Looking at Insider Movements (4): Evaluation (Part 1)

By: Doug Coleman

So what do we make of the biblical and theological arguments of IM proponents? This was the sole purpose of my entire dissertation, and even still I feel like more could have been done. So, a couple of blog posts will be terribly inadequate to offer anything but a number of summary statements. But here are a few brief thoughts.

First, while I appreciate Kevin Higgins’ effort to provide some biblical and theological rationale, I find claims about God working within the non-Christian religions biblically unconvincing. After closely scrutinizing the six characters or passages he cites, I do not find biblical indications that God is working within, or via, these non-Christian religions. God is certainly calling out to, drawing, and convicting individuals (and perhaps even groups) within these religions, and He is certainly “in relationship” with those individuals (albeit it sometimes an adversarial one). But I do not see biblical indications that God ordained these religions as preparation for the gospel or that He is using them as vehicles of communication.

For example, regarding the sailors of Jonah, Higgins makes three brief claims: (1) their prayers are heard by Yahweh, (2) Yahweh directs the answer when they cast lots, and (3) therefore, they are in relationship with Yahweh.[1] In one sense, all three claims can possibly be affirmed. The sailors clearly cast lots (Jonah 1:7) and it seems that God directed. Furthermore, the text indicates the sailors prayed on two occasions, the first time each man praying to his own god (1:5), the second time specifically to Yahweh, Jonah’s God (1:14). Their second prayer was answered (they were spared), but the text nowhere establishes a cause and effect relationship between their prayer to Yahweh and the outcome. In fact, Jonah had already informed them they would be saved if they cast him into the sea (1:12).

The sailors, as with all individuals who have ever lived, are certainly in some kind of relationship with Yahweh, but the text gives no indication that their prayer was anything other than an egocentric concern for their own safety. Furthermore, the text nowhere suggests that God used their religion as a means of communicating or relating to them. God appears to have directed the casting of lots, but lot casting was a common practice among the Israelites and the ancient Near East, so the sailors’ actions are not surprising. But again, how could this support the conclusion that God was working within a non-Christian religious system, or that He intended to affirm such a religion? The other biblical examples Higgins cites are equally problematic.

Similarly, this claim that God is working within the religions of the world-or the possible implication that He ordained them as a means of preparation for the gospel-cuts against the grain of repeated biblical judgments on other religions and the biblical emphasis on the covenant people as the means by which God intends to bring salvation to the nations.

This is not to suggest that non-Christian religions are entirely devoid of any kind of true statements. In fact, I believe there are biblical and theological reasons to expect that most, if not all, non-Christian religions will contain elements of both general and special revelation. However, I am not suggesting that God inspired Muhammad in the way that Kevin Higgins believes He did. Historical evidence suggests that biblical content was available to Muhammad, possibly from multiple human sources. He also had access to general revelation, as do all humans. Therefore, it is not surprising to find true statements within Islam. But this does not mean that God inspired Muhammad, that He is working within Islam to bring Muslims to Christ, or that He ordained Islam as some sort of preparation for the gospel. The latter claim would be troublesomely anachronistic since Muhammad was born almost 600 years after Jesus.

Therefore, it seems misguided to place the religions within the Kingdom of God, as Higgins does. Ultimately, God does reign over all (however you want to work out the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility). But as George Ladd points out, the Kingdom of God is primarily a soteriological idea, and it has come in the person and activity of Jesus, the King.[2]

In the next post I’ll make a few comments on several of the key passages cited by IM proponents, and mention the analogy between early Jewish believers and Muslim Insiders.

[1] Kevin Higgins, “Inside What? Church, Culture, Religion and Insider Movements in Biblical Perspective,” SFM 5 (August 2009): 85.

[2] George Eldon Ladd, Crucial Questions about the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1952), 81-91.

[Editor’s Note: Doug Coleman is a SEBTS alum who lives and works in Central Asia. His SEBTS dissertation was recently published as A Theological Analysis of the Insider Movement Paradigm from Four Perspectives: Theology of Religions, Revelation, Soteriology, and Ecclesiology (Pasadena, CA: WICU Press, 2011). We asked Dr. Coleman to publish a critique of the Insider Movement here at BtT, in the form of a six-part blog series.]

Molinists and Calvinists: Locked in a Wordy Embrace with the Same Gargoyle

I have put my hand to the tar baby. Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Broadman & Holman) came out this month, a book in which I tackle the divine sovereignty–human responsibility conundrum, specifically as it relates to the area of salvation. As the title indicates, the book approaches the issue from a Molinist perspective, which means I advocate a high view of sovereign control but a libertarian understanding of free will (though in a stripped-down version I call “soft-libertarianism”). After grinding my brain cells on the subject for the past ten years, I am struck by how much compabilists (read Calvinists) and Molinists have in common. We agree much more than we disagree. And we are wrestling with same puzzle: how God is entirely the Author of our salvation while we are entirely the origin of our sin. As Allen Guelzo describes the efforts of theologians and philosophers over the past two centuries, “we have been locked in a wordy embrace with the same gargoyle” (Guelzo: 1999, 108). To pile on another metaphor, Calvinists approach the tension from one side while Molinists come at it from the other, but in the end we are both slamming our heads against the same brick wall.

