Monday, August 01, 2016

'Once Saved Always Saved'

To get a grasp of a central Reformed doctrine such as perseverance one needs to understand both its grammar, and its operational logic. By grammar is meant what the doctrine means, what is a correct statement of it, and what it makes sense to say in explication of it; and (I don’t mind saying) what it means from God’s point of view. By its operational logic is meant how this doctrine is to be appropriated  by a professing believer. So – in a nutshell – this helps to handle the doctrine, and to avoid some pitfalls.

What perseverance is

Is it true that ‘once saved almost saved’? (OSAS) If so, this must imply ‘once justified always justified’.  This in turn must  imply ‘once an exercise of saving faith, always an exercise of such faith’,  and ‘once regenerate always regenerate’. When we draw these inferences what are we doing? We are limning the logic of OSAS, indicating its grammar. There’s more, such as: ‘once Christ died for a person he always died for that person’. And no doubt even more.

This is what OSAS means, at least that is what it means according to the tenets of the Reformed faith. About all the gracious acts of God in the soul, and some more, it can be said that there is a permanence, an unconditionality. Nothing can separate the believer from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The ‘once…always….’ Formula applies to the exercise of God’s decree in this particular.

Someone I talked to

These thoughts have been prompted by the remarks of someone I was talking to recently who observed that those who denied the tenets of Calvinism were not altogether at odds with the Reformed faith, since many of them upheld OSAS. So there is, he implied, this much common ground. As he talked it came to mind that this is also a case of ‘unconditional’ perseverance,  OSAS no matter what. But also that there are many people around who don’t simply affirm unconditional OSAS at a point of theological grammar, but who readily apply it their own case, and that of others, as a consequence of a past profession of faith. In other words such people extend the grammar to its functional logic, to the personal appropriation of perseverance. I don’t know whether my interlocutor meant to say or imply this: that there are people around who understand the doctrine of perseverance in this way.

Owen on Apostasy

We can get further at what I am trying to say by thinking a bit about ‘apostasy’, an ugly word for an ugly malady. Think of that well-known passage in Hebrews 6.

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have  shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the Word of God, and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm, and holding him up to contempt. (v.4f) 
In his commentary on Hebrews John Owen takes each of these conditions – (1) being enlightened, (2) having tasted of the heavenly gift, (3) have shared in the Holy Spirit, (4) have  tasted the goodness of the word of God, and (5) (have tasted of) the powers of the world to come – as each and together  not amounting to the effectual work of regeneration, but only take a person as far as the conviction of sin. Such a person may fall away. And if they do,  the author of the Letter says that it is impossible to be restored to repentance.  Owen thinks that the entire passage applies to ‘fruitless professors’. He does not see the prospect of apostasy from true faith in Hebrews 6, only of a depiction of a fate of a barren professor. So Owen takes the passage to apply only to professed believers.

But at first glance it is difficult to see how the writer can make such a case  as a warning to his readers who, he assures them later on, give evidence of regeneration, but who are sluggish. (v.12)

It seems churlish to ask Owen for more, given the seven volumes he has already given, but nevertheless I was surprised that he does not refer to the clause which mentions crucifying Christ again: ‘they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt’. (v.6) What do those words contribute to the argument? Owen does not tell us. Do these strong words only apply to the tribe of Judas? To the person that is without charity, whose life is nothing ? (I Cor. 13)

Treating the apostasy as affecting ‘fruitless professors’ only, means that the words do not apply to the Hebrew Christians. For they are not fruitless, as the writer goes on to say (v.9f.)

Well, mercifully (I think), Owen is not altogether consistent. He does (despite this) see the passage as perhaps a mild warning to his readers.  He says (Vol. V of the Goold edition, 71-2)

Only it was necessary to give them this caution, that they might take due care not to be such [i.e. like the people he was characterising, ‘fruitless professors’]….he lets them here know the danger that there was in continuing in that slothful condition.

Not so much a warning but a ‘caution’.

If Owen and the first readers of the Letter to the Hebrews knew that those being referred to in v.4-8 are ‘fruitless professors’ then there’s no problem. We remember the parables of the seeds in the ground. There seems to be allusion to that parable in the language of 7-8. There are fruitless professors. But in fact the writer goes on to say that he believes better things of his readers, and proceeds to say why. But then why is he mentioning this case of the sower if it may not apply to them?

Conditionality and perseverance

We need to try to get clear on what this passage doing. What is its operational logic.  Is it not a ‘warning passage’? For whom then is it a 'caution'? Presumably those being written to.  Maybe the answer is to think some more about perseverance. So we must think about what it is like to persevere. It is to attend the means of grace and contend against sin and weakness in the strength of the Christ who the professed believer is united to. It is keeping on, enduring to the end,  keeping on keeping on. Not to ‘fall away’ (Heb. 6. 6) The way to persevere is simply to persevere, and the assurance of one’s perseverance is provided by the evidence that one is persevering. Doesn’t the New Testament write about fighting, running, contesting? The boxer is only as good as his latest fight. And what about other warnings, to ‘take heed’, not to look back, and so on.  All such activities are highly conditional.

