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Tag: Calvinism

Suffering and God’s Knowledge of the Future

Theological Suffering

This is the first post in a loosely-united series called A Theological View of Suffering.

As a grad student, I do a lot of fairly technical theological reading and study. As a minister, one of the things I try to do is talk about theology in an understandable way. Because, after all, no one really likes trying to wade through technical jargon, but anything that helps us to understand God better is a good thing.

When it comes to looking at suffering from a theological perspective, and specifically what God’s role in suffering is, it is important that we first have some understanding of how God interacts with the world. Put in a different way, does God determine all of the “bad” things that happen to us, or does He simply allow them? Or, is God surprised by some of the things which happen to us and unable to do anything about them ahead of time?

All of these questions are related to the nature of God’s providence, or how He interacts with the world. In this post, I want to look specifically at the issue of foreknowledge, or, God’s relationship to the future. To what extent does God possess knowledge of the future? Is His foreknowledge exhaustive, or does He only possess knowledge of those particular events which have been settled as part of His divine plan? And, does God know the events of the future because they will happen, or will they happen because God has determined they will happen?

These questions help to introduce some of the differences between the Calvinist/Reformed, Open Theist, and Arminian perspectives on God’s foreknowledge.[1] To be clear, thousands upon thousands of pages of ink have been spilt on this topic, so this post will, by necessity, abbreviate and oversimplify at times. But my hope is that I will still be able to do an adequate job of summarizing the different perspectives.[2]

Calvinist/Reformed

The Calvinist/Reformed perspective of God’s foreknowledge suggests that God himself determines everything that will happen, decrees every event, and thus, is the cause of all things. In other words, nothing that happens in life happens without God explicitly determining that it will happen. He directly causes all things by virtue of his decrees.

From this perspective, God’s exhaustive knowledge of future events is grounded in his determination of what those events will be. God knows everything that will happen in the future, not because He “observes” those events ahead of time; rather what will happen only happens because God has determined that it be so. As part of this idea, God specifically chooses which individuals will be saved and which will be lost.

Reformed thinkers generally acknowledge that there is tension between God’s foreknowledge and human free will, but ultimately hold that the relationship between these two things is mysterious, and they subordinate the idea of free will to the (in their minds) clear biblical teaching on God’s exhaustive foreknowledge based on His determination of all things.

Calvinist thinkers hold that this view of God’s foreknowledge provides great comfort for the sufferer: we may not know why God chooses the tragic events which unfold during life, but because He causes all things, we can trust that there is some divine purpose which is being worked out. Personally, I’m not so sure.

I think the Calvinist suggestion that God decrees every single event which happens is problematic for at least two reasons. First, it seems to necessarily make God the author of all evil in the world. God doesn’t just allow evil actions to occur; he actively causes them to happen. To be sure, the scriptures present God as someone who uses events which cause great suffering (the flood, for example) to bring about His purposes, but a Calvinist understanding of God’s determinism goes beyond this, and even places God as the cause for the evil actions of individual humans. To me, this raises serious questions about God’s love.

Secondly, the New Testament repeatedly depicts the results of final judgment being contingent upon the things we do (or don’t do) in this life. If ultimately we have no ability to choose what we do because God has ordained every single event of our lives, then the judgment is a sham. Why should we be held accountable for decisions we did not make? So, the Calvinist perspective also seems to raise serious questions about God’s justice.

Open Theism

On the opposite side of the debate is the Open Theist perspective, which holds that God does not possess exhaustive knowledge of the future. Two key arguments lie beneath this perspective.

First, as opposed to Calvinism, Open Theism affirms the reality and importance of human freedom. For Open Theists, God created out of love, and the only way that human beings could genuinely love God in return was for that love to be freely chosen. So, out of his love, God gives humans the ability to choose for themselves, and He honors those choices which we make. One popular Open Theist metaphor is that God’s providence is something like a Choose Your Own Adventure book where the future is partly settled and partly open: God determines the overall structure of the story, the different possible story lines, and even certain events which will follow if certain human choices are made. But within this framework, humans are given the ability to make choices which drastically effect the story. Compared to the Calvinist perspective, in Open Theism, God determines very little, as much of what happens occurs because of the choices of free creatures.

