All Saints Margaret Street | Evensong & Benediction Sunday 17 June 2018

Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 17 June 2018

Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie

‘The difficulties of the ninth chapter of Romans are so great that few will ever be satisfied that they have ever really understood it’.

This magisterial statement made a hundred years ago by Sanday and Headlam, has recently been described as ‘one of the more obvious understatements ever uttered by biblical scholars.’

That’s just to manage your expectations. A core argument of Christian theology, focussed in the Reformation but with roots in Augustine and before, begins here.  

It all starts in the previous chapter: 8.28-30.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.  

This section of Romans has fed the hardline theology of modern Calvinism (which is at several removes from Calvin himself). There’s a test of orthodoxy applied by evangelical protestants of this kind called TULIP; this beguiling acronym means 

Total Depravity (also known as Original Sin)
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints

Now much as Total Depravity might sound like a jolly night out in the West End, and Perseverance of the Saints like the promise of a hangover-free morning-after, this summary claims to establish from the Bible that God, by his will, predestines people to salvation (and possibly also damnation); that Jesus died only for those predestined; and that it is impossible for those who are redeemed to lose their salvation. Logical, but not the Gospel.

One way out of this nastiness, taught by Arminius around the same time as Calvin, was to say that God predestined people, but not in an absolute sense. Rather, he looked into the future to see who would pick him and then he chose them. Better, but a bit of a cop-out. Karl Barth, in the 20th century, wanting to sqaure this with biblical inerrancy, applied a fix from Romans 11,

For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.             11.32

Barth taught (I take this on trust from those who care) that by communion with Christ we can all discover our election, so in some sense all are elected in Christ. Aha, you cry: universalism! another problem to be solved. Or not, in my opinion.

Our lectionary has led us into this theological thicket, but only glancingly. It didn’t give us the crucial verse about predestination from Romans 8 last week. And the Nativity of John the Baptist, next week, means we won’t hear the resolution in chapter 11.  

It helps to understand that Paul’s overarching concern here is with his own people, the Jews, and what happens to those Jews who don’t accept Christ. He wasn’t writing a protestant manifesto to exclude Catholics from salvation. But, as Fr Alan noted last Sunday evening, the unintended consequence of these chapters of Romans has been to provide fodder for anti-semitism.  

So we need a sense of Paul’s wider context. In the ancient world there was a widespread preoccupation with the problem of fate and destiny, the sense of the inevitability of events, an often oppressive awareness that one’s appointed portion in life, and above all one’s lot in death, is inescapable. Hence the popularity of astrology, not least in Rome itself. One unresolved issue among Paul’s contemporaries was whether Zeus was master of fate or ultimately subject to it like other gods. So the element of determinism in Paul’s argument is not as surprising or offensive as it may seem to us. What is new is his insistence on treating the problem in biblical rather than Hellenistic terms, in terms of God the Creator rather than of an implacable and remorseless fate. Paul was not writing to a context where it is unexceptional to think that we have choices which determine our destiny. In his context, he’s offering a new freedom, gifted by God’s grace.  

Romans 9-11 is at the core of much biblical theology. The argument is a balancing act about free will. If we have too much free will, the theory goes, we might be capable of earning our own salvation (Pelagianism, bad); but if we don’t have enough, if our future is chosen for us without our choice, then God is unjust (impossible).  

G.B. Caird, another great English NT scholar, wrote,

Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin have found in this passage one of the main supports of their doctrine of double predestination; Origen, Chrysostom and Arminius have used it to confirm their belief that man’s destiny rests on his own free response to God’s grace; and the universalists have seized on it as one of the few Biblical texts which give grounds for belief in universal salvation. The irony is that all have been sound in their affirmations, though grievously at fault in their failure to appreciate the strength of the other two positions. For Paul actually contrives … to hold all three beliefs at the same time.                                     [Quoted in Fitzmyer, Romans 542; cf. Epigram p.103]

This bit of Paul is not a clear or final statement about anything. It is a letter in which he expresses his unresolved attempt to understand how God includes all; how even those who do not believe may still be part of the picture; how God ‘is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.’  

A proper understanding of the relationship of the will of God to his essential goodness is required. If we understand absolute goodness and love as the essential attribute of God, then his will can only be understood in the light of that goodness and love. God’s will can never, then, be arbitrary, as Predestination doctrines suggest. Aquinas taught that even God works in accordance with a kind of inbuilt law, the so-called ‘eternal law’ which Richard Hooker introduced into Anglican theology: God’s absolute love and goodness (as Jesus teaches) describe that law. (I.ii.2). The excesses of predestination theology are exposed by that as a cul-de-sac.

How we read and make use of scripture determines what sort of Christians we are. Scripture is a primary part, but only a part, of the Tradition which the Church gives us. Paul’s letters, which are a work in progress, are not the final guide to anything. Better to know the gospels as well as we can (for there we meet Jesus) and to understand their trajectory (which Paul has understood but not yet fully formulated).

The trajectory of the Gospel narrative is love, sacrifice and new life. That trajectory leads us to some organising principles for Christian life, such as invitation, generosity, the concern for others’ flourishing, forgiveness, and JOY.  

Paul himself says in 1 Corinthians 12, doesn’t he, that he will show us a ‘more excellent way’. That turns out, in 1 Cortinthians 13, to be not predestination or any other doctrinal orthodoxies, but love.