Wednesday, March 12, 2008

C.S. Lewis the Calvinist?

I have just finished re-reading Lewis's book "Surprised by Joy." I have always considered Lewis a pretty pure Arminian: he rejects Total Depravity, for example. (Of course, he totally misunderstands the doctrine, as I've found is often true for those who reject the 5 points). However, this quote from page 224 of the 1984 Harcourt Brace edition of Surprised by Joy, which refers to his own moment of conversion, made me wonder.
... I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice... I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out... Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corslet meant the incalculable.... In a sense I was not moved by anything. I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, "I chose," yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. On the other hand, I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say, "I am what I do."
Upon reading this, I wonder if people will - due to the presence of the somewhat magical word "choice" - conclude that this experience is consistent with an Arminian understanding of soteriology, and only with an Arminian understanding. Though experience does not prove theology, it may be that it is consistent with Arminianism; but it is also perfectly consistent with Calvinism. If you don't think so, I submit that you don't really understand Calvinism.

Before I tell why, I think it is necessary to separate classical Calvinism from hyper-Calvinism. (As usual, I don't like the term Calvinism and would prefer to use "monergism"; but I'm starting to be afraid that's a losing battle.) Some people think that somebody who holds to the 5 points is a "hyper-Calvinist" while a real Calvinist is somebody who holds to somewhere between 1 and 4 of them. But that's completely untrue: somebody is a Calvinist/monergist in the classical sense if they hold to all 5 points. So, if the 5 points are not the difference, what is the difference between classical Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism?

I think the best explanation is that classical Calvinism teaches that man does have a will, and that will is involved in his conversion; while hyper-Calvinism teaches that man effectively does not have a will at all, or at least his will is not involved in his conversion. Does this seem a hair-splitting difference? Not at all! This point of Classical Calvinism is probably best explained in Jonathan Edwards' book "The Freedom of the Will." In that book, Edwards explains that man's will, like everything else about us, is subject to sin, is (to use the Biblical terminology) a slave to sin. I love that Biblical word because it is so clear. Slaves aren't slaves because they want to be, but because they are compelled to be. Man's will is controlled by his sin so that it cannot do anything good. Thus, man's unaided will cannot accept God's offer of salvation. (I am aware that the Arminians posit a concept called "prevenient grace" to answer this Biblical truth, but I find no Biblical support for the idea.)

So, in conversion, God does not ignore man's will (as the hyper-Calvinists would teach) but rather converts it, regenerates it, makes it a "new creation." What used to be repugnant to us - giving up our own secret sins and imagined control over our own destinies - is now attractive. Edwards spends a good deal of time explaining how we do what we most want to do and I am not doing justice to his argument. However, the main point is that we do have a will, and when God saves us He converts that will from being a slave to sin to a slave to Jesus Christ.

Getting back to Lewis, it should be clear that his experience is perfectly in sync with what classical Calvinism teaches. He chose, but he felt that it was not possible to do the opposite. Whereas his unregenerate will had previously wanted to "[shut] something out", it now wanted to let that something (or Someone) in. It was a free choice Lewis made; yet he knew at that moment there was only one choice that he wanted to make, and not for any specific reasons he could enumerate. His will had been converted instantaneously from being a slave to sin, and because that conversion had already taken place, he now wanted to follow Christ.

In fact, I'd argue this experience better fits with classical Calvinism than it does with Arminianism. I would think a more consistent Arminian experience would be something like "I had a totally free choice to make; I weighed the pluses and minuses of accepting Christ and decided that I wanted to accept Christ's free offer of eternal life." After all, a free choice in the libertarian free will sense used by most Arminians, involves no necessity of decision; we weigh the pluses and minuses, and freely make whatever decision we want to make at the moment.

How about you? Which of these statements (Lewis's or my made-up one) would you make? I think the answer is clear, if you are truly a Christian: your statement and mine would be something very much like Lewis's. Isn't that telling? I submit that our actual experiences fit better with the classical Calvinist explanation of salvation than the Arminian one; it's only when we start to talk in the abstract that we talk differently.

Again, this does not prove Calvinism is true. As I have said many times before, I think the Bible teaches that clearly enough, and one should never put one's experiences over revealed truth. But I think it has something to say about which soteriological view is more consistent with our actual experiences.


orthodox said...

"Thus, man's unaided will cannot accept God's offer of salvation. (I am aware that the Arminians posit a concept called "prevenient grace" to answer this Biblical truth, but I find no Biblical support for the idea.)"

I can't see the difference between "aided will" and "prevenient grace", the way you've explained it.

Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

No doubt my poor explanation. "Prevenient grace" is, as far as I can tell, posited for one reason alone: to reconcile the Biblical fact that everything about us is fallen (including our will) with the presupposition of libertarian free will. Prevenient grace thus negates the fallenness of our will, again enabling us to make a free will decision. I would not use the term "aided will," but I suppose it would go along with prevenient grace. They're not the same, of course ... PG is the cause, aided will would be (more or less) the result.

Neither of these do I think has Biblical support. PG truly negates the fallenness of our wills; it's saying that our wills are fallen, but there's no real result of that fallenness. We would say that there IS a real result of that fallenness, our inability to accept God's free gift of salvation until we are regenerated by the Spirit of God. When we say this, we put God in a position of being accused of being liable for our sin; but we have to follow the Bible even if the conclusion seems distasteful to our fallen human understanding.

Anonymous said...

Prevenient grace is simply God's openinmg man's eyes to his own sinfulness and freeing him from the bondage of sin so that he can make a free choice. To use an analogy, it is like me taking someone who is asleep and waking him up and offering him food. While he was asleep, he could not eat. Now that I have awakened him, he can . . . but he can also choose not to eat - thus leaving him in the same position as when he was asleep. It is as simple as that. :-)