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Posts Tagged ‘Soteriology’

John_Calvin_Titian

I don’t think that a Christian is necessarily required to come down one way or another on Calvinism vs. Arminianism (or Lutheranism or whatever the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox think about it), but the fact is, I’ve been wrestling with issues of predestination, free will and the nature of God pretty fiercely for months now, and I keep coming to the same conclusions.

It doesn’t help that I have been reading Augustine’s Confessions this year, either. Next up: the Institutes!

No offense to my Arminian friends, but I just don’t think that the Arminian position is tenable at all. It eats itself.

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The Mormon Second Article of Faith says “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” This understanding of personal accountability for sin is a rejection of the idea of original sin. On its face, it seems incredibly just. Why should we be held accountable for someone else’s misdeeds? Mormons are proud of this doctrine. And while I have not taken a thorough survey of worldwide Christians on the subject, I imagine that the understanding of sin and the Fall that are wrapped up in this Article of Faith are in no way unique to Mormonism.

This understanding of the Fall says that through Adam and Eve’s transgression, humanity became not corrupt but corruptible. This belief holds that we inherit from Adam and Eve only the capacity to sin. As free agents, we are able to choose between sin and not-sin. This is very important: just as we have the capacity to be sinful, we also theoretically have the capacity to be sinless, but as a practical matter, each of us individually fails to do so. The fact that we all inevitably choose to transgress is forseeable and predictable, but really, at the end of the day your sins are nobody’s fault but your own, and the consequences of your sins are justly earned by you and you alone. You could choose not to sin, but you do not. If you simply exercised enough self-discipline, you would be sinless. Thus, your eligibility for heaven is a product of the quantity of sins you have committed. If you have committed more sins than zero, you are ineligible for heaven and in need of salvation. If you have committed zero sins, you are eligible for heaven. Your guilt is your own; you have nobody to blame but yourself.

That’s important. Think about that. Consider its magnitude. You have free agency, and you have personally and individually chosen to sin. Consequently, you are ineligible for heaven unless you, personally and individually, are able to erase the stain of your sin or find a way to get someone else to erase it for you. Because you have chosen to commit a quantity of sin that is greater than zero (whether it is a finite or infinite quantity is, for the purposes of this discussion, irrelevant), you are in need of a quantity of atonement that is greater than zero. The scales must be balanced.

This is a harsh rule, but certainly holding me accountable for the sins I committed is more fair than holding me accountable for the sins someone else committed, right?

Except, that’s not what original sin is all about at all.

I shouldn’t have to sell you Aura Salve to convince you that we are a fallen race living in a fallen world. Just look around at, oh, the entire sum of human history. We are broken and dysfunctional on an individual, cultural, national, and even global level. We hurt each other. We exploit each other. We destroy our environment. We hurt ourselves. We destroy ourselves. We are slaves to our habits, our appetites and our addictions. We are sick. Sure, we manage to do some good things too, but rarely without some destructive fallout somewhere, usually with a lot of it, and the fact that we are able to callously ignore so much of the fallout is even more evidence of our sickness. We are broken. We are fallen.

Through the Fall of Adam and Eve, we have inherited a broken nature. A sin nature. That’s original sin. We are heirs to brokenness. The idea that if we just exercised our free agency correctly we could choose to live sinless lives is a ridiculous and self-destructive notion. We are broken because we have a broken nature. Yes, we are autonomous moral agents, hypothetically capable of making any decision. For that to really play out in practical terms would require a kind of neutral contextual baseline that does not exist. We are not blank slates of pure will born into blank slate world. To an incredibly great extent, the way we are able to exercise our free agency is limited by our circumstances. By our environment. By culture, situation and upbringing. We are invariably the product of our situation, and our situation is a fallen world, and here is the rub: ours is a fallen world for which we, individually, are not responsible.

