Invitation to a Pillar Fight

Salvation does not rise to the level of a calculated human choice because it is a gift from God.

Preamble: Beyond the blue horizon an even-keeled professorship goes into dry dock claiming that (1) doctrine unites, (2) reason divides, and (3) bondage frees.

I.  Surveying Our Rubble

Let us begin by backing up. If you are a Protestant in the Reformed tradition you might have hoped that the 500th anniversary of Protestant Christianity in 2017 would have offered a solid opportunity for careful reflection on, and reaffirmation of, our family identity. However, the most pious remembrance will seldom recover what has been massively neglected and will miss entirely what has been completely dismissed.

Thus, while half-heartedly attempting to pay genuine tribute to our honorable past, the subtext of many Reformation reminiscences was an embarrassingly smug lip-smacking account of mistakes made by our forefathers and foremothers, as judged by contemporary societal tastes. Of course, bits and pieces––even large lumps––of sixteenth-century doctrinal tidbits float around in the theological soup du jour, but this ingustable gruel must be flavored with larger doses of salts for those more sophisticated palates to which theology really matters.

The major threat to current Christianity is still “Indulgences,” but not the kind sold in the Reformation Era. Now purchased at discount prices are “Overindulgences” in all seven of the deadly sins based on the conviction that since God is dying as a force in American culture, if not already dead, everything humanly possible is morally permitted. The current skeptical thought seems to be: “Grab all the gusto right away! You are only going around once!” This “everything goes” philosophy applies not only to Behavior but to Belief. In the old days, when Calvinists tiptoed through the T. U. L. I. P., we started with Total Depravity, which never meant that we are as bad as possible, but only that our greatest virtues can become vices (intelligence used to vicious ends).

Among the immediate tasks for those who believe that God is also to be worshipped with the mind (Mk. 12:30, Mt. 22:37, Lk. 10:27), is the requirement to get into a ferocious pillar fight. In the past we lived all together in a big house with heavyweight bearing pillars set on firm foundations by the magisterial Reformation, but many of those pillars are collapsed into rubble today. Especially sad to see are the once proud-standing columns which included: (1) the Bondage of the Will, (2) the Eternality of Election, and (3) the Certainty of Salvation, involving the Irresistibility of  the twin graces: (a) Sanctification and (b) Justification. Doubtless, there are other pillars to bring to the fight, but we once close huddled around this cluster because, while everybody recognized making choices every moment of every day, Protestant Christians believed they received faith as an unmerited gift of God. This gratitude for grace should be identified, restored, appreciated, and accepted––not merely by select individuals but across a wide and faithful community. In other words, we need a rousing rabble in the rubble.

Uneasy lies the head tonight that tries to rest on these comfortable old pillars because it is impossible to close our eyes against the blinding glare of modern convictions such as: (1) the unregulated freedom of the human will; (2) a cash-register god whose chief functions are (a) to display the goods, (b) to evaluate what you buy and (c) check you out at the end, also; (3) an If/Then savior who offers you the conditions for salvation rather than the grace to receive it.

Given the boastful and competitive dumbing-down of so much of American life in this carnival culture, smartening up will be no simple task. Still, John Calvin’s declaration that persons called to intellectual leadership in the Christian Church should be first-rate scholars (Calvini Opera 26, 406) has never been entirely forgotten. Some fine and godly teachers remain among us, although it may take a bit of an effort to locate one. Such an effort is worthwhile because common doctrine commonly unites us.

II.  Polishing Our Tools

All attempts at communication, including this one, should be fine-toned. No one should chew off more than he can bite. Thus, having swung a large wrecking bawl at a wide edifice, a small apology is appropriate. Our good friend, John Calvin, reminds us that humility is the foundation of our thinking (Institutes II.2.11).  No doubt the previous paragraphs offer a fair, vigorous, impartial, and unbiased presentation of my point of view. However, even the dearest of readers could not be expected to agree with any part of these lucubrations until engaging in some serious inner reflection and perhaps a good conversation with a trusted friend. After all, nothing is as touching as the personal touch.

