Faith! Works! Confusion! Cooperation? (It's all about the cooperation, actually.)

Recently I was asked, due to my holding a minority position of which we will not speak (so to speak {lopsided g}), how "faith" and "works" fit with my position, the implication being that I have the wrong idea about faith and works and salvation somewhere. The specifics don't matter, since I am sometimes accused of having a "works" based salvation, and I am sometimes accused of having a "faith" based salvation, and I am sometimes accused of having an idea of salvation based on nothing at all.

In fact, my idea of salvation follows from trinitarian theology, and from trying to reckon scriptural testimony coherently (exegetics); so it isn't surprising that I get accused of one thing or another, because (as I will argue below) trinitarian theology gives an important place to both faith and works, while of course ideas of faith and works in salvation which conflict with trinitarian theism ought to be avoided and denied.

Anyway, I answered according to my beliefs as a trinitarian theologian and apologist. And an examination of that may help explain and account for why even trinitarian Christians tend to snipe at one other on this topic.

(This article isn't long by my standards, but orthodox trinitarian theology is rather complicated and detailed, so don't be surprised if clicking on the jump leads to dizziness. Don't drive or operate heavy machinery while reading this article. {g})

We're either choosing to cooperate with God, or we aren't; and if we aren't, we may be choosing to act against fair-togetherness between persons instead.

So long as we insist on choosing that, we're sinning. Someone may be choosing to cooperate with God without realizing what they're doing exactly and still be working in good faith, like the mature flock in Matt 25; and I gather that the problem with the baby goats in that judgment parable is their intentional attitude toward the least of Christ's flock (like themselves!--but whom they refused to recognize themselves as), not an accidental misunderstanding about facts. Otherwise they'd be penitently learning to adjust to the real facts in that scene.

Nevertheless, if Jesus (and God more generally elsewhere, setting aside Christology variants) repeatedly testifies that people who "do the good things" get rewarded post-mortem and those who "do the bad things" get punished post-mortem (and both those quotes are literal translations of scriptural phrases in relation to judgment); and if true love involves active choices to supportively cooperate with persons (as in the Trinity for example); then those who hold to their "bad things" are going to be punished so long as they hold to them, and possibly still disciplined for teaching and training purposes even if they repent: because cooperation with God, and with our fellow creatures, is important to the life of a child of God as a child of God.

Cooperation, being an action, is certainly a work; and that applies to faith, too: being faithful, including being trustworthy, is a choice and thus a work. If anyone is looking to be saved from their sins (or even from punishment) without having to cooperate with God, then they're expecting something contradictory, and it isn't going to happen. We cannot be saved from not-cooperating-with-God without coming to cooperate with God.

If trinitarian or some other high Christology theism is true, then cooperating with God means sharing with what Jesus does on the cross -- and NOT trying to act separately from Jesus on the cross, as if we could save ourselves by crucifying ourselves (literally and/or figuratively) apart from God, but following the lead of God in cooperation with God, which includes acknowledging our proper reality and role as creatures of God.

And now we're getting into why "salvation by works" is properly denounced: we cannot convince God or make God save us, nor can we do it ourselves apart from God or as if we and God are both creatures in ontological parallel. Nor can we appeal to some standard beyond God or more fundamental than God as though God is obligated to save us by that higher standard.

On this point Calvinistic and universalistic Christian schools of thought agree (at least in principle if not always coherently in theological practice), over-against Arminian schools of thought: no one, including us, has to convince God to act to save us from our sins, or to keep acting to do so if God voluntarily acts first. That means the Son doesn't convince the Father to save us either, which would be an incoherent proposition if trinitarian theism is true anyway. We don't convince God to save us by saying the sinners prayer or following the Roman road or being baptized at any age or taking sacramental communion or "just trusting in Jesus", or any other action or set of actions, no matter how complex or simple. Nor is there any possibility of us being saved from our sins unless God loves us with saving love.

On that point Arminianistic and universalistic Christian schools of thought agree (at least in principle if not always coherently etc.) over-against Calvinistic schools of thought: God loves all sinners with saving love. The assurance of God's saving love certainly applies to you (whoever is reading this), not maybe you.

But whichever school of Christian thought is true (only one of those assurances, or only the other, or both), God is saving us from uncooperation into willing cooperation, and that's a choice on our part whether that choice is looked at from a libertarian direction (as Arminianistic Christians tend primarily do) or from a compatiblistic direction (as Calvinistic Christians tend primarily to do, although both sides can and sometimes do agree that both types of freedom apply importantly.)

Or as one apostle puts it, works without faith (and hope and love) are useless or worse than useless; and as another canonical author puts it, faith without works is dead. And they're both right, and both are encouraging both 'faith' and 'works': It isn't an either/or situation. The problem only comes in when we get an idea about works, including about the action of faith, that supersedes God somehow.

Putting it another way, we aren't supposed to forget to work out our own salvation, because that's the responsible thing for a person to do; but we also aren't supposed to forget to do so with fear and trembling, for it is God Who works within us. A child who doesn't act in cooperation with his father is a rebel child ("I go sir!" but went not); and a child who doesn't act in cooperation with his father is a rebel child.

The whole point to trinitarian theism, compared to any other philosophy or theology (or atheology), is this, if it's true: the one and only fundamental ground and source of all reality is a mutually supporting and intentionally cooperative personal relationship, which gives this relationship as its first and foremost action upon which all reality (even Itself) is based.

So it makes sense, if this is true, that not only is faith a gift (since all our capabilities are gifts from God, whether we're abusing those capabilities or not; and since God would be actively interested in bringing us to mutually supportive intentional cooperation with Him and with one another, so would be acting to empower and lead us to that goal), but also faith is a work: because as rationally active persons we're expected to actively choose to do one kind of thing instead of another.

But since both concepts are important, and both concepts have abuses which ought to be guarded against, it's easy for theists to forget (or even never to learn) that both concepts are true and important, and so to emphasize the proper truth and practice of one of those concepts while guarding against the abuse of the other other -- and hopefully also against the abuse of the concept they're trying to protect.

But when people who emphasize one concept (or even both concepts) forget to guard against the abuse of the concept, then it's actually good and helpful for someone else to warn against the abuse. But then that naturally leads to competitive confusion about "salvation by faith" and "salvation by works" and accusations that either side is doing something wrong or leaving something out. Which might be perfectly true accusations about various sides critically toward each other! -- but human nature being what it is, that can lead to a viciously circular round of accusations and opposition.

When ironically, the whole point is supposed to be the fostering of cooperation.

(Especially if the Trinity is true.)


Jason Pratt said…
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