Harold Camping: once Reformed, now a heretic

Harold Camping: an old photoHarold Camping may be old news, at least until 21st October. But Matthew Malcolm has posted links to an interesting series about his background, written by Robert Godfrey:

There is a series of very enlightening posts about Harold Camping on the blog of Westminster Seminary California, written by someone who first met him (and churched with him) in the 1950s. The posts offer some insight into his background, education, and rather self-contradictory hermeneutical methods. Part one, part two, part three, part four, part five.

According to part 1, in the 1950s Camping

was a conservative, traditional adherent of the Christian Reformed Church and would remain so for many years. … The CRC was also still strictly Reformed, interpreting the Bible in light of the church’s confessional standards: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. Camping strongly embraced and taught the doctrine and piety of the CRC in which he had been raised.

In other words, Camping started off as a Reformed Calvinist with a strong and “sound” basis of biblical teaching. Even after he started Family Radio he was

a most effective and influential promoter of Reformed theology and won many listeners to the Reformed cause.

So what went wrong? Part of the problem seems to have been with his education, as an engineer rather than a Bible teacher:

He knew no Greek or Hebrew. He was not formally introduced to the study of theology. His reading of the Bible, as it evolved over the decades, reflected his training in engineering. He reads the Bible like a mathematical or scientific textbook.

… his study of the Bible was undertaken in isolation from other Christians and theologians. He adopted a proud individualism. He did not really learn from Bible scholars. He studied the Bible in isolation from the church and the consensus of the faithful. As a result his understanding of the Bible became more and more idiosyncratic.

Reading on into part 2:

Camping’s literalism shows itself in his taking Bible verses out of context and reading into them a meaning that their authors and God never intended.

I see this as a key issue problem with all fundamentalist and many more broadly conservative or “Reformed” readings of the Bible. The approach of many creationists is similar in principle to Camping’s, in that they take Bible verses as teaching scientific truths which could never have been what their authors intended to teach. It is perhaps not coincidental that creationism also often appeals to those with an engineering background.

However, Camping did not always take the Bible literally:

While often taking a literalistic approach to numbers, he also takes a very allegorical approach to many texts. This approach seems to have developed gradually, driven in part by his eagerness to refute Pentecostals. … By turning everything literal into symbols, Camping can make the Bible say almost anything.

Part 3 discusses how Camping left the CRC and set up his own schismatic church. Then in part 4 we read that

Camping’s calculations and allegorical readings eventually led him to a truly heretical conclusion: that the age of the church was over and that all Christians were required to separate themselves from all churches. … Camping concluded that the organized church had become faithless and that individual Christians must leave the church and fellowship informally with other true believers.

Now on this issue I do not fully agree with Robert Godfrey in condemning Camping. There is no guarantee that any one denomination will remain faithful. There have been times, and may still be, when true believers are right to separate from apostate churches and set up their own fellowships. The Reformation was one such time. But Camping was wrong to declare all existing churches apostate and imply that his own informal fellowship was the only true one.

However, I am with Godfrey again in part 5, where he points out that Camping

seems also to have deserted Christ and his Gospel. …

The saddest and most distressing element of Camping’s latest theological statement is that it is Christless. He does not write about Christ’s return, but about judgment day. … Notice also that there is no mention of the cross and Christ’s saving work for sinners. …

Camping’s presentation of God’s mercy is from beginning to end unbiblical and unchristian. He has no Trinity, no cross, no faith alone in Jesus alone, and no assurance. His vision of God and mercy is more Muslim than Christian.

So what can we conclude from this? Here we have a man who could boast of his sound Reformed faith and doctrine, of whom others would no doubt say that he was surely one of the elect, but who then went so far astray in his faith that a writer like Godfrey can imply that now he is not a Christian at all:

Let us pray that Harold Camping and his followers will come to embrace the Gospel as Peter did.

So, it seems, being an elder in a sound Reformed church offers no assurance of salvation.

And the reason why he started on this path? I see two: his unscholarly and fundamentalist way of reading the Bible; and his apparent opposition to the work of the Holy Spirit amongst Pentecostals. Sadly both of these attitudes are still strong today among a generation much younger than 89-year-old Camping.

One more lesson for all of us, from the Bible:

if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!

1 Corinthians 10:12 (NIV 2011)

Arminians are not deists, we believe prayer works

Adrian WarnockAdrian Warnock has written an interesting post asking Are you an Arminian on your knees and a Calvinist on your feet? The point I think he is trying to make is an important one: Do we believe God will answer our prayers? But it is unfortunate that in making it Adrian perpetuates a caricature of Arminianism which has nothing to do with what was believed and taught by Arminius, by other famous Arminians of the past like John Wesley, and by at least the majority of today’s evangelical Arminians.

