10 August 2006

apostasy, perseverance, and theological boundaries

A number weeks ago someone contacted me with a question as to how Reformed theology historically handled what the Puritans sometimes called "temporizers" - those who enjoy the "temporary faith" spoken of in the parable of the soils and which finds expression in Calvin, the Canons of Dort, and other Reformed divinity. I've included the substance of my interaction below.

While "temporary faith" is not a major locus of theology, such temporary faith and the kind of response to the Gospel that it represents grants us a particular lens through which we can consider wider issues of the Spirit's work in people's lives, the nature of the church visible, covenant theology, and so on.

It would seem that from one important perspective such temporizers enjoy, as Louis Berkhof puts it,
persuasion of the truths of religion which is accompanied with some promptings of the conscience and a stirring of the affections, but which is not rooted in a regenerate heart. (Systematic Theology 502)
This temporary faith is itself an effect of the Spirit's work in the general call of the Gospel and such temporarily believing persons may enjoy some of God's good gifts that are present among Christ's faithful as "common operations of the Spirit" (Westminster Confession of Faith 10.4).

But would it be proper to say, as many have, that God grants a truly saving faith to some who later lose that faith? Or, to put it another way, does God ever grant some persons a kind of genuinely saving union with Christ, so that they enjoy all the benefits of Christ - apart from perseverance, of course - and then later fall away? The Remonstrants at Dort seemingly offered such a view, as have various other theological perspectives, though often such language is qualified in various ways in order to distinguish the effectual work of the Spirit in the lives of those who are finally saved.

I won't go into all the issues that play into this discussion, but I will attempt to set out my own views accurately, even if briefly, as someone who is committed to the Reformed tradition and its boundaries as set out by the Synod of Dort.

To put matters in terms of some features of what Dort says:

[a] Christ's death is "more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world" (Head 2, Article 3),

[b] the fact that some ultimately reject Christ "must not be blamed on the gospel, nor on Christ, who is offered through the gospel, nor on God, who calls them through the gospel" (Heads 3/4, Article 9),

[c] God "bestows various gifts" even on those who only experience "the fleeting joy of a temporary faith" (Heads 3/4, Article 9; what the Westminster Confession calls "common operations of the Spirit")

[d] "the faith of those who believe only temporarily" differs from saving faith in more than "duration alone" (Head 5, Rejection of Errors 7).

Those boundaries, set forth by the fathers at Dort, are the ones within which I operate and reflect upon theology, though this picture can be filled out further and in various ways.

Nevertheless, in historic Reformed thinking, those who are not finally saved fall short of the saving union with Christ that the finally saved enjoy. Whatever relation temporizers may bear to Christ and whatever benefits they may enjoy, their experience falls short of true, saving union with Christ or "saving faith." That's to say, a Reformed person, working within the boundaries set out by Dort, would not want to say that an individual could enter into a proper state of salvation, saving union with Christ, and true faith and later fall away from and lose all that.

After all, from one perspective, a view of that sort is very nearly nonsense since, for instance, if a relation to Christ were truly "saving," then it wouldn't make much sense to say that one could enjoy it and not end up, in fact, "saved." "Salvation," in its strict and proper sense, has an inextricably eschatological dimension, one that includes the final end of God's saving work as that is already begun and anticipated in the present.

I would allow that, at most, there is some kind of analogy between the experience of so-called "temporizers" and the experience of those who truly believe unto salvation. And this analogy would undergird how Scripture sometimes speaks, using similar language to refer to both cases. But analogy is not identity.

Jude 5, for instance, can use the term "saved" in a temporary, provisional sense that falls short of "salvation" in its fuller, strict sense: "I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe." Likewise, Peter can speak of those who "deny the Lord who redeemed them" (2Pt 2:1). And so on.

