Faith is a generic concept of the human will (Chapter 1). But, when faith became a central teaching of Christianity, the issue has been the degree to which man is able to respond in faith to God. Some Christians believe that man’s will, independent of any influence by God is able to choose whether or not to be saved. On the opposite side, other Christians believe that man is unable and unwilling to respond to God without God’s first working (by effectual calling and regeneration) in a heart to create faith in His Word and a love for the Savior.
Central to both camps is the system of doctrine that one believes. We have already discussed the necessity of systematic knowledge to give coherency and consistency to Biblical understanding. Perhaps, if more Christians were concerned to be systematic, more agreement might be found among Christians. Viewing the history of the church from the vantage point of almost 2000 years, I doubt that such agreement would ever be universal. It is interesting, however, to follow this controversy in its various forms as a background for our study of faith. I will discuss only a few details of the argument in each section. More detail will follow in the chapter that focuses on particular arguments.
Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism
“Pelagianism presented perhaps the greatest threat to the gospel in the days of Augustine’s ministry,” states Geoffrey Bromiley.(1) Pelagius (active in Rome, 400-20 A.D.), a British monk, was distressed about the lack of serious commitment in the lives of believers. (“There is nothing new under the sun!”) To some extent, this problem of nominalism surfaced for the first time in Christian history. Before the Constantine the Great made Christianity a state religion (313 A.D.), Christians were persecuted almost continuously, and at times severely (such as under Nero). This threat made nominalism rare. After Christianity was made the state religion, however, a person’s identity as a Christian and as a citizen became virtually the same. If he was a citizen, he was also a Christian.(2) A decisive decision and a serious commitment no longer had to be made. So, the problem of nominalism had become prevalent. Pelagius’ concern for commitment was commendable but his solution to the problem was wrong.
Most importantly, he underestimated the severity of the effect on man when he fell, what is called The Doctrine of Original Sin. His inferences from this premise were “that perfection of the believer was possible, that infants are guilty of no sin, and that the fall is a following of Adam’s example.”(3) Pelagius believed that God gives sufficient grace to all men to make them able to understand and choose what is good.
“The dangerous aspect of the Pelagianism position for Christology (the doctrine of the two natures, God and man, of Christ) lies in the possible implication that without original sin and a naturally corrupt will, man does not need a Savior so much as a good example …”(4)
Pelagius minimized the profound change that results from regeneration and the division of the human race into the saved and the unsaved. Concerning God, it minimizes or makes secondary God’s plan and implementation of salvation from before the foundation of the world. (See the Appendix). Concerning Christ, it reduces the greatness of His victory over sin, death, and hell. Concerning the Holy Spirit, it reduces or eliminates His role in regeneration (John 3:1-17) and sanctification (Galatians 2:20).
The greatest contribution of Pelagius was the response that he provoked from Augustine in The City of God. Augustine posited that man’s Fall resulted in an inability to do what is right in God’s eyes and a disordering of desires so that they become excessive, leading unavoidably and constantly to sin. Sin begins with the intellect or spirit, not with the acts themselves. Man will not choose God if he is left to his own desires and resources. Augustine, as a “strict predestinarian,”(5) believed that God chooses (elects) those who will be saved and gives them the subjective desire and ability to be saved. The will is in bondage either to follow a person’s own desires or to follow God. Such bondage has its positive and negative aspects.
“Biblically and theologically Augustine’s view that the will is in bondage and disordered and cannot freely choose the good is very persuasive. Morally and emotionally it seems dreadful.”(6)
Semi-Pelagianism arose against this “dreadful” doctrine of Pelagius. Augustine’s themes of rigid predestination, the priority and irresistibility of grace, and infallible perseverance (7) were moderated in that grace, although necessary to salvation, is added after man’s initial response of his own free will. In other words man is able to decide to be saved, but is unable to achieve it without God’s help.
Although Pelagius is generally considered a heretic by church historians and his position consistently opposed by theologians and church councils, the controversy continues.
… the church and many Christians have found it so hard to live with Augustinianism that over the centuries Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian views continue to reappear. Much of Western Christendom is Augustinian-predestinarian in theory, but Semi-Pelagian free-will in practice.(8)
Semi-Pelagianism has been called the “Forerunner of Arminianism.,”(9)
Arminianism and Calvinism: Five Points of Each
Because Pelagianism was solidly opposed by the Church, serious controversy in this area was essentially absent from history until the time of the Reformation. Calvin, Luther, and other Reformers not only brought a Biblical correction to Roman Catholic doctrine that had, by that time, become extreme, but greatly expanded the development of systematic theology. That expansion included a thoroughly Biblical view of God’s sovereignty and predestination of all things, including election or God’s free selection of those to be saved. Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), like Pelagius, attempted to correct what he perceived to be error within the church. He reacted to Hyper Calvinism or supralapsarianism, the logical extreme of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination that God not only elects some to eternal salvation but elects others to eternal damnation. Also, like Pelagius, his correction resulted in heresy.