That doesn’t make us any less broken and miserable. That doesn’t make us any more able to bear the presence of God. But what it does mean is that we are hurting enough as it is without needing to borrow pain. The belief that we are ineligible for heaven because of our particular, individual sins leaves us on a self-destructive treadmill of guilt and shame, because we are never gong to stop committing them. Even if we believe that forgiveness for specific sins is obtainable, it still means a lifetime of feeling like heaven is slipping through our grasp as, no matter how often we believe we can obtain forgiveness, we inevitably sin again. The result may very well be a lifetime of darkness, self-loathing, despair and moral exhaustion: evidence that the notion that righteousness is a matter of disciplined sinlessness, the Second Article of Faith itself, is itself a product of our fallen nature and this fallen world.

None of this is necessary at all. Compared to the enormity of our fallen world and our fallen nature, our particular, individual sins are really kind of petty.

Original sin is thus a profoundly merciful doctrine. It is a realistic doctrine. Yes, you sin. Yes, you choose to sin. But let’s be honest, you choose to sin because you are broken and you are broken because humanity is broken. You were born broken. You were born a slave to sin and darkness.

Jesus Christ wasn’t crucified to balance a cosmic ledger-book and pay off a debt you incurred by committing your specific sins so that you can get a priceless reward you don’t deserve. Jesus Christ was crucified to defeat sin itself and ransom you from the shackles of a fallen world, to work in you a transformation from brokenness to wholeness. Jesus Christ came to redeem you, not from your sins, but from the reason that you commit them–the brokenness that is at the heart of all the dysfunction and darkness in your life. Jesus Christ came to redeem you from your sinful nature. Jesus Christ came to redeem you from original sin.

You didn’t choose original sin; you inherited it. You didn’t choose darkness, you were born into it. And that is why the atonement makes original sin also a just doctrine. Injustice would be if God expected you to overcome your broken nature through self-discipline, which is impossible precisely because of your broken nature. Instead, God came into the world to free you from your broken nature: you didn’t break yourself, and you are not responsible for fixing yourself.

Thank God.

(Author’s Note: This was originally cross-posted from Into the Hills.)

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The question of whether Mormons can be considered Christian is fairly central to interfaith dialogue, and is significant enough to have garnered national attention during the 2008 presidential campaign. It comes up every now and then on Tim’s most excellent blog, and as an ex-Mormon non-Christian who is nevertheless widely read and confident in his basic grasp of the world of religion and religious belief, I thought I would take a stab at untangling some of the mess. Fundamentally, the question and ensuing argument is an issue of semantics/framing: both sides are talking about something different when they talk about whether Mormons are Christians, and both sides feel like they have something extremely important–but again, totally different–at stake with regards to the answer. the resolution to the dispute is probably not as simple as forcing one or both sides to re-frame their dialogue, since the way it is framed is not arbitrary. But an awareness of the semantic mismatch and an understanding of why it matters to both sides would go a long way into at least setting the issue aside and reducing its potential for causing a ruckus.

From the individual Mormon’s perspective, I think there is a pathological fear of being misunderstood. I believe that a large number of Mormons, fed on Mormon historical accounts of mistreatment in the early days of the church and anecdotal hostility since then, fear that they will be discriminated against or that they will encounter hostility because of misinformation about Mormonism that has been perpetuated. In other words, a significant number of Mormons believe that 1) they face potential or present persecution, because of 2) lies, misinformation, and twisted truth about their religion. Thus, if they could get people to accurately understand who they are and what they were about, they would not be in danger. I think there’s also a belief that a large number of potential converts to the Church refuse to consider Mormonism as an option because of misinformation about it: indeed that the single biggest obstacle to the missionary effort is misunderstandings about the Church.

So, for the Mormon, it is important to promote accurate, descriptive picture of their religion for their safety and for the success of their missionary program. This is underscored and reinforced in the individual Mormon’s mind by the Church’s intensive and explicit public relations efforts over the last three or so decades. If the Church itself has been engaged so desperately in promoting a positive image, then it must be not only important and beneficial, but God’s intention for His Church.

