Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thoughts on Sola Fide, God's "Tough Love"

Long-time friend and commenter Rhology has asked me if my brief line concerning sola fide is actually representative of my thoughts concerning it. True, it was a throw-away line, and yes, it needs to be unpacked.

I get it that, properly engaged, sola fide means to lead the believer to a life of holiness. That it means that "true faith" will "flip a switch" whereby the true believer will become sanctified (though how quickly and how thoroughly in this life is never addressed).

The problem with this is that it's all a psychological construct. There's not a way to know that you've actually come across true faith. Reformers tend to quote the admonition to "make one's calling and election sure," but if you aren't sure of your calling's permanence to begin with, and if you have to make your calling and election sure (active verb), then what's the point of acting as if you're actually sure of salvation?

Sure, you can say you're "pretty sure," even admit you're "not 100% sure, but pretty dang close," but then again, that's no assurance. From your point of view, you can't be sure that you're not actually damned now, but just completely deluding your own self before you wind up abandoning God later on.

What I'm saying, then, is this: Sola Fide may be a good concept on paper, but it's not how anybody actually lives out their Christian life. Everyone knows, whether by gut instinct or life experience or James 2.22 that faith must be made perfect by works.

Darlene also asked about my quoting the Ochlophobist's post, as she was concerned (among other things) about the "hopeless" tone therein.

I linked to Och's article because it is a stellar example of someone who has struggled with the untenable position of "really, really, really knowing that I'm saved" business and found it wanting, and I can relate to that. But more than that, there's the idea of a real lack of a mindfulness of hell in American religion in general, even in (and at times, especially in) Orthodoxy. We have things like The River of Fire and Romanides' Patristic Theology which, for all their good points, make unqualified statements that say that God has no wrath and that hell is just love experienced negatively. And it's dangerous to talk that way, because Scripture doesn't talk that way at all, and making statements like that without qualifying or explaining them is extremely unwise and unpastoral, I think. (For a very balanced treatment, in my opinion, of the subject, reference the audio files of some talks by Fr. Thomas Hopko in this old post of mine, as well as this post on Athanasius from the day after).

Is the Orthodox view of salvation hopeless? I don't think so. From a post I put both on this blog and (originally) on a discussion forum:
"When you take the stated doctrine of having all your sins completely and permanently wiped out, forever, of never having to deal with any kind of ascetic effort in order to arrive at purification and sanctification, and are 'free' to rejoice in a perceived spiritual perfection that God has granted you apart from any obedience you may or may not have actually walked in -- well, as virtual and artificial as it may sound when I put it that way, it does make for a VERY grateful reaction on the part of the believer. 'He who has been forgiven much, loves much,' and all that. The Evangelical perceives that his sins have been declared null and void through the legal transaction of the blood of Christ before the Father, and so they are free simply to rejoice in an already finished righteousness, an already guaranteed place in heaven. Couple this grateful state with AGRESSIVE memorization of proof-texts that seem to bolster this teaching, and you have the added rush of thinking that God's biblical stamp of approval supports the idea, adding confidence to enthusiastic gratitude.

"It is difficult, then, to put Orthodoxy next to that and say, 'Christ has died and risen again; through baptism we are brought into His Kingdom so that we would have the POTENTIAL of working out our salvation with fear and trembling, making every effort to enter into the rest He prepared for us through His Passion and Resurrection. The enemy, however, still prowls around as the wolf of souls, seeking to make us his prey, so we must be ever mindful of sinful habits that remain in our lives, as they could be occasion for the enemy to gain a foothold. Our life in Christ consists of constant vigilance, constant repentance, constant participation in the sacramental life of the Church, and constant sorrow and (should God grant) true tears of repentance over our state as 'chief of sinners' so that we might gain times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord which is the comfort for those who have mourned.'

"Evangelicals will say that this gospel has been tried and found wanting, pointing to the Orthodox hierarchs' and clergy's moral failure, as well as the laity's laxity and lack of fervor in studying about and participating in their faith outside of services. I would say that the faith is not so much tried and found wanting as it has been found difficult and left untried."
I'm convinced, Darlene, that though the Orthodox Church will not state the comfortable teaching found in Calvinism of a guaranteed place in heaven which one can know about in this life--and in doing so they make hell a very real part of the whole picture--it is better to have uncomfortable truth than a comfortable lie when it comes to God.

9 comments:

Rhology said...