Inasmuch as even temporizers may enjoy, for a time, some of the benefits of the church visible, common operations of the Spirit, and so on, one might speak of them being "delivered" or "saved" for a time from the way of the world and coming under the influence of the kingdom, without necessarily implying a true and proper state of salvation as that is tied to its eschatologcal end.

The language of Scripture simply functions at a different level from that of systematic theology. Thus, whereas this sort of loosely salvific language may be deployed broadly by specific passages of Scripture, when we take such passages in the wider context of Scripture as a whole and with theological reflection, our doctrinal formulations will have to register qualifications of the language for the purpose of dogmatic clarity, the avoidance of certain historic errors, and so forth.

Thus, in the overall context of Scripture and with theological reflection, it seems to me that Dort is quite correct in saying that the difference between those who are finally saved and those who enjoy only temporary faith is a matter of more than simply duration - there is a difference in "substance" attributable to the effectual working of the Spirit in some unto salvation.

It is easy, however, to end up conflating biblical and theological uses of the terms or treating analogical uses in a univocal way or taking the way something may function in one context or from one perspective and importing it into another context or perspective.

For instance, with regard to something like "true faith," perhaps part of the difficulty is that faith must be viewed in its diachronic dimension, where "true faith" is by nature "persevering faith." Speaking phenomenologically (in terms of feeling and experience) and synchronically (at one particular moment), "true faith" and "temporary faith" may be indistinguishable, though ontologically and diachronically they are distinct (compare WCF 18.1 on assurance). That is to say, the nature of faith, ontologically speaking, is distinguished in part by what it ultimately does - whether it perseveres or withers away.

Sometimes Scripture speaks in terms of what is true phenomenologically, synchronically, sacramentally, conditionally, externally, or otherwise. And that language can end up being conflated easily enough (even if mistakenly) with what is true ontologically, diachronically, effectually, absolutely, internally, and so on. As in any area of human knowing and thinking, experience and reflection will result in various qualifications.

Of course, what is most important is the pastoral question of how these theological distinctions translate into pastoral practice, but that is largely beyond the scope of these present remarks, except to echo the Westminster Confession's emphasis, in connection with election, on "attending the will of God revealed in his Word" (3.8). It is through the public administration of the covenant of grace within the church visible that faith savingly finds Christ as the one we trustingly receive and upon whom our faith rests. Moreover, the church's judgment of charity is one that emerges from how the covenant is publicly administered.

Some further points suggest themselves with regard to the nature of what it means to be "Reformed" in a confessional way. Let me try to string a few thoughts together on that. These thoughts are not intended as a final word on the topic, especially given constraints of a blog entry, but they are intended to gesture in what I hope is a helpful direction.

[1] To begin, I'm not sure that predestination and monergism are enough to make one "Reformed" in a fully confessional sense, apart from some further distinctions and qualifications. Part of the question here is just what those distinctions and qualifications are, particularly in relation to the present topic.

It seems to me that these distinctions, at a bare minimum, involve holding that the difference between those who persevere and those who fall away is more than a matter of mere duration, so that the subjective operations of the Spirit are not taken as univocal between the persevering and the temporizing. Dort points to the parable of the soils in this connection, noting that the differences there involve whether or not the Word comes to a good heart, becomes well-rooted, and bears fruit.

[2] As is probably evident from my other writings, I don't have any particular problems with how 16th and 17th century theologies and confessions express themselves, taken in their historical contexts - indeed, I very much enjoy and appreciate "Reformed scholasticism" and the like - and I think theologians from those periods usually had a good reason for the terminology and categories they used.

Now, in some cases, I don't find all their distinctions particularly helpful (e.g., "internal" and "external" categories strike me as problematic for a variety of reasons, especially in light of the developments of the notion of interiority with regard to the modern self and of the privatization of religion). Nor do I think that we need, in the present day, to maintain an earlier vocabulary in exhaustive detail, especially when some of the terminology prima facie has a different meaning today from what it did several centuries ago and thus is, at present, liable more to confusion than clarity.