To be fair, Adrian realises what he is doing, for he writes:

Now, to my Arminian friends please don’t hear me wrongly. For this blog post to work we have to accept a bit of a stereotype on both ends of the spectrum.

The problem is that not everyone will accept this. I really don’t think it is helpful to misrepresent other people’s theological position for the sake of a nice soundbite or post title, even with a disclaimer like this one. Bearing false witness is still wrong if you say it wasn’t meant seriously.

Adrian’s error seems to be based on a tweet he quotes from Mark Driscoll:

Every Christian who prays is functionally a Calvinist who believes in the sovereignty of God.

I’m sorry, Mark and Adrian, but that is complete nonsense. Indeed Adrian seems to recognise this when he writes:

I know that most Arminians do believe in God’s sovereignty.

Now I don’t take the line, mentioned by Adrian, about how

a Calvinist is rumored to pray…ie not at all because he just leaves everything to the sovereignty of God.

But there is as much truth in that slur as there is in Driscoll’s implication that Arminians don’t pray, or that they are hypocritical when they do.

Driscoll’s, and Adrian’s, error is to confuse God’s activity with his sovereignty. It is possible to believe that God works powerfully in the world today, in answer to prayer, without believing as Calvinists do that God predestines every detail of what happens. God can be an actor within the world that he has created without being the puppet-master who pulls all the strings.

Adrian seems to write as if Arminianism is equivalent to deism, the position that God does nothing in the world in the present age. It certainly is not equivalent. Many who believe that God is very closely involved in the world today, in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and in working miracles, are Arminians – and it is as Arminians that they pray for these miracles and see them happening.

Now I accept that there are things which consistent Arminians will not pray for in confidence that God will answer them. These are things which God could only make happen by violating human free will. Foremost among these is that God cannot make any individual become a Christian. So consistent Arminians are more likely to pray that God opens someone’s eyes so that they can see his truth – at which point that person can make their own informed decision about their eternal destiny.

But Adrian seems to imply that Arminians pray like deists. That is, when they pray they don’t believe God actually does anything in response to prayer.

Now there are indeed many people who pray like that. Some of them would be liberal Christians, who might say that the only point of praying is to make oneself feel better, and might also call themselves Arminians. Others would be Bible Deists, as Jack Deere wrote that he used to be, who don’t believe that God does anything real and verifiable in the world today, but acts only in invisible spiritual ways – perhaps rather like Harold Camping’s invisible spiritual judgment day! And I suspect quite a few of these Bible Deists would call themselves Calvinists, and argue that God doesn’t answer prayer today because that would mean him changing plans which were set in stone before the foundation of the world. Now that may be a caricature of Calvinism, but there is surely enough truth in it to show that deism is not the same thing as Arminianism.

Chris Fenstermaker is wise in writing, in a comment on Adrian’s post,

I’ve learned that our praying is not as much “changing God’s mind”…but rather aligning our spirit with what God is already doing.

Indeed that is an important aspect of prayer. But it should not be taken as implying a Calvinist understanding that God’s mind was made up long ago, and the only point of prayer is to find out what God is going to do anyway and then pray for it to happen. That would be about as pointless as praying that the sun will rise in the morning – and then claiming that God has answered our prayers when it does.

I can only conclude that Adrian and indeed most other Calvinists have rejected Arminianism because they have completely misunderstood it. But I also have to agree with John Charles Brown in another comment on Adrian’s post:

the greatest hindrance to prayer is not one’s systematic theology but simply neglect.

And on that point I have to plead guilty.

God does not break our will

Patriarch Teoctist of the Romanian Orthodox ChurchSome amazing words by the late Patriarch Theoctist (or Teoctist) of the Romanian Orthodox Church, quoted by Elizabeth Esther and reposted by Jeremy Myers:

Man has a very powerful will—so powerful that even God Himself does not break it. And by this [God] is actually showing that man is in the likeness of God. Without man’s will he could not make any progress on the way to goodness. So out of all the gifts that God grants the human being, we believe that freedom is one of the most important.

Agreed – assuming that “man” here is to be understood in a gender generic sense. I cannot accept the Calvinist position that men and women cannot resist the grace of God, because if God forced them to accept it he would be taking away their humanity and their image of God.

The problem is that the human will is so often opposed to the will of God. That, fundamentally, is why there is so much evil and suffering in the world. Don’t blame God, blame men and women who ignore his instructions and warnings.

