Doctrine & Way

Are you having difficulty with a doctrine of the faith? It is likely then that there is for you some particular spiritual benefit to be gained from a better understanding of just that doctrine, and of its bases. God scandalizes us at those junctures on the Way where he wants us to pay particular attention, so as to correct some peculiar defect of our understanding; our difficulties with doctrine are our difficulties with admitting the truth. Struggling with doctrine – not to disagree, but humbly, to understand – we learn what it really is, and what the Church is in it really saying to us.

If my own experience is any indication, there is no end to this process. As soon as I figure out one doctrine well enough to feel comfortable with it – thanks only to beginning to understand what it teaches – another rears its head. And no doctrine stays put; each one sooner or later cries out for a deeper turn of the gyre. It’s like playing whack-a-mole, except that as you go your serenity increases.

The moles get bigger, too.

6 thoughts on “Doctrine & Way

  1. Your post resounds with me with what Auster used to call synchronicity. As a Protestant, I have struggled greatly in recent months with attempting to come to terms with the divide which exists between the positions of Calvinism and Arminianism. In trying to come to terms with continued sin in my own life, I found myself watching youtube videos by several prominent Calvinists, the message of which was–in essence–“you had darn well better defeat these sins, and right quick, lest you damn yourself, your ‘Christianity’ notwithstanding.” This troubled me greatly, not because I don’t wish to pursue holiness, and to reject sin, but because I have found that whatever strategy I employ, whatever efforts I undertake, sin–in one form or another–creeps in. I have come to understand Saint Paul’s frustration: For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.” (Rom 7:15)

    From this perspective–that of a Christian seeking to understand sin and purify my own heart, I found the words and the very philosophy of the Calvinists very distressing. They seem to say–or at least imply–that if sin exists in our lives, that it can be potentially be taken as evidence that we are not Christians at all. That, ultimately, true Christians are pretty nearly perfect. It is abundantly clear to me that if my salvation rests on my own actions, my own deeds, that I shall surely be damned, even on my best days. The Gospel–as propounded by Calvinists, seemed to be a cruel and (it seemed) evil thing to me. Doesn’t God wish everyone to be saved? Does he indeed ‘elect’ only a very few?

    I have felt my thoughts shifting on the matter of soteriology, and it seems clear to me that if anyone shall be saved (and certainly me!)–it can only happen as a result of grace. The Gospel, or good news, can only really be good if it really does save, and it can only really be good if it really is free. After all, who could believe a Gospel which proclaimed free salvation from sin–so long as you respond to it in the right way–by being utterly perfect!?

    I came across a quote by Chesterton, and was reading it when the notification of Kristor’s comment above came into my inbox. It summarized much of the dismay I have felt about Calvinism recently, and from a voice of some authority: “The Calvinists took the Catholic idea of the absolute knowledge and power of God; and treated it as a rocky irreducible truism so solid that anything could be built on it, however crushing or cruel. They were so confident in their logic, and its one first principle of predestination, that they tortured the intellect and imagination with dreadful deductions about God, that seemed to turn Him into a demon.”

    • Any Calvinist who says ”you had darn well better defeat these sins, and right quick, lest you damn yourself, your ‘Christianity’ notwithstanding” is a bad Calvinist. A real Calvinist believes what Scripture teaches, namely that we are not saved by our works, but by Christ’s righteousness applied to us, by faith. And therefore, since we are not saved by good deeds, we are not unsaved by bad deeds.

      I don’t know exactly which doctrines Chesterton was responding to in the saying of his that you quoted, but it probably includes predestination. But Scripture teaches this truth to comfort us, not to dismay us. In, for example, Ephesians 1 and John 6, Scripture teaches predestination in the context of giving hope and comfort to the believer: God is great enough to save all those he has made up his mind to save.

      This doctrine, like all great doctrines, can be misunderstood and twisted in to something ugly and malignant if one chooses. But that does not make the doctrine itself either untrue or ugly.

  2. I have struggled with this same battle between Calvinism and Arminianism. It is a peculiarly Protestant mindset. Either/Or. Many different sects of Protestantism who believe in Sola Scriptura are often at odds with each other by means of proof-texting. Hence so many schisms.
    But I have relearned the beauty and mystery of paradox within Catholicism. Nothing is either/or, but rather ‘and’. It is possible to reconcile predestination and apostasy through understanding that we possess free will. It is more clear in understanding faith vs. works as faith AND works when realizing that God’s grace works through it all. We are participants in God’s plan of salvation. We possess nothing that can purchase salvation, as it is freely given, but it must be received, too. We participate in our salvation, though we cannot of ourselves save ourselves. And while God knows whom He is saving and calls them elect, salvation is offered to all. I can only accept the paradoxes within the faith, because they make much more sense than an either/or approach.

