A Great Chess Player

A Great Chess Player

This is the second of a series of blogs about R.C. Sproul’s book, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will.  If you haven’t read the first one, “Does God Command Us to Do the Impossible?” you really ought to.  It covers some foundational questions about free will.  Moving right along…

Chapter Three: “We Are Capable of Cooperating”

“If anyone says that man’s free will [when] moved and aroused by God, by assenting to God… in no way cooperates… [and] that it cannot refuse its assent if it wishes… let him be anathema!” – Council of Trent

Ah yes, the Council of Trent and their favorite word, Anathema!  (Not the band from Liverpool.)  Anathema is church-speak for excommunication.  Keep in mind as you read this that over 1000 years have passed from the time of Pelagius and Augustine.  The church has been through the Dark Ages.  The Council of Trent takes place not too long after Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses and the Protestant Reformation started spreading like wildfire.  The Roman Catholic Church felt that it needed to regroup, so they met 25 times over the course of 18 years and decided among other things, Tradition + Scripture = The Rule of Faith, condemned Protestant “heresies,” and affirmed the Latin Vulgate as the official Bible translation.  The Protestants were guaranteed safe passage (in other words, they wouldn’t be killed going to and from) for Protestants who wanted to attend the church council meetings.  They were allowed to participate in discussion, but they were not allowed to vote.  This is the backdrop for what you are about to read.

Semi-Pelagianism

While Pelagius asserts humanity has the ability to obey God, Augustine asserts that humanity is incapable of obedience.  Many people, unable to figure this thing out, decided on what is called Semi-Pelagianism, a sort of hybrid doctrine.  The Council of Trent, according to Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz, “both reaffirmed the church’s condemnation of Pelagianism and retreated from a clear condemnation of Semi-Pelagianism.  In the sixth session of the council this declaration was made, “If anyone says that after the sin of Adam man’s free will was lost and destroyed, or that it is a thing only in name, indeed a name without reality, a fiction introduced into the Church by Satan, let him be anathema.”  For some reason, I have a hard time punctuating anathema with a period.  It really feels like it needs an explanation point, doesn’t it?  Anathema!

Chapter Four: “We Are in Bondage to Sin”

“Free-will without God’s grace is not free at all, but is the permanent prisoner and bondslave of evil, since it cannot turn itself to good.” – Martin Luther

Martin Luther considered his most important book to be The Bondage of the Will, “because it spoke to issues that he regarded as being the […] very heart of the church.”  He even went so far as to say that anything he wrote besides this and a children’s catechism could be tossed out.  Sproul explains,

To the chess player these are contingencies, events he cannot predict with certainty.  We speak of a contingency plan, to which we will turn if our original plan does not work as we hoped. […] In his perfection God knows all things perfectly. […]  He is not a Great Chess Player who must wait to see what we will do, but he knows absolutely what we will do before we do it.

If God has decided ahead of time how everything happens, who believes, who does not believe, then free will is more than irrelevant, it is non- existent.  It is with this in mind that Luther claims, “This bombshell knocks ‘free-will’ flat, and utterly shatters it…”  Luther sees no middle ground at all in this argument.  Salvation belongs completely to God, because a person can’t choose to believe or obey.  God’s grace isn’t mere assistance for salvation, it is necessity.

Is God a Bully?

I started in the first blog asking, “Does God Command Us to Do the Impossible?”  Let’s suppose for argument’s sake that we cannot obey God or believe God unless He intervenes and causes it to happen.  If you take this idea in combination with the idea that God chooses only some to believe then the implications are huge.  Why would God command people to believe, knowing all along that they can’t?  Is He rubbing our own weakness in our faces?  This is what Erasmus infers.  Luther comes against Erasmus’ idea, saying that we must consider God’s character.  God’s cosmic game of nanee-nanee-boo-boo-stick-your-head-in-doo-doo is a ludicrous assertion.  So is there any other reason that God would command us to do what He knows we are completely incapable of doing?  Luther says there is a perfectly good reason, that is, “God is trying us, that by His law he may bring us to a knowledge of our impotence.”

If the objective is to make us aware of the fact that we cannot save ourselves, then this whole thing makes a little more sense.  God is teaching us, not being a bully.  This should be a relief, but we still have a huge problem that has yet to be addressed.  If Luther is correct, that we are in bondage to sin, and so much so, that we cannot obey God’s commands, and we can’t even believe for salvation unless He first places that desire to believe in us, then all of us are in big trouble.  So far in this adventure through R.C. Sproul’s book, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will, it is implied that God will place the desire to believe in only some of us.

