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Aristotle on Eternal Security

What does a pagan Greek philosopher have to tell us about Christian salvation and eternal security? More than you might think.
Aristotle on Eternal Security

I was reading Book 1, Chapter 10 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, which talks about whether or not to follow Solon's dictum—"Call no man happy until he is dead"—to the letter. As I continued on in the passage, it occurred to me that this bit of Aristotle's writing might apply to the debate about eternal security and apostasy, and that it might even be a more nuanced take than is usually on offer.

I know, I know: I shouldn't take Christian doctrine from a pagan. Except, Paul riffs off of pagan quotes or ideas on multiple occasions (Acts 27:23, 28; Titus 1:12). And if it's theologically acceptable for him, it's at least in the field of play for the rest of us.

Here's the relevant selections (with eudaimonia, the word rendered poorly as "happiness" in my edition, changed to the superior "blessedness"):

Then should we count no human being blessed during his lifetime, but follow Solon's advice to wait to see the end? But if we agree with Solon, can someone really be blessed during the time after he has died? Surely that is completely absurd, especially when we say blessedness is an activity. We do not say, then that someone is blessed during the time he is dead, and Solon's point is not this, but rather that when a human being has died, we can safely pronounce that he was blessed before he died...
Let us grant that we must wait to see the end, and must then count someone as blessed...Would it not be absurd, then, if, at the very time when he is blessed, we refused to ascribe truly to him the blessedness he has? Such refusal results from reluctance to call him blessed during his lifetime, because of its ups and downs; for we suppose blessedness is enduring and definitely not prone to fluctuate, but the same person's fortunes often turn to and fro...
And since it is activities that control life, as we said, no blessed person could ever become miserable...[f]or a truly good and prudent person, we suppose, will bear strokes of fortune suitably and from his resources at any time will doe the finest actions...If this is so, the blessed person could never become miserable, but neither will he be blessed if he falls into misfortunes as bad as Priam's. Nor, however, will he be inconstant and prone to fluctuate, since he will neither be easily shaken from his blessedness nor shaken by just any misfortunes. He will be shaken from it, though, by many serious misfortunes, and from these a return to blessedness will take no short time...
Then why not say that the blessed person is the one whose activities accord with complete virtue...[o]r should we add that he will also go on living this way and will come to an appropriate end, since the future is not apparent to us, and we take blessedness to be the end, and altogether complete in every way? Given these facts, we shall say that a living person who has, and will keep, the goods we mentioned is blessed...

Right off the bat, we should acknowledge that Aristotle's metaphysics differs from ours: we believe that a Christian is most blessed after he is dead rather than during his earthly life. However, we can agree with Aristotle that there is a real blessedness which a Christian has in this life while following Christ. This blessedness is no less real because it is incomplete.

Still, being dead, per se, is not a blessed thing; it's the being alive again for eternity which is blessed. So, depending on what you believe about the intermediate state (no, we're not going there), it may be perfectly logical or quite strange to account someone as blessed between their death and the future resurrection.

Continuing on: there's a tension between the fact that you can only pronounce that a life was or wasn't blessed after it's over and the fact that you ought to recognize blessedness as it's happening. This correlates directly with the problems with the major views on salvation and recognizing it in this life. The position that a person can lose his salvation and that we can only pronounce on their walk with God after they have died and made all of their decisions is, I think, more accurate than the position of "eternal security." But it comes with a problem: people are Christians, are "saved," in the here-and-now, and we have to function meaningfully as a church while we're all alive and in a state of flux.

There are accounts of eminent Christians who deny eternal security refusing to ascribe salvation to themselves while they are alive. This is well-meaning, but it seems to denigrate God's grace. We are saved, and while we must continue in faith, it's not our works which save us, as if grace brought us into the kingdom but works kept us there. Our works must still exist, we must bear fruit; but we can also make reasonable judgment calls based on the fruit borne by professed Christians.

Every Christian experiences fluctuations in his or her relationship with God. Some may even walk away for a time, yet be restored (Peter, for example). Their walking away might be real, in that they legitimately are outside of salvation for that time; this maps onto the previously blessed Priam, father of Hector of Troy, losing his blessedness through the devastating tragedies which befell him. The idea, though, is that the blessed person doesn't just lose her blessedness willy-nilly, as if it were tossed around by every sea change in her life. Rather, while sins and failures still plague the saints, we need not fear for our salvation lest we partake in great, repeated, or unrepentant sins—that is to say, in a rejection of our salvation and blessedness. And restoration from that apostate state, while possible, will be painful.

Eternal security maintains we can know that we are saved forever, while the opposite position questions whether we can now know that we are (or will be) saved. The place Aristotle ends up lands squarely between these traps. We may not be able to tell if someone is blessed, or saved, in the end until, well, the end; but we can look at someone, see his life and actions, and say that he is blessed, as far as we can tell, as long as he continues on in the same way. It allows for both confidence (it's not arrogant to say that we are currently in a saving relationship with Christ) and realistic humility (we know that we must guard our faith carefully, lest we lose our reward).

Thus, we ought to say: a genuine, professing believer is a Christian, blessed and saved, as long as he or she continues to follow the Way. We do not assume that a Christian will stumble off of the path, but know that it has happened and can happen, and we exhort one another to "run with endurance the race which is set before us" (Heb. 12:1). We cannot make final judgment about anyone's salvation until they are dead, and it might even be hard then, but we can have a decent idea of where they are now based on their works, which demonstrate faith (Jas. 2:18).