And that is why in the end I disagree with what Rob Bell is supposed to have said, that hell will be empty. It won’t be because that is where some people will choose to go. Even if they were to have an eternity of chances to repent, many would not take them, as C.S. Lewis memorably put forward in The Great Divorce. It is not that God is a “vicious tormenter” who wants to send people to hell, but that he allows people to go to hell if that is what they want.

Election: not to be saved but to save others

Calvinist and “Reformed” Christians teach that God elects, or chooses, some people (most would hold that this is a small minority of people) to receive his grace, forgiveness and eternal salvation – and that those he decides not to elect have no choice, but are abandoned to the hell that they deserve as punishment for their sins.

Chris Wright : Langham Partnership InternationalChristopher J.H. Wright, also known as The Rev. Dr. Chris Wright, International Director of the Langham Partnership, has a different take on this, in his 2010 book The Mission of God’s People (p. 72):

Election [ie the choosing] of one is not rejection of the rest, but ultimately for their benefit. It is as if a group of trapped cave explorers choose one of their number to squeeze through a narrow flooded passage to get out to the surface and call for help. The point of the choice is not so that she alone gets saved, but that she is able to bring help and equipment to ensure the rest get rescued. “Election” in such a case is an instrumental choice of one for the sake of many.

In the same way, God’s election of Israel is instrumental in God’s mission for all nations. Election needs to be seen as a doctrine of mission, not a calculus for the arithmetic of salvation. If we are to speak of being chosen, of being among God’s elect, it is to say that, like Abraham, we are chosen for the sake of God’s plan that the nations of the world come to enjoy the blessing of Abraham (which is exactly how Paul describes the effect of God’s redemption of Israel through Christ in Galatians 3:14).

Thanks to Mark of Every Tongue for quoting this, and to Jeremy of Till He Comes for linking to Mark’s post.

Indeed! God didn’t choose us Christians to be snatched away to heaven and saved, so that we can gloat as we watch the rest of humanity suffering tribulation on earth and eternal torment in hell. He selected us for a mission – and I use the word in the popular sense of “Mission Impossible” as much as in the Christian jargon sense. That is, God chose us to be members of his team, with the task of rescuing those who are bound for hell and transforming this world into his kingdom.

This, as I wrote yesterday, is the purpose of our salvation. But it goes back further than that: it is the purpose for which God

chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ …

Ephesians 1:4-5 (NIV 2011)

We are called to be his sons (including women as well as men), manifested in this world. I don’t agree with the more extreme aspects of Manifest Sons of God teaching, especially as most of the descriptions of it I can find are from its enemies – although I was interested to read that, in line with what I have written,

The rapture, according to this doctrine, will be of the wicked – not of believers.

Nor do I accept the idea that this is something for only a chosen few. However, I agree with the basic principle behind this teaching, that God is raising up today a task force of believers empowered by the Holy Spirit to make the kingdom of God a reality in this world. This is God’s calling for everyone he has chosen to receive his grace, everyone who confesses Jesus Christ as Lord. Don’t settle for second best!

N.T. Wright on synergism as a bogey word

James Spinti quotes N.T. Wright, in his 2009 book Justification (not sure why it is listed as “Not Yet Published” at this Eisenbrauns page which he links to), including the following parenthesis:

(what damage to genuine pastoral theology has been done by making a bogey-word out of the Pauline term synergism, “working together with God”)

I don’t know if Wright has explained this in more depth. But he is right that “synergism” is a term and concept used by the Apostle Paul.

In fact Paul uses sunergos “co-worker” twelve times and sunergeo “work together” three times, and there are respectively one and two other New Testament occurrences of these words. Some of these refer to human co-workers. But in 1 Corinthians 3:9, 2 Corinthians 6:1 and 2 Thessalonians 3:2 a human is a sunergos of God. And even more startlingly, in Romans 8:28, also in the textually doubtful Mark 16:20, we apparently read that God works together (sunergeo) with humans. Compare also Philippians 2:12-13, where the same concept is expressed in different terms.

Now when Paul and Mark write of this working together, they are not referring to salvation. So they are not teaching the doctrine of “synergism” disparaged at the Calvinistic site Theopedia as

the view that God and humanity work together, each contributing their part to accomplish salvation in and for the individual. This is the view of salvation found in Arminianism and its theological predecessor Semi-Pelagianism.

(This is by the way a misunderstanding of Arminianism, which does not in general teach that human works have any part in salvation.)

I’m not sure why Wright singles out “pastoral theology”. But certainly “synergism” is being used as a bogey word among Calvinists. And I can only agree that this kind of usage is theologically damaging by the way it is commonly misunderstood as denying the responsibility of Christians, already saved, to do works together with God as he calls us to.