This leads to the second key argument, which is that divine foreknowledge inherently involves a determinism which undermines human freedom. In other words, Open Theists argue that if God were to know ahead of time which choices you would make, then you wouldn’t really be free to choose something else. Thus, Open Theists deny that God knows which free will choices we will make until we make them.

This might seem to undercut God’s omniscience, but Open Theists argue that God is omniscient in that he knows all things that can be known; God has exhaustive knowledge of the past and present, and knows those parts of the future which are settled. What He does not know are those parts of the future which are still open, because they are inherently unknowable. Unlike Back to the Future or all of those crazy Star Trek time-traveling episodes suggest, Open Theists argue that the unsettled future has no true existence; until free creatures make choices which bring the future into existence, there is simply nothing to know. Interesting stuff, right?

I should mention that the Open Theist perspective was largely developed as a response to the Problem of Evil (How can God be powerful and good and permit the existence of evil in the world?). From an Open perspective, suffering occurs because of the evil choices that people make from their own free will, and God does not know that these things will happen until they do. He is disappointed in them just as we are.

There are aspects of the Open Theist perspective which are appealing to me: I appreciate the emphasis on God’s love and the freedom of humans. I find the Open Theist understanding of the future (it is not a “thing” which exists) and the resulting understanding of the nature of God’s omniscience to be interesting, and even possible.

But ultimately, I think Open Theism fails to take seriously the degree to which the bible indicates that God does, in fact, know the events of the future (think for example, of Jesus predicting Peter’s denial and Judas’s betrayal). And in many ways, this seems to me to be indicative of the entire Open Theist approach: rather than starting with the text of Scripture and then determining how God acts providentially in the world, it begins with the desire to save God from the blame for suffering in the world and tries to shoehorn that desire into Scripture. For sure, that is questionable biblical interpretation but more than that, I’m not sure it works, either: if God is limited to the point that He is surprised by the bad choices we make and legitimately cannot do anything about them, how can we be certain that He will ultimately “win” in the end and defeat evil and death?

Arminian

Between the Calvinist and Open Theist points of view is the Arminian perspective, which upholds both the foreknowledge of God (unlike Open Theism) and the ability of humanity to make free moral decisions (unlike Calvinism). Arminians hold that God does possess exhaustive foreknowledge, but that God knows the future because it will happen. God’s foreknowledge of the future actions of people does not somehow mean that He causes those things to happen. For Arminians, God is not bound by time, and is simply able to see the future decisions that humans will freely make without determining those decisions in any way.

Reformed, Open, Arminian

Related to the issue of suffering, Arminians (like Open Theists) emphasize the importance of human freedom and argue that much of the suffering which occurs in our world is related to the bad choices that people make. However, since Arminians (like Calvinists) believe that God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge of the future and that He is not caught off guard by the decisions we make, they can also believe that God can plan around the bad decisions that people make and work through those things to bring out good (Romans 8.28 comes to mind).

I think that the Arminian idea of simple foreknowledge makes the most sense and also best reconciles the biblical tension between God’s omniscience and human freedom. I struggle to understand the arguments which suggest that God’s foreknowledge necessarily implies determinism. In my own very limited foreknowledge, I can occasionally predict future events without somehow determining that those events take place. If I see a child take an egg out of a carton and drop it on the concrete floor, I can be confident that the egg will break without that “foreknowledge” somehow causing the egg to break. Based on my limited knowledge and experience, I can almost “see” it happen. How much more would an omniscient God who is not bound by time be able to look into the future and see the events which free creatures freely choose without that knowledge somehow determining the choice?

There are some questions which we simply cannot answer this side of eternity, and each of these perspectives have their weak points, but to me, Arminianism supplies the best response to God’s knowledge of the future, and also His relationship with suffering. God does not specifically cause every bad thing which happens (but certainly He causes some: the Flood), but He knows that they will happen, and is thus, best equipped to work through those things in order to bring about our good and His glory.

