Saturday, November 25, 2006

Reformed or Arminian- What Difference Does Theology Make?(Introductory Post)

Today I'm beginning what I think will become a series of articles regarding my own theological journey, and delving into Arminian and Reformed theology. I will admit at the outset that recently I have been finding myself drawn to classic Reformed theology. Yet I will also admit that further study on these topics will be of benefit and could lead me into different conclusions. Since I am but a beginner in this field, I will beg your indulgence.

But I am most concerned with the question of why thinking about these issues is important: does one's Christian theology (system of beliefs about the nature of God and other Bible truth)-- whether Arminian or Calvinistic-- make any practical difference in the way we live as believers? I know this topic can be controversial, however my aim is not to stir controversy but rather to analyze and explore these two main theological belief systems, Arminianism and Calvinism, with a view towards finding the good and beneficial in each, while guarding against the bad and detrimental.

I also believe the topic is important because popular teaching in the American church today seems to shy away from thinking deeply about the big questions of life, and likewise from digging into the rich truths of Scripture. Judging by much popular Christian teaching (whether from books, television ministries, or mega-churches) the American church seems mostly preoccupied with life in the "here and now", and with a Christianity that is utilitarian.

The Christian faith is immensely practical, but the practical truths it offers are not merely supposed to be Christianized version of worldly wisdom regarding such things as relationships, handling money, or success in life. I believe that it is only as we properly interpret the deeper truths in our faith, recognizing their divine source and empowerment, that we will be able apply Bible wisdom in a practical way to our marriages, our jobs, decisions, etc. Thus it is critical to develop a sound theology that properly interprets and applies bible truth, as a foundation upon which to build our lives. Wrong theology means wrong thinking about the nature of God and mistaken ideas about our faith-- these can range from minor errors on issues of relatively little consequence to complete heresy that will lead us blindly down a path of destruction...

In the New Testament Paul frequently warns and admonishes in his epistles regarding the importance of teaching of sound doctrine (1 Timothy 1: 10, 1 Timothy 6: 3, Titus 2:1).

In Titus 1: 9, Paul does not see the teaching of sound doctrine as a peripheral matter but as one of the chief qualifications and responsibilities of the "overseer" (leader in the church).

What are the theological underpinnings beneath popular Christian teaching today? Is there an Arminian flavor or foundation to them? Is current charismatic thinking influenced by Arminian beliefs? Does Calvinistic belief present a danger or something positive to those denominations that hold to it? These are the types of questions I will be raising.

My Theological Pilgrimage... so far

I have been a Christian almost a quarter of a century. Maybe I shouldn't admit to that fact, as perhaps I ought to be a lot more spiritually advanced than I am. My first church was a Baptist church in New York City, conservative theologically but moderate when it came to social prescriptions. In other words, unlike more conservative Baptist congregations, dancing, going to movies, make-up for women, drinking alcohol, kissing (or not) on a first date, etc., were seen as personal choices within the realm of Christian liberty.

My church had a few "Navigators" in it, and these "Navs" persuaded me to join a group doing The Navigators 2:7 (based on Colossians 2:7) book, a discipleship training course that took several years (with a few breaks) to complete. In the summer of 1985 I also attended a Navigator-run eight week training program in Syracuse, NY. All attendees were encouraged to trust God to help them find jobs in Syracuse so they could pay for their room and board (all were successful, by the way). The program included about 60 men and women, all living together in the same dorm (on different floors of course), and included Bible reading and study, quiet times, teaching on discipleship, and the admonition that we not date other trainees, at least for the duration of the summer. The experience in trusting God and the teaching I learned during this period was excellent and helped me grow in my understanding of God and of how to live as a Christian.

These were the start, as I now see it, of my theological formation. I was learning important truths, as well as learning and beginning to practice spiritual disciplines, but I hadn't ever really looked at all the truths I was learning as a whole package. If asked at that time, I would have had no clue whether I was "Calvinistic" or "Arminian" in my theology. I don't recall encountering much teaching about these theological systems at church, nor from the Navigator teachers; neither did the subject come up in conversation with Christian friends.