Faith is not a gift – at least not in Ephesians 2:8

It is not often that I hear a clear exegetical error in a sermon in my church. But I heard one last night. The preacher at the evening service, not the pastor, claimed that faith was a gift of God, and appealed to Ephesians 2:8 for support:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God …

Ephesians 2:8 (TNIV)

Well, it is not surprising that the preacher interpreted the verse in this way. (I don’t remember which Bible version it was quoted out of, perhaps NIV whose wording here is quite similar to TNIV’s.) In the English it certainly looks as if “this” refers back to “faith”, or else perhaps to “grace”.

But in the Greek text of this verse the word translated “this”, touto, cannot refer back to the words for “faith”, pistis, or “grace”, charis. That is because touto is a neuter pronoun, and cannot agree with either of the feminine nouns pistis and charis.

If you doubt that this can be so clear, consider this English sentence: “With John’s help Mary gave me what I need – it was wonderful.” If someone (probably someone who didn’t know much English) said that “it” here referred to Mary, or to John, then we English speakers would immediately know this was wrong, as “it” cannot refer to a person – and so in this sentence must refer to the whole situation.

Similarly in the Greek of Ephesians 2:8 the neuter pronoun touto can only refer to the whole situation. What is described here as the gift of God is not faith, or grace, but the entire process of the readers’ salvation.

The problem is really with how this verse has been translated. As English does not make gender distinctions in the same way as Greek, a straightforward English translation of this verse is misleading. RSV, NRSV and ESV do somewhat better than NIV and TNIV here, with “this is not your own doing”, as “doing” cannot easily refer back to faith. But to make the point really clear the whole verse needs to be rephrased, perhaps like the following:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.

Ephesians 2:8 (NLT)

Now our preacher last night was not using this verse to prove Calvinism or something similar. But it has in the past been misused in this way. There is a possible argument from 1 Corinthians 4:7 (already used by Augustine of Hippo) that faith is a gift. And certainly faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:9 – but this faith is usually understood as something different from saving faith in Jesus Christ. However, if you want to argue this point, that saving faith is a gift from God, you need to find evidence other than Ephesians 2:8.

Piper tells orphans to stop whining

John Meunier, in a post Ruthless Calvinist tells orphans to stop whining, paraphrases John Piper’s “response to children who lost their fathers on Sept. 11” as:

Yes, God killed your daddy. And he’s your only ticket out of hell, so you better not get too lippy about it.

Is Meunier being fair to Piper? Read his post and make up your own mind. Don’t miss this comment in which John M adds some nuances to his own position, and links it to the issue of whether Hurricane Katrina was a punishment from God – although surprisingly he doesn’t bring in Piper’s other recent controversial comments about the Minneapolis tornado.

I'm a "Calminian" too

Craig Blomberg has just posted at the Koinonia blog a simple post explaining Why I’m a “Calminian” – that is, why he holds a mediating position between Calvinism and Arminianism, upholding both God’s sovereignty in election and human freedom and responsibility.

To summarise and even further simplify his position, also known as “Middle Knowledge”, God knows what choices would be made in every circumstance by each person whom he creates or could create. God sovereignly chooses which people he creates, knowing in advance which of them will turn to him and which will reject him. But each person makes their own free choice which way to go, and has to take full responsibility for that choice.

I too would want to consider myself a “Calminian”. And while I would not want to be too dogmatic about Blomberg’s particular middle way, it certainly seems to make a lot of sense of the otherwise apparently conflicting biblical evidence.

My C-Factor: they say I am "somewhat of a Calvinist"

I found a quiz going round the Christian blogosphere which I could take (because it can’t access my personal information), unlike the dangerous Facebook quiz I discussed yesterday: Test your C-Factor. I come out with a C-Factor, a level of Calvinism, of 47%, which means that I am “somewhat of a Calvinist”. That’s more than Michael, and a lot more than Doug, but much less than Kevin.

Here are my full results:

