Question 41

return to questions

 

Fifteen questions for Presbyterians. In a continuing series begun on January 14, The Believer’s Dilemma is examining the problematic theologies of Augustine, Luther and Calvin, which were based on original sin.  What do modern Christians believe?  This week we have part I of an interview with Rev. Dr Dale Woods, Director of Pastoral Studies, The Presbyterian College, McGill University.

  

History:  The Presbyterian Church was established in the wake of the 16th century Protestant Reformation and is part of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), a fellowship of more than 200 churches, which traces trace roots back to John Calvin, and his highly influential book Institutes of the Christian Religion. The WARC brings together more than 75 million Christians in over 100 countries around the world.

 

The Presbyterian Church was founded by John Knox (1505-1572), who spent time in Geneva with John Calvin before returning to his native Scotland.  By 1560, Knox convinced the Parliament of Scotland to embrace the Reformation; previously Catholic churches were reformed to become the Protestant Church of Scotland.  When James VI of Scotland became King James I of England in 1603 he attempted, unsuccessfully, to unite his two realms.  The Acts of Union in 1707 finally brought political union but led to multiple splits in the Church of Scotland. The Presbyterian denominations in Scotland today are the Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland, the United Free Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Associated Presbyterian Church.

 

Presbyterians form the most important Calvinist denomination throughout the English-speaking world. Most Presbyterians in England and Northern Ireland can trace a Scottish connection, and Scots/Irish immigrants carried their faith to British colonies around the world. The Presbyterian Church in Canada can be traced back to Scottish settlers and French Huguenots.  Presbyterian theology typically emphasizes the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Scriptures, and the necessity of grace through faith in Jesus Christ for salvation.

 

Position:  Presbyterians emerge from a strongly Calvinist tradition and regard the Westminster Confession as part of their shared history, but there is a range of theological views within contemporary Presbyterianism.  

 

Current situation:  In recent years the Presbyterian Church, along with other mainline denominations, has struggled with declining attendance and closing churches.

 

Note: Italicised texts are taken from Westminster Confession (1646) and the Living Faith statement of belief (1984)

http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/

http://www.presbyterian.ca/about/pcc/officialdocuments/livingfaith

 

1)       The Universe

 

(Westminster Confession)  -  Of Creation

It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of His eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days; and all very good

 

(Living Faith) The living God is Lord,

Creator of all, Sustainer and Ruler of the universe.

In the seasons and the harvests,

in the rise and fall of nations,

God's goodness and judgment are present.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  The Westminster Confession says that, ‘In the beginning it pleased God to create the world out of nothing, for the manifestation of the glory of His eternal power, wisdom, and goodness.’ The Presbyterian Living Faith statement of believe describes God as ‘creator of all, sustainer and ruler of the universe.’How would you describe why the universe exists? And does it have a purpose?     

 

Dale Woods:  I think that at the heart of creation is relationship.  We know about a relationship with God and with one another, but there is also a relationship with Creation. That is where the aboriginal peoples got it right. This is a new idea in Christian thought, but not among the First Nations.  The relationship to the natural world is deeply woven into their theology.  We have started thinking more about our relationship to the planet, but probably mostly because of a looming crisis. For aboriginals it is not about crisis but about reality.  It we understood the reality of that relationship better we probably wouldn’t be facing an environmental crisis. We would have taken care of it earlier on. 

 

2)       Natural Evil

 

(Living Faith)  All events in this world

Are under the sovereign care of the eternal God.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  That leads into question two. Why is the natural world plagued with catastrophic events? The traditional Augustinian explanation is that Creation was perfect until the Fall in Eden of Adam and Eve, which released sin, suffering, evil and death into the universe.

 

Dale Woods: I would find it hard to believe that a tsunami which wipes out a million people is God’s purpose.   Why do these things happen? Is it all tied to the Fall in Genesis 3?  I think the writers of the story were simply trying to explain why something here is not right. The Fall is one way to tell the story.  It has something to do with us doing things we ought not to do, which is part of the human nature. But how far do we stretch the interpretation? The writer does not say at the end of Genesis 3 what theology we are supposed to draw from the story. Other people did that later on.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  The Presbyterian Statement of Faith says that ‘All events in the universe were under the sovereign care of the eternal God‘.  That sounds like providence and direct divine intervention. How do you interpret it?

