Thursday, April 19, 2007

Calvin's "P"

My April 16 blog about Islam and Donald Trump elicited a thoughtful reaction from a reader. He asks whether, on the issue of eternal security, there's a via media between Calvinism and Arminianism - whether, perhaps, those two views miss what Scripture is really saying.

Calvin, of course, is believed to have taught the doctrine of "Perseverance of the Saints." I say "believed to have taught," because no one on earth has actually read his complete works (smile). Some 50 years after his death, the Synod of Dordt formulated a response to an Arminian document. The five points they offered as contradictory to Arminianism have become known as the Five Points of Calvinism. In English, the five spell the acrostic TULIP, and the "P" stands for Perseverance of the Saints.

So let's take a look at Calvin's "P". Anyone care to comment on my reader's question?

Good morning Arnold,

I just read your post on Islam/Trump and it raised a question for me.

As I understand it, your theological convictions constitute an elegant hybrid: a practice-driven compilation of various strands of Protestantism. From the title of your blog it is clear that you are not trying to resolve all of the tensions within scripture into a neat systematic package. Though not the main point of your entry, your statements at the end of the entry about "security" prompted a few reflections (and a question). There seems to be two positions at play behind your words: eternal insecurity (Islam) and eternal security ('once saved always saved'- Baptist). Of course the latter could also be derived from a Calvinist view (we did not choose to become Xians and therefore cannot "unchoose"). I looked up the verses you cited and while they certainly overthrow the "insecurity" position, they do not seem to support (necessarily) the Baptist/Calvinist position. I wonder if you have considered a third position (which the verses also support): we respond to God's initiative/grace in becoming a Xian, and continue to respond to such grace throughout our lives, i.e., we (mysteriously) live in three temporal orientations at once: we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. But, since freewill is an essential part of our created human nature, we can reject God's grace through an extreme act of the will, thereby making "shipwreck" of our faith. Yet such a shipwreck is not easily achieved. (He is, after all, the hound of heaven!) While we live in the state of grace (i.e., we continue to respond to and cooperate with Christ's gracious initiative) we have "security."

Applying this at the personal level, I know that I am in a state of grace and that all of the verses that you cited apply to me. I do not need to prove my worthiness of X's love or hold on to the hope that somehow, just maybe, I may squeak into heaven. But at the same time (since I do not hold to the Baptist/Calvinist view of eternal security) I cannot know that I will not, at some point in the future, turn away from God and reject him. In that sense I do not have "eternal security." This was, of course, the main psychological (and perhaps pathological) issue for Luther. He could not believe that he was in a state of grace. He needed assurance not only for the present, but for the future as well. I spent the first 18 years of my life in the hell of eternal insecurity. I am very sympathetic to Luther's problem. These fears are what made Calvinism so very attractive to me (in addition to its rigor and coherence). Furthermore, given modern, Protestant Xianity's rejection of the sacraments as "means of grace," it is not surprising that most Evangelicals would cling to an "eternal security" position. I would very much like to hear more of your current thinking on this matter.

Of course, this is an extremely important question for anyone engaged in evangelism and discipleship. Al Kimmel (a.ka., the Pontificator) wrote extensively on the various ways of understanding "security" in light of seeking to share (and live) the gospel. If your head isn't already hurting, you might find these entries to be of interest.


  1. Hmmm, lots to think about after reading the pontifications and your blog.

    I often think about Calvary when I think of assurance of salvation. Especially about the two thieves who were crucified alongside Christ. Jesus told one of them that He'd meet him in Paradise. There wasn't a lot of time between that conversation and the actual meeting.

    I also think of the martyrs who died for their faith in Christ, mostly horrible deaths. If they had been "eternally insecure", I wonder if they would have perservered until the end.

    And the spread of the Gospel, the "Good News" literally. So when did it become the "Maybe Good News"? In early Christianity, a "decision" for Christ might mean sacrifice and a gruesome death. And watching your family members go through the same stuff. Some of these saints didn't have a lot to go on, like 30 some years of bible study or even regular access to the sacraments of grace.

    How did they do it?

    Read about Perpetua, her martyrdom and the things on her mind at the time, she seemed to be more focused on praising Jesus and less about her own salvation.

    Peter and Judas. Both were Jesus friends. Both betrayed Him. Both were sorry. One repented. One did not. One was the Rock. The other hung himself. I wonder if the surviving one felt like doing that, instead of going back into the fishing business.

    If Judas survived, what words would have the Bible recorded as Jesus spoke to him? Would He have asked him if he loved Him?

    All the disciples walked away in unbelief after Christ died. And then when proven how faithless they were when He came back, He made them breakfast, walked and talked with them, let them feel His scars and gave them the Big Picture. Had a little face time with the closest friend who blew it the most.

    Grace. That's what I'm talking about.

  2. Just my opinion, but I think Jesus wrote/writes all the names in the lambs book of life all by himself, with no help and that erasers aren't an option. I also don't think he writes those names sloooowly(or cautiously) til we die, or lifts his hand from the paper and erases really fast if we mess up sometime or at the end. Of course, I also think people will debate this question til Jesus comes back. If Johnathan Edwards and John Wesley can disagree, still love Jesus and preach Jesus, then we can too.

  3. Private judgment (interpretation) vs. the authority of the Church

    One finds these two choices lurking behind the question concerning “security.” How will I decide the issue concerning which interpretation of scripture is correct (on this matter or any other)? Will I follow my own judgment/interpretation or will I submit my judgment to the Holy-Spirit-guided judgment of the Church?

    There are those who will choose the first option, appealing to sola scriptura. But scripture does not itself endorse such an approach (i.e., sola scriptura is not scriptural). Concerning the authority of the Church as the arbiter and bulwark of our faith ("against which the gates hell shall not prevail"), see 1 Timothy 3: 15 and Matthew 18:16.

    The larger question seems to be "Who decides what we believe?" (or "Who decides which lens we will use when reading Scripture?")

  4. I think thea's ideas brought up a great point with Perpetua's martyrdom. I think the idea is to look less at our salvation and more at Christ Himself. As we do this it seems we would have reason for assurance.

    Also, Paul urges us to make our calling and election sure. We are not to remember and depend on a decision in the past, but see if we really are in the faith by the fruit of our lives.

    Hebrews 6 is a very scary passage explaining how we can be enlightened and tasting of the heavenly gift, but not really be a Christian. On the other hand, Romans 8, John 10, and elsewhere seem to say that those who are justified will endure to the end.

    I believe in eternal security, and that those who endure to the end will be saved.