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Mere Christianity: A manner of speaking - 1


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JONAL ENTRY 1213 | January 7 2012

My Edwardsian friend ("Edwardsian" refers to his high regard to theologian-philosopher Jonathan Edwards [1703-1758] for any newcomers or regular readers with short memories) corrects me any time I say "good luck" or "I was lucky" or mention the gay movement. He is right, I know, in saying there is no such thing as "luck" in a world created by a God who willed and continues willing all that is or ever will be and that homosexuals have suicide and alcoholism rates that demonstrate they are to a large degree far from lighthearted and happy (the "real" meaning of "gay"). And though he's more dedicated to literal usages and philosophical precision than I, there's more to it than that.

Like Edwards, my friend is a Calvinist who strongly believes (if I understand him correctly) that "free will" is a nonsense term and that God in His sovereignty has predestined everything that is or ever will be, including the salvation or damnation of every soul from Adam's on. He also seems to believe that believing in this theological proposition is required for salvation or at least for a right understanding of who and what God is (and from that goes on to conclude that believing in any "other God" is most likely a damning error).

Most self-identified Calvinists believe in a much more merciful God and most have largely forsaken and/or forgotten Edwards as one of their best theologians, though some top thinkers in places like Yale (where Edwards took his degrees), Princeton (to whose presidency he was appointed but died before actually serving) and Stanford consider him one of the most brilliant thinkers America ever produced. As I said earlier, I am impressed by Edwards's theory that God and "all space" are one and the same and by his arguments for the logical proofs for God, but I think his theology was a product of the age of reason, steeped in rationalism, and though Christianity must be rational, it also must have more important qualities.

I considered myself one of these "more moderate" Calvinists for most of my life, but on reading C.S. Lewis and discovering that he used "free will" as a proper term for the freedom of human choice and that he considered predestination as taught by Calvin a wrong turn in theology, I began my way toward a more traditional expression of the faith. Though Calvinism had appealed to my rational mind, Lewis's "mere Christianity," defined as "that which was believed by all in all places for the first millenium of the church," appealed much more strongly to my heart. When I studied Eastern Orthodoxy, I found a theology that considered free will the best term for what Eve exercised in Eden and Mary exercised in responding to the archangel announcing her choice to give birth to God's only begotten son, without giving up a bit of God's sovereignty as creator and sustainer of every created thing in the universe.

My friend says that his view of predestination and free will is taught throughout church history, but my research finds the opposite. For example, he says this was the teaching coming out of the Councils of Orange in the fifth and sixth centuries. A webpage (http://mb-soft.com/believe/txw/orthcoun.htm) summarizes the second synod of Orange, France, as seen in the Eastern Orthodox Church:

Council of Orange local Council, never accepted in East, 529 AD

Convened regarding Pelagianism. Condemned various beliefs of Pelagianism: that humans are unaffected by Adam's sin, that a person's move towards God can begin without grace, that an increase of faith can be attained apart from grace, that salvation can be attained apart from the Holy Spirit, that man's free will can be restored from its destruction apart from baptism, that "merit" may precede grace, that man can do good and attain salvation without God's help,

Statement

... we must, under the blessing of God, preach and believe as follows. The sin of the first man has so impaired and weakened free will that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought or believe in God or do good for God's sake, unless the grace of divine mercy has preceded him.

... According to the catholic faith we also believe that after grace has been received through baptism, all baptised persons have the ability and responsibility, if they desire to labour faithfully, to perform with the aid and cooperation of Christ what is of essential importance in regard to the salvation of their soul. We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema. We also believe and confess to our benefit that in every good work it is not we who take the initiative and are then assisted through the mercy of God, but God himself first inspires in us both faith in him and love for him without any previous good works of our own that deserve reward, so that we may both faithfully seek the sacrament of baptism, and after baptism be able by his help to do what is pleasing to him.

Though this synod was never accepted or acted on by the Eastern Church, the Eastern (Greek) church and the Western (Latin) church were in full communion at that time, and I find no evidence that the Eastern churches had any dispute with this statement. Acts of local councils were not usually acted on in other localities unless other bishops questioned those councils' findings, and apparently no questions were brought on this. Another webpage (http://mb-soft.com/believe/txs/councils.htm) summarizes the second synod of Orange from the Roman Catholic perspective:

In the West the Second Synod of Orange (529) was very significant in both combating semi-Pelagianism and setting forth the gracious character of salvation apart from works. Although it was not officially ecumenical, its declarations prevailed de jure but not de facto in the Roman Catholic Church down to the Reformation era.

Though these statements support Augustine's "pre-Calvinist" teachings (which were very formative in the West but not in the East's theologies) on the issue of free will, I find this statement explicitly confirming use of that word as a valid description of human choice. In a word, this statement is as strong a proof as any I've seen that "free will," far from being a nonsense term, was widely used and believed-in in early-church teaching.

We've scarcely touched the reason for the title of this Jonal entry ("A manner of speaking"), so we'll revisit that next time. What do you think?

— Webmaster Jon Kennedy