So when the Mormon encounters a conservative Christian that says “Mormons are not Christians,” alarm bells go off. The Mormon, in this encounter, wants first and foremost to be descriptively understood: he wants to correct misunderstandings because he believes misunderstandings lead to persecution and prevent the missionaries from touching the hearts of the people they contact and teach. The Mormon believes, descriptively, that he is a Christian: in fact, he believes that his Church is actually the Church established by Jesus Christ, and from a dictionary/encyclopedia-standpoint, that makes Mormons Christians. To say otherwise is to spread damaging lies such as that Mormons do not believe in Jesus Christ, share Christian values, or believe in the Bible. And if those lies get (further) spread, individual Mormons will be persecuted because they are misunderstood and the missionaries will not be able to reach the people who are looking for the Truth.

(Lurking here is the presumption that if Mormons were correctly understood that they would not be persecuted except at the hands of the truly evil, and that the missionaries would be able to teach and baptize exponentially more people).

This also means–and this is crucial–that when the Mormon confronts someone who still insists that Mormons are not Christians despite being exposed to an accurate description, the Mormon is likely to conclude that the person is being aggressively dishonest, and intentionally slandering the Church.

Now, there may be some people out there like that, but most of them are well-known heads of countercult ministries, or pissed-off ex-Mormons who (whether they are justified or not), are angry enough to lash out by saying anything bad about the Church that they can. whether or not it is true (though they are usually not also conservative Evangelicals, so they are not really relevant to the topic). But most theologically conservative Christians who insist on the non-Christianity of Mormonism despite an accurate picture of what the Church believes and teaches do not do so because of an evil motive. There is a misunderstanding here, because when the Mormon and the Evangelical talk about the question of whether or not Mormons are Christians, they are not really talking about the same thing. The Mormons are talking about “Christianity” from a descriptive, historical, and sociological point of view, whereas the Evangelical is talking about “Christianity” from a theological point of view. I shall attempt to explain.

Conservative Protestants, as a general rule, do not believe that denomination matters. They do not believe that salvation is found in the Lutheran Church, or the Southern Baptist Convention, or in their Evangelical Free Congregation. Conservative Protestants believe salvation is found only in the person of Jesus Christ. Mormons believe that salvation is only available through Jesus Christ too, but they believe that the road to that salvation (or exaltation, whatever, semantics) is only available through the Church’s teachings and sacraments. To a conservative Protestant, a denomination has other meanings, but very few if any would try to claim that any one denomination is the “one true church,” because the one true church is Christianity, in other words, those followers of Jesus who have embraced his gospel and have found salvation through faith on his name. Mormons (and other exclusive denominations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and, more often than not, the Roman Catholic Church) do not fit into this category because their understanding about the nature of Jesus Christ and the means of salvation are radically different: just the claim that it can only be found in fullness in one organization is enough to completely disqualify Mormonism.

In other words, Mormons don’t understand why Evangelicals won’t acknowledge Mormonism’s Christianity because Mormons do not realize what is at stake. Evangelicals do not think of themselves as Lutherans or Presbyterians or Nondenominationals, at least not in terms of their primary spiritual identity. They may recognize that as a matter of history they are members of a specific denomination (if they are) and that they have been designated “Protestant,” but their primary way of thinking about themselves religiously is as a Christian. Again, to a conservative Protestant, specific denomination does not matter. What matters is whether you are a Christian. This means a Protestant is free to move between denominations as much as he wants without worrying about it, as long as the denominations are teaching Christianity. Not Christianity in the sense of “a religion about Jesus,” but in the theologically significant sense of “the way to Jesus.” Mormons may talk about and believe important things about Jesus, enough for sociologists and librarians to categorize them as Christians, but what they teach and believe about Jesus is significantly different enough to make it a different religion than the one that conservative Protestants are practicing. I know of no Mormon that would dispute this. What the Mormon thus fails to understand is that the conservative Protestant calls his religion “Christianity.”

