In one of his books Richard Wurmbrand talks about one period of his imprisonment when all priests, pastors, ‘religious’ were placed together in one large cell. Often there were times of joy but there were also frequent fights, squabbles over doctrine; Wurmbrand would endeavour to keep out of these and would succeed until he heard something so ‘outrageous’ that he could not but join in, only to discover that his views were in turn so outrageous to someone else that soon the fighting had intensified. The only way they could avoid this was by seeking to see the reasons behind the other man’s position and then attempting to reinforce it; take the other man’s part.
Is it worth arguing about ‘theological’ issues? I think the answer is that it’s worth talking but not fighting; personally I got a little too contentious in a recent discussion, some of which I will report here.
I questioned a friend’s views and in reply heard an exposition of what I learned to be Calvinistic doctrine I had not heard before. According to this view salvation has to be entirely by grace, not a surprising idea; but then I learned that this means that a person has no part to play, no choice to make and that to say that a person contributes faith is to be syncretistic. I thought salvation happens when a person responds to God’s offer of grace and says yes, receives a gift; but then I was told that this is syncretistic, this is man contributing something, that his faith is a work, and that this cannot be, it subverts grace. To my surprise I found myself faced with the idea I thought was dead in the water, that salvation is an irresistible gift. I think that in that case it is not a gift but an imposition!
To me, what I was presented with is a huge ‘logical’ theological construct, known I believe as 5-point Calvinism. Early in my Christian experience I read God’s Strategy in Human History by Roger Forster and Paul Marston. They say that prior to Augustine the idea of a proffered gift being accepted by faith was normal and that this is Pauline doctrine; that Augustine altogether failed to understand this and invented the doctrine later expounded by Calvin. To me that latter view was incompatible with the Bible, the Pentecostal outlook and experience; it looks absurd. My friend, however, early in his experience, encountered the Calvinistic outlook and was convinced by it; it makes, in his view, God the centre of everything, the point to which all thinking must return, whereas my view tends to humanism.
I found some illumination in something to be read in TF Torrance, The Incarnation. “…justification by faith in Christ is badly corrupted when we make our own ‘faith’ the justifying cause, for then our own ‘faith’ or our own piety usurps the place of Christ, and we are justifying ourselves”. This seems a legitimate concern and I know this happens; biblically, it scarcely seems possible that anyone could think of themselves as being justified by anyone or thing other than God, a fact which we then believe; hence the formulation,’ justified (by God) through/by faith’; nevertheless this is a legitimate warning.
However there is potential for a real clash when it comes to what I suppose theologians would call anthropology, the nature of man. I think this way, to quote Bob Ekblad “….my growing conviction that people are not inherently bad, but are good, made in God’s image”. This is no more than what is stated in Ecclesiastes 7.29, “God made man upright but they have sought out many inventions”. The same thing is said in a darker way by R Wurmbrand, who says roughly that if asked what he thinks of man after so many years on earth he would reply that man is a great sinner but the fault is not his. These are gentle views, kind views and I find it helpful to think this way. The opposing view says that man is ‘totally depraved’, his whole bent is away from God, he cannot turn to God, he is a radical, determined rebel. Jeremiah 17.9 – “the heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked..” No doubt there is truth here too, but the view can be extended to say that people do not seek after God, but in fact they do; it seems a harsh view to me, but I am determined not to quarrel about it, and I note that in fact the outcome in my friend is compassion for the lost in their helpless condition.
I think the arguments are all on my side. They say that faith is a gift of God, though there is nowhere in the Bible that supports this – the Greek of Ephesians 2.8 cannot support that; the whole Biblical stress is that faith is our part, an action that we undertake, something we do. My friend says that sin is part of the human heart, man IS sinful; but God told Cain that sin is crouching at the door, an external force and Paul says just the same in Romans 7, that sin is in invading force, however internalized it might feel. I also note that the line opposed to mine does not comport well with the healing ministry, which in one way is so often about believing and receiving….and I could go on, but I am determined not to quarrel and I wonder if Jesus would make any sense at all of the discussion; such debates are not recorded of his ministry. As for me, David said, I am for peace; but this wasn’t God’s view – He said David was a man of war and should not build the temple! It might be better not to trust our own opinions too much.