Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Reformed Arminianism and Social Order

Arminianism is the dominant theology among Protestants today, and Arminianism, like the Roman Catholic view of the Fall, denies man’s total depravity since the Fall.1 But why have Reformed Churches embraced pietism with such enthusiasm? I suggest it is because they have, unwittingly, embraced a basic premiss of Arminianism, namely, that man is not completely fallen away from God, that outside of the saving grace of God in Christ man is not totally depraved. The Christian faith, therefore, relates only to a narrowly defined “spiritual” realm; it ceases to be a religion to live by and becomes instead little more than a syncretistic mystery cult comprised of elements of a Christian soteriology, a view of spirituality that is basically a modern version of Gnostic dualism, and a secular humanist world-view.

Of course Reformed Churches, especially those that subscribe to the TULIP formula, will deny this. They hold to the doctrines of grace. Perish the thought that they should have adopted a basic premiss of Arminianism! But as Jesus said, “Wisdom is justified of [i.e. vindicated by] her children” (Mt. 11:19, Lk. 7:35). Why do so many Reformed Churches deny the connection between faith and culture? And why are we to flee from the world that Christ redeemed and commissioned us to claim in his name into an irrelevant ghetto that denies any duty of the Christian to reform or transform the culture in which he lives? Why was the Great Commission separated from the Cultural Mandate by Reformed believers in the twentieth century when historically they have gone together and been seen as inseparably linked, two sides of the same coin? By denying the necessary link between religion and culture Reformed believers have opened to door to the Arminian world-view. They still adhere to the terminology of total depravity, but the doctrine is a dead letter in practice; they do not believe that man’s fallen nature, his defection from God, manifests itself in the totality of his life, i.e. in every aspect and sphere of his life and culture. If they did they would not send their children to be educated by non-believers, to be taught according to the basic premiss of secular humanism, namely that the world and everything in it exists and can be understood independently of the God who created it and whose creative will gives it its meaning and purpose. Man’s depravity does not in their eyes manifest itself in the spheres of education, medicine, science, art, politics. In these spheres the natural life of man is sufficient. It does not need redeeming. Grace not does transform man and his culture completely, it merely perfects nature. In this sense most Reformed believers are practical Arminians; their life and witness to the faith of the Reformers, which they claim to espouse, is in practice the antithesis of that proclaimed by the Reformers.

Yet when culture is abandoned by Christians and man’s natural life outside of God is allowed to develop consistently according to its own principle, i.e. the principle of original sin in which man determines for himself what constitutes good and evil without reference to God’s word, Christians throw up their hands in horror and bewail the terrible state of the world. But why? Culture is largely the external form or, the use T. S. Eliot’s words, the incarnation of religion. If we accept that people can be educated properly without reference to God by those who deny God and seek to live consistently in term of such a denial of God, the result will be that God is eliminated from our culture. The denial of God by the scientist and the triumph of evolution as the explanation of our existence is merely a symptom of man’s desire to live consistently in term of his own fallen nature. The deplorable state of immorality in our culture is merely a symptom of the same desire. Likewise, if we eliminate God from our understanding of welfare and medicine the result will be massive welfare abuse and abortion on demand.

Is it really so difficult to see the connection between religion and culture? By their denial of the necessity of a Christian culture Christians have opened the door to the repaganisation of society. And their answer to this problem has too often been to retreat from the world rather than to preach the whole gospel to the whole Creation and thereby bring the redeeming grace of God to bear upon the cultural life of the nation. But in adopting the same pietistic perspective those who claim to be Reformed but deny the link between faith and culture have become implicit Arminians, promoting an Arminian social theory that has helped to open the door to a world without God for the next generation, i.e. a culture in which God is relegated to a narrow sphere of life revolving round church meetings and personal piety and in which the gospel is seen as having no bearing on the greater part of man’s life. Education, art, economics, welfare, medicine, law and order, vocational life are all seen as religiously neutral spheres of life. The result of this world-view has been the decline of our society from a culture that acknowledged and honoured God, however imperfectly, to a society that blasphemes and dishonours God with virtually every breath that it takes. This decline has now entered the exponential phase of the curve and as a result our nation stands on the brink of Gehenna.