Arminianism can be presented briefly with the following outline of its major points.(10) Although it was developed after the death of Arminius by a faction called the Remonstrants, they are called the Five Points of Arminianism. A mnemonic, “TULIP,” is often used for these five points.
- Christ elects or reproves on the basis of foreseen faith or unbelief.
- Christ died for all men and for every man, although only believers are saved
- Man is so depraved that divine grace is necessary unto faith or any good deed.
- This grace may be resisted.
- Whether all who are truly regenerate will certainly persevere in the faith is a point which needs further investigation.
To respond to the Remonstrants, the Synod of Dort was called by the State-General of Holland and met in November of 1618.(11) There were 84 members from Holland, Germany, the Palatinate, Switzerland, and England. They had 154 sessions during the next seven months as they tested the views of Arminius for their accurate reflection of Scriptural teaching. This synod unanimously rejected the Remonstrants’ position for their failure to meet this test. Considering that a mere rejection was not sufficient, they went on to clarify the Biblical teaching on this subject with the Five Points of Calvinism. The first letter of each point has become the mnemonic, “TULIP.”
- Total Inability or Total Depravity:Because of the Fall, man is unable to believe the gospel for his salvation…. His will is not free ….regeneration … makes the sinner alive and gives him a new nature.
- Unconditional Election:(God’s) choice of particular sinners wasn’t based on any foreseen response or obedience on their part ….Election was not determined by or conditioned upon any virtuous quality or act foreseen in man.
- III. Limited Atonement: Christ’s redeeming work was intended to save the elect only and actually secured salvation for them.
- The Efficacious Call of the Spirit or Irresistible Grace:The Spirit graciously causes the elect sinner to cooperate, to believe, to repent to come freely and willingly to Christ.
- Perseverance of the Saints:All who are chosen by God …. are kept in faith by the power of Almighty God and thus persevere to the end.
Although Arminianism and Calvinism are seen as two great contenders in the controversy over free will, another fascinating debate took place at the time of the Reformation between two colorful personalities, Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus. Actually, this event took place prior to the development of the Five Points of Arminianism. In this debate the “free will” position appeared first by Erasmus with his book, Diatribe. Luther responded with his book, Bondage of the Will.(12) His work has become a classic for the defense of God’s entire role in salvation. (Interestingly, later in history, Jonathan Edwards wrote his book, defending election, that was entitled, Freedom of the Will.)
Transition to Pietism
Pietism is not a familiar word to many Protestants today, yet Pietism and its associated movements “remain the most vigorous spiritual force within contemporary Christianity.”(13) In a real sense it is Pietism that caused the writing of this book because it is Pietism that emphasizes the subjective dimension of the Christian’s life, to the neglect of the objective dimension.
Pietism began with a similar intention to that of Pelagius, that Christians should not be nominal believers, but should lead vigorous lives because of their faith. The Reformation then repeated the extreme emphasis of the Scholastics, as its focus became theological debate, rather than practical application of Biblical truths. Without question, this focus was initially necessary to counter the distortions that had become prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church. However, this focus became such that “wrangling dogmaticians had defined the `fundamentals’ of saving faith in such detail that hardly anyone but a specialist could hope to know them all.”(14) Pietism, then, attempted to bring the personal element back into Christian’s lives.
The word, “Pietism,” is not commonly used by those who practice it, but it is identified by certain characteristics: the conscious experience of salvation, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the presence of works or “fruit,” a Christian personality (that is, a Christian behaves in a particular way), an active devotional life (having quiet times), frequent revivals of dedication, and an intense focus on the experience of the individual.
