March 2019 Credo
Question: How can a believer reconcile the doctrine of “Once Saved Always Saved” with Hebrews 6:4-6?
This question raises the important larger issue of how the formation of Christian doctrines and the interpretation of the Bible are related to each other. I hope the person who raised this question will forgive me if I dwell on this issue, instead of answering his or her question specifically. I do this because I am convinced that, if we see the larger picture, many issues of the Christian faith, including the question of whether we are able to lose our salvation, would fall into their proper place.
Many Christians probably hold on to such an understanding of the relationship between Christian doctrines and biblical interpretation: Christians begin by studying the Bible, and then distilling and systematising its teachings, which then constitute the doctrines of the faith. In this rather simplistic account, Christians are assumed to approach the Bible with a tabula rasa (blank slate), and derive all their content and conclusions purely from what the Bible says.
More sophisticated theories of interpretation (and, we might add, our personal experiences) tell us that such a simplistic account of interpretation does not occur in real life. The reader always brings a set of presuppositions with him when he encounters a text, and his interpretation of what the text says is profoundly affected by these presuppositions. This is why, in the history of the Church, the same Bible passage could be interpreted in radically different ways by different groups of Christians, all fervently convinced that their reading is the correct one.
The presuppositions we bring to the text come from a variety of sources, e.g., our cultural backgrounds, our experiences, our personalities and our unique forms of reasoning. For Christians, one important source of presuppositions is our current understanding of the Christian faith (i.e., the set of doctrines we hold). This constitutes an influential framework in and through which we read and understand the Bible.
This does not mean, however, that we are inevitably trapped by our presuppositions when we read the Bible (or any other text). This is because the act of reading, while invariably influenced in profound ways by our presuppositions, also has the power to give us fresh insights. These insights, may, in some cases, strengthen our presuppositions, but may also, in others, challenge or undermine them. Hence, as we are exposed to different texts and different opinions, there is a possibility that we might change our minds and refine or even jettison our current set of presuppositions.
Because of how Protestant Christianity, in her history, has split into numerous different streams, different groups of Protestants are influenced by different theological frameworks when they read the Bible. One major framework is provided by the Reformed movement, which began in Switzerland in the 16th century.
This movement, also called Calvinism, places great emphasis on the sovereignty of God, especially in the process of our salvation. It is God who predestines those who would be saved and those who would not, and such predestination cannot be changed in the slightest by any other factors, including our human decisions. It was within such a scheme that the teaching of “once saved always saved” arose, and it is easy to understand why. Only those who have been predestined would receive salvation, and there is no possibility they could lose this salvation because it rests ultimately on the unchangeable predestining will of God.
An alternative scheme arose as a result of dissent within the Reformed movement itself. A Dutch theologian called Jacob Arminius sought to give a more efficacious role to the human will in our salvation. The counter-movement he started, called Arminianism, eventually came to reject the “once saved always saved” teaching. Because we are free to reject God’s saving grace, even after receiving it, it was possible for Christians to renounce their faith and lose their salvation.
It was both natural and expected that the Calvinists and Arminians would read the Bible according to their respective theological frameworks. These frameworks determine how the two groups deal with texts which, on the surface, are both favourable and unfavourable to their respective positions. The Calvinists, therefore, tend to put emphasis on the passages which seem to suggest the permanence of our salvation (e.g. Jn 10:27-30, Phil 1:6) and interpret the “less convenient” passages in a way consistent with their larger scheme.
So, when it comes to Heb 6:4-6, some Calvinists argue that those whom the passage mentions as being in danger of “falling away” are those who are not true Christians and who have not been saved in the first place. Other Calvinists accept that Heb 6:4-6 was addressed to true Christians, but say that it refers only to a hypothetical situation (true Christians falling away) which would never materialise in reality. Arminians, on the other hand, appeal to a more “straightforward” reading of Heb 6:4-6, and have their own strategies for interpreting the passages traditionally seen as supportive of Calvinism.
How should we Protestants respond to this situation we find ourselves? There are, I would like to suggest, two levels of response we can make. On one level, we can put effort into undertaking a serious study of the key Bible passages in the Calvinist-Arminian debate (including Heb 6:4-6), with the aid of commentaries and scholarly writings. Such study, however, should be undertaken with a clear-headed realisation that our own presuppositions profoundly influence our reading of these passages (and that the same is true for the authors we consult). The aim of such a study is to see if we gain new insights which may either strengthen our present theological beliefs or challenge them.
On another (and I would suggest, more important) level, we should examine the underlying theological frameworks themselves. Besides the specific issue of what the Bible says on whether we are able to lose our salvation, what are the strengths and weaknesses of both the Calvinist and Arminian positions as a whole?
Are there, in fact, alternatives to these two positions, and might these alternatives render moot several of the seemingly important issues in this intra-Protestant debate? Could we, for example, hold the poles of God’s sovereignty and human freedom in a kind of ineffable tension, and avoid the detailed clarity with which both Calvinism and Arminianism have sought to set out their relationship?
This is the approach, for example, of many thinkers in another branch of Christianity called Eastern Orthodoxy. They seek to hold the tension on some of the issues on which Protestant thinkers tend to gravitate to one end or the other. On the specific matter we are discussing, holding the tension might lead us to discover that both the “Calvinist” and “Arminian” Bible passages have their specific pastoral purposes to fulfil, which we can appreciate without having to come to an objective certainty as to which side is definitely correct. Those who need reassurance in trying times might therefore take refuge in the more “Calvinist” passages, while the more “Arminian” passages might be properly directed at those who have become complacent about their faith and taking their status as Christians for granted.
Perhaps one weakness of our Protestant heritage is that theologians in this sector of Christianity have sought to explicate the faith with too much clarity, coming up with massive theological structures which seek to explain clearly the minute details of Christianity and to logically link them to one another. This looks very neat, of course, and there is a certain satisfaction we feel at coming up with a clear and “water-tight” framework.
Such clarity and tidiness, however, might have come at the expense of disavowing valid positions which could also be found in the Bible and our long Christian tradition, just because they do not fit smugly into our beloved structures. We might, in other words, have let go of tensions we should have maintained, even at the expense of clarity and tidiness in our theological systems.
Perhaps, as we take a step back from the minute details of these intra-Protestant debates, we might begin to question whether they are truly crucial to the maintenance and growth of our Christian faith. Perhaps, after seeing the larger picture, it becomes far less pressing and important to adjudicate with certainty as to which side is right on some of the issues they disagree on.
Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.