T-Minus 3 Days and Counting

I’m a real stickler for deadlines, schedules, and knowing when something is *supposed* to happen. While I can be disastrously disorganized in a plethora of ways, that is not one of them. That being said, I find it very interesting what I find myself up to in the days just prior to a debate. It’s not that I’m “burnt out” on Annihilationism right now or anything – this post is proof that I’m not, as you will see – it’s that I seem to be drawn to subjects that branch out from the subjects I’ve been repeatedly dealing with during the debate’s preparation process and looking at how they relate to still other subjects. I’ve found myself drawn to the subjects of death, agnosticism, the nature of Christ’s mediatory work, and the “big picture” of who and what God actually is – because when you examine an extremely narrow subject such as this, you simply feel constrained by it – the view seems to be so narrow, so confined, that you constantly want to look around to see the landscape surrounding it. I was re-reading some discussion on “the free offer” from several years ago, where Dr. White was commenting on “one-string banjos” with their tendency to keep sounding the few notes they can play. Annihilationism, conditionalism, et cetera seems to have that tendency. I don’t think that they intend to have this sort of tendency – but there seems to be an insularism that grows up around single-issue debates. There is, if you’ll forgive me, a “traditionalism” about what is considered to be a “proper” rebuttal, response, or critique of any given position. Maybe I just like “outside the box” a little too much – but what is wrong with approaching an issue from another angle?

What else has struck me is how little seems to be read of the historical theologians in respect to the underlying issues; much like it is with many other issues – and how much is assumed about what they did say, when they do actually get cited. Fudge’s treatment of Augustine, for example, was laughably superficial in many places. Does he think Reformed folks don’t read Augustine much, I wonder? It reminded me of nothing so much as Romanists who confidently cite ECFs as if they agreed wholeheartedly with what “The Church” teaches – but then when challenged on the actual passages from the ECFs – it turns out they’re using a “cheat sheet” of citations, and don’t even have the reference they cited with them at the debate! David King, William Webster, and James White – not to mention the other Reformed authors before them, like Goode or Whitaker – have shown that they are able to deal with the ECFs in detail and precision on matters such as Sola Scriptura. The point I’ve taken away from this is that as much as there is a veneer of sophistication over the responses they give – even ginormous works like Froom’s suffer from catastrophic exegetical failures on a variety of levels.

The less accomplished modern defenders of conditionalism or physicalism, for instance, tangle with Reformed authors, like our Chris Bolt; who are used to responding to philosophical and exegetical issues in tandem, and they seem bewildered, as Peoples did when his lack of coherent argumentation was noted and responded to. Does Glenn think that he’s the only philosopher around who has read 2 Corinthians 12, and brought up this issue? It’s come up from atheists more than a few times, to my knowledge. The philosophical apologetics community doesn’t have a whole lot of truck with the exegetical realm in evidential apologetics. When they poke their heads up from their perusal of philosophical concerns, and meet someone with work in both fields, the encounter typically doesn’t go well for them. Peoples is not Reformed. He doesn’t typically show the care that a Reformed exegete is not only taught to show, but is both expected to, and demanded to show for the text of Scripture. Folks sometimes complain about “elitism” from Reformed folks on this issue – well, let’s have a little demonstration, then. Show me any other group which puts out more systematic, or biblical theology. Show me a group which has produced, consistently, more commentaries and exegetical works than the Reformed pastors and scholars of the past 500 years or so. Then, if you think you have a claimant, show me where there isn’t a connection directly to the Protestant Reformation.

Now, take Chris Date’s dilemma. He claims to be Reformed – but he is “convinced” of annihilationism – over a blazingly quick period of 12 months or so. Annihilationism’s history, as we’ve traced on this blog, has the cast of a theological horror film, historically. From Socinians to Millerites, to apostate elements of Anglicanism, and branching out into SDAs and JWs – there is no historical development of the doctrine throughout history – just a (rather short) history of leapfrogging within the greater context of theological heterodoxy. If we trace the development of any other doctrine in Reformed theology back through history, we will see a steady development and increasing precision as time elapses, and uniformly following encounters which engender sharper and more precise opposition through history. What simply hasn’t ever happened with the doctrine of Hell is a direct, single-front challenge in specificity. There have been plenty of oblique challenges, but never any direct attacks on the doctrine from “within the camp” that aren’t as a part of a greater problematical structure that is explicitly outside the camp. There similarly have not been many specific affirmations of the doctrine of annihilation in evangelical circles – and certainly not any made by Reformed theologians as part of a systematic theology. As I said previously, I’m a bit of an armchair historian of apologetic engagement – and in my estimation, this has never been an issue that has had much traction until recent decades. You’ll see it in a few historical contexts, but again, as part of a larger discussion, and a minor part.

