Monday, 24 June 2013

Implicit and explicit meanings in the Bible

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I have been examining the early part of St Paul's Letter to the Ephesians:

Chapter 1 - Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: according as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace; wherein he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence; having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: 10 that in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him: 11 in whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will: 12 that we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ. 13 in whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, 14 which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.

Chapter 2:1 And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others. But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

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My point here is fairly simple - and it is that there are explicit statements (or truths) here, but equally important these are presented against a necessary background of implicit truths - which must hold if the explicit statements are to be coherent and consistent with the Christian message.

Some of the statements are quite striking - for example "predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself"  - what does predestinated imply?

And the concept of 'grace' 'according to his good pleasure' - this idea of salvation as an undeserved gift freely given. then there is "predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will". 

And a clear statement that salvation is by faith (in Jesus as Lord and Saviour), not works (good acts): "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. 10 "

But if salvation is by Grace, and there is this thing predestination, and works are not relevant to this process - then what is there left for us to do? Are we puppets, robots, automata? 

Of course not! The Christian message of salvation is all about faith, and faith is (amongst other things) a decision; and a decision can only be made by a being with sufficient autonomy to make a decision: a being with free will. So implicitly we must have free will. 

Salvation is a gift of Grace, and when we have faith Grace works in us (so God is working on both sides) but in the middle is the act of free will without which Grace would have no meaning, nothing to work on. 
But what about us being 'dead in trespasses and sins; wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath'.

We are depraved, that is clear; we are in thrall to Satan (the prince of the power of air); we are in such a terrible state that we cannot get ourselves out of it - all that is clear because explicit. 

But, implicitly, we cannot be absolutely depraved - or else we could not make that act of free will to have faith. So any theology which has it that we are utterly depraved is mistaken. 

And predestination? However this is understood, it cannot mean that free will is excluded. If you believe that we have a pre-mortal spirit existence, this predestination is understandable as a proper role, situation, status, that kind of thing. But there are other understandings.

But whatever predestination means, it does not mean that we were created inevitably to follow a detailed script of salvation or damnation - implicitly, it cannot mean that!

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12 comments:

  1. Does your interpretation survive reading the passage in the original Greek?

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  2. Perhaps the predestination means those to whom the question about Christianity is given in full force, like Paul himself. "... that we should be to the praise of his glory" The question implies that we should, but the decision depends on us.

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  3. @d - the Authorized version is definitive (i.e. divinely inspired) for English speakers - no need to read Greek.

    @aF - my point is that whatever it may be taken to mean, it does not mean that we lack free will (specifically, the autonomy to choose faith, or reject it). This autonomy is wholly independent of circumstance.

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  4. Indeed we do have free will. And what we freely choose was predestined. Both are affirmed in Scripture.

    I think the key to understanding how these can both be is our desire. We freely choose what we want, but we are not free to choose something we don’t want. Since we don’t want it, we don’t choose it. The elect choose Jesus, upon the occasion of hearing the Gospel message (sometimes after hearing it many times) because they want to. The reprobate do not choose Jesus, because they don’t want to.

    It is possible sometimes for us to change what we it is that we want, but it’s a slow process. And we can only do it if we want to change our desire. If you don’t want to change your desire, then you won’t change it.

    What causes the change from not wanting Jesus to wanting him? Ultimately the cause is personal and mysterious. And Scripture says God is the cause.

    And “total depravity” does not mean that man is as evil as possible. It means that every human act and faculty is corrupted with sin. It also means that the natural man, the man whom God has not chosen for spiritual regeneration, never wants to choose Christ.

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  5. @AR - I find that what you have said reduces to humans having no free will - thus I believe it is mistaken.

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  6. I disagree with your contention that what I said reduces humans to having no free will. Can you explain what specifically, in your view, nullifies our free will?

    For example, is it your contention that free will requires that God not manipulate us in any way, not even in a way that is invisible to us (which is the position I articulated: God’s changing of our mind is invisible to us, and can only be taken on faith because it is given in Scripture)?

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  7. @AR - I see no place for anything which is true free will to operate - the whole scheme is filled by God - the incentives He sets up, the way He sets up the people (elect, reprobate), the God given desires of each person and so on. The whole thing has no space for free will.

    This metaphysics is incompatible with Christianity - but luckily, nobody really acts-on this schema; so 'believing it' does not stop people being Christians, superb Christian even (far, far better Christians than me).

    Yet as a metaphysics it is false, because incoherent.

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  8. "Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black."

    Henry Ford

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  9. You say it’s incoherent. I don’t think it is, and I’m trying to understand your objections:

    If a man is free to choose what he wants, and is not being imposed on by someone, and if he has no feeling of his mind being manipulated by outside forces, then as far as his personal experience of reality, he has free will. Therefore we might as well say that he has free will. But this is not incompatible with God controlling a deeper reality of which we have no knowledge other than what God chooses to reveal to us. We are free, but not totally free. There is no incoherence.

    What practical difference is there between your position that man has free will, and mine that man has free will for all practical purposes, but is not independent of God and His decrees? Is your judgment perhaps partly an esthetic one, that you find something abhorrent about a God who (beneath human consciousness) manipulates man?