_______________________

[1]To be clear, the Calvinist/Reformed, Open Theist, and Arminian perspectives are not the only options, and we could talk about the ideas of Deism or Process Theology as well. Generally speaking though, those last two options are considered to be outside the confines of orthodox Christianity, and are not covered here.

[2]If you are interested in reading more, a couple of good resources are Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: 4 Views, edited by Bruce A. Ware, and Four Views on Divine Providence, edited by Dennis W. Jowers. The essays presented in those books largely comprised the sources for the material I present in this post.

Can The Saved Be Lost? A Study Of Hebrews 6.4-6

Introduction: A Passage of Controversy

The Epistle to the Hebrews focuses on the preeminence of Christ as our High Priest, but at multiple points along the way, the author cautions his readers about the dangers of leaving the Christian faith. Of these “warning passages” in Hebrews, Hebrews 6:4-6 is generally considered to be the most forceful and most troublesome. This passage has sparked debate for centuries, and its abuse is one of the reasons why Hebrews was left out of the canon of the church in the West for some time.[1] On a surface level, Hebrews 6:4-6 seems to indicate that saved persons who commit apostasy and consciously turn away from their faith can permanently lose their salvation. This contradicts the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, and is therefore the main issue around which battle lines are drawn in the discussion of this passage. Many claim this passage as evidence that salvation can indeed be lost, while those who adhere to Calvinist doctrine argue that these passages are not addressed to true believers, but instead to persons who have been exposed to Christianity but have ultimately rejected it.

In addition to these two major viewpoints, this paper will also present three of the more frequently discussed minority views, which help to give an idea of the different areas of contention and the wide array of interpretations of Hebrews 6:4-6 which are available.

Major Viewpoints

The two major viewpoints generally agree on both the nature of the sin described in Heb. 6:4-6 and its consequences but differ as to the identity of the audience to which the Epistle to the Hebrews was written. The sin described as “fallen away” in Heb. 6:6 is generally interpreted as apostasy, or the “renunciation of the covenant relationship with God.”[2] As Neil Lightfoot points out, this specific sin should be distinguished from the regular sins and shortcomings that are a part of our human nature: “Falling short is not the same as falling away. It is one thing to yield to sin contrary to the new life in Christ, it is another thing to abandon that new life altogether.”[3]

The consequences of this sin are grave indeed, as Hebrews 6:4-6 states that it is “impossible” to restore such persons to repentance. Although many have tried to soften the force of “impossible” over the years,[4] modern critics generally reject this approach, arguing that impossible means exactly what it says.[5] F. F. Bruce does a good job of harmonizing these thoughts when he says, “God has pledged himself to pardon all who truly repent, but Scripture and experience alike suggest that it is possible for human beings to arrive at a state of heart and life where they can no longer repent.”[6]

Having discussed the aspects of Hebrews 6:4-6 upon which the two major interpretations largely agree, we now turn to the area where disagreement arises: the audience to which the passage was written.

Once Saved, Now Lost

Many scholars believe that Hebrews 6:4-6 is addressed to true believers who are in danger of abandoning their faith and, as a result, losing the salvation they had received. Scot McKnight subscribes to this Saved and Lost interpretation, and supports his argument both with general evidence from throughout the epistle of Hebrews and also with a detailed analysis of the terms used to describe the audience in Hebrews 6:4-5. First, McKnight notes that the Hebrew writer at times identifies himself with the audience by using the first person plural pronoun “we,” and multiple times refers to his audience as “brothers.” These terms indicate that the author did not see his audience as insincere believers, but rather as fellow believers with whom he shares a spiritual relationship because of their common faith.[7] In Hebrews 6:4-5 the Hebrew writer describes his audience as “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.”[8] McKnight points to these descriptions as further evidence, saying that collectively, they depict the conversions experienced by his audience. McKnight concludes, “Phenomenologically, the author believes [the audience] to be, and presents them as, believers in the fullest sense possible.”[9] Speaking of this same descriptive passage, Grant R. Osborne puts it even more forcefully, saying that “it is nearly impossible to relegate these descriptions to non-Christians.”[10]