I get it that, properly engaged, sola fide means to lead the believer to a life of holiness.

OK, but you didn't say that in the first line. But if this is meant as a retraction, fair enough.



though how quickly and how thoroughly in this life is never addressed

Sure it is, man. The answer is: "It depends, as Scripture describes." Are you, an EO, really going to jump on an evangelical doctrine for being too apophatic?



There's not a way to know that you've actually come across true faith.

That's extremely debatable. There are many biblical psgs that describe the assurance of salvation, such as Rom 8:9 and 1 John 5:13.



but if you aren't sure of your calling's permanence to begin with, and if you have to make your calling and election sure (active verb), then what's the point of acting as if you're actually sure of salvation?

B/c God works thru means. You might as well ask "If God is sovereign, why attempt to obey Him?"


Sure, you can say you're "pretty sure," even admit you're "not 100% sure, but pretty dang close," but then again, that's no assurance.

You yourself have told me more than once "I'm not assured of my salvation, but I don't live in fear or doubt about it". Why isn't that assurance?
Further, I'm sure you know that assurance doesn't relate necessarily to one's objective state as elect or non-elect, regenerate or unregenerate.



What I'm saying, then, is this: Sola Fide may be a good concept on paper, but it's not how anybody actually lives out their Christian life.

I'm sorry, but you're wrong. My friends and I do, every day. It's a struggle, but the idea that it's not a struggle is part of your strawman.

Anyway, I wonder why you didn't address Darlene's concern about the profanity. Does it have anythg to do with the fact that you've let yourself go on that in the past and resisted correction on it?


Sometimes "gosh darnit" just doesn't cut it when one is looking to self-disclose and be honest about it.

I'm asking a real, honest question here - where did you get the idea that it's OK to "be honest" all the time? What about self-control and "taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ"?


Peace,
Rhology

David B said...

"Are you, an EO, really going to jump on an evangelical doctrine for being too apophatic?"

LOL -- good one! Bonus points for lingo...;) Really, the problem isn't with an apophatic approach to sanctification and the mystery behind it--we say that too, of course--the problem is the cataphatic statement that God indeed does act toward you in a way that compels you to be sanctified. If it's solely his making you a new creation that thus brings you, irresistibly, to holiness, then why all the sin in the meantime?

"Rom 8:9 and 1 John 5:13."

Well, Rom 8.9 is an "if-then" statement, not one dealing with specific application of said statement to individuals or corporate bodies.

1 Jn 5.13 deals with knowing that we have eternal life, yes, but in such a way that is still dependent on our having a faith that is made perfect through the keeping of commandments (vv. 2-3).

"B/c God works thru means. You might as well ask "If God is sovereign, why attempt to obey Him?"

I'm sorry; I'm afraid I don't follow either statement.

"You yourself have told me more than once 'I'm not assured of my salvation, but I don't live in fear or doubt about it'. Why isn't that assurance?"

Well, it's assurance in the 1 jn 5 sense -- that the basis of my salvation is on the body and blood of Christ, broken and shed and raised up for me -- but since the dynamic relationship is still going on and the possibility of falling away, not enduring to the end, etc, is still there...that part is not assured.

Now, I've been baptized, incorporated into the Body of Christ, and am participating in the life of the Church, yet I still sin. I am thankful for the grace given to me in the life of the Church, from personal prayer all the way up to Eucharist, none of which is communion with God that I could ever merit or earn. So I do look at this as an ongoing process whereby, through continually bringing myself before God and asking for His mercy, confessing my sin (and His cleansing me thereof), I might be made more and more into His likeness now, so that when He appears, I will love it and be like Him. However, if I am not and do not, He will be just in condemning me.

So I know He is a "good God who loves mankind," and that He "grants to the world great mercy." Yet the basis of my eternity is whether or not I want Him, and He's not going to make me do one thing or another. He's foreknown what I will do from the foundation of the world and has a place predestined for me according to what I will choose to do, and He will not violate my free will, (as much as I'd like Him to sometimes). One day He will come and will straighten me out. I pray I will be open to it.

(cont.)

David B said...

"Further, I'm sure you know that assurance doesn't relate necessarily to one's objective state as elect or non-elect, regenerate or unregenerate."

Referring to the actual assurance that those whom God saves--whomever they are, unbeknownst even to themselves--will never be lost, yes? I get it that the main priority for Calvinists is the maintaining of God's sovereignty (and, in that, causality) over all things, whether or not we're made privy to how all that plays out on an individual level. I just don’t see how that ends up meaning anything.

