Monday, October 25, 2010

Predestination Versus Fatalism

By Lorraine Boettner

Much misunderstanding arises through confusing the Christian Doctrine of Predestination with the heathen doctrine of Fatalism. There is, in reality, only one point of agreement between the two, which is, that both assume the absolute certainty of all future events. The essential difference between them is that Fatalism has no place for a personal God. Predestination holds that events come to pass because an infinitely wise, powerful, and holy God has so appointed them. Fatalism holds that all events come to pass through the working of a blind, unintelligent, impersonal, non-moral force which cannot be distinguished from physical necessity, and which carries us helplessly within its grasp as mighty river carries a piece of wood.

Predestination teaches that from eternity God has had one unified plan or purpose which He is bringing to perfection through this world order of events. It holds that all of His decrees are rational determinations founded on sufficient reason, and that He has fixed one great goal "toward which the whole creation moves." Predestination holds that the ends designed in this plan are first, the glory of God; and second, the good of His people. On the other hand Fatalism excludes the idea of final causes. It snatches the reins of universal empire from the hands of infinite wisdom and love, and gives them into the hands of a blind necessity. It attributes the course of nature and the experiences of mankind to an unknown, irresistible force, against which it is vain to struggle and childish to repine.

According to the doctrine of Predestination the freedom and responsibility of man are fully preserved. In the midst of certainty God has ordained human liberty. But Fatalism allows no power of choice, no self-determination. It makes the acts of man to be as utterly beyond his control as are the laws of nature. Fatalism, with its idea of irresistable, impersonal, abstract power, has no room for moral ideas, while Predestination makes these the rule of action for God and man. Fatalism has no place for and offers no incentives to religion, love, mercy, holiness, justice, or wisdom, while Predestination gives these the strongest conceivable basis. And lastly, Fatalism leads to skepticism and despair, while Predestination sets forth the glories of God and of His kingdom in all their splendor and gives an assurance which nothing can shake.

Predestination therefore differs from Fatalism as much as the acts of a man differ from those of a machine, or as much as the unfailing love of the heavenly Father differs from the force of gravitation. "It reveals to us," says Smith, "the glorious truth that our lives and our sensitive hearts are held, not in the iron cog-wheels of a vast and pitiless Fate, nor in the whirling loom of a crazy Chance, but in the almighty hands of an infinitely good and wise God."

Calvin emphatically repudiated the charge that his doctrine was Fatalism. "Fate," says he, "is a term given by the Stoics to their doctrine of necessity, which they had formed out of a labyrinth of contradictory reasonings; a doctrine calculated to call God Himself to order, and to set Him laws whereby to work. Predestination I define to be, according to the Holy Scriptures, that free and unfettered counsel of God by which He rules all mankind, and all men and things, and also all parts and particles of the world by His infinite wisdom and incomprehensible justice." And again, ". . . had you but been willing to look into my books, you would have been convinced at once how offensive to me is the profane term fate: nay, you would have learned that this same abhorrent term was cast in the teeth of Augustine by his opponents."

Luther says that the doctrine of Fatalism among the heathen is a proof that "the knowledge of Predestination and of the prescience of God, was no less left in the world than the notion of divinity itself." In the history of philosophy Materialism has proven itself essentially fatalistic. Pantheism also has been strongly tinged with it.

No man can be a consistent fatalist. For to be consistent he would have to reason something like this: "If I am to die today, it will do me no good to eat, for I shall die anyway. Nor do I need to eat if I am to live many years yet, for I shall live anyway. Therefore I will not eat." Needless to say, if God has foreordained that a man shall live, He has also foreordained that he shall be kept from the suicidal folly of refusing to eat.

"This doctrine," says Hamilton, "is only superficially like the pagan 'fate.' The Christian is in the hands not of a cold, immutable determinism, but of a warm, loving heavenly Father, who loved us and gave His Son to die for us on Calvary! The Christian knows that 'all things work together for good to them that love God, even to them that are called according to His purpose.' The Christian can trust God because he knows He is all-wise, loving, just and holy. He sees the end from the beginning, so that there is no reason to become panicky when things seem to be going against us."

Hence, only a person who has not examined this doctrine of Predestination, or one who is maliciously inclined, will rashly charge that it is Fatalism. There is no excuse for anyone making this mistake who knows what Predestination is and what Fatalism is.

Since the universe is one systematized unit we must choose between Fatalism, which ultimately does away with mind and purpose, and this biblical doctrine of Predestination, which holds that God created all things, that His providence extends to all His works, and that while free Himself He has also provided that we shall be free within the limits of our natures. Instead of our doctrine of Predestination being the same with the heathen doctrine of Fatalism, it is its absolute opposite and only alternative.

