Archive for April, 2007

Total Depravity: Why Darth Vader is the (Almost) Perfect Illustration

April 23, 2007

I believe in total depravity. Sometimes in the last few years it has been hard to believe in it, for two major reasons. The first reason is theological. How can I affirm that fallen man is made in the image of God, that he still somehow reflects God, if he is totally depraved? The second reason is experiential. It may be easy to affirm that someone like Adolph Hitler is totally depraved, but what about people we encounter everyday? Would I go to a doctor whom I believed to be totally depraved? (One of my professors in college used that exact argument against the whole idea). And what about myself? I know I’ve messed up, but am I really sinful to that degree? I have recently come to satisfactory answers to both objections.

Theologically, total depravity does not refer to the obliteration of the image of God, but rather the perversion of it. I think Darth Vader offers a fine example here. Vader (as Anakin Skywalker) was trained in the ways of the Force by Obi-Wan Kenobi. He became superbly skilled in this arena. Then he turned to the dark side. What happened then? Did he suddenly lose his skill and ability? No. He did worse: he turned it against everything Obi-Wan Kenobi trained him for. Vader did not lose the ability to use the Force; instead, he dedicated all of his powers to a purpose against which he had been trained from the beginning. His fall was so great because it represented the complete reversal of potential from one direction to another. He used things that were good in themselves in the service of evil. And because they were so good to begin with, they were that much more potent as instruments of evil.

That is how I understand total depravity. We are such wonderful creatures of God, the only ones made in his image, with gifts of dominion, ethical and spiritual capacity, reason, complex emotion, creativity, imagination, relationality, etc. The Fall did not obliterate these things (all of which, I believe, are aspects of the image of God but not the totality of it). The Fall merely turned these things from the service of God to the service of other gods: whether that be the gods of self, creation, the devil, etc. Like Darth Vader, we are still capable of great things. When Obi-Wan Kenobi faught the recently fallen Vader (Episode III), he did not fight an opponent who was of inferior skills. Kenobi did not say, “Since you turned to the dark side your skills are completely gone.” Kenobi could still admire Vader’s skill, ability, and technique while disapproving of the end to which Vader had directed these things. And it is the end or purpose that corrupts the acts themselves. Total depravity is like this. God does not disapprove of good things that humans do when they are considered simply. But in relation to their ends (service of a false god), they are depraved and sinful. Even the doctor who successfully treats a patient, if he does so in such a way that is not to the glory of God, does so sinfully. This is what it means to be depraved. Whatever does not come from faith is sin (Rom 14:23). Whatever is not performed to the glory of God is done in service to an idol. The only way one can do things to the glory of God is if one has fundamentally oriented oneself to God through embracing the gospel.

Oh, by the way, I say Darth Vader is almost the perfect illustration because, as it turns out in Episode VI, his son Luke turns him back to the good side by stirring up the good that remained in him. In Christian terms, this is Semi-Pelagianism. Scripture does not picture conversion that way at all. God does not stir up the good that remains in us (there is none). He, by the Spirit, brings us to life from the dead (Eph 2:1-10). He gives us the new birth (John 3:3-8), a completely new start, not the renewal of an old one.

What about the experiential objection? How can I affirm total depravity if I don’t feel like I’m totally depraved? The way I answer that is to say that if, indeed, I am totally depraved, then I could never expect to know that by experience. If total depravity is true, then sin has corrupted everything about us, including conscience and reason. We could no more understand total depravity from experience than a fish could understand water from experience. That’s just the reality we live in; we know nothing else. We cannot trust our faulty interpretation of experience. We must trust what God says about us. God says that the mind of the flesh (i.e., fallen nature) is incapable of pleasing God (Rom 8:7-8). He says we are corrupt from head to toe, one and all, that no one seeks God (see the litany of quotations in Rom 3:9-18). Every thought and intention of our hearts is only evil continually (Gen 6:5; 8:21).