Your Feedback, Please

What do you say, reader?  Does God do most of the work in salvation as long as we cooperate with Him?  Do we have any part at all in our own salvation?  Or are we completely helpless and at God’s mercy?  And what do you think about this idea that God has chosen only some to be saved?  Did He choose the ones who He knew ahead of time would choose Him back?  If this is the case, then why does Jesus explicitly say, “You did not choose me, I chose you”?  Why does the Bible say that we love Him because He first loved us?  If His loving us and choosing us is what causes us to love Him, why would He only choose a few?

For anyone who feels very upset by all of this, please understand that the content of this particular blog (as well as the next one in this series) could be compared to walking out of the movie theater while the girl is still tied to the railroad tracks, and the good guy is being chased by a bunch of bad guys with guns.  It always looks hopeless until the last 5 or 10 minutes.  You know how it is.  This is not the end of the story.  There is much more to be said about Who God is and what God does.  Unfortunately, there is also 1500+ years worth of religious bullshit to clear out of the way as well.  Don’t walk out of the theater prematurely.

Coming soon…

Chapter Five: “We Are Voluntary Slaves” & Chapter Six: “We Are Free to Believe” (These are the big two, in my opinion, because they hold such influence over modern Christian thinking – the views of Calvin and Arminius.) See you then.

Comments
  • Mary Vanderplas April 11, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    Your blog is thought-provoking, to say the least. You state, “Many people, unable to figure this thing out, decided on what is called Semi-Pelagianism, a sort of hybrid doctrine.” It is true that many Christians today, including many Protestants, embrace this position, even though Luther, Calvin, and others rejected it. They rejected it with good reason, in my view. In the first place, by saying that human beings can at least turn to God and open themselves to receive God’s grace, this view overestimates what we can do in relation to God. The human predicament is precisely that we are not free to turn to God in faith and obedience; we are bound by sin and blinded to our sinful ways. Our only hope is in God’s reaching out to us and rescuing us from our sinful state. Also, semi-Pelagianism makes salvation depend on the human response instead of on God’s gracious initiative and working. If we have to turn to God before God will bestow God’s gifts of grace on us, then salvation isn’t by grace; it’s by our efforts. Semi-Pelagianism just doesn’t cut it in terms of the biblical witness, in my view.

    You also state, “If God has decided ahead of time how everything happens, who believes, who does not believe, then free will is more than irrelevant, it is non-existent.” Election (and non-election) does not, in my view, make free will non-existent. What makes free will non-existent is original sin. The fall of Adam and Eve, the prototypical human beings, representatives of all humanity, led to the bondage of the will. We are by nature “hooked on sin and in a spiritual coma,” as one Reformed theologian, Cornelius Plantinga, puts it. It is precisely for this reason that we need God’s electing grace, which sets us free in the truest sense of the word. We cannot choose God; and we cannot even want to choose God without God working in our hearts to make it so.

    The doctrine of election needs to be understood in the context of the doctrine of original sin. The doctrine of election says that God, in God’s great mercy, chose to give undeserving sinners, who are not able to save themselves and who are not able even to make the first step toward God, the gift of faith. In its extreme form, this doctrine says that God decreed (or purposed, planned) to save some and damn others. Some theologians have softened the language a bit, saying that God decreed to save some and to pass over others. In either case, the doctrine is hard precisely for the reason you point out: Why would God show mercy to some by giving them the gift of faith and treat others with only justice, leaving them in their sins? It hardly seems fair. Not surprisingly, Augustine and the Reformers who subscribed to this belief didn’t have an answer to this question. They simply said it was a case of finite human beings not being able to grasp God’s ways. Some contemporary theologians in the Reformed tradition echo this view, adding that when it comes to this doctrine, it might be that God hasn’t allowed us to see the whole picture and that one day, when we no longer see through a glass darkly, we will see and understand that in fact God’s plan was entirely good and just.

    Another thing about the doctrine of election (and non-election), as framed by Augustine and by the Protestant Reformers, that is important to point out is that while it says that God causes the elect to believe, it does not say that God causes the unbelief of those who are passed by. Election and non-election (or reprobation) are not symmetrical. So saying that God chose not to give the gift of faith to some – that God passed by some – is not the same as saying that God is responsible for their unbelief. The reason they don’t believe is that they choose not to believe. Still, though, this doctrine is hard to live with. Arminius came up with a clever idea, which is present in a number of Protestant churches today, to avoid any suggestion that God causes the elect to believe and the reprobate to disbelieve apart from the wishes of individuals. He said that God looked into the future and saw God’s grace freeing the enslaved wills of all persons enough so that they could go in the direction of belief or unbelief. God then elected those whom God foresaw cooperating with grace and reprobated those God foresaw resisting it. Clever as the idea was, though, it’s really a form of semi-Pelagianism. It says that we have a part in our salvation, that without our action of cooperating with God’s working, we are not saved.