 

Dale Woods: The ‘sovereignty of God’ is a prominent tradition in Presbyterian thought. That way I account for is that whatever happens in the world, God has the final word. 

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Do you see it as God’s hand directly intervening in the affairs of this world?

 

Dale Woods:  I don’t believe that, although I know people who do. If you follow it through logically, after awhile it makes no sense at all.     

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  The God of plagues and suffering is easy to fear but hard to love.

 

Dale Woods:  It is also a highly favourable God for the lucky ones who get three square meals a day while other people are left to starve to death. Both the good and the bad things would have to be the providence of God. I know people who believe that God cares so much about their personal happiness that when they lose their car keys, God immediately finds them.  That is too simplistic. 

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  The benevolent God who finds car keys and parking spots!

 

Dale Woods:  Have they never been to the Children’s Hospital and seen kids and families in utter agony? Is nothing happening for these suffering families because the God of the universe is too busy finding someone’s keys! How can that make any sense? For me that is a perversion of faith.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  It’s a remarkably self-centered idea that as long as I’m OK, God is good and omnipotent.  That same person is likely to have a severe crisis of faith when disaster strikes them personally.

 

Dale Woods:  Yes. They will believe they are being punished for something they did wrong or that their faith is being tested. I don’t believe that God directly intervenes in everything that happens, but I do believe God will have the last word.

 

3)       Human Beings

 

(Westminster Confession)  Of Creation

 

II. After God had made all other creatures, He created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after His own image; having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfil it; and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject unto change. Beside this law written in their hearts, they received a command, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; which while they kept, they were happy in their communion with God, and had dominion over the creatures

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Do human beings exist for a purpose?  This question is in reference to the Augustinian belief that humans were created for the unique purpose of living in perfect obedience to God.

 

Dale Woods: I believe the universe has a purpose which is for us to enjoy what God has created.  The problem with theology based on original sin is that it starts with Genesis 3 (the Fall of Man) and tends to forget Genesis 1 and 2. The beauty of the universe is to be enjoyed, explored and treated with respect.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Many scholars believe Genesis records distinct creation stories, written by different people at different times.

 

Dale Woods: The first two chapters of Genesis describe a loving relationship between humans and the one who created the universe. That is the fundamental nature of life, not the idea that we’re broken, which is part of our reality now, but it is not the fundamental aspect of creation. In my experience, most people know deep down that there is some brokenness in their life, but they don’t necessarily know deep down that they are made in the image of God. They have value and purpose because they are made in the image of God.  We need to know who we really are, and the brokenness is not who we really are. We need to fully understand the beauty of Genesis 1 and 2 before we start looking at the damage done in Genesis 3.

 

4)       The Existence of Evil

 

(Westminster Confession)  Of the Fall

I. Our first parents, being seduced by the subtilty and temptations of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory.

 

II. By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion, with God,  and so became dead in sin,  and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body.

 

III. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.

 

(Living Faith) We cannot fully comprehend

nor is it our task to justify

God's rule of the world.

We experience evil in the midst of life.

Yet evil cannot ultimately prevail,

for it is against God's will.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Why did a God of perfect goodness create - or permit - evil?   

 

Dale Woods: Evil in the world is part of what we’ve inherited. Sometimes we contribute to it, but sometimes it has nothing to do with us.  We have to believe that God can speak into the midst of that crisis.  However that is easier to be said theologically than personally. When you are comforting families suffering tragedy you can’t offer an easy explanation without causing harm. In some cases you can’t even talk about God. You can listen and comfort, but it is not a time to give answers to things you don’t know anything about. Those things remind us we live in a mystery. The Church, to some degree, has always wanted to demystify God, to define him down to ten principles.  It’s an innate reflex to want to have control.  The disasters of life remind us that we live in a mystery and we’re not in control. We live suspended on a thread and it doesn’t take much for that thread to snap. The positive side to that is that if we understand it, we learn to live life more appreciatively.  If your thread is secure today, give thanks.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  This seems a long way from theology that attempts to absolve God of all responsibility for evil by blaming it on Adam and Eve.  According to that reading of Genesis, once paradise was lost God became filled with wrath, sending down plagues, floods and all manner of disasters.