So when the Evangelical meets a Mormon who claims that Mormonism is Christian, the Evangelical hears the Mormon claiming that they have the same religion. That is flat-out not true, and it’s obvious by even a fairly cursory examination. So the Evangelical concludes that the Mormon is trying to be deceptive: trying to claim to be theologically compatible so as to lure converts into a religious organization that is actually an entirely different animal. It looks like a bait-and-switch, using the Evangelical’s faith as the bait. Understandably, this irks the Evangelical. Furthermore, the Evangelical is justifiably concerned about his friends and family and assorted loved ones: as conservative Protestants they operate in a religious environment where, provided the denomination is Christian (in the Protestant theological sense), one is free to switch from denomination to denomination without necessarily jeopardizing one’s salvation. When the Mormon Church claims to be Christian and insists that Evangelicals agree that it is, the Mormon Church creates a situation wherein Evangelicals may be lured into something they never meant to get involved in. And with Mormonism’s “milk-before-meat” missionary policy, it is not an unreasonable fear. And eternal salvation is at stake.

The Mormon may ask, “why do the Evangelicals get to decide what Christian means? Why can’t they just call their religion something else? Then there wouldn’t be a problem.” But that’s a particularly disingenous claim from a Church that sets a great store by the name of their religion. Like Mormons, conservative Protestants believe their religion is the one true religion. However, unlike Mormons, Protestants do not set theological significance by the organizational boundaries of a denomination. So the conservative Protestant’s religion is not the same thing as his denomination. He may be categorized historically as a Protestant, but he, like the Mormon, believes that he is in fact a true follower of Jesus Christ, a designation which he shares with people who have a common understanding of doctrine and practice, and since they believe they are the only true followers of Jesus Christ, they call their religion “Christianity.”

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My initial reason for leaving Mormonism was because it conflicted with Christianity (at least the way I understood Christianity). So somewhat naturally, my assumption on the way out of Mormonism was that really finding God was just a matter of figuring out which Christian denomination I belonged in. The questions I was asking and trying to figure out were still sort of narrow Christian theological questions about soteriology, ecclesiology, and so on: what points of Christian doctrine were non-negotiable for me, and what points were less important. I spent about a half a year investigating different flavors of Christianity without feeling that “click”–that sense of coming home that I was waiting for.  Something more than an intellectual affinity that would enable me to adopt a new identity as a Christian. Christianity as a religion held a lot of appeal (and still does!), but there was something deeply visceral that I needed but that was just missing. There was a sense of “aha!–this is it!” that just was not happening with Christianity. Eventually, I started to question whether Christianity was the right direction for me at all, and I started looking elsewhere.

For the most part, that’s been the story of my post-Mormon life: back and forth between Christianity and “vaguely searching.” I like Christian liturgy, Christian prayer, I like theology, hymns, churches and cathedrals, Christian philosophy, the Bible, the whole nine yards. But it just doesn’t click. I’m not sure what’s actually supposed to happen that makes me say “there, that’s it; now I am a Christian,” but it never happens. Its like there’s a Christianity neuron in my brain that just isn’t firing. I like Christianity a lot, but I neither believe Christianity nor am able to commit to Christianity. That’s the thing. So I dive into Christianity again and again–at least in my head–hoping that this time that click in my head will happen and I will realize what it feels like to be a Christian, but it keeps not happening.  So I look around in, at, and under other things: Hinduism, New Age gobbledygook, Atheism, LaVeyan Satanism, Zen, Revival Druidry, Asatru, whatever. But the click doesn’t happen in those places either, and then I can’t shake Christianity’s powerful hold on me, so I wander back and throw myself in, but the click still doesn’t happen.

I understand Christianity conceptually. I have read the Bible. But it just isn’t relevant to me on the deep, personal level that I feel like it should, like I need it to in order to get me to a place where I am willing to say “I am a Christian; this I believe.”  The Bible connects to me as a cultural relic, a powerful one even, that is fundamental to the history of western civilization.  But as God’s Word, it just doesn’t resonate the right way.

A few weeks ago I was talking to my wife about religion and our different outlooks on the universe, and I told her that I really wish I could somehow make Christianity work for me, because it would be so much easier. And she said, simply but incisively, “but it doesn’t.” And there it was. No matter how much I like Christianity, no matter how much I love every word C. S. Lewis wrote, no matter how much I like Episcopal services and liturgy, no matter how much I think the Bible is amazing, Christianity just doesn’t work for me. The click I need to happen just… doesn’t happen.

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