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Tulips, Daisies, and Weeds in the Protestant Garden
A Few Textual and Theological Thoughts
The questions concerning perseverance and apostasy are among the thorniest thistles in the Protestant garden. Whereas some have attempted to cultivate a Calvinistic corner—seeded only with tulips—insisting that every bud shall blossom true; others have strewn their Arminian acres with daisies with which their children engage in unending games of “he-loves-me/he-love-me-not.”
Though it is no secret where my sympathies lie, honest gardening demands that one be able to distinguish between wildflowers and weeds—and be willing to admit the difference. One expects that in time, after we have beaten our swords into plowshares, our gardens will be transformed into fruitful farms. And that our fruit should remain.
In the meantime, we plow in hope. This means that we still have to be about the business of digging through difficult texts, pruning our presuppositions, and watering our respective theological plots with blood, sweat, and tears. This is no time or place for shrinking violets. With that in mind, I turn to do a little weeding in my corner of Christendom.
I recently read a debate between a Calvinistic brother and an Arminian brother on the problem of perseverance in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Anyone who is familiar with the discussion knows this to be troublesome terrain. A temptation toward extremes is an ever present danger when these two camps meet. And when this letter is the battleground, that temptation is exacerbated. At such times Calvinists prove themselves so dexterous as to be able to wiggle out of almost any textual constraints, while Arminians exhibit all of the theological imagination of Ned in the first reader.
I would simply like to remind my Reformed brethren that we need to be mindful of the whole text. We need not make a Procrustean Bed of this Sacred Epistle simply to make quick work of safeguarding a beloved dogma. If it is true it will bear up under scrutiny. If not, let it fall away.
One example to make my point.
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” ~Hebrew 10:26-31
In seeking to defend the certain eternal blessedness of the elect, our Calvinist friend singled out one word from the text and from it forged his argumentative sword. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before he fell on it. His defense was mounted from the term, “sanctified.” For in his mind, if this designation referred to a member of the elect company—someone with a vital attachment to the covenant—then his position would be in serious jeopardy. Hence the succeeding exegetical monkeyshines.
“It isn’t the apostate who is sanctified—for that could never be!—it is Christ who was sanctified,” he argued. “For if the apostate was sanctified, then that would imply election, justification, and the rest of it. We know that can’t be the case. So I take it to mean that the apostate is trampling underfoot the Son of God and is profaning the blood of the covenant wherewith the Son of God was sanctified.”
Beloved, here is an unnecessary argument that accomplishes absolutely nothing. Furthermore, it assumes the very consequent that it is arguing against. Note that he is unwilling to grant that the apostate could have been “sanctified” because that would have certainly meant that he was among the elect. He considers no alternative definition for the term. And yet, when the term is applied to Christ it must mean something other than what is meant by the soteriological category imposed upon it immediately prior.
Even still, if we stipulated that the “sanctified one” refers to Christ it would be of little consequence. It would still leave the apostate guilty of trampling underfoot the Son of God as a rebel against the covenant. The language of profanation implies that the person in question has committed sacrilege against the “blood of the covenant.” The clear implication being that he is under obligation to such a covenant.
Further, such a person is being a compared with those who “set aside (i.e. rebelled against) the law of Moses” and suffered the penalty of covenantal sanctions against them. That is, those who who sinned against the older administration and mediator were put to death after having been found guilty at the testimony of two or three witnesses. Whereas, those who rebel against the New Covenant administration and its Greater Mediator shall receive an even greater recompense for their apostasy. Note that even the covenantal particularity of “two or three witnesses” is brought to bear against the apostate: the Son of God, the blood of the covenant, the Spirit of grace—infallible witnesses all.
There are also intertextual matters to consider. The writer quotes from two passages in Deuteronomy 32: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” and “The Lord will judge his people.” In quoting the “Song of Moses,” he is echoing the selfsame message that was originally given to their fathers. Consider the context: Moses calls the people to assemble before him so that he may issue a warning. They are a people prone to wandering and rebellion. He brings “three witnesses” to bear agains them: the book of the covenant, heaven, and earth. He then gives them a stern warning against apostatizing in lyrical form by highlighting the majesty, holiness, and faithfulness of God. Next, he recounts their past and present blessings. Then he calls to mind how, in their blessedness, they grew fat and kicked against his commandments and went whoring after other gods.
Throughout the song he is speaking to Israel (Jeshurun) as though they were two distinct peoples (their rock is not like our Rock). This he does to emphasize that not all of those who were of Jacob were of Abraham (a very Pauline move). He speaks of God’s judgment on them for their apostasy and then ends with a note of hope and consolation—“The Lord shall judge his people.” This “judgment” of those who were in Israel but were not Israel was a blessing in disguise. In fact, the word “judge” is literally rendered is “vindicate.” The Lord “vindicates” his people when he purifies them through judgment. Thus for Moses, the “vengeance” of God against the apostates in their midst was a “vindication” of the faithful among them.
Why is this relevant? Because this is the exact argument employed by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. There is no contradiction between the statements “God will act in vengeance” and “God will act in vindication.” When the apostates from the covenant “fall into the hands of the living God” (‘living God,’ too, is a covenantal term), the righteous are vindicated and their faith(fulness) is made manifest. Far from denying a doctrine of perseverance, this reading actually establishes it. For the author of Hebrews, perseverance is effected by white-hot grace; a Spirit-wrought power which works out salvation in fear and trembling.
Suffice it to say that an alternate reading of the “sanctified one” does not remove the interpretive dilemma facing those who wish to divorce the apostate from any attachment to covenant. If my Calvinistic brothers wish to preserve the doctrines of grace then they should follow the example of the Doctor of Grace. That is, they should seek to be more Augustinian. Among other things, this would entail developing a robust doctrine of covenantal election and covenantal apostasy.
I mention any of this simply to be horticulturally honest. There is a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. This is true of doctrines as well as daffodils.