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Mere Christianity: A manner of speaking - 2

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— Saint Bernard

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JONAL ENTRY 1214 | January 10 2012

I began last time by mentioning my friend's objection to my saying "good luck," "lucky," or "gay" as a synonym for homosexual. I said he's more dedicated to literal usages of words and philosophical precision than I, and I intended to "unpack" that statement but other subtopics got longer than expected, so I'm backtracking here to start that other thread again. I agree, as I said, that there is no such thing as "luck" in a world created by a God who knows everything from the time it began and I agree that homosexuals are usually not as "gay" as they act.

My friend calls what most people call "luck" "providence," instead of "lucky" he prefers "blessed," and reserves "gay" to mean light-hearted and happy. He even prefers that no one say "thank you" to him for simple kindnesses, preferring that they thank God or praise God for all kindnesses and says that such precision amounts to a "good testimony" to God and the role He plays in his life. It may lead others to thinking about God and maybe even asking my friend about whether he is serious about all this.

I agree with his point ("to a point") and even also followed such principles myself for much of my life, but my conversion from Calvinism to a more traditional approach to Christian faith has led me to try to identify more closely with the broader stream of humanity by speaking more like "ordinary" people speak. I think my doing so aligns with St. Paul's claim in 1 Corinthians 9:22: "To the weak I became as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some." Note that if Paul was as precise in his phrasing as my friend is, he would never have said that he saves anyone, but rather "that I might by all means influence some to desire God's salvation." So the point of the title of this blog entry, "A manner of speaking" is that when thinking Christians use widely used but imprecise terms, they are choosing to speak like most other people do in order to better open and keep open lines of communication with them. But I still usually say "I'm not a betting man but I bet..." rather than the more direct but less precise, "I bet."

And although I agree that God's sovereignty is so total that our believing our wills are "free" may be in one sense an illusion, the sense I get from the first millenium theology of the church, and especially from the statement from the Second Council of Orange in 529 A.D. quoted in the previous entry here, is that the church and God want us to think of ourselves as free moral agents who choose for or against Him rather than considering ourselves predestined and therefore unable to choose, as though we're little more than automatons. This is because the veil or the chasm—or whatever metaphor you want to use—between our finite minds and God's infinite mind is such that we can never cross it. He gives us finite minds and finite philosophical categories to ponder, but discourages us from trying to think as only the Infinite One can think, in infinite categories. The creator-creature gulf is a mystery that the church in its wisdom chose not to penetrate, but the Reformation mind unleashed by the Renaissance refused to bow to the church teaching. So in a manner of speaking—God's manner—we have freewill that is far more than a nonsensical notion.

I also said in several previous entries that I would take up two terms my friend considers theological keywords for our time: monergism and synergism. When I was in seminary in the mid-1960's, I never heard either term, but he says that monergism describes the minority of professing Christians who may really be saved and synergism describes the large majority of those naming Christ who are not but may think they are going to heaven. Monergism, as I understand him, is belief that God alone ("mono" speaks to the idea of "alone") acts in our salvation, and synergism is belief that we somehow play a role in our own salvation, that we cooperate with God as though He can't act upon us without our help. Obviously, if these definitions are accepted, St. Paul was speaking synergistically when he said that he plays a role in anyone else's being saved, but I expect my friend would say that Paul didn't really mean what he said there or that the translation is bad. My friend says that "monergism" is a more inclusive term for what in my seminary days was called "Calvinism" (for John Calvin's view of predestination) and that "synergism" equates to what was formerly called "Arminianism" (the name for Jacob Arminius's theological arguments against Calvinist views).

My own take is that monergism and synergism, both recent innovations in Christian theology, are terms hatched—possibly in hell—to demonize or have excuses to hate Christians who don't interpret things like 1 Corinthians 9:22 and the parables of Jesus quite the way the "hatchers" do. Interestingly, in Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the Lord says that when the wayward son hit bottom, "...he came to himself, [and] said, 'How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger? I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you, and am no more worthy to be called your son: make me as one of your hired servants.'"

Like Paul in 1 Corinthians, the Lord himself here is less than precise if there's nothing we can do to begin the process of our own salvation from the sin nature and spiritually dead state we were born into, and its consequences. Jesus even says that the father of the parable, interpreted by virtually every preacher since Him as a metaphor for God the Father, describes the wayward son as "dead" in his waywardness, and yet it is the son, not his father, who decides—with no angelic or divine intervention that anyone mentions—and rises and starts moving back to the father. Did Jesus' failure to emphasize (or even to mention) that if the prodigal was "dead" he could do nothing to bring himself back to the father, mean He forgot? Did He not care? Or was He suggesting that "monergism" is not important enough to consider in what would turn out to be His most widely preached parable?

My argument is not that God's grace is not behind any movement any of us make toward Him (it is), but only to say that sometimes we and others (including Jesus) may not notice that it is God, not we, who is motivating our reforms, and God is not too concerned about that. I don't want this to be the beginning of a theology based on imprecision, but I do at least want to encourage recognition that imprecise theological talk goes back in the church's history even beyond the Church Fathers to the parables of our Lord himself.

This and the previous entry may seem too technical for some, and largely irrelevant as Puritan Calvinists are such a tiny minority in today's churches, for which I apologize. I have been telling my friend that I can't agree with many of his most salient theological points, to which he has been replying that I have to put up my arguments or shut up. Fair enough, but my reply to that was that I could do it only in writing, so this is the fruit of that effort. Thanks for bearing with me, and if you've stuck with it to this point, I hope you've learned a little through it.

Any comments, questions? Other topics to take on?

— Webmaster Jon Kennedy