Sunday, June 13, 2004

The 4-Door Labyrinth-3

3. Reincarnation

But once you cut free of sola Scriptura, you don’t have to stop with half-measures like conditional immortality. At this point, pagan options are now in play, like transmigration. Again, if you deny freewill, then this door is bolted shut—for its autosoteric morality spins on the wheel of a fateful freewill.

Of course, reincarnation is vulnerable to various other objections. For if the purpose of reincarnation is to work off bad Karma, it does seem a little odd that the metempsychotic machinery would reincarnate a guilty soul as a Chinese soldier under orders to gun down Tibetan monks. And if guilt-free souls have been trickling into Nirvana for unnumbered centuries, how do we account for the population explosion—especially in Asian nations where the Oriental pieties and austerities are so assiduously observed? One must also wonder who is manning the vast metempsychotic machinery, especially as Hinduism and Buddhist are either atheistic or pantheistic. A further problem distinctive to Buddhist ontology is how to square reincarnation with its no-soul doctrine.

For a standard critique of reincarnation, cf. P. Edwards, Reincarnation: A Critical Examination (Prometheus 2001).

B. Closed systems of action

1. Calvinism

But if you answer in the negative, then this greatly simplifies the matter, for it leaves you with very few options. You can choose between the "infra" door or the "supra" door, but that’s about it. (The supra view maintains that God foreordained the fall as a means of manifesting his mercy and justice to the elect by visiting his grace upon the elect and judgment on the reprobate. The infra view admits that God foreordained the Fall, but is wary of deriving a theodicy from this arrangement.)

For if man does not have freewill, then the salvation (or damnation) of man depends entirely on God. And that being the so, a "no" answer commits you in advance to a lengthy and logical set of doctrines, viz., divine omnipotence and omniscience, predestination, unconditional election/reprobation; general/special providence, federal theology, the bondage of the will, special redemption, penal substitution, irresistible grace, sola fide; the assurance of salvation, and perseverance.

How it all hangs together goes something like this. If fallen man lacks freewill, then he is entirely at the mercy of God for his redemption. And only a God with sovereign attributes, such as omniscience and omnipotence, can act in a sovereign fashion.

If fallen man lacks freewill, then salvation doesn’t depend on individual action, but on one party acting on behalf of and in the place of another or many others.

If fallen man lacks freewill, then whoever is saved is saved on account of God’s sole and sufficient grace. God predestines, elects, creates, redeems, renews, justifies, preserves, and glorifies. By the same token, whoever is lost is not lost on account of God’s efficient and final agency. God predestines, reprobates, creates, judges, hardens, and damns.

If fallen man lacks freewill, then whoever is saved is saved from eternity and saved for time and eternity—for his salvation was rendered certain by the sovereign grace of God. And thus he may be assured of the gracious state wherein he finds himself.

None of this should be taken to mean that the object of grace is passive from start to finish. For God revives our heart and restores our sight. He works in us to will and to do his good will (Phil 1:6).

Reformed theology is popularly defined in terms of the five-points of Calvinist (TULIP). This is a rather negative definition inasmuch as it merely serves to distinguish Calvinism from the alternatives, but there is more to Calvinism than what makes it to differ from something else. And Calvinism can be viewed from varied perspectives:
i) Trinitarian: Those the Father chose, the Son redeemed and the Spirit renews
ii) Redemptive-Historical: Throughout history, God is adopting, redeeming, calling, justifying and gathering a chosen people to be his people and be their God
iii) Supralapsarian: God foreordained the Fall to manifest his mercy in election and his justice in reprobation.

The first perspective accentuates the economic Trinity, the second—covenant theology, and the third—theodicy and historiography. These three perspectives are supplementary and complementary.

2. Universalism

In principle, the denial of freewill is also consistent with universalism; for universalism, with its uniform outcome, is also deterministic.