Our understanding of the Fall will affect our understanding of redemption. If man is totally depraved by the Fall, his sin, his denial of God and his insistence that he will determine what good and evil are for himself, will manifest itself in the totality of his life and works, in every sphere of his life and culture. In this case man’s redemption must be equally total; it must embrace not only his individual spiritual life but his culture as well. If man is not totally depraved by sin, if the Fall is only partial, his sin will not manifest itself in the totality of his life and works. In this case the natural life of man will not need to be transformed totally by the grace of God, but only perfected. The gospel will be considered a “spiritual” addition to the natural life of man, a donum superadditum, and, to use the words of one preacher, “primarily concerned with the world to come.”

But the Bible does not teach this. Rather, it teaches that man’s fall into sin is total, that without the grace of God every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually (Gen. 6:5; 8:21 cf. Rom. 1:18–32; 3:10–18; 8:6–8; Eph. 4:17–19; Titus 1:15–16). Man’s natural life in the state of sin, therefore, does not need to be merely perfected. Redemption is not a spiritual addition to the natural life of man. The natural life of man needs to be transformed totally by the grace of God. Redemption is a complete recreation of man in the image of Christ: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). And if the believer in Christ is a new creature, this new creation must manifest itself in the totality of his life, and in his culture, which is the external outworking of his religion.

We forget this important doctrine at our peril, and when we do our society must suffer the awful consequences of our neglect of the gospel and our cultural mandate to bring all things into subjection to Jesus Christ (Gen. 1:28 cf. 2 Cor. 10:5). Of course, it is often not until the next generation and those that follow it that the full implications of this neglect become apparent, and this to some extent helps to explain the terrible consequences of the transgression of the Second Commandment, in which the iniquities of the fathers are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generations (Ex. 20:5).

Man’s fall into sin is total. No area of his life is unaffected by his sin. Because man in the totality of his life is a sinner he seeks to deny God and suppress the knowledge of God in all spheres of life (Rom. 1:18–19). His sin, therefore, works itself out in the totality of his culture. Likewise, the salvation that Christ accomplished for his people by his life, death and resurrection is a completely new creation. It must, therefore, work itself out in the totality of man’s life and culture. This fact has profound implications for our view of social order. Our society will produce either a culture that is moving towards the new creation in Christ, or a culture that is moving away from this, a culture of death (Pr. 8:36). A society that is moving towards the new creation in Christ will seek to order its life according to the standards of righteousness revealed in God’s law. It will produce a culture that honours Christ and a social order that conforms to God’s law because it recognises the comprehensively fallen nature of man’s natural life (i.e. man’s total depravity outside of Christ), God’s grace in Christ as the only remedy for this condition, and God’s law as the only foundation for social order and peace in a fallen world. Where this is rejected society will deteriorate into a culture of depravity and death, which is what Western society today is becoming.

This declension of our society into a culture of depravity will not be halted until the Church once again recognises the full extent of man’s fall into sin and therefore the full and complete nature of the redemption that Christ has accomplished for the world, and until the Church once again starts living in the light of this by seeking to transform the culture in which she lives by applying the light of God’s word to every sphere of human thought and activity. We must preach a total salvation to a totally fallen world.

   1. This denial is sometimes implicit rather than explicit. Some committed Arminians will pay lip service to the doctrine of total depravity, but the nature of the Arminian system of doctrine, particularly the Arminian doctrines of prevenient grace and free will, effectively nullifies the doctrine of total depravity: “We retain still after the fall a power of believing and of repentance, because Adam lost not this ability” (Rem. Declar. Sen. In Synod, cited in John Owen, A Display of Arminianism in William H. Goold, ed., The Works of John Owen [Edinburgh: The Banner of Turth Trust, 1967], Vol. X, p. 129; see further ibid., chapters VII, XII, XIII [pp. 68–82, 114–129]. See also the Canons of the Synod of Dordrecht, 1618–1819, Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, Rejection of Errors.

[This article is an excerpt from a book on political theology that I am currently working on and hope to publish in 2014.]

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