But what I do think we need to do as Reformed Christians is to explore what our spiritual forebears in the Reformed tradition were trying to say, what they were trying not to say, and what truths they were intending to protect. Unless we are clear on those things, I don't think we're in a very good position to try to re-work the dogmatic language without creating new problems for ourselves. This is where the work of theological historians such as Richard Muller is indispensable.

[3] All of that is to say, I think "biblicism" can be taken too far. History moves on. New problems, questions, and errors arise that were not present in those forms to the biblical authors. And in the face of all of that, the church needs to devise ways of articulating biblical truth that achieve relative clarity and protect what's important. Simply re-iterating what Scripture says and leaving it there isn't going to work. Heretics have always been able to twist Scripture to their side.

As an example of the need for new forms of confession that go beyond Scripture, we can consider, for instance, the historical developments that necessitated the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian formulation. We shouldn't let go of those achievements.

That doesn't mean that the teaching of those early Councils can't be developed and unpacked further. Nor does it mean that we should force everyone to speak Greek, repeating "homoousion" rather than "of one substance" or "of the same being." That's to say, we need to find ways to speak that classic, established doctrine in our own language and in our own day, in fidelity to Scripture, and to do so in a way that achieves what the original formulations intended to achieve.

Part of what it is to be Reformed, I think, is to view the Reformed confessional tradition - and in particular Dort, which is the closest thing we have to a pan-Reformed council - in an analogous way. That's not necessarily to put Dort on par with Nicaea or Chalcedon. Given it's local and limited character, Dort doesn't carry that sort of weight, especially within the wider church. And despite disagreements, I've no particular axe to grind against my non-Reformed brothers and sisters and am happily willing to work together with them for the Gospel, within the bounds of Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

But if a person is going to self-identify as "Reformed," then Dort is part of the package - almost a sort of "rule" for our Reformed religious order within the wider church catholic - and such a person, claiming the Reformed mantle, should continue to speak in a way that preserves and achieves what Dort's formulations were intended to achieve.

[4] Now, I'll be the first to admit that our confessional and dogmatic traditions are often abused and even idolized in a damaging way. This happens especially when they are pressed into service to accomplish something they were never intended to accomplish. Neither Dort nor the Westminster Confession of Faith, for instance, purport to be full dogmatic systems of doctrine. Rather, they represent what large cross-sections of Reformed theologians were able to agree upon as they set up some basic boundaries and trajectories.

They are outlines more than full portraits, fences more than buildings. How we fill out the details remains variable and open-ended. The Synod of Dort included both Gomarus and Davenant, both infra- and supra-lapsarians, both those who thought infant baptism remitted original sin in all validly baptized infants and those who thought baptism's effects were deferred in even elect infants until they later came to faith. The Westminster Assembly represented a similar diversity on an even wider range of issues.

There is a tendency, sometimes, in the Reformed tradition to treat Dort or the Westminster Confession as if they not only set up some important boundaries, but also said all there is to be said. When that happens - since it is a misunderstanding of just what sort of documents these are - it ends up that the interpretation of the document by one particular individual (Berkhof, Hodge, you, me) or by one particular tradition (the Old Side, the New School, Covenanters, Southern Presbyterians) comes to be substituted for the document itself.

I think this is what some pastors and teachers today are rightly reacting against - not so much the confessional theologies of the 16th and 17th centuries themselves, but how those theologies have come down to us through the filters of waves of revivalism, 19th century Calvinism, American evangelical culture, and popular-level watered-down presentations of Reformed theology. Through these filters, a particular, often idiosyncratic, understanding of the 16th and 17th confessions has come to stand in the place of those confessions themselves, filling in details where the confessions are silent or pouring content into terms and phrases that were meant to be left ambiguous or flexible and about which there has been ongoing dispute and disagreement.

Thus, for instance, a great deal of positive content is read into the Westminster Confession's chapter on covenants that goes well beyond what the Confession requires or ever intended and, moreover, plastering over the historic diversity of the Reformed tradition (and indeed the Westminster Assembly) on the topic.

