Thursday, August 13, 2009

Predestination Part VI of VI: “Zahl’s View”

If you were to take Martin Luther's "Bondage of the Will," marinate it in Sci-Fi imagery, mix it together with Tyler Perry movies, and sprinkle it with Lord of the Rings references you would end up with Paul Zahl's understanding of predestination. Although this is the case, I think Zahl (former dean of Trinity School for Ministry & Recently Retired Rector of All Saints Church) would argue that he doesn't want to offer any theology of Predestination; but rather a Theology of Everyday life.
He writes:
    This theology of everyday life takes its first breath from the irrepressible words, "Help me!" (103)
    A theology of everyday life depends on the un-free will. If the will is free then we do not need someone to save us. (104)
Often when the subject of the un-free will comes up, people jump ahead of my claim. They think I am talking about predestination. They think I mean Pavlov and little dogs with bells and shocks. They think I am trying to corner them into some kind of idea that makes people into puppets. To this I say, "You're ahead of the game. I am talking about one thing, and one thing only: how people actually act and whether they are under compulsion in certain situations. Please don't talk to me about puppets until you have answered me about addicts" (104)
In short, any understanding Zahl gives concerning predestination is earthed in the compulsive experiences that we all have. It begins from the ground up. It is earthed in the observable fact that we often can't change ourselves, let alone save ourselves. Thus, unlike Augustine and Calvin, Zahl does not talk about conceptual predestination, but rather the mere fact that, "Human beings are not as free to act as they like to think they are" (104). Simply put, Zahl deals with the un-free will and how it relates to everyday life.
For Zahl the doctrine of the un-free will is a biblical and descriptive approach to life that for him reveals one of the most plain and hidden facts of the human world. It is plain because of experience and it is hidden because no one wishes to see it.
To build his case Zahl looks at everyday areas of compulsion that humans experience. He writes, "Think about anger. Anger can be triggered by a single word, a contemptuous gesture. People have killed each other over a single contemptuous gesture. Anger is often compulsive" (105). He next turns to look at the addict. He writes:
Addiction needs help, complete help. You have to start by putting yourself in the wrong and acknowledging that your life is out of control. (105)
    The minute you begin to think they have the power they disappoint you. (106)
From addictions Zahl goes on to look at our battles with weight, mourning, depression, and worry. He then shows how all of these compulsive examples from our everyday life really confirm what Scripture already illustrates through such examples as Romans 7, Jesus coming to save sinners, and Isaiah's suffering servant.
Where the genius of Zahl's understanding of the un-free will comes into play is when he extrapolates the natural outcomes of whether one embraces free will or the un-free will. He writes, "If you believe in people's free will, you will always judge them when they "choose" wrongly" (108)… He believes that this is most poignantly seen in various sorts of Christianity encountered in the world. He writes:
Forms of Christianity that stress free will create refugees. They get into the business of judging, and especially of judging Christians. (109)
If you were to interview the millions of people who feel they left Christianity although they were brought up in it, you would find that one two-syllable word, "judgment," tops the list… (109)
It is judgment that drives people away from Christianity. Ironically, it is judgment—the absence of it—which drew people toward Jesus Christ. (109)
Again for Zahl, the idea that drives this judgment is free will, i.e. people could just change if they wanted too. To illustrate this Zahl points to the Parable of the Pharisee and the Penitent tax collector that reads:
Luke 18:10-14
10 "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
Here the Pharisee gives himself credit for the "smart choices" he had made in his life whereas the tax collector recognized his complete dependence on the grace of God in light of his overwhelming sins and bondage. Zahl writes:
For the tax collector, God's grace was one-way love, not a two-way operation that relied on his effort. For the Pharisee, it was semi-Palagianism all the way. And there was no compassion on the part of the Pharisee, none at all. There was self-congratulation and contempt. (111)
They (Pharisees) are Frankenstein's Monster of the "free will" (112)
This all leads Zahl to conclude that, "'Free will' creates judgment creates rejection creates flight" (110). Now, on the other end belief in the un-free will, "creates sympathy creates mercy creates comfort creates change" (110). This is because:
The moment you understand that people are not as free as they think they are, especially in sectors of compulsion, you are able to have compassion for them. You begin to "try a little tenderness." Instead of judging them for doing wrong when they should be doing right, you start developing some sympathy. (105, 106)
The relation of the un-free will to compassion is that the un-free will enables compassion. (109)
For Zahl this compassion is having mercy on people who cannot help themselves (108). It's having the mercy of God who "when we were helpless" sent, "Christ to die for the ungodly" (Romans 5:6). And lastly it's having the mercy of Christ who, "Luke 19:10 came to seek and to save the lost."
My Own Thoughts on Zahl's View

