Monday, August 13, 2012

Providence, Part II: A Brief History of Soteriology

This is part 2 of my series on providence. Table of contents:
  1. Introduction and apology
  2. A brief history of the soteriological debate
  3. Overview of Calvinism
  4. Overview of Arminianism
  5. Comparing, contrasting, and evaluation of Calvinism and Arminianism
  6. The Biblical data
     6.5. Interlude: The God Who Seeks Us
  1. My position on providence
  2. Applications of this position to the soteriological debate
  3. Practical applications and conclusion
Before I start talking about Calvinism and Arminianism, I thought some historical context was in order, so you can understand at least a bit of where these viewpoints came from and how they have evolved.

The first non-Biblical writer often cited in debates on predestination is Augustine (354-430), who was initially fairly moderate on the issue after his conversion but during his clash with the heretic Pelagius, adopted a position fairly close to what would become known as Calvinism over a millenium later. Pelagius denied original sin, said that Adam merely set a bad example, and that man could perfect his own righteousness and simply choose to live a perfectly godly life; Augustine responded by codifying the early doctrines of original sin, total depravity, (single) predestination, and unconditional election. He was considered so extreme for his time that he was denounced by some at the council of Ephesus. Before him, the somewhat lesser-known Origen (185-254) and Chrysostom (347-407) expressed proto-Arminian views.

Since the next well-known debate over predestination happened during the reformation, I'm mostly going to skip the next 1100 years; suffice it to say that the Catholic Church's theology of salvation drifted towards becoming generally more church-focused. The monk Gottschalk (804-869) expressed an early version of the doctrine of double predestination, going so far as to call God the author of sin, and was condemned as a heretic.

In the reformation, Luther, Calvin, and most of the other significant reformers clustered around a much more Biblical soteriology than the view of the Catholic Church. Calvin, obviously, originated the position which I will be expanding in the next post; Luther was similarly minded but somewhat more cautious, hewing to single predestination. Luther took a notably limited view of free will (up to and including arguing against its existence), an issue on which he clashed with the Catholic theologian Erasmus.

Calvin opposed several other protestant theologians holding positions on free will and salvation similar to Arminius' but never with Arminius himself, who was born four years before Calvin's death. Jacobus (or James) Arminius was a Dutch theologian who grew opposed to the Calvinist view of predestination that was coming to be endemic in the reformation and expressed his own theology which would be codified by his followers the year after his death (1610) into the five Articles of Remonstrance. These were met and condemned by the Synod of Dort in 1618-19, which responded by enumerating what would become known as the five points of Calvinism, or "TULIP". (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints)

Again, theologians had  been falling towards one of these positions or the other in their studies ever since the first century, but now the two "sides" were clearly defined and enumerated and the theological clash became more open and intense. It would be played out again and again throughout the centuries, championed by preachers and theologians like Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon. Many of the protestant denominations that continued to split off took an explicit doctrinal stance on predestination; Presbyterianism is Calvinist, Methodism is Arminian, and so on.

Today the debate continues, though Calvinism seems to be in the majority and have much of the public theological ear; "big names" like John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer, and Matt Chandler write and preach from decidedly Calvinistic perspectives. Modern champions of Arminianism include Roger Olsen, F. Leroy Forlines, and other theologians I hadn't heard of until I started my study of the matter. Though strains of Arminianism (or even semi-Pelagianism, the belief that man initiates the process of salvation) run through the collective subconscious of much of modern Christianity at large, Calvinism is decidedly ascendant in the world of Protestant theology.

One relatively recent development is the rise of what has come to be known as "new Calvinism", which TIME magazine named the third of ten ideas changing the world right now. New Calvinism is the same as classical Calvinism in its core doctrine, and differs more in practice. It is the adoption of Calvinism by the highly influential evangelical movement, along with a renewed emphasis on orthodoxy (right doctrine), an ecumenical desire for transformation that crosses denominational lines, and a focus on the work of the spirit borrowed from the charismatic movement. It also tends to focus more on Jonathan Edwards' take of Calvinism than Calvin's.

The point of all this history, I suppose, is that theologians have sought to shed light on how God, predestination, and the world interact for almost as long as the New Testament has been around. Though codified in the early 17th century, the two streams of thought represented by Calvinism and Arminianism have been around for millenia and there's an excellent chance they will continue until Jesus Himself comes back to settle the score.

1 comment:

  1. These are awesome David. What a joy to watch your passion for His glory grow!

    Rev E