Mark Seifrid contributed a few chapters to the second volume of a work entitled Justification and Variegated Nomism. The title of one of the chapters was very creative: “Unrighteous by Faith.” Normally we think of being righteous by faith through God’s justifying declaration. But we must also realize that a proper understanding of sin also comes from faith. Totally depraved people do not come to the correct conclusions about their sin by reasoning through their experiences. They must hear and believe what God says about them, and in that sense recognize their unrighteousness as an act of faith. In my own experience, I have found this confirmed as God has continually exposed sinful layers of my heart (in the light of Scripture) that I did not know were there before. The more I know God, the more I realize how sinful I really am.

Problems with Universalism, Part 2.2

April 22, 2007

I think this will probably be my last post on this subject. I’ve got several other things in mind that I want to write about.

Concerning the Greek words aion and aionios, the Concordant understanding “eonian” simply does not measure up to the actual usage of the terms in Scripture. The people at Concordant seem to be enslaved to a crass literalism that distorts the meaning of Scripture by a misunderstanding of how language works. Words and phrases are best understood according to the way they are used, not according to what we think they literally mean in every situation.

Read the following passage (an example from the English language) to see what I am talking about:

“I was walking in darkness, but in 1986 I turned over a new leaf and headed down a new path. Since then I have been a new person.”

Virtually every phrase in the above sentences should not be taken literally, or else absurdity would be the result. Wooden literalism distorts the meaning of language; it does not promote understanding. This is what Concordant has done with the Greek words aion and aionios.

Here are some examples that prove my point:

2 Corinthians 4:17-18: “For momentary [Greek parautika], light affliction is producing for us an eternal [Greek aionion] weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal [Greek proskaira], but the things which are not seen are eternal [Greek aionia].”

Note the contrasts:
-momentary affliction vs. eternal weight of glory
-things which are seen vs. things which are not seen
-temporal vs. eternal

Could the meaning of aionios be more clear? If it is explicitly contrasted with the words “momentary” and “temporal,” then it must be something other than temporal, namely, eternal. This is how Koine Greek speakers typically used the word aionios and its noun form aion.

Romans 11:36: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever [Greek eis tous aionas]. Amen.”

Jude 25: “to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time [Greek pro pantos tou aionos] and now and forever [Greek eis pantas aionas]. Amen.”

In both of these verses we see the relevant terms expressing the duration of time during which God will receive glory, according to the benedictions. Is God to be glorified only for a temporary age? At the end of the ages, will there no longer be any glory to give to God? We see here the absurdity of the Concordant interpretation.

But notice especially how Jude 25 divides up three segments of time:
-before all time

The “before all time” is a reference to eternity past. “Now” is a reference to the present. The following phrase must refer to eternity future (using the Greek term aion) in order to maintain the kind of symmetry that Jude seems to be aiming for.

There are many more examples, but these will suffice to indicate that aion and aionios in the New Testament frequently refer to eternity, thus making it compelling that several verses explicitly teach that Hell involves eternal conscious punishment for unbelievers: Matthew 25:46, Revelation 14:11 (note especially: “they have no rest day and night“; how could anything be more clear?), and Revelation 20:10.

If aion and aionios cannot refer to eternity, then how could the Greek language even express the concept of eternity? That too is an important question that Concordant needs to answer. What evidence could possibly convince them otherwise?

Problems with Universalism, Part 2.1

April 18, 2007

Universalism faces difficulty with a number of biblical texts. I will treat only one here and then get into others in a future post:

Matthew 25:46: At the end of his parable about the sheep and the goats, Jesus says, “These [goats] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” The important thing to notice about this text is the parallel between the destinies of the two respective groups. Eternal punishment is of the same duration as eternal life. If we are going to limit eternal punishment and make it a temporal punishment instead, then we must limit eternal life and make it temporal also. This is absurdity, and no universalist would make such a claim. This passage clearly teaches a final, eternal separation between the righteous and the wicked.