You know what it reminds me of, to be honest? It’s related, even, I found, if only partially! The downgrade controversy. I actually discovered recently that the downgrade controversy had some connections to conditionalism – especially in Peoples’ own New Zealand. I was reading some old publications of the “Baptist Standard” – and noticed in one connection – searching a particular term – an article in The Baptist Quarterly – that there was an incident involving Spurgeon himself (peripherally), and connected to the “Downgrade Controversy” in England. Apparently, a Rev. C.C. Brown attempted to appeal to Spurgeon as his champion – in the middle of the Downgrade controversy – while himself holding to conditionalist views. The Downgrade, of course, was concerning the Baptist Union’s precipitous descent into incipient universalism and other errors, and was a microcosm of events occurring worldwide. Already, by this point, there were a hundred years or more of battles with Universalism on the outskirts of the English Baptist church – you will see the name “Socinianism” most commonly used of it in contemporaneous accounts. Part and parcel of universalism, of course, is conditionalism. The General Baptists were almost completely consumed by this view, and The Baptist Union was essentially destroyed by it within years of the Tabernacle’s withdrawal.

Now, that’s mostly an incidental reminder – but it goes to show – conditionalism was not a central issue in the downgrade – but it was, interestingly enough, in New Zealand. Unsurprisingly, where are the major centers of conditionalism with an effect on evangelicalism? Denominations that had or have connections with universalism or Socinianism, and especially ones with English roots. I’m repeating myself here somewhat, but it’s interesting that even the New Zealand branch we’ve mentioned seems to have formed under the same influences we have noted. I’d be interested to see what influences the Millerites had, reciprocally, over the “Life and Advent” movement in New Zealand, and might pursue that research at some point, as it has piqued my curiosity. In any case, I find this sort of history study fascinating on several levels. It’s instructive what you find out about the church in various ages when you do so. Andrew Fuller had his own run-ins with Socinianism in between Gill and Spurgeon! I was reminded of that when thinking through the progression I was trying to trace in a previous post, and kicked myself for not mentioning that. So there, I’ve mentioned it. Now that I’ve rambled on interminably about stuff you probably aren’t interested in… shall I pick the thread back up?

What I wanted to point out was the conditionalist really has no historical thread to pull in the fabric of orthodoxy. There is the oft-asserted theme (picked up by Fudge, incidentally), that Sola Fides was simply “lost” for an extended amount of time. Has he dealt with Cunningham, Buchanan, and others in a serious fashion? The trick is, justification is one of the doctrines that simply wasn’t pushed all that hard past, say, Augustine – and with him, in a peripheral way. Much like the atonement just wasn’t really a big-ticket issue until later in the history of the church, either. The error the Reformers responded to was a creeping, by stages sort of thing. Papal doctrinal development was quite the glacial process – it took a long, long time to get to the point that it did at the dawn of the Reformation – and as such, it took a while to get to the point where it was challenged, and challenged as a cohesive unit. Due to the nature of the Roman church of that day, the response to it necessitated the sort of wide-ranging, multi-front answer that the Reformers provided – and the ability to disseminate information equally widely, to give 2 reasons. Is this some “desperate” attempt to cling to a “trail of blood” for justification? Of course not. However, it does need to be addressed, since folks like Fudge will bring it up. How do you answer these sorts of objections? As a unit.

When you look at the “totality picture” of what conditionalism is really saying (to steal Van Til’s terms) you see a lot more than just their view on the nature of final punishment. You see a particular view of death, a particular way you have to read Scripture to get that view to work, and the “rearrangement” of an ever-multiplying number of doctrines in order to keep the ball up in the air. When you stop looking at it as just “annihilationism” – or as “just conditionalism” – but as a “life and world view” – you start to see that its a lot bigger than what even its proponents think it is. Date’s reasons for “accepting conditionalism” might have been that there isn’t a response that he liked to the issue – I don’t dispute that. I don’t see there being much of an objection provided by conditionalism, on the flip side. For there to be a comprehensive response assumes that a comprehensive objection be made. However, the rest of the package has to deal with a great many things that are actually foundational to that view, and have been addressed – at length, and in detail – by folks throughout church history. For instance – the view on death which they hold to has, in fact, been dealt with specifically. The church has continually dealt with heresies on either side of the monistic divide, throughout it’s history. When taken in a “totality picture” the view is far plainer, and the contrasts are a little more vivid. How does monism relate?

