Friday, August 03, 2007

Leaving the fold

The Grim Reppert has posted the following challenge to the Reformed doctrine of perseverance:

I think this is an empirical problem for point 5 to be honest with you. Point 5 advocates use this passage to buttress their position, I John 2: 19

"They went out from us but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us; but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us."

But can that be generalized to all instances of "leaving the fold?" Doesn't this commit you to an a priori theory of people who leave, which isn't supported by the evidence?

At issue is whether there is such a thing as an “ex-Christian atheist.”

By way of reply:

1.I appreciate the fact that Dr. Reppert takes Calvinism seriously enough to challenge it. We can take the heat, and the heat will temper our steel.

2.Reppert is correct to say that Calvinism would be guilty of overgeneralizing from 1 Jn 2:19 if, in fact, that were our only prooftext for perseverance.

Yet he must know that the doctrine of perseverance is founded on a far broader database than 1 Jn 2:19. In particular, various aspects of Johannine and Pauline soteriology lay the principle foundation for the doctrine, although the Biblical witness is wider than that.

3.It’s also unclear to me why he thinks that this doctrine is at odds with the empirical evidence.

i) Election and regeneration are necessary conditions of perseverance. Yet these are not empirical conditions. They are no open to public (or even private) inspection.

Catholic iconography notwithstanding, election and regeneration do not confer a halo on the elect and regenerate.

ii) In addition, the regenerate remain sinners in this life. So there’s no observable criterion that unmistakably distinguishes a nominal believer from a “true” believer.

Hence I don’t know what Dr. Reppert thinks would count as evidence against the doctrine.

4. Perhaps this is due to semantic confusion. As a matter of linguistic convention, Calvinism distinguishes between “nominal believers” and “true believers.”

When we deny that a nominal believer is a true believer, we do not deny that a nominal believer (or future apostate) can truly believe Christian theology. It’s just an idiomatic way of contrasting elect/regenerate believers from reprobate/unregenerate believers.

This usage is simply a carryover from Scriptural usage, which speaks of “unbelievers” in contrast to Christians.

It’s quite possible for the reprobate/unregenerate to believe in Christian theology. It may strike them as very reasonable. It may be all they know. Social approval may depend on their acceptance of Christian doctrine.

But the moment their hereditary faith comes under attack, especially if they move away from home and begin to shift their social arrangements, it may crumble into dust.

Some nominal Christians, whether converts to the faith or cradle churchmen, are intellectually inclined. As a result, they may dig deeper into theology, apologetics, and Bible study. This puts them on a track to ordination.

When a minister leaves the faith, that’s more conspicuous than when a layman leaves the faith, but it’s no more surprising. The apostate pastor got that far into the faith because his intellectual curiosity took him that far.

Moreover, there comes a point along the professional continuum where, to some extent, you feel emotionally or financially committed to see it through. A seminarian or ordained minister isn’t motivated to jump ship as soon as he begins to entertain some doubts about his faith.

For one thing, he may hope that he can overcome his doubts by toughing it out during the dry season. And, in some cases, he does overcome his doubts.

Beyond that, it is very awkward to make a midlife career change. Because all your training is in the field of theology, you may not be qualified to do anything else. You have no other marketable skills.

In addition, most of your relationships are centered on your Christian identity. Your marriage. Your parishioners. Your fellow ministers, seminary classmates, and mentors.

Think of all the people you’ll let down! You’ll be ostracized. You’ll lose your job. Your marriage may fall apart. You reputation in tatters.

Loss of face and loss of income are strong disincentives to making a drastic career change. So a nominal believer turned closet apostate may keep up appearances for a very long time. Indeed, some closet apostates never come clean.

Therefore, it isn’t terribly surprising that someone who seemed to be very advanced in the faith would suddenly drop out of the faith. He may have been treading water for a number of years.

He knows the role. He can play the part. The right code words. The right tone of voice. The right facial expression.

A man with public speaking ability can feign a passionate performance. Actors do it for a living. Think of Richard Burton as Thomas a Beckett or Paul Scofield as Thomas More. Think of all those worldly actresses who play nuns and mother superiors (e.g. Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Diana Rigg, Deborah Kerr). Heck, think of all the charlatans on TBN!

