Why FreeWill Theism and Arminians’ ‘Choice’ is Theologically Aloof, pace Billings
January 16, 2012
I haven’t addressed (for some time) some of the very things that originally gave this blog inception in the first place; i.e. things related to Calvinism and Arminianism. One of the more frequent points of departure between the two camps is the question about freedom of choice in regards to salvation. Arminians argue that we have free will, albeit aided by prevenient grace, and thus have the capacity to choose or reject God’s free offer of salvation. The Reformed, or Calvinists, believe that man’s ‘will is in bondage’ to itself; and thus the only choice man will make is for himself. Further, Calvinists argue that salvation must be all of God and all of grace, or man has room to boast that he had a part in his salvation; etc. These are some of the basics that keep the continued debate going (as an Evangelical Calvinist I have a unique way to side-step this whole apparent dilemma–fodder for another post). I, in principle, side with the Reformed (of course, since I am Reformed … and this is one of the things that makes me Reformed). J. Todd Billings sketches the Reformed position, and in the process critiques the Arminian position that shows why it is untenable, theologically.
[B]ut how can we receive or even have faith unless we are free to do so on our own? This frequent question assumes that true humanity is humanity autonomous from God rather than united to God. The Reformation doctrine of the bondage of the will to sin asserts that, apart from the Spirit’s regeneration, the fallen will is unable to do any good that could contribute to salvation. No part of the fallen human being is untainted by sin such that it could take the first step toward God—that is what total (extensive) depravity is. But this claim is not a new speculation born out of the Reformation. It is simply the consequence of a theology of salvation and communion that John’s Gospel and Paul’s letters are well aware of: in the words of Christ, “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
One faces a similar issue in interpreting Paul’s imperatives, which, if taken out of context, may appear to make divine and human agency partitive and competitive: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30). Is Paul postulating an autonomous way of speaking about the Christian will, such that Christians “grieve” God unless they obey him from an autonomous space? No. Once again, this is part of Paul’s eschatological way of speaking. “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit,” like “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14), is an imperative to live into the God-given identity that Christians have already received in Christ. For example, in Ephesians, the neighbor-love imperatives of 4:25 through 5:1 are rooted in the indicative of union in Christ: “for we are members of one another” (4:25). Ephesians does not exhort us to make ourselves members of Christ’s body; rather, being a member of Christ’s body is the accomplished fact that leads to the exhortation to speak only what is “useful for building up,” avoiding the evil talk and bitterness that would “grieve the Holy Spirt” (4:29-30). Similarly, Paul roots the imperative of Romans 13:14 in the indicative of union with Christ, which is prominent in the book of Romans. Only by removing such imperatives from the eschatological “now” but “not yet” that conditions Paul’s theology of union with Christ can one use such passages to support the notion that Christian action has a space that is autonomous from the Spirit’s work. Why is it impossible for the fallen human to take the first step toward God? Because it would be a contradiction in terms, both scripturally and logically, when the scriptural framework outlined above is owned. To be human is to be in communion with God. Thus, it is impossible to act “in oneself” in taking a step toward God, because acting “in oneself” is part of the very definition of sin—the corollary to salvation as communion.
If we are to move the implications of this position to a post-Reformation era, we can see how it differs from a classic Arminian position. On the one hand, unlike Pelagius, Arminians affirm that fallen humans cannot choose God on their own. Yet, in contrast to the Reformed explanation, the Spirit’s prevenient grace lifts the sinner to a state of equilibrium in which the sinner can either choose or reject God’s gospel. But this explanation is impossible without assuming that true humanity is autonomous from God rather than in divinely enabled communion with God. Why? Because if one chooses God in that moment of equilibrium, the decisive movement toward God was empowered “by oneself,” rather than effected “by the Spirit.”
Yet Arminians could object that their view of prevenient grace affirms divine initiative and communion with God the Spirit in the moment of decision. That is true, in a certain sense. But Arminians don’t confess that divinely enabled communion goes “all the way down,” so to speak. There is divine initiative not just at the conception of Christ in Mary but throughout the incarnation. We do not abide in Christ the Vine at the beginning, only to be replanted after Christ has given us new life. No. We abide in Christ “all the way down.” Apart from this abiding, John says, we can do nothing. The Arminian denial of the effectual or causal dimension of the Spirit’s work occurs to preserve a certain type of autonomous space for the will. But if sin is acting “in ourselves” and obedience is acting in communion with God, then it is simply impossible to move toward God by acting “in ourselves.” Only by the Spirit’s effectual work can one move toward communion with God. Or, stated differently, only by communion with God can we move toward communion with God. That’s what the Reformed teaching of the bondage of the will affirms. —J. Todd Billings, Union With Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church, 47-9
Still here ;-) ? With the obvious popularity of Arminian Evangelical Roger Olson, and others; it is apparent that Arminian Freewillism is popular amongst all sorts of Evangelical Christians (e.g. not just those who are self consciously Arminian in theology, like Olson). I think Billings throws down the Reformed gauntlet, and I am unaware of how what Billings has written can be defeated by an Arminian response. If you know of one, let me know; won’t you?