The Concordant website cites this verse and then dodges its clear teaching by saying this: “This passage, however, is not concerned with humanity as a whole, or even with individual persons as such. Instead, it has in view, in the day of the Lord, the granting of rewards, or chastenings, to the nations of the earth according to their treatment of Israel. It is not a revelation concerning divine grace, nor of the evangel of our salvation and its transcendent grace. Perhaps the best proof that men do not really believe that our salvation is a matter of gratuitous grace is the fact that Matthew 25:31-46 is commonly perceived as a summary of the gospel for today.”

This interpretation is implausible for several reasons:

(1) It is illegitimate to limit the phrases “eternal punishment” and “eternal life” to mere temporal rewards and chastenings. I challenge anyone to produce clear evidence that these phrases mean anything other than “eternal punishment” and “eternal life” in any other New Testament passage. Show me any other occurrence of “eternal life” in the New Testament that clearly means “temporal reward.” It can’t be done.

(2) Context clearly suggests that this is the final judgment. Note verses 31-32: “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” To a Jewish mind in the first century, this can be nothing other than the end of history and the final separation of the righteous from the wicked. If Jesus meant to communicate something else in a cultural milieu that believed very strongly in a final judgment and final separation, then he chose a poor way to do it.

(3) This text has nothing to do with the way certain nations have treated Israel. This is about personal, human-to-human interactions. When Jesus says, “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink,” etc., he is speaking about the way individual people treated him in their everyday lives. This is not about how one nation acted toward Israel but about how individuals (who make up all nations) acted toward Jesus himself in their interaction with “one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them” (v. 40). Jesus’ “brothers” here are not Israel but believers, particularly suffering believers in need. Jesus knows that, very soon, his followers will be persecuted and will face intense suffering (he has already spoken about this in chapter 24:9-14). Other occurrences of “my brothers” in the Gospels clearly refer to the disciples, not to Israel (see Matt 12:46-50; John 20:17), and the fact that Jesus identifies himself with those who believe in him (Matt 18:20) explains how actions performed with reference to Jesus’ disciples are actions performed with reference to Jesus himself (see also Acts 9:4, where Jesus asks Saul, “Why are you persecuting me [i.e., followers of me]?”). To introduce Israel into this passage is to miss the point, not only of the passage, but of Matthew’s Gospel in general, which has a very strong theme of Israel’s rejection (read Matthew 21-23 for a string of parables and teachings that focus on Israel’s failure and rejection, culiminating in Jesus’ saying in 23:37-39. Why, after all of that, would Jesus then refer to Israel as “my brothers” in chapter 25? The disciples are his brothers, and since there are 12 of them, they represent a new Israel, the beginning of an international messianic community).

(4) So then, what does this text teach about judgment, grace, and works? Like many other passages of Scripture, this one teaches a judgment according to works that is not a contradiction of salvation by grace. I will do my best to explain. Jesus says that at the final separation of the sheep from the goats, the criterion he will use will be the way people of the nations treated him. But notice how the sheep react in verse 37: “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?'” Clearly, the sheep did not realize that they had done these things. They had not been working to merit reward at the final judgment. If they had been seeking to earn Christ’s approval through works, then they clearly would have known what good works they had done. Instead, their works were simply the natural outflow of their lives, just as good fruit is the natural produce of a good tree. The fact that they acted in this way toward suffering disciples of Jesus indicates that their hearts have been transformed by divine grace and that they have identified themselves with these suffering disciples of Jesus. Whoever receives one who represents Jesus receives Jesus himself (Matt 10:40). The way they have treated Jesus’ disciples is not the basis for their salvation; it is the evidence for it. Since their actions clearly prove the sincerity of their faith, they are accepted into eternal life on the basis of faith. Faith is vindicated by works, as James clearly teaches (James 2:14-26). A number of other passages make reference to a final judgment that is according to works without overturning salvation by grace alone through faith alone. See 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 2:5-11; Matthew 7:21-23. Any teaching about grace that excludes the possibility that judgment will include reference to our works is a teaching that distorts Scripture. But again, let me reiterate that I believe salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Our only hope for righteousness before God is the imputed righteousness of Christ granted to us by faith. But faith itself must be demonstrated to be true faith. And since true faith is always manifested by a transformed heart and life, we ourselves will be judged completely–including our works–in order to demonstrate the presence or absence of faith in us.