    If “free will” means that reality—including human choice—is so radically free and indeterminate that not even God knows what will happen in the future, then according to historic, orthodox Christianity, man does not have free will. God both knows and manipulates the future in such a way that He can make biblical prophecies that come true hundreds of years after they were made. How could such a thing be possible if God were not manipulating human beings?

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  10. @AR - "he has no feeling of his mind being manipulated by outside forces, then as far as his personal experience of reality, he has free will."

    You are describing a delusion of free will, a subjective feeling of free will, not actual real free will.

    "We are free, but not totally free. There is no incoherence."

    Yes this is incoherent - because free will to choose or reject Christ is NOT analogous to political freedom - free will is all or nothing, we have it or we don't.

    Of course the outcome of the choice can be and is influenced, that is what War in Heaven is all about, but the choice must be autonomous, must arise from within - otherwise there would be no freedom, and no justice in taking account of the choice.

    "God both knows and manipulates the future in such a way that He can make biblical prophecies that come true hundreds of years after they were made. How could such a thing be possible if God were not manipulating human beings?"

    That is a good point. Free will is entailed by scripture and so is the validity of prophecy.

    I think prophecies may be true for various reasons, and I notice that most prophecies are not given exact timings - also that some prophecies are of the if a then b, if c then d type.

    Much of prophecy may depends on knowledge and probabilities; but I suspect that the mechanism of other prophecies is the direct action of God. That is, in a prophecy, God promises that in the future He will step into history and make something happen.

    So in the Old Testament God promises to send a Messiah. This means that Jesus will come at some point in the future. Could Mary have refused to be the Mother of God? Yes she could - that seems clear from the description of her being asked and from the fact that she is honoured for accepting God's will.

    What if Mary had said no? Presumably another woman would have been asked, until one was found.

    What if a prophet refuses his calling? We know what happens (in a rather fictional style) from Jonah - God has to persuade him - God cannot make Jonah be a prophet against his will.

    Or at least, God does not do that kind of thing in the Bible - he always works via free will - God loves, is loved. persuades, terrorizes etc but he does not (I would say cannot) compel the free will of man.

    So each man's free will stands between God and the outcome of prophecy (depending on how much free will affects prophecy - presumably man's free will makes no difference to earthquakes and storms, for example), but the effect of that interposition varies with circumstance.

    I don't regard the above scheme as at all fanciful or speculative - that is just how God is described as working in the Bible - via the free choices of Men. That is exactly what gives the Bible its basic character. With out free will there would be no drama - the Bible would be nothing more than 'God decided this and then it happened'. Whereas, of course, almost the whole thing is about human choices to love, obey, worship, hate, defy etc.

    Real free will is a non-optional reality for Christians - and indeed all real Christians behave (and always have behaved) on the basis that free will is real and their choices are their own - whatever theology they purport to adhere to.

    Even when Christians assert that their choice to (for example) accept Christ as their Lord and be born again in Christ is merely an 'as if'; they regard the choice as autonomous both in themselves and others.

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  11. @ ajb,

    “You can choose anything you want, as long as you want it.”


    @ Bruce,

    I said “…he has no feeling of his mind being manipulated by outside forces, then as far as his personal experience of reality, he has free will."

    You responded “You are describing a delusion of free will, a subjective feeling of free will, not actual real free will.”

    But to know it is only a delusion of free will, you have to be omniscient. If God is manipulating you in a way that you cannot know, then you cannot know it.

    Since man is not omniscient, you cannot distinguish empirically between your type of free will and my type. In order to know which type of free will man has, you have to read and believe what God has said about the subject in the Bible.

    It appears that you are making your type of free will a fundamental premise to which all other data, including biblical data, must be subservient. But since God knows more than you and I do, you should not take this approach.

    About prophecy: I agree that God sometimes intervenes. But since God also upholds the action and even existence of the cosmos from second to second, this intervention could be seen as continuous.

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  12. @Alan "you cannot distinguish empirically between your type of free will and my type. In order to know which type of free will man has, you have to read and believe what God has said about the subject in the Bible. It appears that you are making your type of free will a fundamental premise to which all other data, including biblical data, must be subservient. But since God knows more than you and I do, you should not take this approach."

    I think we agree this is not an empirical matter - and also that it is a matter of revelation; but I am saying that it is an absolutely fundamental premise of the whole Bible that free will really is free will; and not an outcome of invisible manipulation.

    If the human protagonists of the Bible are not making real choices from themselves, but these are just a matter of programming and prior causes - then the whole story would be nothing but a horrible, sadistic, pathetic farce - in which puppets are somehow made to imagine that their salvation depends on moral choices which are illusory.

    So real free will is a non-negotiable fundamental of Christianity - because it runs all through the Bible and makes sense of it - but implicitly.

    My point in this post is that it is wrong to say "you have to read and believe *what God has said about the subject* in the Bible" - because "what God has said about the subject" focuses only on explicit statements and ignores the implicit assumptions or presuppositions upon which these statements depend.

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