell, is how I arrive at 4.5 Calvinism, which at once recognizes the intent of Christ’s salvific work on the cross and the fact that Christ fully accomplished that intent, but distinguishes that from the consequences of Christ’s work which impacts all of mankind.

One further note. Dr. White indicates that I did not interact with his work on this. He’s partially right. I have his book, but I did not have it in my office with me when I hastily threw together the blog entry referenced above. However, I did make a trip to his website while writing the entry, and I took the time to read the two articles on limited atonement I found there: one by Dr. White and the other by Simon Escobedo (I had the privilege of meeting Simon at the LA conference in November). I did not address every point in those articles since my intent for the blog entry was merely to clarify my own position, not take on Alpha and Omega Ministries : )