Thursday, July 2, 2009

Predestination Part V of VI: “Whitacre’s View”

We now jump from Calvin to the present by looking at Rod Whitacre's understanding of Predestination. Whitacre is Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry and author of numerous books/articles including an excellent commentary on the Gospel of John and "A Partristic Greek Reader." He was also my professor a plethora of times during Seminary.
The reason I chose to look at Whitacre's understanding of Predestination is this: the man has a passion for every word of Scripture. He never intentionally places one part of Scripture against another. Thus, you can be certain that any understanding he offers on the subject is based on the complete testimony of Scripture. Because of this, Whitacre has had to deal with those places in Scripture that seem to contradict one another. It is from this that his understanding of Predestination is birthed.

He writes:
The Bible teaches two truths very clearly: divine sovereignty and human responsibility. This is an antinomy, i.e., a set of truths that seem logically inconsistent and yet both are true. Often times these two truths are juxtaposed in Scripture.
To show this Whitacre uses John 1:12. He explains:
For example, Jn. 1.12 gives the impression that human responsibility is primary: "for to as many as received Him He gave the power to become children of God." That is, first we receive and then we receive the power. But the very next verse, by itself, would say divine sovereignty is primary: "who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God."
For Whitacre scripture is full of such antinomies (He used to say in class that it was because of such antinomies he really believed the Bible to be from God, because no one would be able to make this stuff up). This is all the more true when it comes to Predestination and because both sides are divinely inspired we must honor them both as true rather than picking extremes. To illustrate this he quotes Charles Simeon who jokes that there is not a convinced Calvinist nor a convinced Arminian who, were he sitting at the elbow of St. Paul as he wrote, would not have suggested a few changes.
To show this antimony in Scripture Whitacre examines the argument in Romans 9 & 10 (which is often used to back up a double-predestination standpoint). He writes:
Paul's argument in Rom. 10 assumes people can respond, contrary to the impression of determinism in ch. 9. In 10.13 he says, "whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (quoting Joel 2.32). He doesn't say, Whoever is elect will be saved. Some folk, however, think only the elect will call upon the name of the Lord and be saved. But that is not what Paul says.
Thus, concluding:
Indeed, his whole point in the rest of the chapter is that Israel has had preachers announce God's call to them and they have rejected. He concludes the section with God's statement from Isa. 65.2, "All day long I have stretched out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people." What sense would this make if God knew they could not respond because He had not chosen them to begin with?
Because of this Whitacre believes that we must be careful when examining this multifaceted subject. Thus, he writes: "I think we need to hold both sides of the antinomy, both the divine sovereignty and human responsibility."
From here Whitacre goes on to reveal his personal understanding of what Predestination is. He believes that the Scriptural meaning of "predestine" emphasizes Christians corporately and the ultimate goals God has prepared for those who are his own. He quotes Klein who writes:
Paul's concern in predestination is not how people become Christians nor who become Christians, but to describe what God has foreordained on behalf of those who are (or will be) Christians. Predestination pertains to God's causative action in marking out the present and future benefits and the priorities which accrue to those who are his children. In summary, God made prior arrangements for the present and future welfare of his own body. This is predestination. (Klein pgs. 184-185)
From here Whitacre goes on to expound his thoughts on the idea of election. He writes:
When the issue concerns God's choice for salvation, he has chosen a community—the body of Christ, the church.
Individuals find their election in being part of the elect body of Christ. To enter that body requires faith—a trust in God that involves a commitment of one's will and life to the way of Christ. The New Testament writers do not cite election as the underlying reason or cause why some individuals believe, or its lack as the explanation why others do not.
Concluding from this he writes:
So my own hunch is that election in the Bible usually refers to groups, not individuals. The only elect individual is Jesus and we are elect as we are in Him. I need to do some more work on this, but this is the view I'm working with.
Following this, Whiticre goes on to say that although Scripture teaches both divine sovereignty and human responsibility this does not mean that these two factors play a similar role in life and salvation. He writes:
Scripture is adamant that God's grace and His initiative are primary. He must act first in both creation and recreation. All is of His grace. Our response is simply to receive that which He offers, which is participation in His very Life. We receive by faith, that is, by accepting the truth about who He is and what He offers. Faith is not a work. It is the empty hands that receive.
Our response is only possible because of God's prior action. Even our capacity to receive is His gift, though it is a gift that some folks refuse. How this refusal fits with God's sovereignty is a major part of the antinomy.
My Own Thoughts on Whitacre's View
From the stand point of Scripture's testimony (depending of course on which view you take), Whitacre's understanding of predestination is pretty hard to trump. From a Biblical Theological Standpoint his argument is convincing. Also, his explication of predestination stands as a firm warning and reminder of two things. First off, Scripture's testimony is not iron clad on either side of the coin. Whitacre, whether you agree with him or not, does the best he can do with what is found in Scripture. Second, Whitacre's understanding of antimony brings to the forefront the limits of our understanding when it come to things divine. Although we like to think we have God in our pockets, the vast array of antinomies in Scripture scoff and let us know that is not the case.
I have trouble with his explanation for three reasons. First, is the fact that it leaves the door wide open for Pelagian ideas to creep in. Pelagianism, named after the heretical British Monk Pelagius who wrote in the 5th century, believes that humanity has the capacity to do what God commands in the Law, hence the capacity to save themselves (Zahl 415). Now don't get me wrong, Whitacre would never say that, but some of his ideas give Pelagianism room to breathe. For example, Whiticare's understanding of divine sovereignty and human responsibility sounds at times like Pelagius' belief that free will and God's grace are simultaneously commended in Scripture to which Saint Augustine responds:
Now the persons who hold this opinion fail to observe that, unless our turning to God were itself God's gift… For with respect to our turning to Christ, what else does it mean than our being turned to him for believing? And yet he says: "No man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father" (448)
Because of his understanding and reliance on God's grace, Whitacre personally does not fall into the Pelagian trap. For him, as it was with Augustine, everything concerning salvation is only possible because of God's prior action, but again if it is all God's prior working anyways aren't we talking about Predestination as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin talked about? In fact, this view of God's grace is what led Augustine and the reformers to their understanding of Predestination. This is where Whitacre would fall back on the idea of antinomy. To the question of whether it is God's sovereignty or human responsibility? He would answer yes for both. As to the practical outworking of this, I believe Whitacre would leave it to the mystery of God, but in a crunch; for Whitacre; Grace trumps all.
The second thing that causes pause for me with this explanation is I cannot reconcile it with the death and slave language that is spoken of in Scripture. What I mean by this is that Scripture clearly says we are dead in are trespasses and slaves to sin and I firmly believe that dead mean dead in Scripture. For example, look at Ezekiel's valley of dry bones (Ch. 37). There was no antinomy of divine action mixed with human responsibility; it was a death to life situation: a sovereign act of God's recreation. As Paul Zahl states concerning this passage:
Grace is about life from death, or better, life to the dead. When the Spirit raises the dead men's bones to life and puts muscles on them and pumps blood into their muscles, the paradigm is not sickness and recovery. The paradigm is death and resurrection. That is the quality of grace. It responds to nothing whatsoever from our side, not a scintilla, not a sign of life, not the receptive wink of an eye. Grace is one-way love. It comes from the outside. (64)
I believe this is the obvious testimony from the New Testament as well. As Ephesians 2:4-5 puts it, "4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved" (Italics Mine). I don't see human responsibility in play here except in its own demise.
The third and final reason why Whitacre's explanation is hard for me to grasp is that I have trouble with it from a pastoral perspective. From the end of human experience (which in this case I feel is congruent with what is found in Scripture) I believe original sin to be so evenly dispersed that the only proper response is "Save me!" If freewill/human responsibly is in play here than the cry is more of a plea for just a little help to get over this landmine. Still a deadly situation, but not insurmountable by any means.
Because of this I have trouble applying the antinomy understanding to pastoral experience. If I assume that people can meet their need than ultimately I won't offer them the pure unadulterated Gospel or I'll judge them for not making the right choice. Now I know Whitacre ultimately believes its grace alone that saves, but when I throw in the antinomy it leaves just enough room for pride to sneak in and if one accepts grace then he/she will be left open to pride and self-righteousness. "I made the choice, why couldn't my husband make the choice." Think I'm splitting hairs? I've seen this in churches that come from a more Armenian background (my old job with the Christian Missionary Alliance). As Zahl states:
If you believe in people's free will, you will always judge them when they "choose" wrongly… "Free will" creates judgment creates rejection creates flight. The un-free will creates sympathy creates mercy creates comfort creates change (108, 110).
Because of this I firmly believe that we need to approach others and ourselves with the understanding that we're not as free as we like to think we are and in doing this we can say like the Apostle Paul, "1 Corinthians 15:10
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am…"
In conclusion, this has been a tough one for me. On paper I find myself agreeing with Whitacre. Like I said before, from the standpoint of Biblical Theology his argument is almost flawless. The problem for me is what I mentioned above. Like Whitacre, I must admit that my understanding of this subject is still in process and maybe one day it will change. But as of right now when I look at the heart of Scripture, which is the gospel, I believe that we are raised from being dead in our trespasses and sins. Whatever logical conclusions that brings for predestination, well, that's what this whole series has been about.
Sorry I rambled right there. In short, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this one.
Saint Augustine. "On the Predestination of the Saints"
Whitacre, Rod. "The Antinomy in Scripture of Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility" (This used to be on the Trinity Website, but I'm sure if you email him he'll send you a copy)
Zahl, Paul. "The Christianity Primer" & "Grace in Practice"