The decision depends in part on how you answer all four questions. For the way you answer one of the four questions turns the key one way or another on the other questions as well. If you answer "no," to freewill, but answer "yes," to sola Scriptura, and if Scripture closes the door on universalism, then that door will remain shut even if you try the knob.

The strong point of universalism is also its weak point. For the strong point lies in its three-hanky storyline. But by that same token, it makes no effort to resist the temptation of wishful thinking. Marilyn Adams and Thomas Talbott are the two leading "Evangelical" exponents of universalism. But both writers pen polemical tearjerkers in which serious exegesis takes a backseat to the sob story.

Reading universalist literature is like going to the movies to see Shirley Temple in The Little Princess. To be a little princess is the secret wish of every curly-haired girl. And universalism spins the ultimate rags-to-riches tale. But the willing suspension of belief does not survive the exit sign, for as soon as I leave the hearts-and-flowers decor of the movie theater for the means streets outside, the real world looks ever so much more like the work of a Calvinist than a universalist—a world in which every poor orphan girl is not rescued by a rich uncle.

In this same connection, have you ever noticed the coincidental relation between reincarnation and universalism? Subjects of past-life regression therapy always remember being an Egyptian princess rather than an Egyptian slave, and having an affair with a dashing Egyptian prince rather than a sorry Egyptian beggar. More seriously, Origen's doctrine of the Apocatastasis owes as much to reincarnation as it does to universalism.

I would add that the lump-throated appeal of universalism is far from universal. It is attractive to pampered liberals, but not to poor orphan girls who would wreak vengeance on those responsible for their miserable plight. Mercy for all is most unmerciful towards the victims of injustice.

It is also hard to see how a universalist can condemn hell without invoking the principle of retributive justice. For hell would only be wrong if it were unjust to the damned. But aside from the fact that I’ve never shared his confidence in quantifying the guilt of a child rapist, the universalist is poorly poised to invoke the principle of retributive justice, for universalism occasions a universal miscarriage of justice.

Jerry Walls has made the provocative claim that Calvinism implies universalism, on the ground that if God can save anyone, he should save everyone, and that it is only owing internal tensions within Reformed theology that it resists this inference. Cf. Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, 1992).

In particular, Walls alleges that the distinction between the general call and special call is "hypocritical," and at variance with "the ordinary sense of the term" (ibid., 60). God seems to be "toying with the lost" (ibid., 62) Likewise, reprobation is deemed to be unfair because it does not apply a "common standard of judgment" and because the reprobate are unable to avoid their fate, contrary to "normal assumptions" of fair play (ibid., 69).

What all this comes down to, however, is not that Calvinism suffers from internal tensions, but rather that Calvinism is in tension with Arminian ethics. So his critique systematically begs the question.

Along the same lines, Wallis plugs his Wesleyan definitions into Calvinist usage, and then expresses puzzlement at the incoherence thus generated. He claims that the distinction between a general and special call has reference to different degrees of divine influence (ibid. 59), falsely assimilating the Reformed category of the general call to the Wesleyan category of sufficient grace
When the Westminster Confession submits two grounds for reprobation, he plays these off against each other, as if they were mutually exclusive (68). Yet this is merely the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. Mainstream Calvinism has never subscribed to Medieval voluntarism, and there is no reason why it should. God’s sovereign will is not a sheer will, but a will characterized by all his other attributes. His power is a just power; and his justice is a powerful justice.

V. Door 3

Is the New Covenant continuous with the Old?

