Friday, August 28, 2009

Response to REW on Eternal Security

Thanks to REW for her excellent question and comment on my eternal security post. My response is in line with her comments.

I just have one question and one comment. How can "eternal life" be temporary? To follow up, if it is not temporary, then isn't it forever? (That really counts as one question, right?)

Let me say once again what a good question this is! It gets directly at a fascinating theological issue: the relationship between God’s experience of time and our own. One of the most profound mysteries of the incarnation is that an eternal being—to whom all “time” is a single present, or “now” (for more on this, read Augustine’s City of God)—entered into history. It would be like one of us going from our three-dimensional space into the two-dimensional space of comic strip, except that God somehow entered into our temporal dimension. It has been said that God writes history the way we write novels (or perhaps comic strips)—yet God himself entered into history to save us. We, with our darkened intelligences, can only stand at this reality in wonder and awe.

I think this is pertinent to your question because the mystery of the incarnation—that perplexing intertwining of eternity and time—seems to occur in each of us when we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). There is a sense that, when the very life of God that we call “grace” is infused in our souls, we carry with us a seed of eternity. (Funny how metaphors leap in when reason fails us…of course, these truths do not contradict reason but go beyond it.)

The Catholic Mass helps shed some light on how this mixing of time and eternity caused by the incarnation plays itself out in our day-to-day lives and worship. In the Mass, we worship both on Mt. Zion AND in the New Jerusalem (Heb. 12:12 and Rev. chapters 19-21)! In the Mass, time and eternity, earth and heaven, meet, and we lift our hearts of to the lord and join our voices with the angels who are forever singing "Holy, Holy, Holy!" (Rev. 4:8). In the Mass, we both enter into eternity itself, though we do so as a kind of anticipation of the glories that will one day belong to all who persevere to the end. The Mass and specifically the Eucharist, then, is the consummation, high point, and source of our Christian life. The Mass is purely incarnational Christian worship, where Christ's Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity are made present through the Most Blessed Sacrament. Christian worship simply doesn't get any better than this!

So, if we have one foot in heaven (there’s another metaphor!), we still have one foot on earth. Which is why, as St. Paul reminds us, we must “work out our salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Our salvation involves the reception of “eternal life,” but that reception is, in a sense, a life-long reception—one that can be planted in a soul (if I start borrowing from Jesus’s own seed analogy from Luke 8) but also one that can wither and die due to sin, rejection, and even neglect, as the book of Hebrews warns us (Heb. 2:3).

One more clarification is needed, which is to distinguish between the life of God, which is “eternal,” and the life of man, which is “everlasting.” Technically, “eternal” implies a lack of beginning or end. Thus, the only eternal being that exists (according to Christianity) is the Trinity. We say in the Nicene creed (written in 325, the year the Trinity was formally defined by the Church) that Jesus is “eternally begotten of the father.” By contrast, human beings, and even the universe itself, have some definite beginning. Further, human beings have a soul that will never pass out of existence. Thus, all human souls have everlasting life by their very nature. Even unsaved people have everlasting souls that will ultimately end up in either heaven (if they become saved) or hell (if they do not…and this is according to Jesus himself).

So, what did John mean when he wrote that his listeners may “know that they have eternal life”? Considering the above discussion, I doubt that John was using the words “eternal life” in the sense that would mean that whoever “knew they had eternal life” was guaranteed that they would make it to heaven. In fact, part of the above discussion is to point out that, technically speaking, John’s use of “eternal life” couldn’t mean that humans are given an attribute that only God possesses (and can possess).

The entire context of 1 John--one that all scholars agree on but is never mentioned by Pastor Carlo--is the Gnostic attack on Christians, whom John is defending. The Gnostics were teaching that one required a special, secret knowledge to be saved. John spends his letter attacking the teachings of the Gnostics and reassuring his listeners that no special knowledge is required; rather, the Christians can know they have eternal life. The context makes this passage exceedingly clear, in my mind at least.

There are many mysteries in Christianity about which Christians can only clarify what can not be said about them. In the case of understanding what John meant in 1 John 5:13, we know from reading this verse in light of all of Scripture that John could not have meant that Christians who received “eternal life” were guaranteed to go to heaven, or that those who received “eternal life” could not, at a later point in time, lose or reject it.

The good news is that as long as one doesn’t cross the boundaries of what can not be said about a passage, there is a wide open playing field to interpret what the passage does mean. The Catholic Church, by setting the interpretive boundaries that it does, allows us lay folk to have true freedom. We can frolic in the playground of scripture knowing that we are safe as long as we don’t cross the fence that protects us from error. Famous convert G.K. Chesterton put it like this. Jesus established the living authority that we call the Catholic Church (the term coined by St. John's student Ignatius) because, after all, what good is it for God to inspire a clearly defined inerrant text if he does not also offer us a clearly defined authority to interpret that text through the protection of the Holy Spirit? If the truth is important, than so is this living authority, for it is only through the Catholic Church that we can know the fullness of the truth, who is Christ himself. (Key word: know.) But you don't have to take my word for it. I invite everyone to read the primary historical sources--the early fathers of the church--and test my claim that the one Church that has existed for 2,000 years is Catholic through and through. (For one resource, check out New Advent's website, and begin by reading St. Justin Martyr, the Didache, St. Igantius of Antioch, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, Tertullian, etc.)

