The book God’s Strategy in Human History by Roger T Forster and V. Paul Marston has a special place for me because it gave me the background to understanding the nature of faith and so, mentally at least, liberty to go forward into receiving the Holy Spirit, healing and a basis for evangelism.
A short biographical note on Forster is that he was a prominent leader in London church life, a mathematician, as I remember, from Cambridge. On one occasion, I heard with great pleasure and benefit he and his spouse teach on the subject of the Holy Spirit; obviously, I was most favourably impressed.
In a sense the issue of the book comes down to this – does man have free-will? The authors answer decisively yes while examining and refuting reasons which constitute impediments to this conclusion. The book looks at a few passages of scripture giving a background to the conflict in which people and Christians in particular find themselves – the conflict in which free-will needs to be exercised; it investigates a few key concepts such as election and fore-knowledge; and finishes with with a frontal, indeed brutal, assault on Augustine who attacked the concept of free-will.
Firstly, as to our place in the conflict, the book opens with a summary of Job. Satan said to God that his kingdom was established solely on the basis of expediency; because God has power, people say they follow him and it is not out of love. Satan says he can prove it by attacking Job, and since God does not operate by force but by love, God allows this to happen. (We might note that Job foreshadows Jesus in this.) God ‘stakes his reputation on Job’:
Have you considered my servant Job? For there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and upright man, one who fears God and eschews evil; and he still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him to destroy him without cause.
Thus Job is caught in a conflict to which his will is central, a conflict which is simply a necessary part of his faith. To add to his problems, however, Job gets attacked by his own friends, who think that a man suffers only because of his own unfaithfulness; they reject Job’s righteousness, asserting that God is too high for Job’s righteousness to be of value to him; but they are wrong – God is engaged and enjoys Job’s righteousness and his continued choice to hold fast. (This is a good introduction to the book of Job!)
The authors discuss Rom ch 9.18 ‘He has mercy on whom He will, and whom he will he hardens’. Does this mean that in fact man’s place in the conflict is passive? No….
Paul does not say here (nor anywhere else) that God’s plan or will for an individual is irresistible – and Luke in his inspired text plainly says they are not [Luke 7.30 – the Pharisees frustrated God’s plan for them]. We have seen that the Exodus story to which Paul alludes is far from implying any “irresistible will”. It is true that God will ultimately achieve his plan for the world in spite of those who resist it, but the individual still has his own moral choice of whether or not to reject God’s plan for him. (p.80).
Following on this is an examination of the passage in Exodus which says that God ‘hardened’ Pharaoh’s heart. The authors show that the ‘hardening’ was a strengthening of Pharaoh’s own defiant resolve, not ‘the infusion of evil passion but the animation of a resolute courage’; this is how God works in human history; that is to say, with man’s decisions, not as making them for him!
The discussion of election seeks to show that this is not election in the sense of God somehow inscrutably choosing one person to be saved and another not to be. Rather, the point about election is that it is ‘in Christ’; Christ is elect – we don’t get into Christ by election, but when in Christ we are in the elect. Interestingly there is an overlap between being chosen and being beloved; at the transfiguration Matthew and Mark say ‘this is my beloved Son’, but Luke says ‘this is my chosen Son’; we might say, my choice Son. Election and choice has also to do with office – our election in Christ is to particular works that ‘God has ordained that we should walk in’ – office. This passage is well worth reading, as is that on fore-knowledge. Here they show that fore-knowledge means to know everything about a person, from the past into the future; it is knowing, not ordaining; it is not connected with choosing. If things were fore-ordained then prayer would make no sense, but God hears and knows our groanings; that is how he works.
Foreknowledge implies a complete understanding of [Christians], of their characters, their weaknesses, and their reactions.[Paul] is saying that God completely understood those to whom he gave the destiny of being conformed to the image of Christ. Nevertheless, he gave them this destiny, he wants to cooperate with them now to bring in good, and he wants to give them all all things as Christ’s fellow-heirs. The whole context is one of their own destiny, as Christians, in the creation and its liberation.
The last chapter of the book is entitled an appendix, but it is for me the most substantial. The issue, to restate, is free-will. In the early church there were ‘three recurrent ideas’:
- The rejection of free-will is the view of heretics.
- Free-will is a gift given to man by God – for nothing can ultimately be independent of God.
- Man possesses free-will because he is made in God’s image, and God has free-will.
The authors then cite a number of early writers to show that this is so; they stress the orthodoxy of these writers and their continuity with and clear understanding of Paul.
Then they turn to Augustine. Augustine is cited to show that there came a great change in his thinking involving a rejection of earlier understandings. The issue is not whether salvation is by faith or works, but ‘whether faith itself is an irresistible gift’.
There were three possible views of salvation: that by works, in which God imparted grace ‘in proportion to deserts’ (Augustine’s rendering of this); that by faith, the early church view (and I would say Pauline view); that by an irresistible gift of faith, Augustine’s view. Clearly the first (known as the Pelagian view) is to be rejected.The discussion is whether faith as Augustine understood the early church to mean, ie the exercise of free-will, was in fact a work. Augustine amazingly held that faith like this is work. He could only hold this view because of an extraordinary confusion about faith and works, a monumental misreading of Paul. Listen to this fantastic idea – “The apostle therefore distinguishes faith from works, just as Judah is distinguished from Israel….though Judah is Israel itself”. This, our authors say, is of course a complete overturning of Paul who ‘always sets faith and works in antithesis’.
If God saves people by an ‘irresistible gift’ (which one might easily recognize as an oxymoron) then he uses force; Augustine began to pick out verses like ‘compel them to come in’ to back up his ‘innovation’ to show that if God uses force then so can we (we who consider ourselves to be righteous of course!); and then some. Infant baptism, in Augustine’s church alone of course, saves people. If people don’t join our church, we can force them to; indeed we should force them to; and so Augustine became involved in the persecution of a group who, though they held the same beliefs theologically as the ‘Catholic’ church, did not accept the authority of that group. Church persecution follows directly from Augustine’s doctrine, and of course the doctrine and the persecution became standard practice. This terrible church practice has its parallels in the personal practice of faith and the doctrine is still affecting people today.
‘Underlying the whole system of Augustine is a basic assumption that God’s will is always and inevitably done, and that man can never resist it.’
Thus Forster and Marston, and the intent of the book is to show the reverse, that we can and must freely cooperate with God who gives us free-will. From my confused and confusing background this book was immense, and so view it as highly recommended to anyone similarly challenged.
(In accordance with the views expressed here, an article faith has been added.)
(The authors have another book Reason and Faith which I also review. Should you wish to read my translation of Galatians, a note there points to an excellent commentary by Forster on Galatians and Ephesians.)