Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: stoicism

Free will

We must believe in free will — we have no choice. Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Hmm. I wonder what he was getting at? Having nothing more to go on to discern a more complex meaning in Mr. Singer’s thought than this fragment, I will say that I agree.

When Moses told the people “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life;” and Joshua later said to the same people “ Choose you this day whom ye will serve,” we must assume that the people really were free to make the choices offered to them.

Yet many Christian denominations, probably most, teach that we do not have free will to choose our own destiny. They magnify the sovereignty of God to the point of saying that if humans can choose whether or not to answer God’s call then we are saying that God is less than almighty.

But if words mean anything, the Bible is offering us just such a choice, from Genesis to Revelation. Where then do people get the idea that the Bible doesn’t mean what it says?

Determinism, the belief that the gods, karma, fate, or whatever you want to call the ultimate power in the universe, have pre-determined every detail of one’s life, has always been part of Eastern religions. It entered Western thought through Zeno, founder of the Stoic school of philosophy.

It entered pseudo-Christian thought through Augustine, who laid the intellectual foundation for Roman Catholic policy. Augustine adapted Zeno’s thought, saying that God has predestined some people to be saved, and some to be damned. Since it is not given to mankind to know into which category they fall, the church has the right to compel all people within its territory to be members of the church and to turn the non-compliant over to the civil authorities. And since the church and the civil power were in complete unity, disobedience to the church was treason to the state and must be punished by death.

Since it could not be known who was predestined to salvation or damnation, then one could not discern that by the moral conduct of the person. In fact, those who led a pure and holy life were deemed to be deceived and the worst of heretics. This led to such aberrations in the Middle Ages as girls being led to the executioner because they refused the advances of the priests.

During the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin refined the doctrine of Augustine; the essence of Calvin’s doctrine is often described by the TULIP formula:
Total depravity – the depravity of mankind prevents them from choosing to answer God’s call.
Unconditional election – The conduct of the elect has no part in determining their salvation.
Limited atonement – Christ only died for the elect, those predestined to be saved.
Irresistible grace – the grace of God is imparted to the elect, who have no power to resist it.
Perseverance of the saints – The elect can never lose their salvation.

This is the explicit doctrine of the Presbyterian, Reformed and most Baptist churches. Other churches believe much of what Calvin taught, but may be a bit nebulous about the origin of their beliefs.

The problem with believing Calvin’s doctrine is that church pews are occupied by people who believe that they have been born again through the irresistible grace of the Holy Spirit, but show little evidence of leading a Christian life. The old Westminster Confession got around this by saying that a born again person may take many years to develop an assurance of salvation. The modern teaching is that the new birth and conversion are quite different things, the new birth being instantaneous and conversion being a slow, almost imperceptible process.

The Bible makes no such distinction, the words are used interchangeably. There was a transition period for the disciples who walked with Jesus but did not receive the Holy Spirit until the Day of Pentecost. Jesus told Peter “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” It was only a few days later that Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost and 3,000 were baptized. After that, the Apostle Paul says “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”

Some may be confused by Paul’s thoughts on predestination. Read the passages as a whole. He is saying that God had predestined that there should be no more division between Jews and Gentiles, but that all could be saved in the same way. He is not speaking of individuals being predestined to salvation. At the end of one long passage on predestination, he writes: “What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law.”

Is Christian humilty the same thing as stoicism or zen buddhism?

Consider the following:

“Humility is perfect quietness of heart. It is for me to feel no trouble, never be fretted, or vexed, or irritated, or sore, or disappointed. It is to expect nothing, to wonder at nothing that is done to me, to feel nothing done against me. It is to be at rest when nobody praises me and when I am blamed and despised. It is to have a blessed home in the Lord where I can go in and shut the door, and kneel to my Father in secret, and am at peace in a deep sea of calmness, when all around and above is trouble. It is the fruit of the Lord Jesus Christ’s redemptive work on Calvary’s cross, manifest in those of His own who are completely subjected to the Holy Spirit.” This is Andrew Murray’s concept of Christian humility.

Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, taught that true happiness was to be found in becoming insensitive to the four negative emotions: desire, fear, pleasure and pain. Epictetus, another Stoic philosopher, taught that “Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men’s desires, but by the removal of desire.”

“Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason (logos). A primary aspect of Stoicism involves improving the individual’s ethical and moral well-being: Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature.’ This principle also applies to the realm of interpersonal relationships; ‘to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy.'” (Wikipedia)

In Zen Buddhism, mushin “is a state of mind where mind is not fixed on or occupied by any thought or emotion, and is thus connected to the Cosmos. . . This pure state of mind, of pure mental clarity is produced by the absence of the ego or limited self.” (zen-buddhism.net)

It seems that when we try to make humility the chief virtue of Christian life, the temptation immediately presents itself to veer off into elements of pagan philosophy and mysticism. The definition of humility is the absence of pride, but when we make humility our goal, it becomes a self-centred thing and we circle back to feeling pride in our mastery of destructive emotions.

The antidote to this is love. Love is, after all, the chief virtue demanded of Christians and we dare not trade the positive virtue of love for the negative virtue of humility. If our life is genuinely motivated and empowered by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, of which love is the first mentioned, there will be precious little room for pride to take root.

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

“Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10)

“By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35)

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

Notice that Jesus does not say: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have humility.” 1 Corinthians chapter 13 is a beautiful description of humility, yet humility is not once mentioned. All the virtues described are attributed to the working of God’s love in our hearts and lives. Humility is the result of love, not the source of love and virtue, or something to be sought on its own.

Therefore give us love.

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