When you take the Gnostics, for example, you see the most oft-refuted heresy in the history of the Christian church. You also see that this heresy states that the body, or matter, is evil, and we must be saved from it. In the answer to this heresy, however, you see that the response was not that the human nature is intrinsically good – as Pelagius was refuted for saying not that long afterwards – but are instead given a balanced response which addresses the Fall, the Curse, and sin as responsible for the moral evil in man, and by extension, the evils in creation in general. We also see the Manicheans, with their system of the duality of good and evil. The response was, again, to correctly balance good and evil – and Augustine, being a Manichean for a time, did so admirably. What strikes me most about the conditionalist view is the implied duality that seems to be present in it. In many ways, it seems to be an unintentional Manicheanism centered on the nature of death as something equal but opposite to life, instead of the good and evil in opposition that you see in Manicheanism. What is also striking is the duality implied by their treatment of existence and non-existence. This might strike some as a stretch – but when you take the opposite side from Augustine on the nature of life and death, and his intent in detailing his position was to counter Manichean influences, you start to wonder if they might have the same problem, you know? The eastern Yin and Yang of balanced life and death, good and evil, complementary opposites, seems to be involved with many of these interconnected issues. Manichean principles were more of a duality of opposing forces – but the complementary nature of life and death seem to be a common theme of naturalistic belief systems, as a whole. In fact, you often see them considering death as the precondition for life.

As a unit, their position on annihilation seems to hinge on the nature of death – that’s why it is so heavily intertwined with conditionalism as to be practically interchangeable. However, conditionalism itself has to believe a certain way about the nature of death to consider it as it does. That hinge swings. When you speak of the nature of death a certain way, you’re also saying certain things about the connection it has to life. When you say those things about the connection it has to life, you’re saying certain things about the nature of life, God’s dealings with us as creatures, and our dealings with Him as transcendent Creator. You say certain things about how Scripture is to be read, about how things related with the subject at hand have to be interpreted in light of that reading – and those hermeneutical choices have consequences, if consistency is to be maintained. Now, the question might be asked – don’t you hinge your case on the nature of death, as well? In many respects, certainly! Yet, in Reformed theology, the hinge for everything is theology proper. Let me demonstrate, by means of an example; using the proximate starting point to show the ultimate starting point.

I believe death is defined by sin, sin by the nature of God; God is who cannot tolerate sin, and thereby cursed the human race with death on account of the sin of their Federal head, and intends to glorify Himself in redemption of His people from death, as well as in the condemnation of His enemies to death. But if I speak of the nature of death, I have to talk about the nature of life. If I speak about life and death, I have to speak about the nature of sin. If I speak about the nature of sin, I have to speak about the nature of righteousness. If I speak about the nature of righteousness, I have to speak about the nature of God. However – this is still a simplification, is it not? If I talk about the nature of life, I have to speak of the life of God and the life of man. If I talk about God and man, I have to talk about the nature of God and man. If I talk about the nature of man, I have to speak about man as a creature. If I speak about creatures, I have to speak about their Creator. If I speak about creature and Creator, I have to speak about transcendence, immanence, and the distinction between creature and Creator. If I speak about this distinction, I have to speak about the nature of revelation, by which this chasm is crossed. If I speak about revelation, I have to speak about general and special revelation – and I have to speak about the Spirit, who reveals, the Son, who is revealed, and the Father, who sends them both. We can multiply and multiply again all of the things which are involved in one another – and systematically, we do – that’s part of the apologist’s job.

This just underscores our previous point, however. Systematically, there is no theological account for death even resembling that which conditionalists provide. This is not because we have never discussed death in the history of the church – but this is because the account provided by conditionalists is found strictly outside the bounds of orthodoxy. The account they provide for death has an exponentially negative affect on other doctrines the more it propagates throughout theology, as a system. The reason this is the case is due to the nature of their account. Essentially, their account is naturalistic – and dualistic. It assumes that “life” and “death” are ontological opposites, in a very real sense – instead of death being ontologically parasitic in harmony with sin being ontologically parasitic. At the same time, it does not account for the “borrowing” from life that even their own terminology assumes. “Rendered lifeless” is, of itself, a concession to this. When, for instance, Ambrose defines death as “deprivation of life,” this is not meant to be considered as dualistic opposition, but as corruption. It is to be considered a lack, or a want, or deficiency in life. Augustine, Ambrose’s pupil, makes this clear in City of God – he is called the “Scholar of Sin” on occasion – and the same applies to his work on death in the same context.

When we consider something a “matter of life or death” this indicates that the matter is of great import. Matters of great import are not matters with no implications elsewhere! That Mr. Date may want to limit the propagation of his doctrine of death to other matters is surely laudatory – but is it consistent? If it truly is a matter of great import – it therefore must be a matter of great implication. The Christian position is that it is, indeed, a matter of great import. It is the curse of God – and as such, has far-reaching consequences. Is it consistent for Mr. Date to either downplay the implications of this doctrine? On the one hand, you might think so. After all, he is apparently orthodox elsewhere. On the other hand, since he is orthodox elsewhere, you’d expect him to recognize the systematic connection death has to all of Christian doctrine related to sin, the curse, and redemption from it.

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