  3. I appreciate the thoughtful responses to my comment.

    The root question that has troubled me over the past few months is really this: can we as Christians really have assurance of salvation, and if so, on what grounds? My reading of Calvinism and Arminianism is that neither overtly affirms that such a thing as possible, and that both implicitly affirm total assurance as impossible. Arminianism does so by fairly clearly stating that faith must be maintained, that a person may have faith at one time, but by next month, or perhaps next year, may have fallen away–may no longer believe. Calvinists say that the faith of the elect cannot be lost, that God will cause them to persevere, but the evidence of this must be found in how we live our lives. Prominent Calvinists stress that good works reflect continued increase in faith–that good works are the evidence of our faith. So while assurance is built into the logical substructure of the doctrine (from an all-knowing observer’s perspective), from the believer’s perspective the real question is: “Am I indeed one of the elect?” And the only way for a believer to assure himself of his own election is honestly to evaluate his life, his deeds, and the subjective quality and earnestness of his belief.

    As I have read on both Calvinism and Arminianism, it strikes me that Arminianism comes much closer to affirming what most Christians would instinctively affirm without much thought: of course God wishes that all would come to him; of course God loves all people. Let me summarize my understanding of Calvinism, followed by my understanding of Arminianism.

    The 5 points of Calvinism:
    1. Total depravity–man’s depravity is so total that we cannot, of our own will, choose to have faith.
    2. Unconditional election–God chooses to save some persons, and does so on the basis of his will, rather than the ‘deservingness’ of those who are saved.
    3. Limited atonement–Christ’s death is for those whom God has chosen, and not for those whom he has not.
    4. Irresistible grace–once God has chosen a person, that person’s free will is functionally overridden, and he has no choice but to accept God’s grace, though it may seem that he does so freely.
    5. Perseverance of the saints–those whom God has chosen, he will cause to persevere in faith.

    Arminianism contradicts Calvinism at each of these points, with the possible exception of #2. Arminians say that while man is indeed fallen and depraved, he is not so depraved as to be unaware of it–and he can choose faith. Arminians would agree that salvation is unconditional, but would differ on the idea of ‘election’ as something that originates in God’s will. Arminians would say that atonement is unlimited–that it is for and offered to all people, but that this free gift of grace is indeed not irresistible–it can be rejected. And lastly, while there’s variability on #5, by and large Arminians would say that perseverance is not guaranteed, the a Christian must choose to continue in faith–to continue believing.

    I have found myself driven to distraction with this question–on what basis can I know that I am saved? I found Chesterton’s quote so refreshing because he seemed to perceive the same harshness that I did in Calvinism (although some criticism can be leveled at Arminianism along the same lines). When I read what he wrote, I was also struck by the irony–that these great and tremendous men of faith had so carefully, so logically delineated a system of soteriology which meticulously guarded the holiness and character of God, even accounting for his love which carries a believer through the end of his days—but which makes no allowance for the mere sinner, seeking peace, who may ask, “Am I truly right with God; are my sins truly forgiven?”

    The Arminian response to such a question, while not offering assurance of salvation, per se, would be to respond with a question too: “Your sins, your daily life notwithstanding, do you believe that God forgives your sins based on the work of Christ on the cross?” If belief is still present, then so is salvation.

    The Calvinist must consider the question through the lens of election—is this person before me indeed among the elect? For after all, if our good works are evidence of our salvation, then mustn’t it follow that sin is evidence of absence of salvation? In which case we find ourselves in a kind of grey area—for who among us doesn’t find both good and bad in his own life?

    I’m sure that there is much more to say. This is a spiritual struggle which I am working out in my own life—if the discussion is helpful, please join in; if my comments seems overly harsh toward Calvinists, please know that many of the finest people I have ever known are Calvinists—my intention is not to slander anyone, but to think critically through these important doctrines.

    • Here is a concept I have found to be very helpful in understanding Calvinism’s sometimes-counterintuitive claims. I got this formulation from Greg Koukl. [By the way, “Calvinism,” correctly understood, is just a way of saying what Scripture says. If I didn’t believe that, I would not call myself a Calvinist.]

      The concept is this: “Calvinism describes what’s happening behind the scenes.” “On stage,” where man is directly aware of what is happening, a man chooses to have faith in Christ or not, as he wishes. On stage, a man can change from being a Christian to being a non-Christian. On stage, it is ultimately up to the individual to decide his eternal fate.

      Without denying the validity of what happens on stage, Scripture (as articulated by Calvinism) says that God also acts behind the scenes, in a way that is forever beyond man’s ability to know.

      Consider a man who is not a Christian. He does not want to believe in Jesus. So he doesn’t. But then something happens. Jesus starts to look better and better to him. He begins to learn about Jesus, attend church, pray, read the Bible, and so on.

      He then comes to a point where he does want to be a Christian, to have faith in Jesus to forgive his sins. So he does.

      Question: What caused the change?

      You can’t just say that Jesus began to look more believable and more attractive to him. Before the change, he saw Jesus, and was not interested. Something caused him to change.

      That something was not him. At least not consciously. You cannot make yourself begin to want something you don’t want. The ultimate cause is mysterious to us. It just happens sometimes.

      The bottom line is, we cannot answer the question. At least not unless we believe Scripture when it says that God chose some in eternity past, and then in the fullness of time he sends his Holy Spirit to work faith in some people, on the occasion of them hearing Scripture.

      Secular psychology explains it as the unconscious working in mysterious ways. But this is to admit that they do not know. “The unconscious” = “something we don’t know.”
      Not having any other possible explanation, we should believe Scripture when it says that all men are born hostile to God, but God gives some the gift of faith.


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