Saturday, May 02, 2009
THE RETURN TO THE FOLD--- A.N. WILSON
We are all familiar with the story of the prodigal son, though that is not a story about religious conversion. Still, one would think there was enough in the Bible to remind us that where there is life, there is hope, when it comes to a person becoming a Christian. And even if someone began in the faith, and then backslide or even repudiated it for a while, why should we assume that such a person is beyond hope, beyond help, beyond a return to the Lord? Now this sort of coming and going is understandable from a human point of view, but it would be hard to explain from a deterministic one (did God really pre-determine a person to be a Christian early in life, then commit apostasyand write books attacking Christianity, then return to the faith?). Whatever your view on such matters the story of A.N. Wilson is both an interesting and compelling one. Here is a link to his story. See what you think, and reflect.
Posted by Ben Witherington at 5:43 AM
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Thank you once again for a very interesting and encouraging link.
Regarding your provocative assertion that the story of A.N. Wilson would be "hard to explain from a deterministic [point of view]," I have two comments:
First, if by "determinism" we are talking about the general sovereignty of God over the details of our lives like that asserted by Paul in Romans 8:28 (And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose), this is something we believe and affirm but it is still "hard to explain." Paul himself, after repeatedly praying that his "thorn in the flesh" be removed, was told upon God’s refusal: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12). This is a profound response, but not really an "explanation". Even if it is an explanation of sorts, how many of us are privy to such responses from God at every trial? We trust and believe, even when things are "hard to explain."
Second, if by "determinism" we are talking about predestination to salvation, I will admit I am much less adept at citing Calvin and the great Reformed theologians. I will just pose this question: Do you really think that this nearly universal phenomenon of a person "having faith" then "losing faith" then "regaining faith" was unknown to the Reformed theological tradition? Are we supposed to imagine that Calvin, transported to our time and reading the account of A.N. Wilson, would awake from his theological stupor and say "Ah, brother Wesley! You were right after all!"
What I think is that the Bible is quite plain on such matters of salvation, namely that "God desires that none should perish, but all should obtain everlasting life." Now if that is true then it is hard to imagine the logic that would suggest that God had played racket ball with Wilson's life, bringing him in and out and back into a salvation state, much less the suggestion that he was never really lost or apostate since he had been predetermined to be saved from before the foundation of the world.
My point is simply this--- the tension between how God exercises his sovereignty and the grace enabled choices of those who respond to God, or not, cannot be resolved either by a more all encompassing appeal to the sovreignty (unless one really wants to insist God is the author of all things including evil) or by an all encompassing appeal to human free will, which fallen persons don't have in any absolute sense anyway.
Rather, the life of Wilson shows that this salvation thing is neither all up to God, and by no means is it all up to us. There is a tension in the divine-human encounter.
As for Paul's prayer about his thorn, he is referring to a physical condition, not to a spiritual one, so there is no analogy at all between that text and the story of Wilson.
As for Calvin, I'm sure he is in the Augustinian wing of heaven, and will rarely run into Mr. Wesley :)
Sincere thanks for your response. Your second paragraph is quite profound I think (really on the mysterious "tension" between God’s sovereignty and grace-enabled human will). I disagree, though, about how much stories like those of A.N. Wilson really teach us on this great question. These testimonies are glorious, but they not uncommon in the history of the church. If anything they drive us back to seek our answers in the Scripture.
Please allow one of my favorite quotes from Calvin. This quote, I hope, will bring him out of the land of caricature for some people, and actually show that he would be on speaking terms with your second paragraph!
We all know that Calvin’s theology was dominated by the glory of God as displayed, among other things, by his sovereignty. Given this perspective, how would Calvin himself present the gospel? Here he is describing the way he appeals to the conscience/will of human beings in his proclamation of the gospel:
First, we bid a man begin by examining himself, and this not in a superficial and perfunctory manner, but to present his conscience before the tribunal of God and, when sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, to reflect on the strictness of the sentence pronounced upon all sinners. Thus confounded and stricken with misery, he is prostrated and humbled before God; and, throwing away all self-confidence, he groans as though given up to final perdition. Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is completed. As all mankind are lost sinners in the sight of God, we hold that Christ is the only righteousness, since by his obedience he has done away our transgressions, by his sacrifice appeased the divine anger, by his blood washed away our stains, by his cross borne our curse, and by his death made satisfaction for us. We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no worthiness of works, but by gratuitous mercy. When we embrace Christ by faith and come, as it were, into communion with him, we term this in the manner of Scripture the righteousness of faith.From John Calvin’s Reply to Sadolet (1589), with apologies to modern proponents of inclusive language.