Jay Miklovic said...

You were correct when you told me that I would like Whitacre's view. I certainly do as it seems to align very well with my perspectives.

I also agree with your critique as it is the same critique I give myself, that being that a theology of accepting the apparent contradictions opens the door for all sorts of heresy... esp Pelagianism.

I would only counter that critique by saying that going out of the way to slam the door on potential heresy often results in heresy in the opposite direction.

I think a prime example of this is when we labor to discount the nonsense that goes on in the 'Charismatic' churches these days, and yet we overstep scripture and deny the continuance of the gifts of the spirit altogether. In an effort to expose the heresy of false manifestations of the spirit we create a heresy of our own denying the very works and gifts of the spirit which God has never retracted. (Man that could open a can of worms!)

Anyway, thanks for this post. How was your trip?

Jay Miklovic The Tenth Letter

Jay Miklovic said...

quick qualification on my last comment.

I do not believe scriptures contradict themselves, I do however recognize that in limited human understanding there appears to be contradictions which our limited logic fails to reconcile.

Shawn said...

Notice that I always say "Those places where Scripture seems to contradict itself..."

Jay Miklovic said...

yeah i notice and totally agree. i just didn't want anyone to think from my comment that i believed the scriptures to be contradictory.

this blog has been very good, very well done. it seems that I drop posts a pretty regular interval but none of my ramblings are nearly as researched and thorough as yours, great job.

Jay The Tenth Letter