Getting back to the issue of eternal security: Unfortunately, many Christians accept the erroneous suggestion that people who receive the gift of initial salvation are automatically guaranteed the gift of final salvation. But is everyone who is predestined to grace also predestined to glory (to borrow two phrases from the Bible)? The clear answer from scripture as a whole is “no,” despite how Pastor Carlo and others try to read 1 John.

Now the comment: Most non-Catholics I know understand two aspects of salvation as well. Your "I.S." is viewed by Protestants as dying to sin and being raised with Christ.

Catholics agree 100% Remember though: I’m talking about salvation and justification as temporal processes—things that unfolds over time. Most Protestants understand justification as a one-time event (because that's the way the doctrine is formulated by many Protestant theologians), such that “Christ forgives all of our sins, past, present, and future”…thus, eternal security.

In other words an acceptance of Christ as Lord & Savior *as well as* the beginning of a relationship with Christ.

Again, Catholics would agree, except perhaps to note with St. Peter that “Baptism now saves us” (1 Peter 3:21). As the Church puts it, Baptism is the sacrament of our justification (CCC 1992). As Jesus puts it, we must be born [again, or from above] of water and spirit to enter the kingdom of heaven (John 3:5).

But indeed, the moment of our justification is the beginning of our relationship with Christ (as well as his mystical body, the Church). The problem in Pastor Carlo’s theology is that he seems to imply that one need not follow through with that relationship to the end in order to attain final salvation. One might be saved one day (that is, begin a relationship with Christ), end that relationship the next, but then—according to Pastor Carlo—still go to heaven. After all, Christ forgave the future sin of ending the relationship, right?

As it would be difficult to have a personal relationship with God and not know it, this is why your Baptist preacher emphasises knowledge.

In most cases I think you are right. What troubles me about the theology preached at Fairwinds Baptist Church is the very real possibility of people thinking they have a personal relationship with God yet in fact are living very far from Him. In other words, having a true knowledge is fine; having a false knowledge is deadly.

The problematic and ambiguous term here is “God.” Many people believe in a God that they make up in their imaginations (or accept from someone else’s). [Update 09/03/09: I do not mean "imagination" in a pejorative sense. Here, I'm trying to distinguish between ideas about God that originate in the imagination of man verses ideas about God that originate with the true God himself.] This is clearly the case, for instance, with Mormons. So problem number one is: how do I receive my knowledge of who God is, how God wants me to relate to Him, and what God wants me to know about Him? This comes back, once again, to the issue of authority. It was only a few years after the Protestant Reformation began that Martin Luther was complaining that there are as many new and contradictory doctrines as there are heads. Left to our own devices, we can create as many “Gods” as we have heads. But there is only one true God, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one hope of us all (see Eph. 4:1-6). How we come to know this one true God, one true faith, etc. is one of the most important questions we will ever have to answer. And according to St. Paul, it is the very oneness of God, faith, baptism, etc. that is the grounds for the perfect unity that he commands of us as Christians.

Also note: the entire thrust of my short essay was to question the knowledge that Pastor Carlo claims we can have of a FUTURE state, not a present one. I have no problem when someone emphasizes knowledge. And I have (almost) no problem accepting someone saying they know they are saved right now (it is funny how slow St. Paul was to make similar proclomations…he usually focused on reaching the end of the race, not on having begun it). It is the very specific piece of knowledge regarding eternal security proclaimed by Pastor Carlo that I am scrutinizing, for it is this piece of knowledge that Pastor Carlo uses to snatch Catholics out of the true Church, further dividing the Body of Christ. I also suggested that the doctrine of eternal security, being untenable, ends up requiring its proponents to emphasize knowledge of being saved over the reality of salvation itself. What gets lost is any discussion of what could happen to these dear Baptist should they choose to turn their back on God. They are taught, rather, that nothing they could do can effect their salvation. My post tries to unpack the (il)logic behind this theology.

But non-Catholics do usually recognize that the "goal" of Christianity is not to get your ticket to Heaven, and forget about it. Rather we "being renewed to a true knowledge" according to the image of Christ. See Col. 3

I think I see what you mean, and I agree…though I would suggest that Heaven is a true and proper goal of Christianity, one that can only be achieved by persevering to the end (Matt. 10:22 and elsewhere). Heaven is a goal that is intimately tied up with knowing and being obedient to Christ as the spouse of our souls, entering the mystical body of Christ, and joining together with both at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

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