[5] So, having said all that, what exactly are the boundaries we need to maintain in relation to the issues at hand - temporary faith, perseverance, etc.? What were our Reformed forebears trying to protect? What dangers were they attempting to avoid? How would they have reacted to the notion that our theology needs to allow us to speak as Scripture speaks?

In maintaining that the difference between the persevering and the temporizer is more than simply duration, Dort was, I think, evidently and primarily trying to avoid Arminian errors that would ultimately explain the difference in terms of some free action of the creature, conceived in a way that undermines the efficient operation of the Spirit or which adds to the Spirit's work in some way that is prior to or unconstrained by divine initiative.

Why do some persevere and some fall away? Dort maintains that there is an asymmetry between the two cases.

Those who fall away have no one to blame but themselves. They cannot blame God, or Christ, or the Gospel. God's grace and the worth of Christ's work are certainly sufficient to save them, these are genuinely offered to them, and God even extends various graces to them short of effectual calling and true faith. That is to say, Dort here allows for a rich understanding of the free offer of the Gospel.

Those who persevere, on the other hand, have no one to thank but God himself and the efficient work of the Spirit in their lives. It is not that the persevering have done something "more" of their own initiative that a temporizer has failed to do. Nor even is it the case that God has somehow "changed" the interior will or nature of the truly regenerate so that the grace they have received is somehow in itself indefectible (and thus would no longer really be "grace"). As Dort says,
By reason of these remains of indwelling sin, and the temptations of sin and of the world, those who are converted could not persevere in a state of grace, if left to their own strength. (Head 5, Article 3)
Dort goes on to say that apart from continued grace, the apostasy of the truly regenerate would be "not only possible, but would undoubtedly happen." The point here is to protect the notion that for those in whom God has chosen to efficiently work unto salvation, there is nothing they can ultimately do to reject, frustrate, or overturn the effective grace and purposes of God.

Now, I guess one could ask here, "Yes, but couldn't God himself choose to withdraw his grace? Might not God, after working efficiently in the life of someone up to point, quit that work and allow the person to die in his sins?"

It is the case, however, that the work of God that we designate as "efficient" or "effectual" is precisely that work of Spirit that God does not withdraw, that he does not permit the rebellious will of the creature to resist to the point of loss. In the case of those who resist and reject the Gospel in unbelief, God does, in fact, withdraw some measure of whatever grace he extended. But that grace is not the efficient grace by which he finally brings some to salvation.

Moreover, the fathers at Dort wanted to avoid portraying God as arbitrary and to direct people to trust God as he reveals himself as gracious to us in Christ and the promises of the Gospel. Our responsibility is to respond in faith to Christ as he offers himself in the Gospel through word and sacrament, confessing that everything is of grace and that, should we persevere, it is only by the grace of God.

And so, the person who confesses that all is of grace, who knows that even the perseverance of grace is by grace, such a person will continue to trust God, knowing that she has no resources in herself to turn to. But God can only be trusted, if God is trustworthy - if he remains faithful to us and to his covenant promises. Such a doctrine of perseverance begets perseverance, nourishing faith.

Obviously Dort is trying to maintain a balance here, and to tread a very thin line. The difficulty is putting together the following claims in a consistent way:

[a] Christ, in his infinitely sufficient grace, truly and freely offers himself in the Gospel for our salvation,

[b] if a person doesn't come to faith, it's his own fault and God can't be blamed,

[c] even those who come to faith don't persevere by anything inherent in them, but by God's continued grace,

[d] God will not reject those in whom he has begun to work unto salvation, though by his grace they need to persevere.

There's some element of mystery to how those various claims fit together, but as I read the tradition, that is this sort of balance that we have wished to maintain.

[6] So what about those who evidently come to some kind of faith, who may exhibit some kind of change of life, who receive baptism and seemingly live as Christians for a time, but who later fall away?