Pseudo-Christians

Even opponents of the Saved and Lost argument admit that it is the most natural interpretation if the Hebrews 6:4-6 passage is considered on its own.[11] However, by looking at the pericope in the context of the whole of Scripture, they conclude that the warning passages must refer to people who are very aware of Christianity and have experienced some of its benefits, but were never true believers themselves. This interpretation allows the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints to stand. Wayne Grudem supports this Pseudo-Christian interpretation, and claims that although the terms used in Hebrews 6:4-5 to describe the audience could apply to true believers, they could also “apply to people who were not yet Christians but who had simply heard the gospel and had experienced several of the blessings of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Christian community.”[12] Philip Hughes concurs, pointing to New Testament figures such as Judas Iscariot, Simon Magus, and Demas as individuals to whom the descriptive terms could be applied but were not true believers.[13]

Minority Viewpoints

Although the Saved and Lost and Pseudo-Christian viewpoints are the two dominant interpretations of Hebrews 6:4-6 and represent the vast majority of scholars and commentators, there are a few minority views as well, and we will now turn our attention to a brief description of these.

Hypothetical Interpretation

First is the Hypothetical interpretation, which suggests that the Hebrew writer is giving a description of what would happen if a true believer were to fall away, even though such an event could never really occur since true believers cannot fall away.[14] This theory is supported by Thomas Hewitt, among others, who says it “has much in its favor and little against it. It in no way contradicts other passages of Scripture, neither is it in conflict with the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.”[15] Although this view takes the apparent Christianity of the audience at face value and does not contradict with the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, it is not without problems. As David B. Armistead points out, “A severe warning against an impossible case serves no purpose whatsoever….”[16] Philip Hughes goes even further in criticizing this view, saying that for the author to speak of an impossible scenario as if it could truly happen to his readers in order to frighten them into being better Christians would be “subchristian and incompatible with the whole tenor of the epistle.”[17]

Community View

Another minority perspective on Hebrews 6:4-6 is Verlyn D. Verbrugge’s Community interpretation. Verbrugge claims that the metaphor of the thorn-producing land that is cursed by God in Hebrews 6:7-8 forms the basis for verses 4-6, and is itself based on the Old Testament passage of Isaiah 5:1-7, which is directed toward the nation of Israel.[18] Against this backdrop, Verbrugge concludes that the Hebrew writer is primarily concerned with addressing the “covenant community and not the individual child of God. Thus when we read of the falling away and of God’s subsequent rejection, it is rejection of a community that is in focus.”[19] Basically, Verbrugge manages to avoid the implications of the Saved and Lost view by arguing that the author of Hebrews is not addressing individual believers, but rather a local body of the church. Although critics of this view applaud Verbrugge’s recognition of the emphasis the Hebrew writer puts on the Christian community, they ultimately think he ignores the even stronger emphasis placed on the individual, and also find his argument of Hebrews 6:7-8 directly relating to Isa. 5:1-7 to be unconvincing.[20]

Christian Maturity

A final perspective to consider is the Christian Maturity interpretation, which suggests that Hebrews 6:4-6 is addressed to true believers and warns not against apostasy, but a “decisive refusal to mature” in the Christian life.[21] Proponents of this view disagree about the exact consequences of failing to heed the warning that the Hebrew writer gives, but they agree that eternal salvation is not at stake. Drawing largely on the metaphor of the thorn-infested ground in Hebrews 6:7-8, Thomas K. Oberholtzer sees eschatological implications, and argues that the result of continued immaturity in the Hebrews audience is not a loss of eternal salvation, but a loss of rewards in the millennial kingdom.[22] Randall C. Gleason sees extensive parallels between the believers described in Hebrews 6:4-5 and the Israelites who refused to enter the land of Canaan at Kadesh-Barnea, and argues that the immature Christians of Hebrews 6 run the risk of physical death, possibly during the impending destruction of Jerusalem[23] (Gleason assumes that Hebrews was written to Jewish believers living “not far from Jerusalem.”[24]). Both veins of the Christian Maturity view are rejected by other scholars for multiple reasons.[25]