This last characteristic subtly depends upon feelings and performance. The Christian comes to identify his relationship to Jesus Christ with his “walk,” that is, how well he avoids sinful practices and is consistent in “spiritual” activities (devotions, Bible study, fellowship, church attendance, etc.). When the Christian does well in these ways, he feels close to Christ, that is, has a “close” personal relationship with Him. When he does not do well, he does not have this feeling of “close” relationship with Christ. Such identity according to performance illustrates a serious misunderstanding of Christian truth. A person is either “in Christ” or he is not. In other words, he is either a Christian or he is not. Further, he is either justified or he is not. (See Appendix.) Closeness to Christ is “either/or,” not degree. The Christian who identifies a relationship to Christ according to what he does or does not do, has returned to a works-salvation that is opposite to Christian salvation. His relationship with Christ has also become one of feelings. This practice further identifies a “good” Christian as one who is busy in spiritual activities.
A severe form of Pietism is to identify the subjective “feeling of guilt” as the true presence of guilt. Usually the problem is a repetitive sin over which the Christian is able to make little or no progress. He feels guilty even though he has asked God’s forgiveness and perhaps even made restitution. But, he has failed to distinguish the reality of God’s forgiveness that is entirely separated from the consequence of sin. Justification is a once-for-all forgiveness and ongoing confession brings an immediate forgiveness of current sins. The reality of forgiveness is determined by the promises and trustworthiness of God, not the feelings of the believer. The believer’s duty is confession and repentance and rests on God’s promises because they are true, independent of our subjective feelings. The vague and fleeting presence of feelings is substituted for the specific truth of God’s forgiveness in justification and sanctification.(15)
Another example of Pietism occurs when a Christian says that he is “led of God”, that is, he has experienced the “leading of the Spirit,” that “God told me” or some similar expression.(16) A sort of intuition is identified as God’s direct communication. This “revelation” is inconsistent with a completed Bible, a fundamental upon which Christianity stands or falls (Revelation 22:18-19). If God still speaks to people audibly, the Bible is not necessary and can be refuted by this additional knowledge. Of course, Christians who use such expressions would not openly deny that God no longer instructs people to write Scripture, but they do so practically any time that they refer to personal instruction from God.(17)
These characteristics are not wrong per se. In fact, true Christianity must involve true piety, that is, a righteous life. The major problem with pietism is its almost complete absence of well-defined, systematic teaching. The reality of this situation is revealed in the foreign sound and derogatory connotation of “doctrine” and “heresy”. Historically, what is or is not heresy and the formulation of doctrine was the major concern of the church until pietism.
“In a theological climate in which no doctrine can be labeled heresy, no teacher a heretic, the proclamation and defense of Biblical and theological truth has become a curiosity.”(18)
Precision of Biblical concepts and a knowledge of the traditional teaching of the church, especially through its creeds and doctrine, is largely unknown among modern Christians. Debates center around “opinion” and a rather poor knowledge of Scripture. Dr. Brown both praises and damns Pietism, as he summarizes the pietistic influence.
“One of the great accomplishments of Pietism was to rescue Protestantism from the dominance of the academic profession and to make faith, devotion, and knowledge of the Bible accessible to ordinary people …. Without Pietism, Protestantism might never have survived the eighteenth century, but with Pietism, it may ultimately cease to be Protestantism.”(19)
With this brief historical survey of how we can to be where we are, we move to a more detailed presentation of the specific issues that led to the current Pietistic situation and this book.
- Bromiley, Geoffrey W., Historical Theology: An Introduction, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978, p. 117.
- Although Christianity is not a state religion today, most people in the United States consider themselves to be a Christian. From recent polls it seems that most of them do not really know what defines a Christian.
- Bromiley, Historical Theology,p. 117.
- Brown, Harold O. J., Heresies, Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1984, p. 202.
- Ibid., p. 205.
- Ibid., p. 205.
- Harrison, Everett F., Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Carl F. H. Henry, Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960, pp. 479-80.
- Brown, Heresies, p. 207.
- Steele, David N. and Curtis C. Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism, Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1963., p. 20.
- Harrison, Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, pp. 64-65.
- Steele, Five Points of Calvinism,p. 14, 16-19.
- Luther, Martin, The Bondage of the Will.Trans. by Henry Cole., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976.
- Brown, Heresies, p. 362.
- Ibid.,p. 362.
- For more comment on sin and its forgiveness relative to the feeling of guilt, see Adams, Jay E.,Matters of Concern to Christian Counselors, Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1978, pp. 7-9. Also, see From Forgiveness to Forgiven, by the same author.
- These expressions may seem more charismatic or Pentecostal, but they are quite prevalent within evangelicalism, if one listens carefully. See Murray, John,Collected Writings. Vol. I. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976, p. 187f.
- Chantry, Walter J.,Signs of the Apostles. 2nd Edition, 1973, Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976.
- Brown, Heresies,p. 393.
- Ibid., p. 393.