Unconditional OSAS

It is natural for the holder of OSAS to hold that view unconditionally, an insurance policy with a paid-up premium. So then what Hebrews 6 would be saying is that no one ever does fall away from true faith, only from fruitless faith.  The ‘if they shall fall away’ is a condition never to be fulfilled by any professed believer. Once enlightened always enlightened. Once a taster of the heavenly gift always a taster. And so on.

But that is stretching things, I think. Here’s what I think instead. That there is certainly an unconditionality to perseverance, to OSAS. This is the God’s point of view that I had the temerity to mention earlier. Aside from this there is in the church a mixed multitude of people who, in the early stages of their profession are indistinguishable the one from the other. So, if you think that the words of warning/caution in Hebrews 6 apply to you, they do. If the cap fits, wear tt.

In general the assurance that the professed believer will persevere to the end is grounded in the fact that he able (or enabled) to persevere. Present perseverance is the only guarantee for the processed believer of future perseverance, of ‘standing’. The professed believer must not take it for granted that he stands, but to take heed lest he fall. He must exercise watchfulness.  Paul said on one occasion, ‘I discipline my body, and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others, I myself should be disqualified’. (I Cor. 9.27) Was he only referring to his role as a preacher?

This is what I called the functionality of passages like Hebrews 6. The professed  believer must ask what this and similar warning passages are intended to do. How are we to treat them in real time, living as professed Christians? The answer is obvious, at least to me!

[Owen has more to say on this matter in his Commentary on Hebrews 6, some of it rather surprising. I shall try to reproduce it in a later post]

Friday, July 01, 2016

What are creeds and confessions?

The Council of Nicaea - The SistineChapel

At a time when Christian people are taken up with issues of human conduct and gender, and it seems that doctrine of God  has been left behind, it is a great thing that people are discussing the Trinity. This post is about what sort of documents creeds and confessions are. I am chary about imputing to them a finality that they cannot possess. People have the liberty to think further. Confessions cannot be exact, final.


I think that those churches who recite the Nicene Creed in their liturgy, as the Church of England does in her communion service, cannot hope that history is a way of achieving further understanding. History tells us what happened and (more uncertainly) why. Perhaps the inclusion of the word 'begotten', said of the Son, was to match neo-Platonism. Interesting. But that does not help worshippers today. What is needed for understanding is meaning,  in order to mitigate the puzzlement as the congregation recite the phrases, 'begotten of the Father before all time', 'begotten not created'.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, Begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father…

Of course to be told that the phrases refer to a complete mystery will not do.  Though it is a deep mystery nonetheless. If A is told that he is meddling in mystery when he requests some words of clarification on the Trinity ad intra, the same goes for other words.   'Mystery' is a tool that cuts both ways. Yet if the creedal words means anything, other than ‘blah-de-blah’, it should be possible for a boned-up minister to tell the inquirer several things that, in his view the phrase ‘begotten not made’ does and does not imply, so enabling his interlocutor to gain a grasp, though not a perfect grasp, but a better-than-nothing grasp, of what is meant by the phrase. He might inform his friend that understanding these words is gaining a partial understanding of divine mysteries. The same applies to everyday things like a cup of milk. There's always more to be asked, and to be  said.
To appreciate this we need to consider for a moment or two what Christian creeds and confessions are. They are not Scripture, of course, and they are at best subordinate standards. They set forth a ‘system of doctrine’ (as in the WCF) or part of that system (as the Nicene Creed sets forth a fundamental part of it.) 

What else? They have the nature of ‘articles of peace’. They are forms of words which people can agree upon, and others disagree with. No one voted on Scripture. The development of the canon of the New Testament is a famously obscure business, as if providence has prevented us from thinking of it as we think of confessions and creeds. But it was most certainly not as a result of the votes of the churches that the canon was left open for a while, and then closed. But the WCF and the Nicene Creed were each voted on. They represent the vote, or a series of such votes, in favour of a form of words. The minority is excluded, or exclude themselves from, say, the denial of Arianism that the Nicene Creed is incompatible with, or the Semi-Pelagianism that the Augustinianism of the WCF is incompatible with. The voters-for form the majority.  The non-subscribers are excluded.  Each of the subscribers commits themselves to this form of words, forms of sound words such as Paul recommends to Timothy. The subscribers are a set of individuals coming together to confess the realities depicted by a certain form of words.

So much is clear. (To me at least!)

Some examples

But then. Suppose that someone who assents to such a form of words explains his understanding of them. Say an understanding of the words ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’ and ‘contingency’, which recur in the WCF. Or the words ‘begotten of the Father from all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father…’, central to the Nicene Creed and hence to ‘catholic’ Christianity. Sometimes one meets a reluctance to explain them. They are what they are. But this is odd. If we may use non-Scriptural words (words that do not appear in the text) to elucidate the meaning of Scripture, then surely we must be able to do the same with Creeds and Confessions.