By the way, regarding the role of works, Calvin goes on to say
…We deny that good works have any share in justification, but we claim full authority for them in the lives of the righteous.Finally, as much as I really do appreciate brother Wesley, it is his perspective on A.N. Wilson’s salvation that would be the most disturbing. I’m fairly sure he would say that Wilson was saved, then was not, now is again, and - who knows? - the cycle could repeat itself innumerable times. Too much attributed to the fallen and fickle will of human beings, I think.
Well, for John Wesley and John Calvin this is all settled now before God’s throne. And for my part, I think George Whitefield will make sure they meet and spend some quality time together.
Unfortunately, while that quote has much truth in it, it complete ignores that salvation is not by the mercy of God alone. It is by grace and through faith, and faith, my friend, is something human beings have to exercise. God does not exercise it for them, nor is it something like putting a catalytic agent into a solution. Faith is a gift which requires human unwrapping and use to received said benefits of salvation.
And actually you are wrong about how Wesley would respond. He would say that there are three tenses to salvation-- justification, sanctification, and glorification, and until you get through all three, you are not in the full Biblical sense saved. This being the case, justification is only initial salvation, not final salvation. Until salvation is seen for what it is, an event which leads to a process and then another climactic even when Christ returns, it is not seen properly in a Biblical way. The idea that the wholeshebang is guaranteed at justication or included in initial salvation is simply not what the NT teaches.
John Wesley, John Calvin and George Whitefield have resolved all this now, but we here on earth have a way to go.
On the necessity of faith, in the quote I provided Calvin says explicitly "When we embrace Christ by faith..." - not to mention the whole context of passionately appealing to the human will and conscience.
On the exercise of faith, whether that faith is ULTIMATELY a gift of God without qualification, or a gift of God that needs "unwrapping" by the human will, is a matter of theoretical debate. In practice, Calvin simply appeals for people to respond to the gospel.
On my reading of how John Wesley would view A.N. Wilson’s salvation, I would appeal for a careful reading (or re-reading) of Wesley’s sermon "A Call to Backsliders" (1872), especially section II.10(1). There is no question Wesley is talking about a class of people who were save...then lose that salvation (and so are in peril of damnation if they were to perish)...then regain it. It is not a pretty theological picture! Your re-presentation of Wesley is more sophisticated than Wesley himself, I think.
Thank you for your remarks.
I would be careful about drawing fine theological distinctions from a sermon, yours, mine or Wesley's. Wesley certainly believed a person could commit apostasy, a perfectly Biblical viewpoint, and so could sin away the benefits of initial salvation. And it is certainly not a theoretical discussion to talk about faith having to be exercised to be beneficial. This is exactly what the NT says. Faith, without works, is dead.
This is great news! Jeanne and I read the article last night.
A paradox of Calvinism in my view: Irresistible grace and perseverance should ensure faithfulness and continuity of sorts. If TULIP is right, then what happened to the Puritans for example? Additionally, it seems like the Church of Ephesus resisted since all that is left are ancient ruins. Lastly, by metaphor, the life of the Church at Ephesus could parallel the life of A. N. Wilson: faithfulness, losing first love, then the invitation to renewed faithfulness by the one who holds the 7 stars (e.i. Christ). Ultimately, Ephesus did not make it, but it was theologically possible for it to do so. It is no historical accident that systematic theologies, such as Calvinism, arose side by side with western science. But scientific conclusions are provisional and the deterministic physics of Leibniz gave way to the general relativity of Einstein. There is room for more a provisional theology as well. If Calvin were alive today, would he have produced the Institutes? I doubt it.
Here is another article by Wilson, entitled "Why I believe again"
Interesting that Lewis' Mere Christianity turned him off of God.
God Bless You,
Oops. Forgot to mention that their is a link at the end of the article to a Q & A with Wilson that is very interesting and somewhat provocative.
