Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Reprobation and hardening

I responded to someone on Facebook on the topic of reprobation:

i) The "election" of Israel refers to God's choice of ethnic Israel for his redemptive purposes. That doesn't mean "election" in the sense of election to salvation.

Mind you, a percentage of Jews were/are elected for salvation, but that's a different principle. Use of the same term to denote different concepts fosters confusion, but that's a semantic issue.

ii) People can know the truth without believing it. Likewise, people can believe in the true, then cease to believe. That's not the same thing as losing salvation.

iii) Hardening is not synonymous with reprobation. Reprobation is a timeless decision by God. Hardening happens in time. Although God may harden the reprobate, hardening serves more than one purpose. Hardening can be temporary.

iv) Keep in mind that Paul isn't necessarily or even probably talking about the same group of people. Due to human mortality, there's a constant rate of turnover every few generations.

i) God chooses individuals or collectives for different reasons. Take God's choice of Judas compared to God's choice of Paul. 

We need to distinguish how the term "election" is used in systematic theology or Reformed dogmatics from Biblical usage. They overlap but they don't coincide.

Likewise, we need to examine different functions that are served by God choosing X. That's not something to be determined by the meaning of a particular word-group.

ii) In Calvinism, one can't come to saving faith apart from monergistic regeneration. It is, however, possible to believe theological truths apart from divine grace. You have professing Christians who believe their theological tradition simply due to social conditioning. Take the cliche of the young man raised in a fideistic, "Fundamentalist" church who loses his faith when he goes to college, and is suddenly exposed to hitherto unsuspected objections to Christianity. 

iii) Take the paradigm-case of Pharaoh. God didn't harden of Pharaoh to keep him from exercising saving faith, if that's what you mean. Rather, the purpose was to make him fanatically stubborn, so that he didn't exercise prudence. 

Can you explain why hardening the reprobate would be necessary if they are depraved? Is that not like making a dead man more dead, or the deaf more deaf?… but He has to harden those that would believe and be obedient if He didn't.

1. Hardening is used in a variety of contexts. We'd really need to examine them on a case-by-case basis. Most pertinent to our discussion are passages where hardening has, or may have, soteriological significance for groups or individuals (e.g. Mk 4:12Jn 12:39-40Rom 9:1811:7,25Eph 4:18). 

2. "Hardening" is a metaphor, so there's the question of what the metaphor stands for. In addition, it's roughly interchangeable with other related metaphors in Scripture, viz. "darkened," spiritual "blindness," "deafness," "stiff-necked," and "dead" in sin. 

In context, it can be used for resistance to spiritual truth–among other things.

3. In Reformed theology, there are basically two reasons why some people can't exercise saving faith:

i) In the case of the reprobate, they've been predestined not to exercise saving faith, and no one can act contrary to whatever has been predestined.

ii) In the case of the reprobate and/or unregenerate, they are psychologically ill-disposed to accept the Gospel. They suffer from "spiritual inability". And that, in turn, is grounded in original sin.

This isn't unique to Calvinism. Any non-Pelagian tradition says divine grace is necessary to make sinners receptive or responsive to the Gospel. The difference is that in freewill theism, every sinner has prevenient grace (or the equivalent) whereas in predestinarian traditions like Augustinianism, Thomism, Jansenism, and Calvinism, that's confined to the elect.

4. Apropos 3(i), predestination or reprobation, all by itself, doesn't cause anything. It's a divine plan. It must be implemented. And that usually take the form of ordinary providence. So there are various means by which God may cause the reprobate to be unreceptive to the Gospel. 

5. Apropos (2), these varied picturesque metaphors may well be alternate representations of the same basic principle. Bible writers tend to use them interchangeably, or bunch two or more together for emphasis. 

So I wouldn't assume that hardening is necessarily something over and above "dead in sin", but a different related metaphor. 

Likewise, these metaphors can represent various providential factors by which God executes his timeless intentions in time and space. 

6. BTW, if you think hardening is inconsistent with Reformed theology, the same could be said for freewill theism. Why would God block people from exercising saving faith in Christ when, according to freewill theism, God wants everybody to be saved and has made universal provision for their salvation? 

7. In the Gospels, resistance to Christ takes more than one form. You have the Sabbath controversies. However, that falls outside the purview of spiritual inability. That's about how to interpret and apply the Mosaic law–as well as the finality (or not) of the Mosaic law.

In addition, there's resistance in the face of the miracles and exorcisms of Christ. Although these are signs of his divine mission, a hostile reaction to miraculous signs isn't necessarily the same thing as spiritual inability. For instance, modern-day cessationists are often implacably antagonistic to evidence for contemporary charismatic miracles. That doesn't mean they're unregenerate or reprobate. 

8. Finally, the tension you perceive in Reformed theology has precedent in Scripture. On the one hand, John's Gospel says no one can have saving faith in Christ apart from divine enablement (e.g. Jn 6:44,65). On the other hand, the same Gospel describes divine hardening (Jn 12:39-40).

Now, by your logic, that's superfluous. If grace is necessary for sinners to believe, all God needs to do to ensure that some people won't believe is to withhold grace. So why harden them in addition to that underlying condition? Just leave them in their default condition.

However, these may simply be different ways of expressing the same idea. One representation is more passive (i.e. their default condition, absent divine intervention) while the other is more active ("hardening").

But that doesn't necessary mean these reflect different types of divine action. Rather, these may well be varied ways of depicting the same dynamic. 

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