"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Monocausalism and Temporal Nihilism

"The Scream"
Edvard Munch (1893)

This is a follow-up to "Monocausalism, Salvation, and Reconciliation".

There is a profound and troubling question that faces any Protestant who believes that man does not participate in his salvation. The question is profound because it goes to the heart of our existence as rational beings. And it is troubling because it threatens to destroy the meaningfulness of our choices and our entire lives here on earth. That question is simply this: "Why are you here?" The question looks innocent enough, but consider the significance of the term 'here.' A question of this sort makes sense only if one could possibly be elsewhere. For this question, the 'elsewhere' denoted is heaven. So the question asks the Protestant why he is here rather than in heaven, given that God is all-powerful and perfectly good and loving.

The Protestant might first consider whether the answer to this question is that God has a plan for his life, even a wonderful plan. But he sees that this answer will not do, because what could be more wonderful than being with God in heaven? It simply backs up the question: Why are you here in the midst of this wonderful plan for your life, rather than in heaven?

He might next consider whether the answer is that God needs to sanctify him. But he sees that this answer also does not work, because he believes that God can (and will) sanctify him instantaneously, since he believes that Christians who die not yet fully sanctified (i.e. all Christians) do not need to go through purgatory, but are at that very moment instantly and completely sanctified so that they can see God. (Matthew 5:8, Heb 12:14) Nor does he need to be here on earth to thank or glorify God, since he can do those things just as well in heaven. He does not believe that our ability to thank and glorify God decreases when we go from this life to heaven. Nor does he need to please God by his good works here on earth, because he believes that God has been fully pleased by the perfect work of Christ. The perfection and sufficiency of Christ's work on his behalf mean that God is already as pleased with him as He will ever be. Not only that, but he believes that in this life sinful imperfection taints his every thought, word, and deed, and that "there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation." (WCF XV.4) So he believes that in his every thought, word, and deed in this life, he is continually doing what deserves eternal damnation.

He might then consider whether the answer to this question is that God wishes to use him to reach other people with the gospel and the love of Christ. But he recognizes that this answer too is problematic. The reason has to do with a fundamental principle stated by Benjamin Warfield: "There are fundamentally only two doctrines of salvation: that salvation is from God, and that salvation is from ourselves." (The Plan of Salvation, p. 27) Since salvation is from God, therefore salvation cannot be from man. That is why man does not participate in his own salvation. But that is also why man cannot participate in the salvation of other men. It would be ad hoc to grant that man may participate in the salvation of other men, while denying in principle that man may participate in his own salvation. Nor does God, being omnipotent, need him in order to save souls. In fact, if he were to play some role in the salvation of others, it would rob God of some of the glory God could receive for saving them. Since he believes that God wishes to maximize the glory God receives (Soli Deo gloria!), he recognizes that God does not want him to play any role in the salvation of others. Thus playing a role in the salvation of others cannot be a reason for him to be here rather than in heaven.

He might then recall that the Bible talks about heavenly rewards for earthly deeds. This isn't salvation, of course, but simply jewels in his heavenly crown. When he thinks carefully about this, he concludes that he has no desire for jewels in heaven, even spiritual jewels. If salvation means to have Christ, and he already has salvation, then he has Christ for all eternity, and there is nothing else his heart desires or could desire. Besides, he knows that even when God rewards us for our good works, He is merely crowning His own gifts, as Augustine said, so that God gets all the glory. But God could just as easily give those gifts in heaven, as on earth. Therefore, he concludes, there is no principled need for him to be here on earth, in order to be given these gifts.

But what other answer remains? If he does not need to be here to be sanctified, or to glorify, thank or please God, and he cannot participate in the salvation of himself or of others, and there is no principled need for him to be here to receive heavenly jewels, then what answer remains to our question? He is left with this prospect: from the moment of his conversion, his life on earth is utterly meaningless. He simply awaits death, continually, every second of every waking hour for the rest of his earthly life. There is no point to anything he does; there is no need for him to suffer what he suffers. He faces the prospect of lifelong temporal nihilism, a temporal version of the Nietzschean or Sartrean sort. Yet he can't commit suicide, because his assurance level is not high enough that he can be sure that suicide would take him to heaven rather than indicate that he never had saving faith in the first place, and so he can't take the chance.

At some point in this inquiry, a Gestalt shift should occur. Instead of embracing the temporal nihilism entailed by his starting premise that man does not participate in his salvation, the inquirer should recognize that the meaningfulness of his present life is more certain to him than is the truth of the thesis that man does not participate in his salvation. At that point, the implications of his thesis serve as a reductio ad absurdum (literally), an argument against the truth of his initial thesis, by showing that it leads to an absurdity.

In his Fr. Brown mystery titled "The Blue Cross", G.K. Chesterton describes the climax of a conversation between Fr. Brown and the thief, Flambeau, who is dressed as a priest, and who has been trying to deceive Fr. Brown into believing that he is a priest.

Fr. Brown: "But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren't a priest."

"What?" asked the thief, almost gaping.

"You attacked reason," said Father Brown. "It's bad theology."

One way of attacking reason is, as Aquinas says, by adopting what is less certain and using it to overturn what is more certain. Aquinas writes, "Whoever by his own reasoning does away with certain [principles] which are better known to him than the ones which he posits, adopts an absurd position." (Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics, 990a17-22)

And one thing that reason tells us is that our lives are meaningful, and that in saving us, a loving God would not rob our lives of meaning.

"It would be a poor kind of love that made us in His image and left us nothing to do for ourselves; it is a divine love that sets out a man's work for a man's life and stands by a man's own decisions. He has indeed left us something to do with our mind and our will as well as with our hands and our feet. If we do these things, we are fulfilling the divine will; if we do not, we are not thwarting God but ourselves, for our eternal happiness hangs on the condition of our activity." - Walter Farrell O.P.

Thus even reason tells us that grace, if it is to be grace, does not destroy nature but perfects it.

Of course many (if not most) Protestants will reject the thesis that man does not participate in his salvation. The follow-up to this post will consider the ecumenical implications of rejecting that thesis.


Tom B. said...

Dear Bryan,

This was challenging and very thought provoking. Thank you, and I look forward to the next installment.

Peace in Christ,

The Puritan said...

One very big reason a born again believer isn't translated to glory immediately upon regeneration-by-the-Word-and-the-Spirit is the fact of the need for evangelism in God's plan of redemption. That external shock to our system from the Word of God.

It is not man doing the regenerating, by the way. It is God via His Word. We can plant the seed, but only God can make it grow. The Holy Spirit is of course not constrained to work only through the Word, but He does so usually as it is living language and it quickens God's elect.