As you've probably noticed if you've read any of my blogs, Zahl has had a tremendous influence on my life and ministry. Upon entering seminary his understanding of grace blew me out of the water and led me to a greater appreciation of God's one-way love.
This said, his understanding of the un-free will was a sort of turning point for me as well. By the time I had entered seminary I had been engaged in inner city ministry for about 7 years. During that time I had encountered seemingly meaningless violence, abandoned children, grotesque addictions, broken promises, and strange religion. All of this, depending on my mood, either led me to a place of judgment, complacency, hopelessness, or hurt. This was particularly true during my time in Atlanta. Seeing lives that never changed, addictions that couldn't be conquered, and children who were closely following the violent paths of their elders led me to this open ended question: "What do we do? Who will deliver us from this tragic situation?"
A good portion of this issue was settled upon encountering Zahl's teachings. Through his understanding of the un-free will I was not only able to acknowledge the areas of compulsion in these people's lives, I was also led to acknowledge those areas in my own life and in acknowledging this I was led to a greater understanding of our need for a Savior in every aspect of our lives. Along with this, I was led to a greater understanding of the importance and power of the Holy Spirit in all this mess. It is God's work through us and his work only that brings forth change. As Zahl himself writes:
    It is the Holy Spirit who brings Christ to life. He takes the "old, old story" and applies it to you point of need. (129)
A theology of grace in practice depends on the Holy Spirit of God. The heavy lifting in all human relationships comes from grace… The results of this lifting, however, depend on the Holy Spirit. (129)
Having offered to someone the one-way love of grace, the only thing you can do is pray to the Holy Spirit to take it from there. (130)
Without the Holy Spirit, we have nothing in the now. With the Holy Spirit, we can love the one-way direction of grace and trust the result. (130)
For me Zahl's interpretation of our un-free condition is a proper-pessimism which gives way to an extravagant-optimism when seen in the light of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit's work.
In closing, the reason why I chose to look at Zahl is that he really earths the conversation we've been having over the past couple months. Sure, predestination is a rather heady subject, but there are outcomes to each option. Zahl looks at the extreme consequences of embracing free will and shows some of the beneficial outcomes for believing that we are not as free as we think we are. As I hinted at before, his conclusion have led me to cling to the cross and the Holy Spirit's guidance in every situation whether personal or in ministry. As the Apostle Paul says,
Romans 7:24-25
24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Zahl, Paul. "Grace in Practice"
Other works by Zahl:
"Who Will Deliver Us," "A Short Systematic Theology," "The First Christian," "The Christianity Primer: 2000 Years of Amazing Grace," and several others.
For his sermons go to All Saint's website




Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Shawn,

I disagree with your and Zahl's view of predestination, especially this
>>This all leads Zahl to conclude that, "'Free will' creates judgment creates rejection creates flight" (110). Now, on the other end belief in the un-free will, "creates sympathy creates mercy creates comfort creates change" (110

Theological determinism doesn't lead to compassion but to despair. If everyone was born pre-damned, then those who are caught in sin but who God doesn't love--That creates despair for how is it good news that God wills for humans to be pre-damned?

Where is there any compassion in such a view?

Also, in my experience of over 45 years dealing with many theological determinists, it seems to me that such deterministic predestination (not biblical predestination which is a comfort)
doesn't create compassion but doctrinal pride.

In history, also, theological determinism leads to horrible evil too. If in doubt read the biography of Stonewall Jackson and R.L. Dabney, etc. For that matter read the actions of the Reformers where they burned, drowned, tortured, etc. because they thought they were of the predestined and their victims weren't. As an historian and literature teacher I greive daily over what T.D. does to destroy in life:-(

As for Jesus being our only hope, and God's love being the only way to overcome sin, I agree.

But that is a far cry from the view that God only loves a few (or some) humans:-(

I agree with Wesley, I would rather be an atheist than think God brings babies into the world pre-damned, without hope.

Again, I ask where is there Good News in supporting the view that most people are born without hope?

I see no compassion in that, certainly not John 3:16

Daniel Wilcox

Shawn said...

Hi Daniel,
I enjoyed your responce. First off, I must say I'm in agreement with some of what you said (check out my personal thoughts on Calvin).
Where I'm in disagreement is the fact that you take Zahl's argument further than he wishes to go. The gist of his argument isn't theological determinism, but rather (in his own words):
The moment you understand that people are not as free as they think they are, especially in sectors of compulsion, you are able to have compassion for them. You begin to "try a little tenderness." Instead of judging them for doing wrong when they should be doing right, you start developing some sympathy. (105, 106)
In other words, the moment I understand that my alcoholic friend isn't as free as I wish to think he is, that will be the moment that I might offer him transformative compassion. This is also true in less extreme examples.
On the other hand, the second I think so and so is completly in control than I will judge him when he makes the wrong choice. Thus, belief (or an overemphasis) on free-will inevidably leads to judgement.
Again, though, I do agree with you that this ground must be tread with the utmost caution and reliance on the full testimony of Scripture. As you showed and history books make obvious, theological determinism has been responsible for some tremendious evils.

Thanks for your post!