"I'm sorry, but you're wrong. My friends and I do, every day. It's a struggle, but the idea that it's not a struggle is part of your strawman."

Ah, well, I never said y'all didn't struggle. Calvinists are some of the hardest workers I know among Christians.

And I get it that we're saved by grace for works. So we don't need to go there. All I'm saying is that this idea that the making of a person into someone who, apart from his own cooperation, is made into someone who must then do the will of God basically turns God into someone who created other people with the preordained purpose of making them fodder for hell. Neither what I've read from Piper or MacArthur has made sense to me on this very basic point. Plus, the fact that the work is done, in part, to “make your calling and election sure is, at least in my mind, a betrayal of your unwitting acknowledgement of James 2.2, on which I know we disagree.

David B said...

...and finally...

"Anyway, I wonder why you didn't address Darlene's concern about the profanity."

I did, under her comment.

"I'm asking a real, honest question here - where did you get the idea that it's OK to "be honest" all the time? What about self-control and "taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ"?

Well, I do have small children, so I do self-editing a lot, as you know. As for the be honest comment -- that was in reference to Och's autobiographical comments. Stuff like that's not good, but gossip and slander seem to be higher on the Pauline hit list than strong language. So knowing when to pick one's battles is important.

Rhology said...

If it's solely his making you a new creation that thus brings you, irresistibly, to holiness, then why all the sin in the meantime?

You really don't know the answer, or are you just trying to quiz me?
Romans 7?


1 Jn 5.13 deals with knowing that we have eternal life, yes, but in such a way that is still dependent on our having a faith that is made perfect through the keeping of commandments (vv. 2-3).

I don't see how that's a rebuttal to the question. You asked about assurance and I told you. You then made a statement I agree with, as if it overturns that one can know that one has eternal life.


I'm sorry; I'm afraid I don't follow either statement

Well, you'd said:
if you aren't sure of your calling's permanence to begin with, and if you have to make your calling and election sure (active verb), then what's the point of acting as if you're actually sure of salvation?

The same reaction can be raised to the idea that God knows the future.
So you can be an open theist (and deal with your own set of huge problems) or you can answer the question. My answer is that God works thru means. What's your answer, or are you a pelagian open theist? (I know the latter is not the case, so you have to answer the question too.)


the possibility of falling away, not enduring to the end, etc, is still there

That's the begging of the very question at hand.


yet I still sin.

So I have to ask how you know you haven't sinned too much?


I might be made more and more into His likeness now

You're never going to get there. So, how do you know that your accomplishments will be enough?
If you say that the key is to keep trying, where do you find that as a standard in Scr? Seems to me the standard is "be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect".


I just don’t see how that ends up meaning anything.

God's sovereignty doesn't mean much?


And I get it that we're saved by grace for works. So we don't need to go there.

But you DID go there - you said:
What I'm saying, then, is this: Sola Fide may be a good concept on paper, but it's not how anybody actually lives out their Christian life.


God basically turns God into someone who created other people with the preordained purpose of making them fodder for hell.

It does seem to come down to that, doesn't it?
It would seem that you have a problem with:
1) the depravity of all men before God
2) God's right to make "some vessels for noble use and some for ignoble use" - Rom 9.
And tbh, I struggle with this too, more than any other doctrine. I do not have it all down yet, but I ask myself the same question I ask you here, the same that appears in Rom 9: who are you, O man, who answers back to God? Whence did you derive the authority to put God in the dock? How do you know you have sufficient information to make a judgment on God, that He's doing the wrong thing?

Peace,
Rhology

David B said...

You really don't know the answer, or are you just trying to quiz me?
Romans 7?


I suppose it’s more the latter, since I understand the chapter (at least, I think so) in an Orthodox fashion, but since you’re bringing it up, I’ll try to wager a guess – we will to do good but can’t accomplish it, so God has to come in and bring us to where we can, yes?

”I don't see how that's a rebuttal to the question. You asked about assurance and I told you. You then made a statement I agree with, as if it overturns that one can know that one has eternal life.”

Well, our understandings of 1 Jn 5.13 are obviously very different, as would be our understandings of my statement, I would think, were we to unpack them here. Suffice it to say that eternal life is contingent on whether or not my faith is made perfect by my works which I am under no compulsion to do. I imagine you could then ask about how I’d square that with what I quoted from Romans 7 above, but I’ll wait for you to respond (if you want) to see if I’m even guessing you right on that passage.