First of all, there's no denying this happens. And in terms of subjective experience and the phenomenology of what initially happens, there really isn't any way to distinguish these persons from true believers. As the Westminster Confession says, such persons can "deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favor of God, and estate of salvation," though, in the end and over time, that "hope of theirs shall perish" (18.1).

It's over time, in terms of duration, rootedness, fruit, and so on, that the difference becomes clear. That doesn't mean that you or I necessarily need to expend a lot of time and worry about whether or not we're among those who have deceived ourselves with false hopes. But it does mean that perseverance is important, recognizing that whatever grace we've received remains grace - a gift - and is not to be presumed upon. That recognition should lead us all the more to turn in faith to the promises of God held out to us in Christ in the Gospel, pressing forward in faith. And we must continue to examine ourselves and diligently root out, in faith, all that might threaten faith.

[7] So what about speaking as Scripture speaks? Well, it's not as if we are the first people to think about that. Theologians in the 16th and 17th centuries had the same Bible we do and they knew it spoke of those who "deny the Lord who bought them" or says "as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" and the like. So, what did they do with such passages?

First, they maintained that there is something called "the judgment of charity." This doesn't mean simply that one allows in some merely probable or begrudging manner that we have to accept some folks as regenerate, forgiven, and so on, until we know otherwise.

Rather, it means that we have a hopeful and joyful expectation, rooted in the promises of God, that what God signifies in the sacraments to those who profess the Gospel is true indeed. It is precisely through such an expectation, embodying the promises of God, enfolding professing persons into the visible community of faith and the training and discipleship that involves, that the Spirit typically works effectually in his people, strengthening and increasing their faith.

Second, earlier theologians maintained that the judgment of charity can speak of all the (non-apostate) baptized as "regenerate," "elect," "justified," etc., even when extended to those who eventually fall away. Further, when the judgment of charity speaks this ways, what it says is perfectly true, speaking "sacramentally," "conditionally," and "externally," with regard to all who are baptized because all of those things are truly offered and sealed to them in the sacrament.

That doesn't necessarily mean that these things are true fully, absolutely, and internally of all the baptized. But in the order that God has appointed, revealed in his Word and in the context of a community centered on faith in God's promises, it is through these sacramental, conditional, external means that God ordinarily accomplishes his full, absolute, and internal work.

Third, in light of the common operations of the Spirit, these sacramental, conditional, and external ways of speaking are rooted in a real work of the Spirit, even if that is not univocal with the work of the Spirit in the elect. While it falls short of effectual calling, there is a real calling by the Spirit that has had an effect in the lives of all who come to baptism and exercise a temporary faith. While it falls short of true and proper regeneration, there is a real new life by the Spirit that has brought some people into the visible life of God's new creation people. While it falls short of true justification, there is a real provisional grace of God's merciful patience extended out of the work of Christ to those who profess faith for time. And so on.

That, at least, is the sort of thing that theologians said in the 17th century and even later with regard to temporizers and the common operations of the Spirit. They thought that such considerations fully grounded the biblical way of speaking. Thus, while Hebrews can speak of those who were once "sanctified" later trampling underfoot the blood by which they were sanctified, "sanctified" here is being used in an analogical rather than a fully univocal way, in much the same way that we say "God exists" and "aardvarks exist" or even "God and aardvarks exist" where the same word "exists" is being used analogically of diverse realities.

Certainly there's a kind of pop-Reformed theology (which is really more of a broadly evangelical theology) that would be manifestly uncomfortable with saying "Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins" or praying the traditional post-baptismal prayers. But our Reformed forbears wouldn't be the least bit uncomfortable with those expressions, as we see from the liturgical materials they wrote. The question, then, is the theological explanation we provide for why we are justified in speaking in those ways and in what sense we speak truly by doing so.

I hope I've begun to clarify how one might at least begin to approach that question in keeping with classically Reformed theology.