 

Dale Woods: There is a lot of the wrath of God in the Bible.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Mostly in the Old Testament.  

 

Dale Woods: Yes. In the New Testament and the Gospels, God is primarily concerned with healing, especially for people who never thought they could be included.  It all comes down to the question of grace. I see justice in God rather than vengeance. 

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  A gospel of wrath creates fear and is disempowering. It creates a rift between us and God which damages or destroys the relationship.  

 

Dale Woods: I would part company with people who see God as primarily wrathful and vengeful.

 

5)       The Conflicted Human Nature

 

(Westminster Confession)   Of the Fall

IV. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.

 

VI. Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto,  does in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner,  whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God,  and curse of the law,  and so made subject to death,  with all miseries spiritual, temporal,  and eternal

 

(Living Faith) We cannot escape our sin,

nor the sin of the world.

Because we are sinful

the societies we live in are sinful.

There are no exceptions:

every system is flawed.

We are part of the evil of the world,

of its violence, neglect, injustice.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Luther and Calvin described human nature as totally depraved and enslaved to sin.  How do contemporary Presbyterian’s explain why human nature appears to be a mixture of good and evil?

 

Dale Woods: We would say there isn’t any part of life that is not influenced by sin. That would be a definition of total depravity. It doesn’t mean the absence of good; it means that nothing is unaffected by sin. I think that’s true. Our best attempts at anything – for example parenting – never quite get it quite right. That’s how I understand it and I think it’s helpful because it means we should tread carefully.  

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  One of the standard defences of ‘total depravity’ is that it is a realistic view of the world as opposed to utopianism.  Realists would never dream that it is possible to bring an end to war, poverty, starvation or injustice.  They remember that Jesus said, ‘those things will always be with you’ and so they ‘realistically’ accept that the suffering of multitudes is God’s will and can’t be changed.  It can create a heartless, selfish form of faith.  What you are describing sounds more positive than the Calvinist idea that the human race is born totally depraved and that everyone, except for the elect, is a hopeless slave to sin.

 

Dale Woods:  The general Presbyterian interpretation of ‘total depravity’ is that sin lurks closely in everything so we always need to be careful. That does not mean we cannot - or should not - help people in need. 

 

6)       Primitive Peoples

 

(Westminster Confession)   Of Covenants

II. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

 

III. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  If we are here for a purpose, which involves a relationship with God, what would that relationship have looked like for cavemen or Neanderthals who lived 10,000 or 50,000 years ago?

 

Dale Woods:  Frankly, I have no idea!  (laughing)  I don’t think it is anti-Christian to think of evolution and creation at the same time. Those are not polar opposites.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  There is a direct correlation between ‘enemies of science’ and people who aggressively defend Augustinian original sin. If Adam and Eve are responsible for all sin, suffering and death, then it is impossible that cavemen and Neanderthals existed tens of thousands of years earlier.  William Dembski, one of the most prominent defenders of Intelligent Design theory, has written a book in which he admits the universe is billions of years old and that animals suffered and died millions of years ago, but he still links it all to Eden 6,000 years ago.  It is a tour de force of logic conformed to the image of theology.

 

Dale Woods:  Anyone who takes Genesis as a scientific history book is going to have a lot of difficulties. It is a story that describes a man and a woman in a way meant to inform our way of seeing the world.  There is a lot of good in life.  Where does it come from?  It is a gift from God the creator.  There are also many problems in life.  How did that happen? We make some bad choices that got us into trouble then and still get us into trouble now.  We need to pay attention to that.

 

7)       Laws and Commandments

 

(Westminster Confession)   Of the Covenant

IV. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.

