Brian Abasciano, “Acts 27 and the Possibility of Apostasy”

, posted by SEA

By Brian Abasciano

One of the strongest arguments that true believers in Christ can forsake faith in Christ and so perish is that Scripture warns believers against forsaking their faith and the accompanying consequence of perishing. There is no point in warning someone against doing something he knows he cannot do and suffering consequences he knows he cannot possibly experience. But some Calvinists appeal to the shipwreck story of Acts 27 in order to support the claim that it is reasonable to issue warnings or take them seriously when God has already guaranteed that a given action and its threatened consequence will not happen (see, e.g., Thomas R. Schreiner, “Perseverance and Assurance: A Survey and a Proposal,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 2 (1998) 32–62 [55]). The argument is basically that in the situation described by Acts God had promised that all who sailed with Paul would survive, and that Paul’s later warning that the sailors trying to escape must stay in the ship for his companions to survive shows that Paul considered it reasonable to issue a warning when he knew that its threatened consequence could not happen. But this argument is unconvincing.

First, let me emphasize that Schreiner’s reading of the passage runs against the common sense notion that warning someone of consequences one knows to be impossible is pointless and unnecessary (all the more so when one has communicated to those one is warning that the consequences cannot happen). Of course, Schreiner offers the passage to show an example against this common sense perspective. But the passage need not be read as Schreiner reads it. And very importantly, for him to succeed in pressing it as a counterexample to this utterly intuitive and common sense perspective, his reading of it as Paul consciously issuing a warning of consequences that Paul knew could not happen, and had in mind as such as he was issuing the warning, would need to be relatively certain. But it is not at all. There is simply too little information given in the text for us to be anywhere close to certain of that. And there are various alternative possibilities that are quite reasonable.

For example, the promise to Paul may well have been contingent on everyone being with him or on the sailors guiding the boat. We find elsewhere in the Bible that promises or warnings can sound absolute but are really to be understood conditionally and are revealed as such at a later time (e.g., Jonah 3; 1 Sam 2:30; Jer 18:5-10). Such a scenario fits this text quite well. Paul had told everyone on the ship that an angel told him that God had granted him “all those sailing with” him, but then later, when the sailors try to escape, he tells the soldiers that if the attempted escapees did not stay in the ship, they [the soldiers] would not be saved. Paul’s later statement may well reflect his understanding of the promise he received (and there could even have been more specific communication in the angelic message) that all who were with him (or perhaps at least the sailors) needed to be present for the promise to be in effect. Given Paul’s prophetic role in the context, I would think that his companions would actually regard Paul’s warning as having to do with his prophetic insight into the situation. So it could be that the best way to understand the situation is as follows: God promised the lives of all those with Paul, which he shares with the group with no thought that some would try to escape the situation. Indeed, his promise would be a motivation to stay. But then later he reveals that this promise only applies if all are together on the boat (or perhaps if the sailors are on the boat). This fits in with prophetic and other passages we see in the Bible in which there is contingency to God’s promise, often revealed at a later time.

It is important to note that Schreiner’s interpretation must assume that Paul had it in mind that the consequences he warned against could not happen. But it is perfectly possible—and this is another very plausible possibility that would contradict Schreiner’s interpretation—that in the excitement of what was going on and his becoming aware of the sailors’ plot to abandon the ship, that Paul was not thinking about the divine promise he had received when he issued the warning. If he was thinking about it, then he would have been speaking presumptuously at best and deceitfully at worst since there is no indication that he somehow knew that God was going to use the sailors as the means to saving the lives of those with Paul. For all Paul knew, perhaps God was going to miraculously guide the vessel to safety. Schreiner could say that Paul might have known from God that God was going to use the sailors, or at least we don’t know that Paul didn’t know that. But then that would grant my point. We don’t necessarily know all that Paul knew from God or any number of other things about Paul’s mental state or the situation. Given that, the principle that warnings of impossible consequences are pointless actually counts against Schreiner’s interpretation and suggests that another is more likely, whether that the initial promise was conditional or that in the intensity of the situation Paul did not have the divine promise consciously in mind. Indeed, the common sense principle that warnings of impossible consequences are pointless is much more certain than the questionable assumptions and details Schreiner reads into the text.

In light of all of this, it is safe to conclude that Acts 27 does not furnish an example of Paul issuing a warning of consequences he knew could not happen. The argument that it does furnish such an example bears the burden of proof (since it is put forth as refuting the common sense claim that it is pointless to warn against impossibilities) and rests on reading uncertain details into the text while there are more plausible ways of understanding the passage. Paul might have issued the warning because the promise was conditional on all who were sailing with him being together or on the sailors piloting the boat. Or Paul might not have been thinking of the promise at all when he issued the warning, but was just instinctively reacting to the urgent situation before him—those who could pilot the ship in its distress were abandoning it and everyone else on it. Either is more likely than what Schreiner suggests, that Paul had a promise from God that they would be fine and had told them about it, and also had this in mind with confident trust in it, and yet warned that if the sailors left, the soldiers on the boat would perish. One could charge that these readings also rest on uncertain details. But that would only underscore my larger point, that there is not enough information in the text to make Acts 27 speak to the issue of whether it is reasonable to warn against impossibilities. There seems to be no reason to doubt the claim that it is pointless to warn someone against doing something he knows he cannot do and suffering consequences he knows he cannot possibly experience. Given Scripture’s warnings against apostasy, this implies that true believers in Christ can forsake faith in Christ and so perish. As a significant side note, this in turn undoes Calvinism as a system, since the other points of Calvinism taken together logically demand the very opposite, that true believers in Christ cannot forsake faith in Christ and so perish.