Conversely, a lot of ministers are mediocre preachers, so even if they lose their faith, it doesn’t show in the pulpit since their delivery was always a flat, lackluster affair.

5. And as far as the indirect evidence is concerned, consider two sets of professing Christians. Both sets go through the same ordeals. One set may suffer a crisis of faith or temporary lapse of faith, but they hunker down and stick it out. In time, they experience spiritual restoration.

The other set lose their faith and never look back. On the face of it we have the same causes resulting in different effects.

So what is the differential factor? There must be some other, intangible dynamic that distinguishes the backslider from the apostate. That would be grace.

Their outward circumstances are the same. For a time, their reaction may be the same. To all appearances they both look like lost sheep. But over time, one stray sheep returns to the fold while the other sheep continues to wander in the wilderness until it dies.


  1. OT:
    Rob Bell writes:
    "While there is only one God, God is somehow present everywhere. People began to call this presence, this power of God, his 'Spirit'. So there is God, the then there is God's Spirit. And then Jesus comes among us and has this oneness with God that has people saying things like God has visited us in the flesh (John 1:14). So God is one, but God has also revealed himself to us as Spirit and then as Jesus. One and yet three. This three-in-oneness understanding of God emerged in several hundred years after Jesus' resurrection. People began to call this concept the Trinity. The word trinity is not found anywhere in the Bible. Jesus didn't use the word, and the writers of the rest of the Bible didn't use the word."

    In our church the pastor has been spending a lot of time during services playing Rob Bell videos. Well, whatever. But isn't what Rob Bell says here modalism (as well as bad history)? And isn't modalism a damnable heresy?

    Any thoughts?

  2. Thanks for plugging the title of my book in the subject heading of your blog post! Leaving the Fold.

    As for that guy you called "grim" as in the "Grim Reppert," he's a wonderful guy, upbeat as all hell.

  3. A damnable heresy! Yes, if a man examines the complex, highly nuanced, easy-to-misapprehend doctrine of God's essential nature and gets it wrong, there's hell to pay. He will have failed God's final theological exam. And because of his unfortunate gaffe in metaphysics, this preacher will be groaning from the depths of gehenna a trillion years from now. But that's justice, right?

  4. Well, it sounds like he's deliberately got it wrong.

  5. stevej,
    As I understand the real nature of the problem, the issue is not "does person X have all his i's and t's properly dotted and crossed and have a right understanding of complicated theological nuance--so he can go to heaven or avoid hell."

    Rather, the issue is akin to a beginning student of--let's pick math--who thinks he's got hold of the truth after a 1st grade introduction. When the teacher starts to teach fractions, he can't grasp the concept (like I had a hard time getting it). He doesn't work at learning the material; instead he starts declaring that the teacher is an idiot, incompetent, or just malicious indoctrinator of dogma, in place of "truth."

    And what is truth? Why, its whatever HE can understand! "My net catches fish, and if it ain't in my net, it ain't FISH!"

    Now when I was in 1st grade, I didn't assume my teacher was trying to teach me falsehoods, but that I had extra work to do until I understood the concept of fractions. I was a teachable student. But there have been plenty of unteachable students--of math and of theology.

    The modalist, who knows what modalism is, and who knows that orthodox Christianity teaches otherwise, whether he "gets" trinitarianism and rejects it, or does so out of a naive ignorance (saying "I don't get it, therefore it isn't true")--this is a very different cat from the guy who simply has difficulty grasping the meaning of "one-in-three, and three-in-one." The latter fellow acknowledges his limitations, the former denies his.

    And worse, he accuses those who teach what he now declares is false--like the teacher trying to teach Johnny fractions--of lying or being blind guides.

    And worse yet, many of these men--not content to remain arrogant and alone--set themselves up as contradictory teachers. Imagine if Johnny, who didn't understand fractions, was given the math teacher job at school, and when he got to fractions, he didn't identify himself as incompetent on the subject, but taught some error-ridden version of fractions. He also labeled his former teacher a heretic and liar. (Or maybe he suggests: "We all have some vague, partial understanding of fractions; my view is just as good as my silly instructor's.)