Hi Dr. Witherington:
Picking up on the earlier thread: We are forced to use Wesley's sermons for how he would understand A.N. Wilson’s biography because he did not really leave us anything like a systematic theology. Besides, we have to remember that these sermons were quite formal and deliberate, more like essays. I believe they were even corrected for publication by Wesley.
In his sermon "A Call to Backsliders" John Wesley clearly distinguishes between what he feels are the hopelessly apostate (based on passages in Hebrews) and this class of apostate "backsliders" whom he is addressing and calling back to salvation.
Here is a snippet of Wesley himself from section II.10(1):
This is a point which may exactly be determined, and that with the utmost certainty. If it be asked, "Do any real apostates find mercy from God? Do any that have 'made shipwreck of faith and a good conscience,' recover what they have lost? Do you know, have you seen, any instance of persons who found redemption in the blood of Jesus, and afterwards fell away, and yet were restored, -- `renewed again to repentance?'" Yea, verily; and not one, or an hundred only, but, I am persuaded, several thousands.And, according to Wesley here, had these people not been restored, It had been better never to have known the way of righteousness. It only increases their damnation, seeing they die in their sins.Perhaps this is an attractive position for some (though I guess one must hope they will die during one of the "upswings" of their devotion). For others this will seem too precarious, and one of the more Calvinist approaches to A.N. Wilson’s biography (and perhaps our own) will seem more in harmony with revealed biblical truth.
Thanks as always for your comments and your blog-hospitality.
First of all you are wrong. Wesley wrote quite a few theological treatises, including a huge one on Original Sin, and another on Predestination. But on the other hand you are right that these sermons were intended as teaching tools. Wesley does indeed talk alot about initial and final salvation, though not in this particular quote. I agree with Wesley that what matters most is not where you start but where you finish--- namely final salvation.
I frankly find no comfort in the notion that God has predestined some of my fellow human beings to eternal damnation, come what may and do what they will, which, would not doubt include some of my own relatives, and yours. I take far more comfort in the notion that our God is a God of second chances, even after backsliding.
I have a love/hate relationship with reformed theology. I'm attracted to the faith of Edwards, the Puritans, and a large number of contemporary Christian leaders who are Calvinists. Sproul has pointed out that most of our faith-shapers, from Augustin onward, have been of this persuasion. But I can't reconcile their determinism with the God and the faith I read about through 66 books of the Bible. The Word is all about divine-human interplay and particularly God continuing to exert himself to reach resistant humans. The Bible is told through story and personality. Reformed theology is told through cold Enlightenment rationalism, usually accompanied by a lot of cause and effect reasoning. Wesley quotes Scripture and the heart of God, Calvinists crunch logic. Pascal said the heart has its reason which the reason does not know (yet I think he was a Calvinist, or was he?!). Cold logic always falls short of the mystery and passion of divinity. The Cross and Resurrection defy logic. I love the practitioners of reformed theology, truly I do; just not their thinking on the very matters that define them. I'm theologically certifiable.
Also, that picture of Wilson scared my cats. Its eyes followed them across the room. Can we replace the picture with one of the fuzzy critters from last week? Maybe the cats will start using the litter box again.
The way you put it, I could see why you would get "no comfort" from that notion. I completely sympathize and appreciate your honestly.
But, Dr. Witherington, that is not the way we are supposed to look at it! We have no right to consider any particular person as NOT predestined by God for salvation. Practically speaking what that means is that, from a human point of view, there is always hope. We preach the gospel, pray, and trust in God’s mercy. Now if we have theoretical objections to the concept of election, perhaps we should reconsider Romans 9, especially vv. 14ff. (OK, who am I to say this to a great NT scholar?)
To me, this would be the truly terrifying thought: With the passing away of every Christian loved one, instead of finding assurance we are forced to ponder: "Well, I hope they finished well," or "I hope they did not happen to be in a backslidden state when they died." Speaking of no comfort!
Wow, as a UK Methodist, I find myself both wanting to cheer and to scream in frustration. This is typical of the kind of 'Christian witness' The Daily Mail flogs at the British public: 'The Church of England is corrupt, her Bishops do not believe in anything, England is no longer a Christian country, up the True Believers!'
