Andy Derksen offered an interesting comment on my blog post “Compassion Reformed?” in which he sought to extend the argument from compassion for others to assurance of one’s own salvation. He wrote:
Ironically, not only must the Calvinist–*IF* he’s logically consistent with his theology–hold merely “provisional” compassion toward the suffering, he must also hold only provisional /self-acceptance/ as a Christian. This is because it is logically impossible to know whether or not you are “elect” yourself in the Calvinist understanding. Sure, they claim to incorporate assurance of salvation into their system, but Calvin himself taught an “inferior operation of the Spirit” whereby false believers are literally fooled by a minimal working of the Holy Spirit that mimics His work in the elect. Calvin wrote that
“…the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect, that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them. Hence . . . a temporary faith, is ascribed to them. Not that they truly perceive the power of spiritual grace and the sure light of faith; but the Lord, the better to convict them, and leave them without excuse, instils into their minds such a sense of his goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption. Should it be objected, that believers have no stronger testimony to assure them of their adoption, I answer, that though there is a great resemblance and affinity between the elect of God and those who are impressed for a time with a fading faith, yet the elect alone have that full assurance which is extolled by Paul, and by which they are enabled to cry, Abba, Father.” (_Institutes_ III.2.11-12)
So we see that although Calvin /asserted/ the elect’s assurance of salvation, our ground-level experience is that there is really nothing distinguishing the elect’s own sense of salvation from the false security of reprobates who believe themselves saved.
Of course this conundrum applies not only to Calvinism but any system that teaches “once saved, always saved.” Many non-Calvinists subscribe to “OSAS,” but only a consistent Arminianism, which allows for real apostasy by real Christians, resolves this dilemma.
Is it true as Andy claims that Arminians are better off when it comes to assurance of salvation?
The way you undermine knowledge is by identifying a defeater. A defeater is some evidence which serves to rebut a proposition (showing it to be false) or to undermine a proposition (remove your ground to think it true). In the present case the Calvinist seems to face an undercutting defeater:
Calvinist defeater: The interior psychological state of (i) those who believe they are elect but are in fact reprobate is indiscernable from the interior psychological state of (ii) those who believe they are elect and are in fact elect.
So the argument goes like this: once you recognize that (i) is indiscernable from (ii) you have no reason to believe that you are elect (ii) rather than reprobate (i). And once you can’t know that (ii) is true then you can’t have assurance that you are elect.
What about Arminians? Do they escape this dilemma? I don’t think so. Andy refers to the possibility of “real apostasy” from within an Arminian framework. But wait. Isn’t the possibility for real apostasy fatal to Arminian assurance?
To be sure, while the earliest Arminians were undecided about the matter of so-called real apostasy most subsequent Arminians have been strongly onside with Andy and, more importantly, with John Wesley who wrote: “a man that believes now may be an unbeliever some time hence; yea, very possibly tomorrow; but if so, he who is a child of God today, may be a child of the devil tomorrow.”
If Wesley is to be believed then being a “child of God” is not the same as “being elect”, for one can be a child of God today and yet may die a child of the devil tomorrow. And if one dies a child of the devil then one was not elect. Thus, a child of God may simultaneously be reprobate (that is, not elect)! And this leads us to an Arminian defeater:
Arminian defeater: The interior psychological state of (i) those who believe they are elect but are in fact reprobate is indiscernable from the interior psychological state of (ii) those who believe they are elect and are in fact elect.
Once you recognize that (i) is indiscernable from (ii) you have no reason to believe that you are elect (ii) rather than reprobate (i). And so the Arminian is in the same boat as the Calvinist.
Defeaters for everyone else
This isn’t just a Calvinist and Arminian problem however. Did you ever have a vivid dream in which you were convinced that you were awake?
Dreamy defeater for everyone else: The interior psychological state of (i) those who believe they are awake but are in fact asleep is indiscernable from the interior psychological state of (ii) those who believe they are awake and are in fact awake.
Were you ever convinced that you were remembering something but in fact your memory was false?
Memory defeater for everyone else: The interior psychological state of (i) those who believe they are remembering correctly but are in fact subject to a false memory is indiscernable from the interior psychological state of (ii) those who believe they are remembering correctly and are in fact remembering correctly.
Were you ever convinced that there was a sparkling pool uphead on the desert highway?
Sense perception defeater for everyone else: The interior psychological state of (i) those who believe they are perceiving correctly but are in fact perceiving falsely is indiscernable from the interior psychological state of (ii) those who believe they are perceiving correctly and are in fact perceiving correctly.
The Calvinist’s problem of assurance is the Arminian’s problem of assurance is the general problem of human fallibility. In each case the question is this: I believe p but I could conceivably be wrong about p so how can I know p? Can I know p?
So what to do? On the one hand you could accept the skeptic’s position: we can’t know p. But this seems too extreme. Surely the mere possibility of error is not enough to undermine a person’s knowledge that they are seeing a green apple, or that they visited this restaurant before, or that they are awake. The mere possibility of error is not sufficient to create an undercutting defeater that can undermine our knowledge of p.
If we can handle these general defeaters, it is also possible to handle defeaters in the case of the knowledge of assurance, be it Arminian or Reformed.