Friday, February 26, 2010

Fundies, Scholars, and the Hyper-Protestant Fear of Works

Steven Anderson's recent diatribe got me thinking about a few things. You would be hard pressed to find a preacher more opposed to works-salvation: he thinks those who believe that repentance is necessary to be saved are damned to hell. Believers should be sorry for their sins, just as they should be baptized, attend church, and do good works, and should abstain from alcohol and not watch TV, and should avoid male gynecologists like the plague -- but none of these, insists Anderson, contribute in any way toward salvation. Those who believe so are not really saved, because they are relying on a measure of their own effort for salvific purposes, the ultimate blasphemy.

Anderson defends his doctrine as follows: "Easy-Believism is not giving people license to sin, it is giving people license to be saved without jumping through a bunch of hoops. People should repent of their sins after they are saved, but whether they do or don't, they are still saved."

In a sermon preached on 2/24/08, "Godly Sorrow Worketh Repentance", Anderson takes repentance head on, addressing the problematic passages which imply that repentance is necessary for salvation. The only text in the bible that explicitly connects "repentance" to "salvation" is II Cor 7:9-10:
"Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance... Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death." (NRSV)
According to Anderson (though he tolerates only the King James translation), since Paul is addressing believers in Corinth who have already been saved, their spiritual salvation cannot be in question; the "salvation" or well-being of the church is in view. The word "save" has different meanings depending on context: Peter cries for Jesus to "save" him in Mt 14:30, but from drowning, not spiritual damnation. The evangelist speaks of the necessity of "enduring to the end to be saved" in Mt 24:13 -- saved from worldly torture (Mt 24:9), that is, not eternal damnation in hell. And as far as Lk 13:5 goes, "Unless you repent, you will perish" -- the trump card brandished by so many of Anderson's foes -- the context makes clear (to Anderson) that "perish" has nothing to do with going to hell, but dying in the same way the Galileans did at the hands of Pilate (Lk 13:3). "Perishing" is not being contrasted with everlasting life in this passage any more than "salvation" is speaking to everlasting life in II Cor 7:9-10.

So it's clear that Steven Anderson is as easy-believist as they come, and I would have never guessed he could be outshone in this regard. But as I mentioned a few days ago, there are members of his church who have begun claiming that he actually hasn't gone far enough, on the basis of his method of door-to-door soul winning. When converting people to the gospel, he requires them to say the sinner's prayer. Isn't that unnecessary? Isn't this prayer (like repentance) adding works to salvation? That's precisely what these critics have been accusing Anderson of (behind his back), and they've accordingly (also behind his back) been dropping the sinner's prayer from their soul-winning strategy when they go knocking doors. Anderson got wind of this and is bullshit with rage.

[You can listen to Anderson's hour and a half long defense of the sinner's prayer, but it basically boils down to this: He doesn't believe the prayer is necessary for salvation (contrary to the accusation), only that it is a necessary part of the soul winning strategy in order to help ensure that converts are really taking the step of putting their faith in Christ. "Calling upon the name of the Lord" isn't even always possible (especially for the mute), and the texts of Rom 10:9-10 and Mt 12:37 seem important for Anderson as public demonstrations of one's commitment, not absolutely necessary requirements for salvation.]

The lesson here is that works-righteous phobias crop up in ways you'd never expect. But it would be a mistake to dismiss them as a fringe madness common only among KJV Baptist fundies. Biblical scholars can be just as guilty as these pulpit-pounding screamers -- and in fact I think they're worse. The idea that human belief is a form of works-righteousness seems to lie at the heart of certain preferences for the subjective genitive reading of pistis Christou, the "faithfulness of Christ". I have already explained why this reading is a house of cards. What's fascinating is that if it owes to fears that putting one's faith in Christ is a work, then scholars have outdone the fundies. Neither Steven Anderson nor his critics would ever dream of claiming that belief, or faith itself, is a work.


Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

There may be some work-avoidance behind the adoption of the subjective genitive in the pistis Christou debate, but my sense is that different scholars (at least Duke) have different reasons (even from each other) for adopting it.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

I'm sure they do, though one's stated reasons won't always be the whole story. Few scholars will candidly admit to preferring the subjective genitive for eisegetical reasons, but in most cases it's not hard to read between the lines. Douglas Campbell's confession at the end of Deliverance of God is rather telling, not to mention his entire thesis which revolves around the priority of Rom 5-8 (in which humans are saved through no choice of their own) at the expense of Rom 1-4 (in which humans help themselves with the single manageable criterion of faith) which is given a drastic rereading.

It's a bit like the scholars who make Jesus in their self-images. Most are circumspect about admitting to it, if they're honest at all. A Dukie like Jason Staples is an interesting case, because he prefers the subjective genitive while arguing strongly for a works component to faith (completely opposite Campbell). So yes, in his case, there's no works-phobia controlling his reading of Paul.

Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

I have no doubt that some people are attracted to that because of the works avoidance, but I don't think that's what is motivating Campbell, because he just doesn't seem interested in that issue (in personal and class conversations) but rather has other sets of issues that animate him. In particular, political theory (including the role of the Church in the world) seems to be an important, even passionate substrate, in Campbell's thinking. At least, that's what seems to come out in conversation.

Jason, by the way, is actually a student at UNC with Bart Ehrman as his adviser, though he's taken some courses at Duke due to the close relationship between the two schools.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Yes, I forgot Jason is at Chapel Hill.

I can see the issues you mention in Campbell's thinking, but also an aggressive agenda against works which necessitates a complete assault on justification theory so that nothing in Rom 1:18-3:20 can be salvaged as Paul's gospel or even preparing for it. But I'll defer to you on the basis of your knowing him at Duke.

In any event, many critics do seem to think that works-avoidance is a major agenda motivating the subjective genitive reading. Initially I thought differently -- that the "faithfulness of Christ" was being favored to support proto-Arian views for fear of docetism. But that doesn't seem to be the wider concern.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's quite interesting to hear the furore over Gundry's thesis that God counts faith as righteousness. "But you're making faith an internal work" cry the detractors. "But Scripture puts faith and works in antithetical categories" replies Gundry. "Doesn't matter. The WCF says that God does not impute faith or any other evangelical obedience as righteousness, so faith must be a work." How about letting Scripture rather than 16th Century polemics inform our categories?

Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

If I had to guess why (some) scholars go for the subjective genitive is that it enables them to do Pauline theology completely outside of the confines of the Reformation systems (where I think the whole works-righteousness issue is mired). The subjective genitive makes it earlier to shift their understanding of the core of Paul's theology from justification by faith to participation in Christ.

There seem to be a couple reasons for this. Perhaps, they're motivated at the intellectual level from having a relatively open theological frontier to explore. Perhaps, they want to make a stronger case for Christian ethics than justification can provide. Perhaps, they just want to brand themselves a Dukie.

Blogger Gary said...


many of the conservative evangelical pastors I've heard hold to a calmer version of this same idea. OTOH, there are also quite a few who do not, John MacArthur being among the most prominent among them. Within evangelicalism the debate often uses this language:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"There seem to be a couple reasons for this. Perhaps, they're motivated at the intellectual level from having a relatively open theological frontier to explore. Perhaps, they want to make a stronger case for Christian ethics than justification can provide. Perhaps, they just want to brand themselves a Dukie."

Perhaps they also are seeing that the early Christian communities, if you take anything in patristics as evidence, seem to have worked on similar premises (though not necessarily as Pauline exegetes). Theologically, this looks alot like Orthodoxy - talk about "back to the future..."


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