 

V. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Prior to Jesus (0 AD) there was no New Testament and prior to Moses (1500 BC) there was no Old Testament.  Multitudes of people had access only to parts of the Bible or none of it. How did a God of perfect justice reveal Laws and Commandments to all the peoples of the earth?   What would salvation have meant to people who did not have our written revelations?

 

Dale Woods:  Prior to Jesus there was an Abrahamic Covenant and prior to that it goes back to Paul’s statements in Romans (1:20) about God’s qualities being plainly seen in nature. So, no one was ever excluded from a relationship with God.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Catholics have a concept of a Patriarchs Limbo where good people from the pre-Christian world waited for Jesus to appear and preach the gospel.  How do Presbyterians include those ancient peoples in God’s plan of salvation?

 

Dale Woods:  The formation of Israel was meant to be a light to the Gentiles. Why would God send a light to people he didn’t care about? That doesn’t make any sense. Somehow, all people must have had some relationship with God.  However, it is completely untrue that all religions believe the same thing.  Faith in salvation is our Christian confession, but we can’t make a statement about what happens to people of all other faiths.  

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Paul wrote in Romans (1:18-32) that God made himself plainly known in his eternal power and divine nature.  Anyone who willfully ignored God or refused to give him glory was without excuse.  But this appears to be precisely what Pagan religions or pantheists did and yet Christianity has always condemned them for worshipping ‘false Gods’ and ‘demons’.  Paul seems to be saying that nature worship is precisely what ancient peoples should have practiced.

 

Dale Woods:  That tradition of the Church is that no one is saved without Jesus. In the Old Testament, people walked in a relationship with God, and that was pleasing to God.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  That is indeed a paradox. It was possible for pre-Christians to have a relationship with God and to be pleasing to God.  Many of the heroes of Christianity were pre-Christian.  David and Job were righteous in the eyes of God.  Some of the saints were pre-Christian and pre-Hebrew.  Two outstanding characters are Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18) and Enoch (Genesis 5:18-24).  Could they not be saved without faith in Jesus?

 

Dale Woods:  This comes down to how you interpret Paul. In Romans (7:7-25) he talks about how he tried to obey the laws and commandments and failed miserably. That’s why he needed Jesus.  Paul could also have meant something completely different. The law existed and it was helpful but it was not yet fulfilled.  It is not that we couldn’t obey the Law without Jesus, but that Jesus is the fulfillment of what God is doing. 

 

8)       Reconciliation via Laws and Commandments

 

(Living Faith)  God has given us the law

to show us how to live.

Yet we are unable to keep the Ten Commandments,

and we do not love God without reserve

nor our neighbour as ourselves.

Above all, our sin is exposed

by the perfect life of Christ.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  It was a Reformation idea that the Law merely confirmed the depravity of the world. It set the bar of morality so high that no one could possibly get over it.  And yet the revealed scriptures of Israel were considered superior to nature religions of Pagans, and the Christian New Testament was so superior to the Jewish Old Testament that even the most righteous Jews could not be saved without Jesus.  Did knowledge of laws and commandments cause anyone to be saved?  

 

Dale Woods: It’s not that the Law saved you, but if you followed the Law you could lead a pretty good Christian life. Don’t take from your neighbour. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. It would make you a pretty good neighbour if you did those things. Jesus’ commandment was to love your neighbour. This is a good parameter to follow.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  The Golden Rule appears to be universally known.  One of the most disturbing notions of Augustinian/Calvinist theology is that people are considered so totally depraved that even those Pagans who tried very hard to live by the Golden Rule were incapable of loving their neighbour, and even if they did they were still condemned for all eternity.   

 

Dale Woods:  C.S. Lewis said the worst person is the religious worst person because he/she believes that everything is vindicated by their faith in God.

 

9)       Salvation

 

(Westminster Confession)  -  Of Repentance

IV. As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation;  so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.

 

V. Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man's duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins.

 

(Living Faith)  Salvation comes from God's grace alone

received through faith in Christ.

From all eternity, and through no merit on our part,

God calls us to life in Christ.

Here is the good news of the Gospel !

Jesus Christ is the elect one,

chosen for our salvation.

