Monday, March 06, 2006

Christ's role in every spiritual blessing

Western Christianity has a long history of missing the point of Ephesians 1, particularly the section about spiritual blessings (as opposed to worldly blessings). How do we know what an author's point is? We know the author's point by what the author says, of course. Sometimes a writer's work has sections that just beg to be set into a traditional outline format because they are so tightly organized as a statement of the main topic and detailed supporting points. Such is the case with the opening section of Paul's letter to the Ephesians, particularly 1:3-14.

I'll spare you the actual outline, but watch Paul frame the following points around this main point: that Christ has the central role in every spiritual blessing, since every spiritual blessing is received only in or through Christ. First, Paul's own statement of his own topic from the beginning of his letter to the Ephesians:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
So plainly enough, this is about being blessed through Christ, and about how God is praiseworthy on account of blessing us through Christ. How can we be sure that this is really Paul's topic? Notice how Paul spends the follow-up section by listing spiritual blessings and showing Christ's role in each and every spiritual blessing that we receive:
  • 1:4 "in him" (Christ) we are chosen;
  • 1:5 God's predestination that we are adopted as Sons of God comes through Jesus Christ;
  • 1:6 God's glorious grace is given us in "the One he loves" (Christ);
  • 1:7 "in him" (Christ) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins;
  • 1:8-10 he has made known the mysteries of his will for the fulfillment of time: to head up all things in Christ, whether things on heaven or on earth;
  • 1:11-12 in him (Christ) we are chosen as God's inheritance, as he predestines for the praise of his glory those who have placed their hope in Christ;
  • 1:13-14 believing in Christ, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit guaranteeing our inheritance.
Now, after Paul has thoroughly tied each and every spiritual blessing -- whether forgiveness or being among God's chosen people -- to Christ, what have Christians made of this?

The mistakes go back at least to Aquinas, who when discussing predestination, quotes Ephesians like this:
inasmuch as God gratuitously and not from merits predestines or elects some; for it is written (Ephesians 1:5): "He hath predestinated us into the adoption of children ... unto the praise of the glory of His grace."
Notice the "..." ellipsis mark, which J.R.R. Tolkien aptly called the trail of the passing editor. What has been edited out is the reference to Christ's role in this.

Many have followed the same footsteps, missing Paul's point about Christ's role in every spiritual blessing. I've discussed Ephesians 1 with a number of people who consistently mentally read "he chose us before the creation of the world ... he predestined us to be adopted as his sons ... were were also chosen, having been predestined" (etc.), having become accustomed to mentally deleting all references to Christ while reading that passage. On-line, there's CARM's on-line dictionary which takes the classic Calvinist/hyperCalvinist view of "elect, election" in that it quotes this passage of Ephesians but deletes the reference to Christ's role in the spiritual blessing of election:
The elect are those called by God to salvation. This election occurs before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) and is according to God's will not man's (Rom. 8:29-30; 9:6-23) because God is sovereign (Rom. 9:11-16). The view of election is especially held by Calvinists who also hold to the doctrine of predestination.
Just a note: when an interpretation systematically deletes the references to Christ from a passage, it's not going to be the right interpretation. Paul's point is how all these blessings -- including predestination to adoption and being in God's chosen people, being forgiven and redeemed, and receiving the Holy Spirit -- are granted through Christ. You cannot understand predestination apart from Christ, or being included in God's chosen people apart from Christ, any more than you can understand redemption and forgiveness apart from Christ. Christ is how we are predestined and how we are chosen just as surely as he is how we are forgiven; none of these things can be productively, Scripturally discussed apart from Christ. This, as Paul reminds us, is God's eternal purpose, his once-hidden mysterious will which has now been made known.


codepoke said...

I reviewed your comments about this under my debate heading, and reviewed your verses here. I don't see how your understanding Christ's role would redefine predestination? I hold to the TULIP points and believe that unconditional election was done in Christ. Am I missing something?

Which of those points are at issue here?

Weekend Fisher said...

In Calvinism, God's decision of election brings a person to Christ (or Christ to a person); Calvinists view election as a blessing that is logically prior to receiving Christ and does not come through Christ. In Calvinism, all blessings come through election, and election does not come through Christ. Christ's role is very limited.

Paul's theme in Ephesians 1 is that all spiritual blessings -- and he names election and predestination among them -- are through Christ and in Christ. I skipped the tedious outline of Eph. 1 here -- I mean, who really wants to read an outline on a blog for crying' out loud -- but trace it through if you're interested. Flip over to Eph. 1 and look at the topic statement: he has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ. Then follow all the supporting points, which are all the spiritual blessings and how Christ is at the root of each and every one.

The different starting points -- whether all blessings are received through predestination or whether all blessings (including predestination) are received through Christ -- lead to very different theologies.

codepoke said...

