Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Will just a few be saved?

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Mt 7:13-14).

23 And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able...29 And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God (Lk 13:23-24,29).

A popular trope that critics of Calvinism mechanically resort to is the allegation that according to Calvinism, God reprobates most human beings. Problem with that allegation is that Calvinism has no official statement on the percentages. 

In my experience, critics who say this usually refuse to offer any justification for their allegation. They seem to think that's an implication of Calvinism, but they rarely construct an argument to that effect. On the rare occasion that them attempt to justify their allegation, they appeal to their interpretation of Mt 7:13-14/Lk 13:23-24. So let's discuss this:

i) To begin with, that's not an implication of Calvinism. Rather, that's a hybrid position in which the critic of Calvinism takes his own interpretation of Scripture as a frame of reference, combines that with the Reformed doctrine of reprobation, then alleges that "according to Calvinism," God reprobates most human beings. But he didn't get that from Calvinism. Rather, he's imputing his interpretation of Scripture to Calvinism, then deriving a conclusion. He lacks the critical detachment to distinguish his own assumptions from the opposing position. 

ii) The imagery of these two prooftexts is somewhat ambiguous. The imaginary probably envisions city gates, with roads leading into the city or away from the city. But the relationship between the gate and the roadway is unstated. Is the gate at the end of the road? That envisions a journey to the city, where the gate is the entry-point. Or is the gate an exit from the city onto the road? 

If the gate is an exit, then this suggests that getting through the gate is just the starting-point in what may be a long, treacherous journey. Leaving is when the hard part begins. The challenges lie ahead.

If the gate is an entrance, then this suggests that if you get to that point, you have it made. You arrived at your destination. Now you're safe. You put the treacherous journey behind you.

iii) What's the distinction between the narrow gate and the wide gate? The wide gate envisions the main gate into a city. That's used by visitors, traders, and the hoi polloi. By contrast, the narrow gate is a side-gate used by people with special entree. They know the porter. 

iii) The imagery of the narrow gate has ironic implications for critics of Calvinism. If we press the imagery, then most folks cannot enter by the narrow gate even if they want to, even if they try to, because it would generate a bottleneck. Indeed, Lk 13:24 makes that very point. 

So by that logic, God has not made universal provision for the salvation of everyone. It's not simply that only a few will avail themselves of the opportunity. Rather, the narrow gate screens out most seekers. They can't go through all at once. They must line up single file. People in the front of the line have an advantage. For folks waiting in back, it's too late. If you don't make it inside before the gates close for the night, you'll be turned away. "Outer darkness". That's the gist of the imagery.

iv) Notice, though, that Jesus doesn't answer the question of whether few be saved. He probably leaves it up in the air as a stimulus to the reader. Each reader needs to answer that question for himself by heeding the warning and taking appropriate action. 

v) Does the passage imply that only a few will be saved? We need to compare that with the messianic banquet in Lk 13:28-29. That evokes a motif in Isaiah (e.g. Isa 25:6-9; 26:5; 43:5; 49:12; 55:1-2), including the image of Gentiles flooding into God's kingdom (Isa 59:19). That envisions a multitude. 

Why does Scripture use disparate imagery? Why does some imagery picture a few while other imagery pictures a multitude? Probably to encourage initiative and perseverance, on the one hand, while discouraging presumption, on the other hand. 

vi) In addition, it may be that Christ's statement is not a prophecy about church history in general, but focused on the hostile reaction to his message and mission in 1C Palestine. The short-term situation that his immediate followers will confront. No doubt that has analogues in church history, but it's not a statement about every place and every time. 

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