In putting our hands to the up-building task, it is always useful to scratch our heads a bit. That is, on the relation of faith and reason it is often helpful to think again about thinking, to reason about reason. This is both a very old and very new issue. The dream of reason as a silver lining in the great cloud of unknowing is almost co-extensive with the history of western philosophy, which issued in the sanguine conclusion that human beings are rational animals. Perhaps the most sustained early elucidation of this concept is found in De Anima where Aristotle argues for three kinds of soul: nutritive, sensitive, and rational. Humans share the first with plants and animals, the second with animals, but the rational soul is unique to human being This view is repeated by Augustine (On Christian Doctrine I, 22), Calvin (Institutes II.2.12, 17), and more recently by T. F. Torrance (See his God and Rationality). The Westminster Confession teaches that the knowledge of God is revealed in (1) Scripture and (2) good and necessary deductions [i.e., proper reasoning] from Scripture (I.6). The uses and limitations of reason was a central topic for the early Protestant Reformers and some of the tools they brought to hand may be handy yet. Parts of our contemporary culture is still swaggering and staggering between the redoubts of modern anti-intellectualism and the older Puritan super-confidence in logic. The challenge for us is to find the proper balance between reason and faith.

The overweening confidence in reason was challenged by those who believed that the heart has reasons that the reason knows not of. In his travels Captain Lemuel Gulliver encountered a rational race of horses that shared their land with a bunch of Yahoos possessing human form and all the filthy habits and vile behaviors appertaining thereunto. The Swift point was that humans are not rational animals but merely capable of being rational animals. The most sustained screed against rigid reason is found in the more famous Charles Dickens’ Hard Times when Thomas Gradgrind, in apologizing to his daughter for ruining her life, confesses that he had not recognized the wisdom of the heart. More sharply in David Copperfield, Dickens’ claims of the simple-minded Mr. Dick, “[T]here is a subtlety of perception … which leaves the highest intellect behind. To this mind of the heart, if I may call it so, in Mr. Dick, some bright ray of the truth shot straight” (chapter 42). Presumably this bright ray of truth can be seen by the “eyes of the heart” (Eph. 1: 18). The relation between knowing and believing is a perennial issue. And ways of knowing and believing are immensely complicated. Too seldom do we think about how we think. I am immensely puzzled by the “three brain theory.”

In any event before we skip too far down the primrose path of reason, parts of the trail need to be surveyed once more. Some contemporary Christians might enjoy engaging the old challenges of Hume, Kant, and Darwin as well as the new social and cognitive scientists. A brave and learned cohort might be authorized to don the six pieces of the armor of God (Eph. 6: 11-17) and march off to fight for us in the current “Rationality Wars” since we are reasonably divided on what and how to think.

III.  Raising One Piller

Assuming (1) the desire to restore the theological load- bearing pillars of our noble Reformed edifice and (2) the expectation that our newly polished intellectual tools are sufficiently sharp for the task, we should pause to examine the blueprint one more time.

Many definitions of theology cover a lot of ground, but few of us can live comfortably today in those huge doctrinal castles set on majestic promontories with sweeping vistas. Our little lives scroll out more modestly in quiet valleys. Grandeur and glory are all very well in their places, but Rome was not built in a day and the Temple took 20 years (I Kings 9:10). Heuristically (a nice wiggle word), theology should be viewed as a humble, human, essential, but second order activity standing behind worship and service.  Theology serves the purpose of presenting the truth, and also of protecting the Truth as it is found in Jesus Christ (John 14:6). Thus, theology involves our best employment of reason but it includes the doxological. In short, in theology we confess of our faith.

Even using a functional definition, there is a great deal to confess, but no one can start everywhere at once. To my mind the first column to restore is the wonderful old doctrine of Bondage of the Will, which sounds un- American and is certainly counter-cultural. Sociologist Peter L. Berger is probably correct in claiming “modern consciousness entails a massive movement from fate to choice” (The Heretical Imperative, chapter one). That is, contemporary society accepts some  kinds of necessity and some forms of determinism but still insists on the capacity for, and therefore the merit of, choosing God. This conviction refuses bondage in favor of freedom of the will. Western culture has had an eye problem since Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” This mindset is well captured in the famous  words of a defiant and triumphant poet: I thank whatever gods may be/ For my unconquerable soul/ [I] am the master of my fate:/ I am the captain of my soul.”

The relation between fate and fortune, necessity and contingency, determinism and indeterminism, divine predestination and human choice  (consider Pelagianism versus Augustinianism and Arminianism versus Calvinism) has been debated by our very best thinkers for centuries without finding a consensus conclusion. Some of us like to read this stuff, but the real question is not what is fun to puzzle over but what Christians should confess. The answer, of course, is “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2: 11). And he said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). God’s choice of us is God’s gift to us. Therefore, Reformed theology insists that human response is a grace-full, God-aided action based on divine love not human desire.