However, it is reasonable to expect understandings to differ from person to person. For gaining an understanding in these matters calls for care and discrimination, and not everyone has the same endowment of the necessary gifts, or makes the same demands on the text of the document. And we each come from a particular background, with a unique cognitive mix. And explanations may differ from occasion to occasion. One may emphasise this, another that. But all this, messy as it seems, must be OK, because it is inevitable. Otherwise as far as creedal and confessional subscription is concerned, subscribers would be restricted to parroting. Just as it is necessary that we use non-scriptural words in the exposition of scripture, so it is necessary – inevitable - that non-creedal words and non-confessional words are used in the exposition of creeds and confessions.

So all such confessions and creeds are incomplete, with a degree of ambiguity, or contain ambiguous expressions in the sense that their occurrence does not entail one interpretation, and rule out an alternative. This is not a defect, for there is no end to the process of explanation. Non-ambiguous expressions exclude, and expressions left ambiguous include, allowing for tolerable union.

Explanation by amplifying

Sometimes to cope with this deficit in explicitness, confessions and creeds may include negative implications, stating what is not implied by what is said positively, and so to limit the overall ambiguity of what is asserted. So the Nicene Creed of 325 finishes with the words ‘but, those who say, Once he [the Son of God] was not, or he was not before his generation, or he came to be out of nothing, or who assert that he is a creature, the Son of God is of a different hypostatis or ousia, or that he is a creature, or changeable, or mutable, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.’ 

And the WCF in its chapter on the decree of God (Ch.III), adds the words ‘Neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence done to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.’ The point of Principal Cunningham’s well-known reply to Sir William Hamilton as to whether, in his view, the WCF is compatible with libertarianism, is to identify  ambiguities in the document.  It is clear, he says, that you can subscribe ex animo to it whether you are a libertarian or a necessitarian. 

But Jonathan Edwards, necessitarian as he was, who believed that non-necessitarianism is incoherent, presumably would not agree. Edwards said of the WCF, ‘As to my subscribing to the substance of the Westminster Confession, there would be no difficulty.’ But saying ‘I subscribe to the WCF and I understand its use of ‘free’, ‘liberty’ and ‘contingency’ as follows…..’ is an expansion. And B may also offer an expansion, but offer an understanding using a set of words that are not the same as A’s, even flatly contradictory to them. And in the case of the Nicene Creed the use of words such as ‘subordination’,  and so forth are also instances of explanation by amplification.

And it is also true that such explanations may not be the end of the matter. For words breed more words, and the process of explanation can be iterated and further refined. More words to explain the words used to explain the Confession or Creed. In theory there is no end to such iterations. And not only in theory.

Take the anathemas at the end of The Creed of Nicea (325).  Among those who are targeted for an anathema are those who say ‘Once he [the Son of God]  was not', or 'The Son of God was not before his generation’. If you say that the Son of God was not before his generation, meaning these words, then you are handed a red card. But first you have to get your mind around the words. What is impermissible, according to the Creed, is that the Son came to be. Yet he is ‘begotten’, which looks like ‘fathered’, and that seems to imply that that there is causal activity between begetter and begotten. A timeless begetting, then. Perhaps.  But timeless causes are weird. And timeless causes within the Trinity are weirder. Are there any causes that are simultaneous? Perhaps there are, again. But are there any that are timeless? If so, how could we decide which was cause and which was effect? 

Those who subscribe to the WCF  do so in terms of the 'system of doctrine' that the document sets forth. Does this help? Did Edwards and Sir William Hamilton subscribe to the same system of doctrine? I doubt it. A libertarian interpretation of 'contingent' 'free' 'liberty'  is on the way to claiming that the WCF contains another system of doctrine than a necessitarian reading. Besides, that phrase 'system of doctrine' is itself somewhat opaque.

Explanation by reducing

By contrast, surprisingly perhaps, in one place Calvin says this, on behalf of the doctrine of the Trinity,

Where names have not been invented rashly, we must beware lest we become chargeable with arrogance and rashness in rejecting them. I wish, indeed, that such names were buried provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son and Spirit are one God and yet the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but each has his peculiar subsistence. (Inst. I.13.5).

Suppose a person contents himself with Calvin’s words. Would that count as an ‘explanation’ of Nicaea? Is it necessary to confess the faith in a polemical way? John Newton remarked about his people in Olney that their faith and piety was Calvinistic without them knowing what Arminianism was. They were in the happy position of having a non-polemical faith. If so, perhaps there may be explanations of Creeds and Confessions by reduction of commentary on them. Least said, soonest mended. Better, in these circumstances, to adopt the discipline of zipping it.

So, if what you are interested in in subscribing to a document that is intended as an expression of unity and concord, better to stick to the very words, and to keep  your further understanding to yourself. If you don't, and expect your words to be tolerated, or officially endorsed, someone else will surely ask for his further understanding to be tolerated or endorsed. Better that explanations are treated as  mere private or personal thoughts, 'just the opinions' of those who give them, don't you think?