Problems with Universalism, Part 1

April 11, 2007

The doctrine of universal salvation is plagued by theological difficulties. Even more important, it offers untenable interpretations of a large number of biblical texts. In part 1 of this series I will address the theological problems of universalism. In part 2 I will look at its exegetical problems.

Universalism’s major theological problem is that it denies the freedom of God’s grace and makes human salvation a moral obligation for God. If the way universalists argue their case is correct, then God could have done nothing other than save all morally corrupt sentient beings (fallen angels and humanity). Had he done otherwise, he would have compromised his justice severely.

This is what Friend (a universalist who commented on the previous post) wrote:

“Since Scripture reveals God to be all-powerful, all-wise and all-loving, how can any of us really accept that this powerful, wise and loving God will fail to save all, but instead, will punish the great majority of mankind in a terrible hell, and that without any remedial purpose?”

This is exactly the kind of presupposition that we must not bring to Scripture, because it is a presupposition that places an obligation on God. Historically, the church has long taught that grace is, by definition, a free gift of God, not an obligation. Arguments about the love of God that universalists employ hoist a philosophical perspective on what kind of love God must have, and to what extent he must show it. But this is to stack the deck before ever looking at the text of Scripture. Talbott does this in his chapter in the book Perspectives on Election. Actually, Talbott would disagree with me, arguing that he takes the statement “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16) as his theological paradigm to understand the nature of God’s love. However, the statement in and of itself must be interpreted in its Johannine context, and this is something Talbott does not address with any kind of adequacy. Instead, he immediately proceeds to erect a philosophical definition of the love of God that goes something like this:

If God is love, then he must love all people and angels in exactly the same way to the highest degree.
God is love.
Therefore, God loves all people and angels in exactly the same way to the highest degree.

The funny thing about this is how Talbott stumbles so ridiculously over the clear teaching of Scripture. Somehow, he argues that God’s statement, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Malachi 1; quoted in Romans 9) actually means, “Jacob I loved, and Esau I loved the same.” He is working with an a priori definition of the love of God, one that obligates God to save humanity. This presupposition leads him to the most fanciful kinds of exegetical gymnastics. Given his theological methodology, however, this is not surprising. Talbott says that, up front, he will reject any teaching that strikes him as “darkness.” It is no wonder we see exegetical gymnastics when we come to difficult passages that would strike just about any Western, democratically inclined mind as “darkness.”

I don’t have the book handy right now, but I also remember a number of statements made by Talbott to this effect: if even one person remains unreconciled to God for eternity, that will call everything else (God’s love, God’s justice) into question. Again, this is telling God the way it has to be instead of bowing before him as an undeserving sinner and thanking him that, though he could have justly left the entire human race in sin and sent us all to hell, he freely chose to make his glory known through the redemption of some. The first lesson in salvation is this: God didn’t have to do it. Universalists don’t seem to understand this.

I think Karl Barth’s driving concern to protect the freedom of God is what kept him from becoming a clear, open advocate of universalism. Many of Barth’s statements lead us to believe that he advocated universal redemption, but in the end he would not come out unambiguously on the issue because for him, to do so would be to limit God with an obligation above himself. Now, I believe God does have obligations (Barth would probably disagree). God is obligated to be true to his holy character. He is obligated to keep his Word. But he is not obligated to save anyone. What I mean by this is that he is not obligated to save us unless he obligates himself. I believe he has obligated himself to the elect through his own freely spoken, sovereign word of promise. But he could have refrained from making these promises and still have been completely just, holy, righteous, and yes, even loving (Love has been expressed eternally to an infinite degree within the Trinity; even if all humanity spent eternity in hell, love within the Trinity would not change.). I doubt that Talbott would agree with that statement, and that is why his version of universalism leads to a massive theological problem.