    Actually, the school in the case of math, or the church in the case of theology, is failing to do its job if it approves Johnny to teach a subject he doesn't understand. So, a well-ordered church will not have Incompetent Johnny to teach.

    Its bad enough to reject what one doesn't understand, instead of working at it. It's worse to then set up a rival theology and lead even more people astray.

    No one is going to hell simply because they do not have a "deep enough" theology. The danger people face is that they may embrace a pseudo-Christ, one who isn't found in the Bible, but who is being masqueraded as the Savior.

    False teachers abound. The apostles who wrote us letters warned us about them. They take people to hell with them. The Christian church has from the earliest stage recognized that a proper doctrine of God was a theological cornerstone. If that be incorrect, the whole building goes out of alignment, and will eventually collapse.

    It doesn't matter if you or I can't tell HOW BAD a certain error may be. ALL errors must eventually be purged by Christ from the house he is building out of living stones. Better to let him detach the error from our lives, than that he not. For if certain men are too attached to some error or other, when that flaw is purged, he will go with it into the lake of fire, holding tightly to it all the way down.

    Yes, stevej, that IS justice.

  6. Bruce,

    But can we assume that everyone who differs with orthodoxy does so out of malice and a hatred of God?

  7. A damnable heresy! Yes, if a man examines the complex, highly nuanced, easy-to-misapprehend doctrine of God's essential nature and gets it wrong, there's hell to pay. He will have failed God's final theological exam. And because of his unfortunate gaffe in metaphysics, this preacher will be groaning from the depths of gehenna a trillion years from now. But that's justice, right?

    Of course, for Steve J, who is openly defying his ban here (because he has proven himself unwilling and incapable of sincere intellectual discourse in times past), going to hell at all is "unjust." Steve J, as we peruse his history of posting, has excused sin in the past, so it isn't as if Steve is merely arguing that modalism should not be damnable because trinitarianism is difficult.

    Further, if trinitarianism is so difficult, why are there so few true modalists?

    And does Trinitarianism require a course in metaphysics to understand? Hardly. Nobody is advocating the refusal of a person on the basis of his confession of faith if he doesn't understand the finer points of the internal metaphysics of the doctrine.
    Rather, we're talking about those who cultivate their errors as Bruce stated.

    And we're not even talking about a saving profession of faith. We're talking about a credible profession of faith. Leave it to Steve J to forget about that. Perhaps he is unaware of the difference.

    We've been over this many times on this blog before.

    In Reformed theology, we draw a distinction between a credible profession of faith and a saving profession of faith. For purposes of church membership, cooperation with other denominational entities, etc., since we cannot know of a certainty who is or isn't saved, we only require a credible profession of faith. A saving profession of faith lies solely between an individual and God.

    For example, a Catholic that affirms the current dogmas of Rome cannot offer a credible profession of faith to a consistent Protestant. But whether a Catholic can offer a saving profession of faith is a different question. The answer varies on a case-by-case basis. It is easier to say who isn't saved than to say who is.

    To be a Christian is to be, among other things, a Christian believer. One must believe certain things, and not believe certain other, contrary things. On the one hand, some dogmas are damnable dogmas. On the other hand, the Bible lays out certain saving articles of faith. This is God's criterion, not ours. We did not invent it. By the same token, how God applies that criterion in any individual case is up to God, not to us. We are not the judge, God is the Judge. To take a concrete example, Scripture teaches Sola Fide (faith alone) (Romans; Galatians). An individual is saved by faith in Christ and saved by the sole and sufficient merit of Christ.

    However, in Catholic dogma, one is saved by the merit of Christ plus the merit of the saints plus one's own congruent merit. And this results in a divided faith. That is why a Catholic cannot give a consistent Protestant a credible profession of faith. In fairness, Protestants are more prone to give a Catholic church member a pass on the credible profession of faith than they do a Catholic bishop or the Pope or some of their lay apologists, because they very clearly have bought into the full range of Catholic dogmas.