    I have a hard time with the doctrine of election as framed by Augustine and the Protestant Reformers, even though I believe as they did that we do not have free will to choose God. Even acknowledging that there are a lot of things about God that are beyond human comprehension, I still do not believe that God purposed beforehand to save some and not to save others. The Bible gives witness to the God who loved the whole world and whose plan is for all things to be reconciled in Christ. It is unqualified good news. The fact that some people do not believe is not God’s will. In fact, God wills the opposite: the salvation of all. So whatever “election” is, it isn’t God loving some and hating others; it isn’t God choosing some and turning God’s back on others; it isn’t God treating with mercy some and treating with only justice others. I can’t say any more than this about this doctrine, except that I believe that God’s electing grace needs to be held along with an affirmation of God’s great good news for the whole world and God’s offer of salvation to all.

    You ask, “Why would God command people to believe, knowing all along that they can’t?” Perhaps it is that God wants us to see our utter inability to save ourselves or even to make a move in the direction of choosing and loving God. Perhaps, too, God wants us to recognize that we all are in the same boat, so that “the elect” are not tempted to think of themselves as superior in any way than those who do not presently believe. In any case, I agree with your comment that it’s ridiculous to think that God is hereby “rubbing our own weakness in our faces.” This hardly fits the biblical portrait of the God who stoops to our weakness in order to redeem us.

    • admin April 12, 2011 at 2:57 am

      Wow, Mary! What a response! I am curious as to how you reconcile your two beliefs. The first one, “We cannot choose God; and we cannot even want to choose God without God working in our hearts to make it so.” The second, “The reason they don’t believe is that they choose not to believe.” If God must intervene, and does intervene, then the individual is counted among the elect. How then, if God does not intervene, can you say, “I still do not believe that God purposed beforehand to save some and not to save others”? By not choosing them, isn’t He actively choosing to not choose them? If I were to consider these things separately, then I might be able to understand how this makes sense to you, but taking them all together, I don’t know how it can be reconciled without some large loose ends and unanswered questions.

      • Mary Vanderplas April 12, 2011 at 8:20 pm

        Fair question. First of all, I look at the doctrine of election or predestination as the good news of God’s plan to free us for the life we were created to live by giving us the gift of faith, not as some decree made before time by which some are saved and some are not. When someone turns to God in faith and receives the salvation God offers through Christ, we can say, “Praise God for what God has done in choosing this person.” As far as those who hear the gospel and reject it are concerned, we can only say, “God loves them nonetheless and wills that they turn to God and receive the gift of salvation that God offers to them.” If they do not receive it, it is not because God has not chosen them; it is only because they choose not to live as those who are chosen and loved by God. Secondly, as I said in response to your blog, “So whatever ‘election’ is, it isn’t God loving some and hating others; it isn’t God choosing some and turning God’s back on others; it isn’t God treating with mercy some and treating with only justice others.” At the end of the day, even those who do not come to faith (by their own choosing) I believe God will treat not just with justice but also with love. Those who are Christians, therefore, ought never to write off anyone or decide that anyone is destined for eternal perdition. The God whose grace is gloriously displayed every time a sinner turns and receives God’s gift in Christ will also show mercy, along with justice, to those who persist in sin and do not turn to God. What exactly this will look like I don’t know, but I believe that God’s judgment does not nullify God’s love. None of this, in my mind, conflicts with the doctrine of original sin and its corollary, the bondage of the will. Without God’s grace enabling faith no one can be saved. Christians can rejoice in God’s intervention in their lives for their saving and can tell the good news to non-Christians whom also God desires to save.

  • […] A Great Chess Player […]

  • […] A Great Chess Player […]

  • *about this blog « www.whatgoddoes.com July 25, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    […] in theology, popular opinion, science, and philosophy; review and even pick apart, when necessary, apologetic books, blogs, and other media; as well as creative musings about current events, entertainment, and my […]

  • […]  Here are the links if you would like to read them: Does God Command Us to Do the Impossible?, A Great Chess Player, Volunteer for Slavery, Picking the Petals Off of TULIPs, and Amazed […]

  • […] these ideas further, then read the following blogs: Does God Command Us to Do the Impossible?, A Great Chess Player, Volunteer for Slavery, Picking the Petals Off of Tulips, and Amazed […]

  • Post a comment

    Threaded commenting powered by interconnect/it code.