I. Yes! —
i) Covenant theology
ii) Roman Catholicism
II. No! —
i) Marcionism
ii) Fundamentalism
iii) Anabaptism
iv) Lutheranism
v) Judaism

A. Continuous Systems of Federalism

1. Covenant Theology

For Covenant theology, covenantal continuity isn’t absolute, but presumptive. It assumes the Old Covenant to continuous with the New assuming that the New Covenant does not assert otherwise a point of discontinuity, by express or implicit teaching. So, for example, a covenant theologians would say that the moral law is still binding because you can see it carry over into the NT, (E.g., note how the Holiness Code (Lev 19:11-18) quietly underwrites the moral theology of James (2:1,9; 4:11; 5:4,9,12,20).) whereas the ceremonial law is subsumed and sublimated in the person and work of Christ because the NT says so (e.g., Heb 4-10). So the alternation between points of continuity and discontinuity is not drawn arbitrarily, but on a principled basis; for covenant theology takes its cue from progressive revelation, and not some abstract principle of formal consistency. The creation mandates (Gen 1:28; 2:3) can be used as compass points to map the moral law in the Mosaic code.

For a covenant theologian, the church is comprised of the elect, be they Jews or Gentiles. For a fundamentalist, Israel antedates the Church, but for a covenant theologian, the church antedates Israel. For a covenant theologian, the distinction between promise and fulfillment applies, not so much to Israel and the Church, as it does to BC and AD, to the OT church and the NT church, to the Church before the advent of Christ and the Church after the advent of Christ.

For a covenant theologian, Israel was a part of the church, a medium of the Messiah, a custodian of the covenants, and a type of Christ. It would be good to think of the relation between promise and fulfillment along the lines of testament and inheritance. A covenant is like a last will and testament. Christ is the heir, and the church his inheritance.

Approaching this from another angle, God cut a covenant with Abraham and his seed. Who is the seed of promise? Who is party to this covenant? Is it the Jew? Is it ethnic Israel?

But the seminal theme doesn’t begin with the Abrahamic covenant. It goes back to the Protevangelium (Gen 3:15), of which the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants are historical and instrumental exempla. The seed of promise is the seed of the woman, and the seed of the woman consists of the elect in union with Christ (e.g., Gal 3:16,29). So the dividing line is not between Jew and Gentile, Israel and the Church, but between elect and reprobate, the woman’s seed and the serpent’s seed.

Incidentally, debates over the regulative principle of worship also turn on questions of comparative continuity. Are the aesthetic elements of the Temple service part of the ceremonial law? What about holidays? The primary prooftext for the RPW is the Second Commandment (Exod 20:4), but this is proscriptive rather than prescriptive, and does not, as such, offer any positive guidance on the form and content of true worship. In the OT, the concrete details were supplied by the case law, and not the Decalogue.

2. Catholicism

Roman Catholicism, with its sacerdotal system, presents a superficial point of continuity with the OT. Is the Catholic theologian more consistent than the covenant theologian?

Now, at one level, how we come out of Door #1 may already foreclose the Catholic option. For if sola Scriptura is the only rule of faith, then that thereby invalidates various dogmas distinctive to the Magisterium.

At more than one level, how we judge Catholicism depends, not only on how we come out of this door, but all four doors. If you affirm sola Scriptura and/or deny freewill and or deny sacramental grace, then Catholicism is bolted shut before you ever get to Door #3.

As this applies to Catholicism, covenant theology would say that even if the Roman priesthood were properly parallel to the Levitical priesthood, the discontinuance of the ceremonial law voids all comparison. The Levitical priesthood was at once foreshadowed and fulfilled in the priesthood of Christ. In addition, covenant theology would further deny that the sacrifice of the Mass is in any sense continuous with the ceremonial law. Cf. F. Turretin, Institutes (P&R, 1997), 3:519-48
So both in principle and practice, the comparison is equivocal and fallacious.

II. Discontinuous Systems of Federalism

1. Marcionism

On the discontinuous end of the spectrum, the Marcionite heresy is self-refuting inasmuch as Marcion had to retrofit the canon of Scripture to accommodate his doctrine rather than draw his doctrine from the canon of Scripture. As such, it not only lacks the support of Scripture, but openly opposes Scripture.