When the Protestant Reformation raised again the old, old question, “What must I do to be saved?” Martin Luther, and his younger admirer, John Calvin, answered, “Nothing!” Salvation, they insisted, is entirely the result of God’s loving grace, revealed to us in Our Lord Jesus Christ. Salvation does not depend on our acknowledgement of sins nor our desire to escape from the consequences of them. This sharp, and once defining answer made the great Erasmus (see his Diatribe on Free Will, 1524), the later Roman fathers, and most modern Americans quite uncomfortable. They offered a softer answer. “While you cannot do everything, you can at least do some things.” This “can do” attitude has always appealed to Americans.

Most Americans believe they have the capacity to choose enough faith to be rewarded with more. Faith thus becomes a kind of work that is dependent on a freewill choice that every person is inherently capable of making. Presumably good Lutherans today choose not to read Luther’s response to Erasmus entitled, The Bondage of the Will (1525). The church into which Luther and Calvin were born offered a way to God through condign or congruent merit (see note). Nevertheless, Brother Martin was never sure he had done enough to merit God’s forgiveness. Finally he came to believe that the issue was incorrectly posed. Human merits are not the means of salvation.  Salvation comes through the merits of Christ alone and is the result of a divine decision not a human achievement on any level. Protestants once believed the way to salvation was through faith alone, which is a gift of divine being and not a choice of human being. To think otherwise was to foster pride, the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, and allow it to fester.

Unlike today, bondage of the will to sin was considered a liberating doctrine in the Reformation era. Any kind of confidence in human freewill led to the question of its proper use and thence to uncertainty and thus to anxiety in regard to salvation. Our ancestors believed that assurance of faith was grounded entirely in God’s grace and not at all in human desire.

Postamble: With heads held high, human beings come to the insight that the pursuit of freedom is among the loftiest of our desires. However, with knees bent low, Reformed Christians come to the site of the cross confessing the meritless bondage of our wills before God. Wherein we did not choose Him. He chose us. Thanks be to God.

Postscript: Sharp readers recognized a while back that they were being asked to employ the freedom of their wills to accept the bondage of their wills.  Granted, this situation presents a serious antinomy to the mind, but Reformed Christians once accepted its reality as biblically correct and confessionally necessary to the faith.

Note: To define and illustrate: (1) condign merit––the Roman Catholic view; (2) congruent merit––the Self- Help view; and (3) no merit––the Protestant view.

Condign Merit: Roman Catholic

  1. When God’s sovereign grace is bestowed,
  2. An adequate human response is enabled
  • That results in salvation.

God is a landowner who has built all the quality houses in a subdivision called Earth. When, if, and since God comes by to show the houses, you may choose one and God will help you finance it. The initiative is with God (operating grace), but the choice is yours (co-operating grace). I suspect many Calvinists would be astonished to learn that John Calvin thought the idea of “cooperating grace” was a “most wicked idea” (pessimus error).

Congruent Merit: Self-Help

  1. When you make a small human effort,
  2. God’s sovereign grace is bestowed, which
  3. Enables an adequate human response
  4. That results in salvation.

If you want a nice house and make an appointment, God will come by and show you what is available. If you choose a house, God will help you finance it. The initiative and choice are with you. Freedom of the will.

No Merit: Protestant

  1. God has created and redeemed the world in Jesus Christ.
  • Which includes you. This inclusion is a gift of the Holy Spirit, called Faith, having two different but inseparable parts.
  • The first is called Justification which means that in Jesus Christ. God forgives your sin. The second is called Sanctification, which means that in Jesus Christ you are enabled to repent and more and more to lead a holy life.

God has built a house for you because God, your heavenly Father, loves you and comes by to take you to it. Then God gives you the deed with the admonition and expectation that you will live in faith, love, and hope with his presence and help. Both the initiative and choice are with God. The response to God’s choice of us is comprehended and completed in humble gratitude. Salvation does not rise to the level of a calculated human choice because it is a gift from God. SOLA GRATIA.


Dr. Charles Partee taught historical theology for many years at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is the author of The Theology of John Calvin and Adventure in Africa: The Story of Don McClure.

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Charles Partee
Dr. Charles Partee taught historical theology for many years at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is the author of The Theology of John Calvin and Adventure in Africa: The Story of Don McClure.

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