Test your C-Factor

47%
You are somewhat of a Calvinist. Some of your points of view make you look like a Calvinist. However, you live your life in a lighter way than Calvinists do, which allows you to enjoy it more.
ID Category Score Comment
52 Work 57% You sure have a Calvinistic working ethos. You never work hard enough; work for you is your bounden duty. You are the type of employee any company desires, but the balance between your work and private life may get disturbed.
55 Strictness 40% You know how to enjoy life. You don’t always spend your time in a useful way. Mind the balance!
57 Sobriety 50% You were not born to be a Calvinist. Catholicism suits you better � slightly hedonistic, loose and emotional.
56 Relationships 0% In your relationships you are not very reserved. One might say: uncalvinistic. You let yourself go too easily to be a Calvinist.
53 Beliefs 60% You are an unconcerned believer, who doesn’t worry too much.
Test your C-Factor
47%
You are somewhat of a Calvinist. Some of your points of view make you look like a Calvinist. However, you live your life in a lighter way than Calvinists do, which allows you to enjoy it more.
ID Category Score Comment
52 Work 57% You sure have a Calvinistic working ethos. You never work hard enough; work for you is your bounden duty. You are the type of employee any company desires, but the balance between your work and private life may get disturbed.
55 Strictness 40% You know how to enjoy life. You don’t always spend your time in a useful way. Mind the balance!
57 Sobriety 50% You were not born to be a Calvinist. Catholicism suits you better � slightly hedonistic, loose and emotional.
56 Relationships 0% In your relationships you are not very reserved. One might say: uncalvinistic. You let yourself go too easily to be a Calvinist.
53 Beliefs 60% You are an unconcerned believer, who doesn’t worry too much.

Actually I am rather surprised to see such a high score on work, and such a low one on relationships, considering how I answered the questions. But I think the overall score makes sense: not a Calvinist but some leanings that way.

Forced to faith: an oxymoron?

I just came back to an interesting aside in a comment by Dave Warnock on his own blog, from a few days ago. Dave was replying to my own comment there, in which I wrote:

I hold that God does not force people to be saved who specifically reject it.

Dave replied:

I am with Peter in that I do not believe God will force anyone to come to faith (surely an oxymoron).

That word “oxymoron” caught my attention because it seems to go to the heart of why I reject the Calvinist, and indeed long before that Augustinian, position that God predestines certain people to believe, leaving them no personal choice in the matter. It seems to me, as apparently to Dave, to be a self-evident truth that faith or belief is an act of the human mind and will. Indeed this seems to be implied by this dictionary definition of “belief”:

  1. The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in another: My belief in you is as strong as ever.
  2. Mental acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something: His explanation of what happened defies belief.
  3. Something believed or accepted as true, especially a particular tenet or a body of tenets accepted by a group of persons.

If belief is an act or condition of the human mind, and if that mind has any kind of free will, it is indeed an oxymoron to suggest that anyone can be forced to believe anything.

Yet I am very aware that this understanding of faith or belief conflicts with one which can be traced right back to Augustine in the 4th-5th century, as he wrote (in On the Predestination of the Saints, Book I, chapter 3):

the faith by which we are Christians is the gift of God.

I am also aware that there is more to Augustine’s position than this, but I don’t want to be distracted by the details from my main point in this post.

There are nuanced versions of Calvinism, which embrace compatibilism and are not accepted by all Calvinists, according to which human free will is real but also compatible with determinism and divine predestination. I do not reject such descriptions. On this basis it is possible to hold both that God decides who he will give faith to and that each human being decided whether or not to believe.

Indeed the idea of faith as a gift can be found in the Bible, as it is listed in 1 Corinthians 12 as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But it seems clear that this is not about saving faith. It is often understood as referring to faith for miracles or healing. Nevertheless this does suggest that there is something in the idea that God gives to people the ability to believe.

So is it perhaps impossible for the human mind to believe or have faith in something beyond its normal experience, such as in the saving death of Jesus Christ or that a miracle is about to happen, apart from a special gift of God? Or can it believe such things with sufficient effort and practice? Was Alice or the White Queen right in this exchange?:

Alice laughed. `There’s no use trying,’ she said `one ca’n’t believe impossible things.’

`I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. `When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. …’

Then, can the human mind be forced to believe something against its own will? I am thinking here not so much of the Calvinism that teaches that people cannot believe and be saved without God’s help, as of the universalism that teaches that everyone will believe and so be saved. Yes, one day

at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow … and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord …

Philippians 2:10-11 (TNIV)

But that will be when faith is no longer necessary because all will see the risen Jesus. Will it then be too late to believe? Will the owners of every knee and tongue still be able to benefit from this promise?:

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Romans 10:9 (TNIV)

I don’t know. But I feel sure that there will even then be some who, even though seeing the reality of the Christian message and of the fate in store for them if they do not accept it, will still choose to reject Jesus and the salvation he offers. In fact Jesus himself seems to have predicted just this, at the end of the story of the rich man and Lazarus, when he put these words into the mouth of Abraham:

If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.

Luke 16:31 (TNIV)

God our Saviour … wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:3-4 (TNIV)

But he chooses not to force people to be saved, and so the inevitable result is that some will choose not to be. We can simply hope and pray that in the end only a few people will not be saved, and by repenting and believing in Jesus be assured that we will not ourselves be among that number.