”The same reaction can be raised to the idea that God knows the future.”

See, I don’t think so. God knows what we will do; that’s a huge leap from God’s causing what we will do. The Sovereignty comes in through His bringing about His will even with man’s free will in action. He didn’t have to “make it up as we went along” (so, you’re right; I’m not an open theist), and He did pre-destine us in the sense that there is a place prepared for all people, and He will ultimately bring about His ultimate, greatest glory in spite of the fact that he never once interfered in any way with mankind’s free will. To me that makes Him even more amazing.

“My answer is that God works thru means.”

Well, you’ll have to go into more detail, then, since I didn’t understand exactly what you meant the first time, and I don’t quite know now. Are you saying that He comes to effect your ultimate salvation through the actions you perform by the grace which He gave you to perform said actions?

Seriously, though, bro; when someone says they don’t understand, throwing the same axiom at them usually doesn’t help…

[Stating the possibility of falling away is] the begging of the very question at hand.
You asked me why I didn’t ever talk about “assurance”; from my point of view, that’s why. It’s not begging the question if I’m simply informing--as opposed to trying to persuade--you.

”So I have to ask how you know you haven't sinned too much?...how do you know that your accomplishments will be enough?”

There is no “enough” or “not enough” with God. This is not legal wrangling. This is resurrection from death and dissolution. And it won’t ever be accomplished here--like you said, we’ll never get there--but the beginning, the orientation towards that ultimate renewal, begins now, and I have not been made privy to where I’ll stand on that day. I know it will be a just judgment, and I know I am to love and will be judged by perfect Love. I’m learning to love Love now so that it doesn’t condemn me later.

(cont...)

David B said...

(cont...)

“If you say that the key is to keep trying, where do you find that as a standard in Scr? Seems to me the standard is "be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect".”

Indeed, but a legal perfection is not, istm, a satisfactory solution. It may be the only one you think “works” in terms of tipping God’s hand in your favor, but it’s not satisfactory and, imo, it’s not biblical.

God's sovereignty doesn't mean much?

I mentioned above how amazing I think His sovereignty is and said why.

“But you DID go there…”

I don’t see a direct correlation between the two. Sola Fide covers the “Saved by grace” part very well, but leaves no consequences if the “saved for works” part doesn’t “work out”…and here we’re back to where your explanation of Romans 7 would probably help me understand your point of view better. That, and the “God works through means” idea.

”It would seem that you have a problem with:
1) the depravity of all men before God…”


You know we’re dealing with different ideas of what “depravity” means, but no, that’s not so much of a problem…

2) God's right to make "some vessels for noble use and some for ignoble use"

Well, what does “vessel of honor/dishonor” mean, really? Is it ultimately soteriological? Or more functional? A “Vessel of dishonor” is, to put it bluntly, a chamberpot -- someone whose lot in life is to “take a lot of crap” from everyone, including God, it would often seem. “Vessels of honor” seem blessed with the good life--“God’s favorite” and all that--although, as a friend of mine has said, “in the end you can live without a Ming vase easier than [a toilet] and in a pinch you'd use a Ming vase for dishonorable purposes.” So I would say that the lack of questioning God seems to be over why you seem to be going through every conceivable struggle known to man in order to be saved, not why you had been created, irreversibly, for the sole purpose of eternal damnation. A god orchestrating the latter does not will "that all should come to repentance," as he himself has precluded that option through double predestination.

I appreciate your honesty re: your uncomfortable feelings with the idea.

Rhology said...

Responded here, for when you have some time.

Strider said...

I am reminded of this reflections by Fr Richard Neuhaus:

"Make no mistake: Hell is real. Eternal separation from God is a distinct possibility to be feared, and to be feared first of all for ourselves. The passages of warning are to be taken with utmost, indeed ultimate, seriousness. God only knows who, if any, are damned. Our unqualified prayer is that God's will be done. Do I know beyond a possibility of doubt that I will not be damned? Of course not. To answer otherwise is the sin of presumption. I believe, I have a confident faith, that I will be saved because of the mercy of God in Christ. It is sometimes said that Protestants, who subscribe to 'justification by faith,' know they will be saved, while Catholics only hope they will be saved. That is a distinction without a difference. Faith is hope anticipated, and hope is faith disposed toward the future."