    Any of the following creeds/confessions could supply the basis for a credible profession of faith:

    1. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Christian Religion

    2. The Formula of Concord

    3. The Baptist Faith & Message (any version)(

    4. The C&MA statement of faith

    5. The JFJ statement of faith (

    6. The EFCA statement of faith (

    7. The Campus Crusade statement of faith (

    8. The AG statement of faith (

    These are all broadly evangelical affirmations of faith. Notice, not all are Reformed. Some are Lutheran; some are Arminian. By contrast, Trent or Vatican II does not supply the basis for a credible profession of faith. Still, it is possible for a Catholic or Modalist to be saved, unlike a Muslim or Mormon or other suchlike.

    The issue with the Catholic and the Modalist is the cultivation of their error. We'll give a pass to the run of the mill church member, but not the priest or the pastor, because it is more likely the former have not cultivated their error, the latter have, and where they have, they've denied another fundamental article: justification by faith alone. What's more, when presented with truth, they reject the truth. The former frequently do not. The rejection of fundamental truths is a sign of a darkened mind, and that is a sign of an unregenerate mind.

    I might add that Steve J has openly denied justification by faith alone in the comboxes here too. He's cultivated his errors.

    Most modalists today are not only modalists, but they, coming from the Oneness Pentecostals and Apostolic churches, believe a person must be baptized by one particular formula to be saved at all, "in Jesus name" by an ordained Oneness minister. They affirm that those who do not speak in tongues are not true Christians, etc. So, it isn't as if the anathema isn't mutual. If they're willing to write off everybody but themselves, then by all means, why shouldn't we accommodate them?

    But, as usual, Steve J simply cruises on not taking any of these facts into account.

  8. Gene, I didn't know I was permanently banned from this blog. If I am, then I'll respect that and refrain from commenting.

  9. Funny, you didn't indicate that was your understanding on your own blog, when you complained about your ban at Triablogue.

    Here is exactly what you stated:

    Well, I've learned my lesson. No more mud wrestling with conservative Christian apologists like the ones over on Triablogue.

    I surfed into their site last week and made a comment about the traditional doctrine of hell, thereby sparking a series of impassioned posts on that site. That would have been OK, except for the following:

    1. Such sites are no place for expressing what's commonly called "one man's opinion." The blog's keepers expect adherence to formal rules of engagement. You have to back up everything you say copiously, or they keep bellowing "that's an assertion without an argument." And I suppose they have a point. But sometimes I like to spout off without writing a treatise defending my spout. Besides, not everything need be established with lengthy argument. For example, I don't think anyone has to support a statement like, "It's wrong to boil and eat babies." Or am I wrong?
    2. The apparent design of the Triablogue squad is not just to establish the truth, but to reveal the questioner as imbecilic and themselves as the spawn of Einstein. Therefore, there were abundant references to my lack of smarts, my biblical illiteracy and even my unregenerate state. I suppose it's in keeping with that famous Beatitude: "Blessed are the overbearing, for they shall be big shots in the apologetics community."
    3. Several of these guys will write long, long, lonnnnnngg responses, raising a passel of new points and arguments, some esoteric. I have neither the time nor desire to reply to each of these. On many points and subpoints and sub-subpoints, I'm not educated or well-read enough to respond ... this I admit. Of course, they are quick to point out that deficiency with their usual paucity of good cheer.

    Well, I finally blew it by getting fed up and making (I confess) an immature comment. Now I'm cut off from further discussion by the keeper of the blog.

    That's probably a good thing. Like the guy who wandered into the wrong bar, I won't make that mistake again.

    I'm willing to give you a pass if you are willing to conduct yourself in a respectable, responsible manner, but Steve is the one who banned you. What you should do is communicate with him.

  10. And we all know that the reason you are posting here relates to your own thoughts, for you believe that the Trinity "compromises monotheism."

    It also contains some basic historical blunders that I believe both Jason and Steve have addressed here many times.

  11. Gene, I thought the "cutting off" related to that particular discussion we were having, not all future discussions. But again, if Steve decides to keep my comments off this blog, I understand.