What I now realize is that the Baptist church I was attending did indeed have Calvinistic theological roots. I can recall now sermons that explained "total inability", and other Calvinistic concepts. But somehow, I never really delved into the subject very much on my own. Over the years (from 1984-2000) there wasn't much teaching in this church about such topics as healing for today, tongues, or prophecy, subjects I would later encounter regularly at the charismatic churches I began attending from 2001 forward. It hadn't troubled me that the church wasn't preaching on these topics, just as categorizing my beliefs according to a theological system didn't seem all that important to me either, at the time. However after marriage, and with my wife dealing with chronic illness, and also under the influence of certain friends and loved ones, we became interested in charismatic teaching. We were intrigued by its generally positive message, that God is for you and wants to bless you, and also the idea that gifts missing from the church for centuries-- like prophecy, miraculous healing, speaking in tongues-- were now being restored or re-discovered. We began to hear teaching about "healing in the Atonement", "positioning yourself for blessings", and about the notion that some problems may be caused by demons and that as Christians we could use our authority to cast out these demons and be delivered of the problems related to them. My wife and I found the messages new, appealing and hopeful.

Unanswered Questions

And yet, I had many unanswered questions. The phenomenon of tongues I had observed seemed like it could easily be self-induced, though for me it was a practice that did bring personal edification. My wife and I did encounter that which seemed to be demonic-- yet trying to cast out demons did not really seem to work, even when others with more experience than us were doing the "deliverance".

Healing in the Atonement?

On the issue of healing especially, I was confounded. If "healing is in the Atonement" (Christ's death on the Christ atoning for sin and its consequences, including, presumably, sickness), it would seem then that healing is guaranteed to all believers, as surely as forgiveness of sins is always granted our faith in the death of Christ on the cross. In fact teacher of this doctrine did imply that physical healing was likewise guaranteed. Yet, experience often seemed to go against the teaching. Earnest people I knew might pray for healing without receiving it. People seemed to deal with sickness and colds, no matter what their level of faith and practice of these doctrines. And of course I, like many, personally knew two sincere Christians who not only had not been healed, but had even succumbed to death at the hand of serious illness (cancer, rare brain tumor). Though apparently living Christian lives with no blatant sin and having sought the Lord diligently and passionately for healing, with others praying for them as well, these folks died. How was one to explain such cases? It seemed the answer coming from Pentecostal/Charismatic teachers was that there wasn't enough personal faith, or defective faith in the community. Or in the cases where someone had died prematurely, we were not discerning something about that person's life that the Lord could see (like hidden sin, or perhaps, future sin). I felt these answers placed a great burden of guilt and condemnation on those not healed-- after all, the implication was that their defective, small faith had led to the unfortunate results. Of course, teachers would acknowledge "mystery" in these events, but the charismatic view we were hearing still seemed to lean in the direction of explaining them as man's failure to exercise faith in such a way that God would have been prompted to act.

The Bottom Line

This seems to be the bottom line with this theology, and what troubles me about it-- the emphasis on getting God to act. Yes, such teaching states that we are only asking God to do what He has already promised He will do, or has given us authority to carry out. And yet in this way of approaching God, there seems to be this tendency-- that instead of relating to God as the all-powerful One from whom we take our marching orders; the One who sustains us in our utter dependency upon Him and who sovereignly orders our lives in keeping with His plans-- the charismatic instead seems to try to get God to act, rightly emphasizing man's responsibility to act on his faith, but in such a way that it seems an effort to manipulate God and may become a demanding, even presumptuous attitude towards Him. Now I'm not accusing all Charismatic/Pentecostals of this, I'm just observing this tendency among many popular teachers of this ilk, in the emphasis of their teaching: God wants you: prosperous and successful (spiritually, but also financially to be sure); healthy (not sick), fit (eating a God-ordained diet); to be a positive role model to the world through our "success in life" which demonstrates our obvious favor with God. On the positive side, this theology exhibits confidence in the goodness of God, and He is seen as One who desires (and has the power to) abundantly bless His people. However, on the negative side, there is the tendency to define blessing in terms of things going our way (the extreme being the so-called "health and wealth" gospel-- never getting sick and/or getting healed immediately, receiving promotions at work, getting financial blessings, having good relationships, etc.). There is little talk in this popular theology of the suffering and trials God uses to refine us, or more importantly, our obligation as "set apart" people to seek God's kingdom, holiness and righteousness in our lives. Sometimes teaching from this school does acknowledge that God disciplines us and shapes our faith through trials. However the framework is still man-centered-- you only undergo these trials because you haven't learned the particular lesson God is trying to teach you. In other words, God only lets these things happen to you because you are acting like a blockhead, but if you were doing right, you would be just sailing through life.

