Saturday, June 17, 2006

Putting It Down Where the Goats Can Get It

The ancient masters of religion . . . began with the fact of sin -- a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Reverend R.J.Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. -- Gilbert Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

Original sin is foolishness to men, but it is admitted to be such. You must not, then, reproach me for the want of reason in this doctrine, since I admit it to be without reason. But this foolishness is wiser than all the wisdom of men, sapientius est hominibus. [I Cor. 1. 25 "The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men."] For without this, what can we say that man is? His whole state depends on this imperceptible point. And how should it be perceived by his reason, since it is a thing against reason, and since reason, far from finding it out by her own ways, is averse to it when it is presented to her?

It is, however, an astonishing thing that the mystery furthest removed from our knowledge, namely, that of the transmission of sin, should be a fact without which we can have no knowledge of ourselves. For it is beyond doubt that there is nothing which more shocks our reason than to say that the sin of the first man has rendered guilty those who, being so removed from this source, seem incapable of participation in it. This transmission does not only seem to us impossible, it seems also very unjust. For what is more contrary to the rules of our miserable justice than to damn eternally an infant incapable of will, for a sin wherein he seems to have so little a share that it was committed six thousand years before he was in existence? Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine; and yet without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves. The knot of our condition takes its twists and turns in this abyss, so that man is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is inconceivable to man. -- Pascal's Pensees #445 and 434.

Too often in confessional debate and polemic, one gets the impression that it is immensely difficult simply to tell what Augustine or Luther or the Concordists actually meant. Did Augustine believe in double predestination? Did Luther believe in union with Christ? Do the Orthodox believe in original sin?

Sometimes the problem is thinkers changed their mind. And some issues are pretty complicated. And sometimes people are trying to make it sound as if all "our" authorities agree. But I think people need to make an effort at "putting it down where the goats can get it" in Garrison Keillor's phrase. It always seemed to me if one needs vast learning to simply understand what Luther or Augustine thought about predestination, then how can you be so sure that anyone else understood them either? And if no one understood them, then historically, it makes no difference what they believed. In which case, of course, one then has to investigate historical viewpoints which the bulk of pastors/priests in any given communion actually believed -- and there you are again at a belief system which is going to be fairly easy to expound.

And that gets us back to the citations on "original sin." Is it obvious or is it outrageous and shocking? Does believing in call for the utmost submission of reason to the incomprehensible, or does it just call for two eyes? How can the same doctrine be viewed in such opposite ways?

It depends on what you mean by "original sin": does it mean we are born with merely a tendency (however strong in its effects) to sinful actions, or is it actual sin, actual guilt, making us justly liable to actual punishment from the moment we were conceived, without us having done anything? The first is Chesterton's view, the second Pascal's. This then is the acid test: if you believe "original sin" can be observed with one's eyes, then what you are talking about is not really "original sin."

As for the Evangelical conception, here is Luther's statement on it in the Smalcald articles:

This hereditary sin is so deep and horrible a corruption of nature that no reason can understand it, but it must be learned and believed from the revelation of Scriptures, Ps. 51, 5; Rom. 6, 12ff ; Ex. 33, 3; Gen. 3, 7ff

Enough said.

Another example: double predestination. I would like to suggest that the acid test here is 1 Timothy 2:3-4.

For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.

Is this passage a problem for you, that needs to be "exegeted in context" (theologian-speak for "explained away") so that it doesn't mean what it appears to mean, that God wants/wills/desires (philosophers will quibble over the terminology, but you know what I mean) all children of Adam to be saved? Then you believe in double predestination.* But if you take it to mean exactly what it seems to, that God wants all people, without exception, in the world to be saved, then you don't.** By this test, Augustine certainly did believe in double predestination, as did Calvin and Luther -- to the very end of his life. (On Augustine, follow the discussion in the Enchiridion from section 96 to 106 here, and my comments here.) But the Concordianists did not, and the Lutheran church has (rightly) followed the Concordianists, not Luther here. By this test, double predestination is not something that Lutherans can attack Calvinists over, or Catholics can attack Luther over (at least if they don't include Augustine in their attack as well), but something which rattles around like a skeleton in both Catholic and Evangelical closets.

*Within double predestination, of course, one can be a meanie/supralapsarian or nice guy/infralapsarian, or like Augustine emphasize that God's will to save is particular and His will to damn is general.
**Of course you then have the problem of either explaining why what an omnipotent God wishes to happen does not come to pass, or else why such an explanation should not be expected. (Or one can be a universalist -- which has its own problems.)

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