In him we are made acceptable to God.

Before the world was made

we were chosen in Christ

to be part of the family of God.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  This brings us to the question of salvation.  What do we mean by ‘salvation’ ? What is required for salvation to occur?   

 

Dale Woods:  We run into difficulty with this because of language. The word repentance comes with a lot of baggage that gets in the way. If we look closely at where our lives are going and realize they’re not going in the direction we want, it is usually because we’ve ignored our relationship with God.  We need to make a U-turn. I think repentance in the Christian faith means turning again to see the face of Christ.  There are a lot of different views in the Church about who Jesus is and what it means to follow Jesus.  I heard a sermon not long ago about separating the sheep and the goats.  (Matthew 25:31-33)  The moral was that the task of Christian sheep is to help everybody else  - the goats -  become like us, as if we are models of righteousness.  And I thought, ‘You don’t know any non-Christians. You’ve been in the Church too long.’ I grew up in a non-Christian home. My father was an atheist but he was a wonderful man who didn’t need a Christian sheep to show him how to be a good person.  I find that attitude condescending.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  How should believers live their faith?

 

Dale Woods:  I’m all for teaching the Golden Rule, but I think the confession of the Church is that Jesus is Lord who was crucified and raised from the dead.  Mainline churches have become uncomfortable with this confession. There are people who maintain that Jesus was just a wise man who made some unpopular political statements which cost him his life. If Christianity is nothing more than that, the Church should sell every piece of property it has, run massive ads to apologize for hoodwinking believers, and admit we have nothing to offer they can’t get anywhere else.  People would be better off going golfing on Sunday morning. The mainline churches have tended to focus primarily on infant baptism. While adult conversions are not unknown, the emphasis on evangelism is not a particularly strong aspect of Presbyterianism.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  What effect has that had?

 

Dale Woods:The confession that Jesus is Lord is a powerful confession. It means that Caesar is not. In the New Testament this confession came with the power to transform lives. One of the reasons the Pentecostal movement is said to be growing in South America is because people see evidence of this power. They have witnessed lives completely transformed. People who used to be alcoholics and wife abusers aren’t anymore.  The mainline churches sometime ignore these kinds of stories and they exclude people who have different experiences. That is a big problem for the ecumenical movement.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Salvation requires repentance and faith in Jesus as the Son of God?

 

Dale Woods:   Yes. The death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ is the centre of our confession. 

 

10)   Who is Saved?  

 

(Westminster Confession)  - Of Effectual Calling

 

I. All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit,  out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ;  enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God,  taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh;  renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good,  and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ:  yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.

 

II. This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.

 

III. Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit,  who works when, and where, and how He pleases:  so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.

 

IV. Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit,  yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved:  much less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the laws of that religion they do profess.  And to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested

 

(Westminster Catechism)  Q. 60. Can they who have never heard the gospel, and so know not Jesus Christ, nor believe in him, be saved by their living according to the light of nature?

A. They who, having never heard the gospel,  know not Jesus Christ, and believe not in him, cannot be saved, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, or the laws of that religion which they profess; neither is there salvation in any other, but in Christ alone,  who is the Savior only of his body the church

 

(Westminster Catechism)  Q. 61. Are all they saved who hear the gospel, and live in the church?

A. All that hear the gospel, and live in the visible church, are not saved; but they only who are true members of the church invisible.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Who is saved? Luther said that original sin left us so totally depraved that our residual will only works in one direction – to sin. Traditional Calvinism says that only an elect few are predestined for salvation.  That salvation is entirely a matter of undeserved grace for the unworthy elect. The Westminster Catechism was quite adamant that even good heathens, who sought God diligently, could not be saved.  One reaction to this narrow and exclusive definition of salvation is to avoid any opinion and mumble that anybody could be saved, that salvation is a mystery that God alone understands. What do contemporary Presbyterians believe?

 

Dale Woods:   Who is saved?  I don’t think we can answer that question categorically. It is not our job to say who is in and who is out. We can make the confession that the Christian faith invites people to make a U-turn and to embrace the God in Christ in a way that becomes transformative in their life.  