What's the big deal about theology?

What does all of this have to do with theology? I think, whether consciously or not, our behavior reflects our theology-- our beliefs about God's nature and about the Word and how He communicates to us. Now many if not most Christians I've known accept the Bible as the revealed Word of God and understand that we must be submit to its teaching as the standard for our lives and the final arbiter of truth. The Protestant Reformation was in large part about restoring the primacy of Scripture as the infallible, divinely-inspired authority, as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church or papal authority having such infallibility.

Yet even among those who agree that the Word is authoritative, there exists radical differences in biblical interpretation leading to widely varying conclusions about its meaning and application. Particular interpretations add up to a "theological world view", through which one reads Scripture and applies it. Ideally, we should come to the Bible with no pre-conceived theological system in our minds, instead allowing its truths to form whatever theological conclusions we may draw. Yet it seems that mankind, in its sinfulness and its weakness, is certainly fallible when in comes to interpreting the infallible Word. If even sincere Bible-believing Christians don't agree on interpretation and often draw different theological conclusions, shouldn't we just try to overlook or minimize such differences and work together where we do agree? There is some truth in this statement. Certainly Christians ought to exhibit humility, knowing that as flawed beings we will make mistakes in Scripture interpretation, and have as yet an imperfect understanding. We ought to respect our brothers and sisters in Christ as they, like us, attempt to come to a correct reading of Scripture.

The Need for Solid Theology in an Increasingly Secularized Age

Yet at the same time, we live in an era in which the necessity for a sure reading of Scripture and an un-compromised proclamation of its truth is, perhaps, the great need of the hour. As we battle an increasingly pervasive secular world view that says believing in God is outdated and unreasonable; and that only uninformed, unscientific, foolish people still believe in God, "truth" is being defined as that which can be measured or proven by science. Anything falling outside of this "provable" realm is considered opinion, and the are of religion has become relegated to personal preference, where one opinion is as good as the next-- "if it's true for you, that's great". Thus truth, if there is such a thing, say the secularists, is only to be found in observable facts that can be proven via scientific methods. All other "truth" is subjective, relative, unprovable. But scoffing at even the possibility that truth exists is not new. After all, Pilate asked Jesus "what is truth?".

Christians believe that God has revealed life-altering, critical truth about Himself, through the world He created, then deeper still through the divine revelation that is the Bible, and most fully through His Son, Jesus Christ, the One who is the embodiment of the Truth.

But even in the church there is an alarming tendency away from dependence upon the authority of Scripture as final truth. The "seeker-sensitive" approach to gaining converts makes growth in numbers, rather than preaching the unadulterated message of the gospel, its highest concern. Many who defend the truth of Scripture are relying more on statistics and surveys and polls to make their points, as if the truth of the Bible must be validated by worldly methods. As mentioned earlier, popular Christianity, from T.D. Jakes to Joel Osteen to Joyce Meyer to Benny Hinn, over-emphasizes the "now" benefits of Christianity ("Your Best Life Now"), rather than sounding the primary battle cry that we must learn to serve God in holiness, with an eye on heavenly rewards. Many charismatics and Third-wave teachers increasingly emphasize new revelation, declaring new "prophecies" that seem to threaten the primacy of the authority of Scripture in the life of the church. "Hearing God" directly through impressions and inner promptings has become a popular way of approaching God or seeking His will, but is it truly biblical? And for many, worship has become primarily about experience-- good worship being measured by how it feels emotionally, and great worship being when one feels the "presence of God" in some tangible, physical, mystical way.

This long introduction brings me at last to the themes I want to explore, whether there may be a connection between the Arminian way of thinking (which seems to have become dominant in the American church), and the developments in the church described above, some of which are alarming. Or is there a Calvinistic mindset that lies underneath some of these dangerous trends?

I must leave this further discussion to my next article.

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