A Fork in the Theological Road

April 7, 2007

I just finished a book entitled Perspectives on Election: Five Views (but don’t worry; this is not another post specifically about the doctrine of election). Thomas B. Talbott contributed a chapter to this book outlining a universalist doctrine of election. His view is that, in the end, all people (and presumably all fallen angels as well, though he did specifically say so) will be reconciled to God. God’s wrath is always temporary and redemptive, and it will finally lead everyone to repentance and faith, either in this life or in the life to come. Although I don’t think he specifically mentioned Hell, I assume that Talbott’s view of Hell actually turns it into Purgatory.

Each author wrote responses to the chapters of the other authors. In one of his responses, Talbott launched into a criticism of the Augustinian view of election (that it is unconditional, individual, and pertains to the eternal destinies of people) by outlining his own theological method. I think what he has to say is very telling. It indicates that there is a fork in the theological road, and all people who do theology will inevitably choose one direction or the other. Here is what he writes:

“My question, however, concerns those Christians who have no such advantage [of education and available scholarly resources]; it concerns, for example, a simple peasant woman who may have lived in the vicinity of Geneva during Calvin’s own lifetime. Having no knowledge of Greek or Hebrew no real understanding of the Bible’s historical background, and no reasonable way to counter Calvin’s superior scholarship, her only grounds for opposing a doctrine of limited election might have been her moral conviction that a worthy object of worship could not possibly be an unloving and unjust tyrant. So how, then, should she respond when told to suppress her own moral conviction and to bow humbly before the Scriptures (as someone else interprets them, of course)?*

“I know of no better answer to this question than the one that George MacDonald gave: ‘Do not try to believe anything that affects you as darkness. Even if you mistake and refuse something true thereby, you will do less wrong to Christ by such a refusal than you would by accepting as His what you can see only as darkness.’ So it matters not, according to MacDonald, what ‘affects you as darkness,’ whether a racist interpretation of the curse of Ham, an appeal to Paul in support of institutional slavery, or an appeal to Romans 9 in an effort to persuade you that the Christian God is something less than all loving and all merciful: If the teaching strikes you as morally repugnant, you should say, ‘either the thing is not what it seems, or God never said or did it.’ For given the complexities of any interpretation of the Bible as a whole . . . the facade of bowing humbly before the Scriptures is no excuse for accepting, in opposition to your own deep-rooted moral convictions, a seemingly blasphemous picture of God” (pp. 322-323).

Talbott has just outlined the liberal paradigm for doing theology. I would not call him a theological liberal in the classical sense of the term, but his methodology is the same. This is the fork in the theological road: will you bow humbly before Scripture or sit in judgment over it, refusing those things that strike you as repugnant and blasphemous? Conservatives bow before Scripture; liberals make Scripture bow before their own moral and logical presuppositions. This is why liberals have rejected all of the following at some time or another:

The Trinity (it is illogical); the Incarnation (also illogical); substitutionary atonement (illogical and morally repungnant); the wrath of God and Hell (morally repugnant); unconditional election (morally repugnant); Scripture’s prohibition of homosexuality (morally repugnant); Scripture’s teaching on the pattern of authority between men and women (morally repugnant), etc.

It all comes down to the question of whether God may tell us what is true and false or we may tell him what we will permit to be true and false, and he must then conform his will to our presuppositions. Talbott’s methodology completely ignores a number of Christian convictions. It ignores the Creator-creature distinction and the noetic effects of sin, assuming that we fallen creatures have the clarity of mind to know what is and is not “darkness,” “morally repugnant,” and “blasphemous” before we ever encounter the Scriptures. But this is to make God in our own image. In his own chapter, Talbott also repeatedly appealed to the idea that God cannot do anything that it would be wrong for a human being to do. Again, this is another liberal mistake. God can and does do lots of things that it would be immoral for human beings to do, precisely because human beings are not God. God kills and makes alive. He
judges all the actions of all people. He demands worship and absolute submission to himself. Of course it would be wrong for any human being to do these things, but that is because human beings are not God. In fact, this idea that God can only do what it would be right for humans to do is the flip side of the Adam and Eve’s sin. Instead of saying, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil,” as the serpent did, Talbott and others who share his liberal theological methodology are saying, “God is actually like you.”

