A few weeks ago a friend of mind asked me if I'd be a guest lecturer for a group of high school seniors at a local Christian school. The students had been introduced to John Calvin and Arminius and the interminable free will versus predestination debate. I've never had a migraine headache in my life, but those who have talk about feeling an intense pain that blurred their vision to white. The request didn't trigger a migraine, but I wish it had. A convenient "out" would have been handy.
I attended a Christian college back in the day. Our freshman professor threw out the free will/determinism debate and my friends and I pounced on it like pups on a chew-toy. We continued arguing at the cafeteria and at the all-night Denny's. We never solved that puzzle, but like the classes before us and the classes after us never did. The debate was initially invigorating. I was introduced to new ideas. But when a consensus never emerged I realized that the experience was like trying to solve a Rubik's cube that had its stickers all rearranged. I had set the debate down and was happy about it.
But I agreed to speak and it was time to pick up the puzzle again. I stare at my laptop for several minutes then decided to talk about the human tendency to reorganize Biblical narrative into systems. I wrote insightful questions that would help the youth discover how our drive for systems and certainty distorted the message of Scripture. We'd all set the Cube down and congratulate ourselves for realizing that the argument was impossibly framed. The bell would ring and we all move on to our next appointments feeling clever.
I decided to research the history of the debate for interest. The talked needed texture. I discovered that the dust up wasn't solely over intellectual concerns. Pastoral concerns helped mold thought as well. Around 400 AD a British Monk, Pelagius, visited Rome and found the Christians there to be morally sloppy. Pelagius read St. Augustine's Confessions and found it fatalistic and even deterministic. Augustine wrote stories about his famous debaucheries and concluded that our Sin Nature is incredibly powerful.
Pelagius had a theory: The Roman Christians had stopped trying to be holy because they didn't believe that they could ever escape the sin's gravity. Pelagius started complaining about Augustine and wrote books of his own. His followers took the argument further and denied the existence of a Sin Nature all together.
It's obvious that Pelagius' followers lost their bearings. But I'm fascinated by Pelagius' observation: We can get so fixated on Sin Nature that it changes the focus of our faith. My childhood pastor loved the Puritans (so do I) and emphasized the passages about our righteousness being no better than dirty rags and how our hearts were impossibly deceitful. The sermons were usually focused on sin management. We learned how to question our every motivation, how to confess lustful thoughts, and what TV to avoid. We learned that Hollywood and Washington DC were designed by Free Mason architects who meticulously copied the look and feel of Hades. Sin Nature was like a bomb strapped to our chests. We worked to live our lives without it going off.
One of my favorite pastor and writers is Erwin McManus. I've listened to his podcasts for years. Recently it dawned on me that he almost never talks about sin. Erwin is not a heretic (Behind all that LA cool, he's a Southern Baptist for goodness' sake). He rarely discusses sin, because Christian culture has already drummed that doctrine squarely into everyone's head. He doesn't need to convince anyone that there is a moral gravity that weighs us down.
Erwin reminds us that there is an older and more powerful gravity. St. Paul described God's gravity in equally fatalistically terms. "He who begun a work in you will complete it until the day of Christ." [Emphasis added]
We're okay with this determinism and even overlook it because the overcome favors us. Erwin writes is books and sermons to help people imagine the possibilities that come with being drawn into the forceful currents of God's love.
God could have used scriptures to explain how our free will and his predestination dovetail together. He passed. The Apostle Paul offered no systems, some advice that harmonizes our freewill with God's energy:
"Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." Philippians 2:12-13