  • Boettner, Lorraine. The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2004. pp. 130-131.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Reflection on Grace

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
(Job 1:12-13)

God is great. God is good. He is faithful to provide for His children. Sometimes it’s so easy to forget that every good thing that we have is “from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). Even when it we don’t seem to be getting what we want, it’s worth remembering that we still have some blessings from God. If you feel tempted to think that He has forgotten you in your affliction, just remember that the very breath with which you pour out your complaints to Him is granted by Him. He hasn’t forgotten you, but you may well have forgotten His goodness to you.

That is one of the things that I’ve learned to wrestle with. Even though God has given me innumerable blessings that I could never in a million years deserve, sometimes He chooses to withhold something that I fervently desire, and He is perfectly just in doing so. God isn’t obligated to give me anything, for His thoughts are higher than my thoughts and His ways than my ways (Isaiah 55:8-9), and those who think they can just name and claim whatever they want from Him have completely missed the point of God’s grace. Why should He give any of us health or wealth or even the most basic of our needs? The fact that He chooses to do so despite our unworthiness is a testimony to His grace and mercy, [f]or he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). I think Saint Augustine said it best when he wrote in his Confessions, “Grant what you command, and command what you will” (Book 10, ch. 28).

The past few months have been quite taxing, but I’m not complaining. He is passing me through the fire, so that I would be purified and refined like silver and gold (Malachi 3:3). And I know that even if all these things pass away from my grasp, I still have Him, and that is sufficient:

When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward you.
Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
(Psalm 73:25-26)

For those of us who trust in Christ, this is the promise that is given to us: That even though there will be times when He appears to be far from us, He is actually there in the fire along with us, just as He was in the fire with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And whatever be the case, these are only temporary trials, which shall soon be done away with when we are received up into glory. “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17).

Closing prayer (from the Valley of Vision):

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,
Thou has brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold Thy glory.

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from
deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter
Thy stars shine;

Let me find Thy light in my darkness,
Thy life in my death,
Thy joy in my sorrow,
Thy grace in my sin,
Thy riches in my poverty
Thy glory in my valley.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

A.W. Pink and the Gap Theory

As I was reading Arthur W. Pink's The Sovereignty of God (which I am borrowing from a library), I came upon an interesting section where Pink discusses the work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating an individual. He likens it to the Holy Spirit's work in renewing the desolate world in Genesis 1. The interesting part about it is that Pink here argues for a Gap[1] interpretation of Genesis, which he then uses as a springboard for his discussion on the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit. In the fourth chapter of his book, he writes,

A beautiful type of the operations of the Holy Spirit antecedent to the sinner's "belief of the truth", is found in the first chapter of Genesis. We read in verse 2, "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep." The original Hebrew here might be literally rendered thus: "And the earth had become a desolate ruin, and darkness was upon the face of the deep." In "the beginning" the earth was not created in the condition described in verse 2. Between the first two verses of Genesis 1 some awful catastrophe had occurredpossibly the fall of Satanand, as the consequence, the earth had been blasted and blighted, and had become a "desolate ruin", lying beneath a pall of "darkness." Such also is the history of man. Today, man is not in the condition in which he left the hands of his Creator: an awful catastrophe has happened, and now man is a "desolate ruin" and in total "darkness" concerning spiritual things. Next we read in Genesis 1 how God refashioned the ruined earth and created new things to inhabit it. First we read, "And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." Next we are told, "And God said, Let there be light; and there was light." The order is the same in the new creation: there is first the action of the Spirit, and then the Word of God giving light. Before the Word found entrance into the scene of desolation and darkness, bringing with it the light, the Spirit of God "moved." So it is in the new creation. "The entrance of Thy words giveth light" (Ps. 119:130), but before it can enter the darkened human heart the Spirit of God must operate upon it.[2]

As a friend of mine pointed out, it is noteworthy that the prophet Jeremiah speaks of the restoration of Israel using the language of creation: "I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void; And to the heavens, and they had no light" (Jeremiah 4:23). How well this interpretation holds up, however, I will leave for the reader to decide.[3]

End Notes
  1. The gap theory postulates that an indefinite span of time exists between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. This time span is usually considered to be quite large (millions of years) and is also reputed to encompass the so-called “geologic ages.” Proponents of the gap theory also postulate that a cataclysmic judgment was pronounced upon the earth during this period as the result of the fall of Lucifer (Satan) and that the ensuing verses of Genesis chapter 1 describe a re-creation or reforming of the earth from a chaotic state and not an initial creative effort on the part of God. (Sofield, Jack C. The Gap Theory of Genesis Chapter One. <>.)
  2. Pink, Arthur Walkington. The Sovereignty of God (Sixth Edition). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1959 (repr. 1975) pp. 90-91.
  3. For a good book critiquing the Gap theory, I would recommend Weston W. Fields' Unformed and Unfilled: A Critique of the Gap Theory. New Leaf Publishing Group, 2005.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Spirituality of Tertullian

This is a short summary of the spirituality of Tertullian that I had to write based on a lecture on early Christian spirituality delivered by David Robinson from Westminster Chapel (the one in Toronto, not the one in London). I submitted this to Dr. Michael Haykin yesterday.