Without minimizing our differences, let me list some areas of agreement between Molinists and Calvinists:

1. Divine Sovereignty and human free will are both profoundly true. We hold to both because the Bible simultaneously teaches both. We reject two opposite but equally dangerous tendencies: the denial of free will (fatalism) and the deification of free will (open theism comes to mind). Philosopher Robert Kane proposes a version of “soft-libertarianism” that goes a long way in addressing the objections many Calvinists have had towards libertarianism, and in the book I incorporate his insights in my discussion on human choices.

2. God, whenever He chooses, accomplishes His will with precision and success (Isa 14:24; Prov 16:33; Matt 10:29-30)). Some might call this a version of meticulous providence. Molinists and Calvinists equally affirm God’s comprehensive control of both the means and the ends.

3. Despite the fact that God can and does accomplish His will through the wicked decisions and actions of sinful men (Gen 50:10; Acts 2:23), God is not responsible for evil nor is He the origin of sin. This is certainly not a distinctly Molinist doctrine. The Canons of Dort declare that the very notion of God as the author of sin is “a blasphemous thought” (Art 15).

4. Apart from a gracious work of the Holy Spirit, no one can repent and believe the Gospel. Fallen humanity has lost free will in the one place it really matters–in the ability to respond to God. Not only do Molinists and Calvinists agree on this point, but so do all orthodox Christians. To deny this fact is to embrace Pelagianism. The disagreement between Molinists and Calvinists lies in our respective understanding of the nature and extent of God’s enablement (i.e., whether it is always effectual). This dispute must not be papered over, but it shouldn’t be caricatured either.

5. The Gospel is genuinely proffered to every hearer. If Calvinists generally find unsatisfactory the Molinist approach to point four, then Molinists usually look with skepticism at the typical Calvinist explanation on this point. But let’s remember that all good Calvinists and Molinists affirm “the well-meant offer” of the Gospel. As Wayne Grudem points out in his discussion of the Savior’s invitation of Matt 11:28-30, “Every non-Christian hearing these words should be encouraged to think of them as words that Jesus Christ is even now, at this very moment, speaking to him or to her individually…This is a genuine personal invitation that seeks a personal response from each one who hears it” (Grudem: 1994, 694. Emphasis original).

So we affirm that salvation is a sovereign, monergistic work of God, such that the redeemed are saved entirely by grace. At the same time, we genuinely repent and believe, we truly receive the Gospel, such that the Christ-rejecter is damned by his own choice. The Bible clearly teaches both concurrent truths. And we must simultaneously affirm both. To coin a phrase from Peter Thuesen, on this issue the biblical witness requires that we must be theologically ambidextrous.

We Are All Dying

We are all dying. This may not be apparent to everyone; it may not be apparent about everyone. It is, however, very apparent that my mother is dying. Beyond the toll of some 77 years on this earth, her body lies ravaged by decades of rheumatoid arthritis and her mind has been taken from us by the cruelty we call Alzheimer’s. Mom stayed with us as long as she could. She fought to stay healthy enough to remain my father’s faithful companion. But upon his death she quickly deteriorated. Her body is wasting away, and it has been some time since she has spoken or recognized anyone, including any of her four children or dozen grandchildren.

I went to see Mom this weekend. I sat with her, and told her about my children, and about what is happening in life. I told her about things mundane and sublime. I talk for a living, yet I had a hard time keeping the one-sided conversation going at times. Mom never was a conversationalist, but I told her that this was just ridiculous (one has to keep a sense of humor about such things). At those moments when I couldn’t think of anything else to say, I would pray for her, or sing to her one of her favorite songs. Mom never once opened her eyes during my visit – they say it has been over a month since she has done so. I have no idea if she even knew I was there. And if she knew someone was there, I am quite certain that she had no idea it was her son, the youngest of her four children.

My visits to see Mom are too infrequent, I confess, so I don’t want to suggest that my journey was anything noble. That honor goes to my brother, Rick, and his wife Amy, who have looked after Mom for the last few years. They cared for Mom and my Dad, until he passed to his rest, and they struggled through the decision to place Mom in a home where she could receive the care she needs. Quite simply, they have done all that could be done, and then more. They have honored my mother in this, and pleased our Lord.

There are many things I recalled this weekend. Many memories passed through my mind. Occasions of laughter and joy, of difficulty and sadness. Sitting next to a perishing body reminds one of mortality, of the effects of the fall, and of the inevitability of death. The sounds and smells of decay are sobering. In those environs one remembers that our days are numbered.

Earlier today, I explained to my mother that I had to go, that my visit was over. I told her that I loved her, and I thanked her for caring for her baby boy. And I prayed for her that she would receive the gift she told us she longed for over two years ago, not long after Dad died – to go home. To that eternal home where her Savior awaits her. And as I left her, I was reminded – no “reminded” is too thin a word – I was compelled to ensure that I make the most of the days I have on this earth. We should all recall this from time to time. Yes, we are all dying. We are born toward dying. We are dusty, misty people, as Psalm 90 puts it, and we will do well to number our days.