At some point, every person who thinks theologically must decide if he will approach the Scripture humbly, realizing that his own ideas (shaped by culture, experience, etc.) may or may not be correct and must be judged by the teaching of Scripture. I determined to do this a long time ago. I believe this basic commitment on my part is what led me to embrace, from the teaching of Scripture, the doctrines of unconditional election and the complementarian view of men and women. You can argue that my own interpretation of Scripture has been warped by my own experiences and presuppositions, but I disagree, at least on these two points. I had no prior motivation to come to these conclusions. I was at a moderate Baptist college, where everything I heard from men whom I highly respect went against these views. It would have been convenient for me to reject both views at the time, especially the complementarian view of the sexes, because who wants to be saddled with that in our present theological context? I have found Southern Seminary to be far more hospitable to these views, but keep in mind that I came to these views long before I came to Southern Seminary (and that is one reason I chose to come to Southern). I will not decide a priori what God can and cannot say and do. If God’s Word says he ordered the slaughter of the Canaanites, then I will not sit in judgment over God’s authority to do that. If God’s Word says homosexuality is wrong, then I will not sit in judgment over God’s authority to make that declaration. If God’s Word says God has mercy on whom he has mercy and that he hardens whom he hardens, who am I to question his justice, especially in light of the fact that mercy, by definition, is undeserved? If God’s Word says that the unrepentant will suffer in Hell for eternity, how can I say that my 3 pound brain understands and evaluates this issue better than God does? If God’s Word says that God is in control of all things, and that in some mysterious sense, even suffering comes from his hand, what right do I have to call such a view blasphemous? (I believe Scripture teaches all of these things, and I have made the case for several of them in other places).

Now that classical liberalism has been declining for many years now, theologians find it fashionable to say that they are now seeking to transcend the divide between conservatives and liberals. The late Stan Grenz made this claim, as does Brian McLaren. In some ways, perhaps these “postconservatives” are transcending the divide. But for the most part, I read their agenda differently. I see them taking the same direction in the theological fork in the road that the liberals took before them, only now they are accomodating the faith to postmodernism rather than to modernism. What else explains McLaren’s gymnastics on the issue of homosexuality except the fact that he personally cannot swallow what Scripture so clearly teaches, so he rejects it and creates a fog around the issue? This is the liberal methodology. As the winds of culture change, the theological conclusions will also change, and that is why postconservatives are not full-blown theological liberals, most of whom lived at an earlier time in history. Nevertheless, postconservatives arrive at their somewhat different destination driving the same car that liberals drove for years.

*By mentioning the poor peasant woman with no education or resources to counter Calvin’s superior learning, Talbott has overlooked some very significant circumstances of Calvin’s historical context, and in the process has been very unfair to Calvin. Calvin was concerned for the poor peasent women (and men) who were giving up money that should have been spent on food to buy indulgences from the Roman Catholic Church. He was concerned about the poor masses who had been held in darkness for centuries, being denied access to Bibles in their own languages, hearing masses recited in Latin, a language they did not understand. So Calvin promoted a return to the original languages of Scripture as a way of getting past the theological corruptions of the Latin Vulgate. The study of Greek and Hebrew was to serve as the basis for developing translations of the Bible in the vernacular. Far from reserving the interpretation of Scripture to himself, Calvin promoted reading of the Bible among the common people! And because he so longed for them to know the truth of Scripture in contrast to the Roman approach of keeping the masses in ignorance, he dedicated himself to a rigorous schedule of preaching and teaching expositionally from the Scriptures almost every day of the week in Geneva. This was something that was practiced virtually nowhere before the Reformers came along. So with all due respect, Dr. Talbott, I think you should can the emotional appeal to the poor peasant woman oppressed by the tyrant Calvin. Historically speaking, Calvin is one of the major figures responsible for the end of that kind of ecclesiastical oppression so widely practiced by the medieval Roman Catholic Church. The fact that we even know how to read today is likely traceable to at least some influences from Calvin.