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  What about The Great Commission? (Matthew 28:16-20)  Is it the job of Christians to go out and save a lost world?

 

Dale Woods:   That’s a good question.  That’s not the way I understand The Great Commission.  Jesus sent his disciplines out to teach and baptize and make disciples of all nations.  The Great Commission of the Church is to help other people follow in the way of Jesus. Then you have to ask, ‘What is the way of Jesus?’ It is a way of peace and grace. It is a way of being a healing presence in the world. That’s what we’re to be and we’re to do it in community.  We create an alternate community. The world needs a place that offers forgiving and grace and healing. I think that’s what our calling is.  My own sense of it is that if we offer that kind of community, it is very attractive. The Presbyterian Church, like many mainline churches, is going through a time of crisis with people leaving the church. We have been focussed on trying to identify the problem instead of looking at whether we are part of the problem. Maybe we’re contributing to the problem because we offer too little.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  That is a brave statement to make.

 

Dale Woods:   What do we really have to offer to anyone who is not a die-hard Presbyterian? Those are some pretty good questions for the Church to ask itself.  You can quickly recognize congregational life that has vitality and aliveness. The first step of religious commitment is awe. Moses’ religious commitment began with being in awe at the burning bush and holy ground. If the Church can’t lift up its confession in a way that inspires awe, it’s not going to go anywhere.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  If you look at some of the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, particularly in South America and Asia they are filled with awe by miraculous transformations like you mentioned a minute ago:  alcoholics being freed from addiction, criminals staying out of prison and caring for their families, years of anger and resentment being laid to rest. Skeptics can argue that it is all psychosomatic and has nothing to do with divine power, but wherever this power is at work, tremendous and awe-inspiring things happen.

 

Dale Woods:   Yes. You see people engaging in worship with emotion.  It might have been different in Calvin’s age – maybe people wanted knowledge of God –  but today what people want is an experience of God albeit with an informed understanding of that experience.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  That’s exactly what Pentecostals offer.

 

Dale Woods:   The ideal Christianity would offer both: knowledge and experience. You need to have some understanding of that experience otherwise it might not be too helpful to you.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  That can end up with hysterical people rolling on the floor and barking like dogs.

 

Dale Woods:   Presbyterians are so heavily head-oriented that any kind of energy or enthusiasm is immediately seen as suspect. That is unfortunate because it denies the part of our humanity which is an emotional being. We’re not just 9-pound brains when we’re born.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  The Westminster Confession says that ‘to assert that non-Christians may be saved is very pernicious, and to be detested.’ Traditionally, hard lines have been drawn between elect Christians who are saved, and non-Christians who aren’t. The doctrine of election also provided the loop-hole that, theoretically, anyone can be saved because God alone elects without any regard for merit. 

 

Dale Woods:  This is a difficult concept that has had various interpretations throughout the history of the church. I prefer Karl Barth who said that Jesus is predestined.  I would like to believe that Jesus is predestined, not us.  If God has preplanned who is going to heaven and who is going to hell; that makes no sense to me. What does the elect person say to the unelect? ‘My Savior is your tormenter’

 

Believer’s Dilemma:   Barth certainly took the sting out of traditional Augustinian/Calvinism but he opened the door to the idea that maybe everybody is saved, which is too broad for many Christians.   

 

Dale Woods:  Maybe we need to admit we’re in over our heads. Here’s this thing we don’t fully understand and we should just touch it gently instead of trying to wrestle it to the ground so we can control it.  I can believe that God has predestined a purpose for the world, but beyond that I think we are in mystery.

 

______________________________________

Interview with Dr Dale Woods to be concluded next week:

 

11) Does divine love and justice ensure that salvation is available to all?  

 

12) What role does human freewill play in salvation? 

 

13) How does salvation bring an end to sin, suffering and death?  

 

14) Does supernatural power intervene in the natural world to answer prayer?

 

15) What is the eternal state?

 

 

Questions or comments?

 

Tags: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Knox, Westminster Confession, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, William Dembski, Intelligent Design, C.S. Lewis, Karl Barth.