I don't know whether you want to work more on this. If you do...

In Calvinism,...

I cannot actually defend Calvinism. I don't know the fine details well enough to be sure that you are characterizing their beliefs accurately. That's OK. I don't particularly care about their beliefs. Calvinists with an ecclesiology I find palatable are not thick on the ground.

...lead to very different theologies.

This is, of course, my question. I don't see it. I agree with every syllable of your next post, and yet I find irresistible grace all over the scripture. When I start Eph 1 with Christ, I find Him bringing every spiritual blessing to those He has been given by His Father. The Father's work of election brought me only one blessing, Christ. Christ brought me everything the Father wanted His Son and His church to have. He brought it to me while I was His enemy, and had the Spirit not worked powerfully I would not have received it.

Wherein is Christ's role limited?

The Father chose us in Christ, predestines us through Christ, and blesses us in Christ. It sounds like agreement in everything to me.

I mean, who really wants to read an outline on a blog for crying' out loud

You have to ask?

Weekend Fisher said...

LOL, so you wanted to read an outline on a blog. But all 3 of my other readers have been quieter than crickets.

When you say basically election brings you Christ and Christ brings you everything else, + irresistible grace, the results are the same as election (which in Calvinism is apart from Christ) bringing you everything, since the rest was irresistible. And the initial grace of Calvinism (election) was not through Christ, which is not Scriptural. It removes Christ from the center of the equation, from the starting point, and makes him secondary. It's "election plus domino effect" and Christ is a crucial domino, but not the first one.

Btw I have a similar complaint against the Arminians. They assume the initial grace to receive Christ resides in themselves, apart from Christ. I have not seen support for that view.

I'm good with continuing the conversation but I'll have to say that in my experience most people's initial assumptions are held so unconsciously that it's not easy to shift gears and even see that other viewpoints exist, other paradigms are possible than the assumed ones.

codepoke said...

Your pessimism is well founded. ;-) I cannot promise to do better. :-D

I will confine myself to this passage, and to election.

When I read For he chose us in him before the creation ... I picture the Son opening Himself to the Father, and the Father calling out within the Son the seeds of every member of the bride. Our regenerated life is His Life broken and given to us. These pieces of the Son were set aside within the Son before the world was created, and waited to be planted within people. These seeds would be planted in creation, and would grow up to be blameless and to be adopted.

Had Adam not sinned, every one of those seeds would have been planted within a son or daughter of Adam and Eve, and every living soul would have received His life. One-to-one. No loss.

Adam sinned, though, so billions more humans were born than God elected in Christ. The plan of God did not change due to that event, though. The seeds chosen in Christ were still exactly the same in number and identity as before the fall.

The next question is how Christ joins that seed to me. I believe the Spirit plants it in me, and then the seed grows and teaches me to believe. Within this passage, only verse 13 seems to address this question.

I can look at several translations of verse 13, but I don't have your knowledge of Greek. Here is the translation that most militates against my view:
And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.

This translation actually implies that my belief causally included me in the Son. If this is the most correct translation, then those seeds are waiting in Christ for the people to accept them. In this case, the seeds are nameless until one of us takes that seed by faith. Billions resist grace, but when one submits to God, he or she takes into himself an elected seed and becomes elect.

Other translations seem to imply that I believed because I was included. If those translations are most correct, then maybe the seed is planted first. In that case, the seeds were named in eternity past, and awaited our birth. Once the seed was planted in us, it could no more resist growing than any earthly seed. Seeds grow, and they grow into that from which they sprung.

I believe that other verses interpret this verse consistently with irresistible grace (or I don't guess I'd be typing now), but I used to believe that God set up an infinite supply of grace for all who come, too! I am looking forward to your answer.


I think you may suspect why this is of interest to me. I hope someday to need to reconcile believers on both sides of this fence. Your position sounds like it might be livable for the open minded, but I have to hear more about it. How better than to push against it. ;-)

Thank you!

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Poke

Glad you're interested. I'm actually more optimistic about you than some others because you're not married to the TULIP (or the rose), but to Christ. However, I have to emphasize that it's a huge paradigm shift.

Btw on the Greek of the "included in Christ", the NIV (which often slants texts in a Calvinistic way) in this case is slanting it but not in a Calvinistic way. The "included" isn't there. The Greek goes (roughly) along these lines: ... having previously hoped in Christ, in whom you also, believing, were sealed ...

So the "included" thing is a translator's best efforts but not the most literal thing in the world.

I'm glad you're interested in hearing more. I've got more posts in the hopper.

codepoke said...

So the "included" thing is a translator's best efforts but not the most literal thing in the world.

Ah. That's reasonable.

I'm glad you're interested in hearing more. I've got more posts in the hopper.