Tertullian is widely considered to be one of the earliest of the Latin church fathers. He comes from Carthage, North Africa. This region was originally settled by the Phoenicians (who came to be known as the Punics), and has been under Roman occupation since the second century B. C., towards the end of the Punic Wars, and was resettled during the reign of Caesar Augustus. Christian missionaries arrived in Carthage sometime around the second century from either Rome or Asia Minor (though more likely the latter, since Tertullian appears more Antiochene in his thinking), and it was witnessing the martyrdom of these early Christians that drove Tertullian to convert to Christianity.

This early church father has received a bad reputation from many scholars who are critical of his writings and the way he expresses himself. He is regarded as being sarcastic, anti-philosophical and misogynistic. The fact that he converted from orthodox Christianity to Montanism is also used as grounds to criticize him. However, once one is able to get past these criticisms, one can see a lot of merit in his character. He is very gospel-centered, is passionate about upholding the truth, is a deep thinker and a humble man (who considers himself to be “someone of no rank”). He is also a good rhetorician and can write in both Greek and Latin (although it is only his Latin writings that have survived). He is also highly influenced by Irenaeus of Lyons.

Tertullian’s writings can be classified into three main categories: Apologetics, refutation of heresy, and doctrinal/moral instruction. All of these writings were produced as a response to a specific movement or event that took place during his lifetime. For example, his most famous work was a five-volume refutation of the heretic Marcion. This work is considered to be a classic example of Tertullian’s writing, and demonstrates his wittiness and sharp rhetorical skills when addressing important issues. Tertullian refutes Marcion by taking the latter’s own canon and demonstrating that its contents support orthodox Christianity rather than Marcionite dualism.

In his writings, Tertullian displays the profundity of his thought. For example, he saw scripture as the Vox Domini (voice of God), was a very avid proponent of Old Testament typology (for example, if it had anything to do with wood, he connected it to the cross), and considered the Old Testament to be full of sacramenta (mysteries). His theology was quite word-centered; he believed that the Bible was at the centre of the life of the Church. He also argued that the Bible was the unique property of the Church, and only “holy persons” (whom he most likely would have equated to prophetic figures, not the bishops and presbyters). He is an important witness when it comes to the canon of scripture, since he quotes virtually all of the New Testament books except for the second and third epistles of John. He argued against Roman persecution, stating that it only caused more people (such as himself) to convert to Christianity. He demonstrated the superiority of Christianity over the pagan religious systems, demonstrating for example, the unique simplicity of baptism over and against the pomp of the pagan rituals. His treatises on moral instruction set the pace for many Christian writers to come after him. A prominent example is his writing on Patience, which was the first treatise of its kind in Christian literature, and was picked up in the writings of later church fathers such as Augustine of Hippo. Perhaps most significantly, he was also the first to use the term Trinitas to refer to the nature of the Godhead, describing God as being one substantia but three personae.

It is generally believed that Tertullian had converted from orthodox Christianity to “The New Prophecy”(today known as Montanism) around 206 or 207 A. D., although some have suggested that he merely had sympathies for the sect, and did not actually become a member of them. This sect, having been founded during the early 170s in Asia Minor by Montanus and the two “prophetesses” Prisca and Maxmilla, was very charismatic (putting much emphasis on prophecy and ecstatic utterances), disregarded ecclesiastical authorities, and put high value on martyrdom and asceticism (hence the description of Montanism as the “Church of the Martyrs”). Tertullian’s adherence to Montanist distinctives is seen most clearly in his ecclesiology; for him, the Church was God’s pure bride, and it did not have room in it for sinners. This is seen in his arguments against the admission of adulterers and fornicators back into the fellowship of the Church after they have committed grievous sin. This rigorist stance was common among many North African Christians, as seen not only in Tertullian, but also in later North African Christians such as Cyprian of Carthage and the Donatist movement. Also, for Tertullian, the Church wasdefined by the presence of the Holy Spirit, and criticized the mainstream Church for neglecting the gifts of the Spirit. He demonstrates this in his treatise against a Modalist from Rome by the name of Praxeas. In it, he accused the latter of “crucifying the father and putting to flight the paraclete.” Finally, he regarded the Church as “the people who anticipate the Kingdom,” which points to his inaugurated eschatology.

In summary, Tertullian can be said to be one of the most interesting characters of the Christian period. He is very witty in his writings, is very forceful in making his points and argues quite well, even when it turns out upon closer examination that his views are wrong. Through the influence of his writings, he set the pace for future Latin church fathers (especially North African ones) to come.