But this brings us to another question, What is the cost of being wrong? And the penalty varies with where you range along the spectrum. If the amil is right, and the postmil is wrong, or vice versa, that is not all-important, for it comes down to a choice of center-left or center-right. But the price is much higher at the extremes of continuity (e.g. Catholicism) and discontinuity (Marcionism), for there the difference is not off by a few degrees either way, but radically opposed. At the far end you have no buffer zone, no middle ground, no margin of error. If you fall off the edge, you have no where to go but down, straight down.

In saying this, my motive is not to foster a latitudinarian disposition. I do believe there are damnable errors and nonnegotiable doctrines, and I also believe that the truth sometimes lines at the margins, and not somewhere in the middle. But for seekers and believers who find the sheer variety of choices to be very daunting, and whose anxiety tempts them to take spiritual short-cuts, to prematurely foreclose investigation, and instead to cultivate a false sense of security by contracting out their spiritual fortunes to a middle man with a winning sales-pitch; for people like these—and they are many—it is helpful and needful to slow both the heart-rate and pace of progress so that they don’t mistake a sinking ship for a lifeboat.

2. Fundamentalism

The dispensational aspect of Fundamentalism involves a distinctive ecclesiology and eschatology as it bears on the relation of Israel to the Church in space and time. The analysis is tricky, in part because it presents something of a moving target these days. But a basic issue is the role of Israel in the redemption of the world. To put it one way, is the adoption of Israel merely a means to an end, or an end in itself? Do the covenants with Abraham, Moses and David apply in some distinctive way to the identity and destiny of Israel, or is Israel a type and courier of the Church? Do the covenants in some way terminate on Israel, or is Israel a conduit of the covenants? Do the covenants signify Israel, or is Israel a sign of the Church and the messianic hope?

It is important to keep in mind that dispensational and covenant theologians don’t necessarily mean the same thing by "Israel" and the "Church." For a fundamentalist, Israel and the Church coincide with ethnic Jews and believing Gentiles respectively, whereas, for a covenant theologian, Israel and the Church intersect like the shaded area of overlapping circles.

When a fundamentalist looks at covenant theology, it appears to him that the covenants are fulfilled when the Church supercedes Israel. But that is because a fundamentalist sees Israel as prior to the Church, so that if the covenants apply to the church, then they can only apply by sidelining Israel.

But that is judging covenant theology in reference to a premise supplied by dispensationalism. For a covenant theologian, the covenants are fulfilled in the collective and singular seed of promise. They receive a singular and primary fulfillment in Christ, as well as a secondary and collective fulfillment in the Church inasmuch as the Church is in union with her head.

And all this has a further bearing on the millennial debate—with which fundamentalism is so associated. Many Christians suppose that the millennial debate begins with Rev 20. But it really begins with the OT expectation of the messianic age.

In order to appreciate that facet we must appreciate the nature of visionary revelation, for the apocalyptic and prophetic passages belong to the visionary genre of revelation. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Amos, Micah, Habakkuk, and Zechariah were seers.

Now, many readers treat the apocalyptic and prophetic passages as if these were an exercise in inspired crystal-ball gazing. The prophet peers into the crystal ball and sees future events as they unfold in real space and time.

But this commits a category mistake. What a seer sees is not a chronicle of the future, but a symbolic vision of the future. His prophecy is not a record of the future, but a record of what he saw in his mind’s eye. It is important that we not confound a visionary sequence with a historical sequence. Even though a vision may often be about things to come, we should not necessarily equate events that are imminent in the vision with events that are imminent in real time. That confuses the visionary process with the historical process.

It’s like the difference between dreamtime and real time, dream space and real space. A dreamer experiences a series of images. The psychological process of dreaming involves a temporal succession of subjective impressions. In addition, the images flow in a certain order.

But visionary relations of simultaneity and succession are not isospatial or isochronal with the topology of real spatiotemporal relations. For the psychological mode of visionary processing and symbolic medium of visionary images are ideographic rather than identical with world geography or chronology.