I absolutely and wholeheartedly believe in 'real resurrection'. Wesley's New Creation: real, embodied life forever in the Light of Christ in some way that no one - not even St. Paul - can comprehend. But, but, but...the subject of resurrection is a lot more complicated than the neoConservative popular theology would have it: The 'can you say the Creed and really mean it to my satisfaction?' crowd.
And does anyone really believe that The Daily Mail actually cares about faith? Not me. It's about Empire. And it's about 'When Britain was a Christian Country we were a great country'
I rejoice that AN Wilson has found Christ. But I think I'll continue screaming at the article if you don't mind.
I'm no theologian, but my impression is that many if not most Calvinists have made a quasi religion out of Calvinism, a demi-god out of the cold-blooded killer John Calvin, and an idol out of his teachings that make God the author of all evil. The Calvinists need to wonder if God specifically created their children to burn in hell for all eternity.
There is only one perfect man, the god-man Jesus Christ. He alone is worthy of our worship, devotion, and whole-hearted following. Everyone else is in a whole different category - as God the Father wants them to be.
Ever stop and wonder how it is that Peter, the chief of the disciples, is shown to be a coward, liar and betrayer in own founding documents? Yet this fact was something Peter himself apparently never sought to hide, since it is his preaching that stands behind the Gospel of Mark. This is a lesson for us. A lesson about grace; a lesson about humility.
Calvin was a great theologian and pastor. Even if some might say he was the greatest Christian theologian (as I might possibly – especially considering his times!), yet he was still a human being nonetheless. He was not perfect. But certainly in this age in particular, where "individual free choice" is revered as the supreme value, Calvin has become a favorite whipping-boy for many because his theology is offensive to us on that issue. Well, so be it. Correct him from the Scriptures. And don’t avoid those passages that don’t appeal to modern sensibilities.
Regarding the charge that Calvin was a "cold blooded killer" I would invite you to expand your careful reading not only in theology but in history too. And as we do, we can ask ourselves, would we have done better than Calvin in that situation? If we think we would have, we can congratulate ourselves.
I'm sorry Ray. I'm not into situational ethics. Burning people at the stake is wrong. Saying someone is just a human doesn't get it. Period. A true Sprit-filled person would not do that. There were people at the time who knew this was wrong. I'd like to believe that I would have been one of them.
Can you possibly do a post sometime detailing the differences between semi-pelagianism, infused righteousness, new perspective, and what you detail in this sentence:
"justification, sanctification, and glorification, and until you get through all three, you are not in the full Biblical sense saved. This being the case, justification is only initial salvation, not final salvation."
I know there are probably differences in these views, but I have a hard time seeing it. You may also point me to something you have written that deals with this issue.
On a separate note, I was at a large Reformed conference a few weeks ago and Eerdman's had a table set up and was selling books. I think your Romans commentary sold out in about an hour! I thought it quite funny. Take care
The simplest thing is for you to just read my The Problem with Evangelical Theology. Pelagianism in whatever form believes in the free will of human beings, and has no strong concept of the Fall and its affects on the human will. Wesleyanism doesn't deserve even the label semi-Pelagianism, as Wesley certainly believed that apart from God's grace humans are irretrievably lost and cannot save themselves. But what Wesley did believe was in the power of grace, including pre-venient grace, the grace that comes before conversion and enables a human being to choose freely to respond to the offer of salvation. This is an optomism about grace, not about human ability or will. The odd thing is, Arminians believe more strongly in the power of grace than those who talk so much about sovereign grace, but then deny thinks like the ability of a sanctified person to avoid willful conscious sin.
Yeah, my intent was not to imply that pelagianism and Wesley's theology were somehow related. I have read The Problem with Evangelical Theology, but I don't remember there being any detail between Roman Catholic, NPP, and Wesley's views. I haven't read the book in a couple years though, so I am probably forgetting.
I suppose what I am looking for is a chart-like view of these perspectives, side by side, to see how each view breaks down.
For instance, does Wesley say "in by grace, stay in by works", Pelagianism, "in by works", NPP "in by grace, stay in by grace + works", and so on. I know I have probably misrepresented these views in this questions, but it was for example only. All of this shows why I need some help! Anyway, thanks for interacting. God bless.