  12. On second thought, there's probably no point in my continuing any discussion here. I'll grant that I'm out of my league and that there will never be a meeting of the minds between us. So I'll just mosey on home.

    I do want to apologize for being silly and disrespectful. That was wrong.

  13. Interesting points that are brought up in that post from SteveJ's blog! He may be right in more than few ways!

  14. Calvinists have a hard time knowing what to make of apostates. Most say that we were never truly saved to begin with. This position, which I took myself when I was a Christian, is cleverly illustrated by the following saying: "A faith that fizzles at the finish had a fatal flaw at the first."

    The problem with this view, however, for the Christian is that it makes it impossible to have any real assurance of salvation. One cannot know if they are truly part of the elect until they die. Once they have "persevered in the faith", then there can be certainty that they were truly saved.

    This offers little assurance during this life.

    Who knows, perhaps some of the authors of this blog may not really be saved. They may yet lose their faith.

  15. Calvinists have a hard time knowing what to make of apostates. Most say that we were never truly saved to begin with. This position, which I took myself when I was a Christian, is cleverly illustrated by the following saying: "A faith that fizzles at the finish had a fatal flaw at the first."

    No, we don't have a hard time at all. If we have such a hard time, why then did you write the second sentence?

    The problem with this view, however, for the Christian is that it makes it impossible to have any real assurance of salvation. One cannot know if they are truly part of the elect until they die. Once they have "persevered in the faith", then there can be certainty that they were truly saved.

    This offers little assurance during this life.

    We've been over this many times with the Free Grace crowd. Check the archives.

    One gets the assurance commensurate with his maturity. Assurance is to be sought after in the Christian life.

    Most of the apostates we've dealt with here are those coming from "Easy Believism" environments, which accounts for their shallow understanding of the faith and their false faith.

    Assurance may be removed as discipline. If the sheep returns to the fold seeking assurance, the means has accomplished the ends. If the backslider worries over his redemption, then that is an indicator he is regenerate.

    We do not deduce assurance from the decrees.

    If a person is seeking assurance, then he is to examine himself. Those who persevere do so by grace. It's really very simple.

  16. Gene,

    Sorry. You are right--Calvinists do have a nice, neat, little solution to every problem. What I meant was that Calvinists who know someone personally who left the faith, have a difficult time. Let me try to explain, people who knew me when I was a pastor and a Bible college professor have a real hard time saying that I was never truly saved. They know that is what their theology demands but they figure if I wasn't saved, then perhaps no one is. This is because of my dedication and service which far exceeded most professing Christians.

    As for assurance, you can never really have it because you do not for certain if you are going to remain in the faith. If someone had asked me 15 years ago, what is the possibility of me leaving the faith, I would have said zero.

    AS for easy believism, that was not me. I took the same position on faith that MacArthur takes.

    I agree there are lots of people with superficial knowledge of the Bible and who are part of the Hybel or Warren crowd who you can easily dismiss as never saved when they leave the faith but its a little harder with a pastor or professor.

    Thinks with me for a moment, who is or was your favorite theology professor in college or seminary? Imagine for a moment that person leaves the faith and becomes an agnostic. Would you not have a hard time dealing with it? Your theology has a nice, neat, little answer but your heart tells you something different.

  17. Former Fundy,

    That has happened to me, and the only problem I had with it was not theological. It was because of my personal relationship with the apostate. The only "hard time" I had with it was my concern for the person's soul. Sure, he may have had a position of prominence, may have done many mighty works in the name of Christ, preached many excellent and edifying sermons, but his faith was ultimately proven to be false. Christ's sheep hear His voice. Christ's sheep follow Him. Shame on you for turning away from the Son of God...

  18. Hostus Twinkius,

    I am glad that you had no problem. You are the exception that proves the rule. As for "shame on me for turning away from the Son of God," I would say to you: "Shame on you for following the religious musings of ancient Hebrews". This is the 21st century--wake up!

  19. Fundy,

    Even an apostate should know better than that. I'll follow the teachings of the eternal Son of God and entrust my soul to Him. Feel free to follow your 21st century enlightened naturalistic atheists, the self-refuters. You know where you and them will end up without repentance. Wake up!