And it is in this general connection that we should note how certain verses concerned with the "imminent" return of Christ (e.g., Mt 10:23; 16:28; 24:34; Rev 1:1,7) have their background in the visions of Daniel (cf. 2:28-30,44-45; 7:13-14). In addition, at least three of the Apostles were seers—Peter (Acts 10:9-16), Paul (2 Cor 12:1-4) and John (Rev 1:1,10f.; 4:1ff). Not only does this involve a visionary process, but a revisionary process inasmuch as a seer such as John processes revelation as an imaginary montage of earlier visions. He sees events through the eyes of Ezekiel and Daniel, Isaiah and Zechariah, like photographic lenses that color and filter his own visionary experience.

Now, there are cases in which the Bible does offer a direct description of the future. For example, Acts 1:11 predicts the return of Christ in observational language. But we must be on guard against assuming that apocalyptic predictions (e.g., Mt 16:28) have direct reference to a public experience or event. For this could have immediate reference to a visionary experience. Such a vision will also have an extra-visionary point of reference. But we can’t peg a one-to-one correspondence.

This is both because a vision is not reality in the raw, and because symbolism is inherently open-textured inasmuch as the fit between sign and significate is conventional. For example, clouds can stand for storm clouds, and thereby illustrate divine judgment (e.g., the Flood/Parousia); but clouds can also stand for the Shekinah, and thereby illustrate God’s gracious presence (e.g., the tabernacle/Transfiguration.

So there’s a sense which every date-setting school, be it preterist, historicist or futurist shares a common confusion. The most we can say, although this is saying quite a lot, is that we can use our own historical position as a relative, but not an absolute, point of reference. Many of the endtime events in Scripture are still future to us for the simple reason that they don’t lie in the past; if they lay in the past, then we would lie in the past inasmuch as they forecast the terminus of church history. Yet church history has yet to end.

3. Anabaptism

I have lined up the alternatives according to their degree of discontinuity or continuity. That, however, represents a provisional and conventional classification, and we may find that the real and deeper contrast lies elsewhere. On the face of it, Anabaptism accentuates covenantal discontinuity. It takes its pacifism from the Sermon on the Mount, and its separatism from 2 Cor 6 & Rev 18. At this level, Anabaptist theology would seem to present the antipode of covenant theology.

But appearances are somewhat deceptive. For Anabaptist theology is deeply indebted to Exodus-typology, and this is something it shares in common with covenant theology. Both the Pilgrim and Anabaptist viewed themselves as strangers in a strange land, a walled garden within the wide wilderness of sin. The Church is not merely the Civitas Dei, but the Civitas peregrina, set over against the Civitas Diaboli.

So OT narrative casts a long shadow over the Anabaptist vision of the walk of faith. Both the Pilgrim and Anabaptist identify with the OT saint, and situate themselves in the typical landscape of redemption. As Bradford and Cotton Mather each put it:
"So they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits," W. Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (Knopf, 1994), 47.

"I write of the wonders of the Christian religion, flying from the deprivations of Europe to the American strand; and, assisted by the holy Author of that religion, I do with all conscience of truth, required therein by him who is the truth itself, report the wonderful displays of his infinite power, wisdom, goodness, and faithfulness, wherewith his divine providence hath irradiated an Indian wilderness," C. Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana (Banner of Truth, 1979), 1:25.

The difference is that, for the Anabaptist, every generation recapitulates the Exodus-generation, redeemed from bondage, but ever wandering in the wilderness; whereas the Pilgrim views himself as Caleb or Joshua, taking possession of the Promised Land.

The Anabaptist is a perpetual pilgrim, and his nomadic existence keeps him unspotted from the carnal entanglements of the world. I made mention of 2 Cor 6 and Rev 18, but these do not represent a dispensational disjunction, for each is grounded in Isa 52:11 (cf. 2 Cor 6:17; Rev 18:9). So both OT and NT saint must flee from Babylon.


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