Wesley would never say that one remains saved simply by doing works. After justification one works out one's salvation with the help of God's grace. Its grace from start to finish, and its only by grace if one were to have a death bed conversion. What Wesley would stress is that faith with works is dead, but those works cannot be done without ongoing grace from God. So he makes a very clear distinction, where there is time and opportunity doing deeds of piety and charity are a required part of the Christian life. One is not save BY one's works, but where there is time and opportunity one is not saved without working out one's salvation with fear and trembling either.
I read Wilson's book on C.S. Lewis many years ago and was very angered at how he explained away Lewis' faith. His conversion really blesses me, he was once an enemy and now one of us.
Regarding his situation, I have gone through this myself, I personally received Christ in my teens and committed wholeheartedly to the church. Unfortunately the church I commited to was a fundamentalist church (affiliated with Bob Jones Univ) and as I grew older I could no longer keep up with the lifestyle they deem holy. I ended up forsaking it all and became an agnostic, I could not reconcile what I was taught with the world outside and inside of me. After a few years as an agnostic the Lord slowly called me back, I knew the passages in Hebrews that says that those who fall away cannot be saved again but I felt so full of faith and love that I just said to myself that I would live as a Christian and leave everything up to God. I know in my heart that it was after my return to faith that I grew more in knowledge and love. It was as my former faith was just the seed and now it is a flower. I think it may be that God understands my rejection was not of Him or His Son, but a rejection of some system that claimed to be Him. I rejected a false picture of God and not God. I guess if all is lost at least I have lived my life doing my best to be close to and love Him.
I admit to being a little baffled why no one has yet responded to your apparently heart-felt post of a few days ago – especially given the fact that there seems to be literally hundreds of pastor-types that follow good Dr. Witherington’s blog. I have to believe that, if anything, it shows the ephemeral nature of life "on the internet." This topic was started on May 2, which many may consider ancient history. Of course I am following this particular thread closely because I have made a number of contributions to it already. I am moved to respond to you and will try not to use it as an excuse to develop my arguments too much. Your post shows signs of real Christian maturity, so some of what follows may seem basic to you.
Ruben, let’s assume that your "rebellion" was a REAL rebellion against the Lord himself, and not (as it so often is) a rebellion against the outward trappings of religion or a struggle to make the transition from the faith of your parent(s) to a faith of your own. Assuming therefore "the worst" - that it was a real rebellion - I know of no legitimate Christian tradition that would not offer solace and encouragement to you now as a person who has "come back to Christ" and wants to live for him and for his glory. Make sure you are part of a bible-teaching church where you can get the assurance that you do, in fact, belong to Christ and where you can find brothers and sisters that will encourage you to live for him in the race of life that lies ahead.
The fact is, when you join a community of believers, you join a community of those who have betrayed the Lord and yet stand forgiven by him. Some of us have betrayed Christ spectacularly – like Peter – others of us betray him nearly every day through a thought, a glance, an attitude, a deed done, a deed left undone. Either way "in Christ" we are the community of the redeemed, the forgiven. Glory be to Jesus, who came to save sinners! And not one of us ever gets to the point in our sanctity that he or she no longer needs Christ in his role as Savior.
Finally, let me add a comment on the attitude you display in your post - of essentially resigning to live for Jesus even if you were to get nothing out of it. To whatever extent that it may be a true representation of your feelings, it is a shocking rebuke to the mercenary-like attitude that so many of us harbor in our hearts and even foster in our theologies. We ask, in essence: "OK, I’ll live for Christ, but what am I going to get out of it? What’s in it for me?" While it is entirely natural to be interested in such things, and indeed the bible does give us a vision of the wonderful benefits we now enjoy and will enjoy forever, still I believe we are not doing justice to the heart of the Scriptures when we build a theology around this kind of "carrot" or "carrot-and-stick" approach to the Christian life.
The chief motivation for the Christian life should be the glory of God. This rather "abstract" motivation becomes real to us – impacts us - in a response of personal gratitude to God for what he has freely given us in Christ Jesus our Lord. We hear it in Paul when says in 2 Cor. 5:15 "And he [Jesus] died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again." Or in John when he says even more succinctly in 1 John 4:19, "We love because he first loved us."
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