Conclusion: A Real Warning of Apostasy

The entire debate over the proper interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6 is centered around the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Those who reject this doctrine have little problem accepting the passage at face value, while those who affirm it are compelled to conclude either that the passage does not refer to true believers, or that the consequences of apostasy must be something other than the loss of eternal salvation.

With the three minority views all possessing significant problems, it seems that the best interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6 must come from one of the two dominant views, which disagree about the audience to which the passage was written. Although the Pseudo-Christian view has been popular for centuries and makes some good arguments, it also approaches the passage with too much presupposition and from the outset tries to make it mean something other than what it seems to mean. The Saved and Lost interpretation, on the other hand, takes the Hebrew writer at his word, and therefore seems to be the best. After all, what more could the author have said to show that he was writing to true believers than what he already did?


[1]Roger Nicole, “Some Comments on Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Doctrine of the Perseverance of God with the Saints,” in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation; Studies in Honor of Merrill C. Tenney presented by his Former Students, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 355.

[2]Alan Mugridge, “Warnings in the Epistle to the Hebrews: An Exegetical and Theological Study,” Reformed Theological Review 46 (September-December 1987): 77.

[3]Neil R. Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today: A Commentary on the Book of Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), 126.

[4]Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, “Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Peril of Apostasy,” Westminster Theological Journal 35, no. 2 (Winter 1973): 144-45.

[5]William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 47A (Dallas: Word Books, 1991), 142; David B. Armistead, “The ‘Believer’ who Falls Away: Heb 6:4-6 and the Perseverance of the Saints,” Stulos Theological Journal 4, no. 2 (1996): 140-44.

[6]F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990): 149.

[7]Scot McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews: A Formal Analysis and Theological Conclusions,” Trinity Journal 13 (Spring 1992) 43.

[8]All biblical references in this paper are taken from the English Standard Version.

[9]McKnight, 44-48.

[10]Grant R. Osborne, “A Classical Arminian View,” in Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 112.

[11]Wayne Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints: A Case Study from the Warning Passages in Hebrews,” in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge & Grace, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 137; Armistead, 144.

[12]Grudem, 171-72.

[13]Hughes, 149-150.

[14]Grudem, 152.

[15]Thomas Hewitt, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960): 110-11.

[16]Armistead, 139.

[17]Hughes, 144.

[18]Verlyn D. Verbrugge, “Towards a New Interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6,” Calvin Theological Journal 15, no.1 (April 1980): 62-65.

[19]Verbrugge, 62.

[20]McKnight, 53-54; Robert A. Peterson, “Apostasy in the Hebrews Warning Passages,” Presbyterion 34, no.1 (Spring 2008): 27-29.

[21]Randall C. Gleason, “The Old Testament Background of the Warning in Hebrews 6:4-8,” Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (January-March 1998): 81-82.

[22]Thomas K. Oberholtzer, “The Warning Passages in Hebrews Part 3 (of 5 parts): The Thorn-Infested Ground in Hebrews 6:4-12,” Bibliotheca Sacra 145 (July-September 1988): 319-28.

[23]Gleason, 78-89.

[24]Randall C. Gleason, “A Moderate Reformed View,” in Bateman, 337-40.

[25]Grudem, 151-52; Brent Nongbri, “A Touch of Condemnation in a Word of Exhortation: Apocalyptic Language and Graeco-Roman Rhetoric in Hebrews 6:4-12,” Novum Testamentum 45, no. 3 (2003): 268-69; Grant R. Osborne, “Classical Arminian Response,” in Bateman, 378-95; Buist M. Fanning, “Classical Reformed Response,” in Bateman, 396-414.

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