Monday, January 06, 2020

'Not Simple or Absolute'

This is the second of the posts on ‘Christmas reflections’. The first was on Jesus's present physical absence which  Christmas nativity plays, on  baby Jesus’s appearance, are rather misleading rather than helpful. The Christmas (of 2019) is by now rapidly  disappearing, which is how it is with anniversaries. Needless to say, a Christian should mull over the significance of 'God was in Christ’, whatever the day of the year.

So now we are going to briefly reflect on the fact that God decreed the coming into flesh of his one and only Son, and what the character was of that decree.

The view of the  ‘incarnation anyway’ a ‘supralapsarian’ Christology has  provoked some discussion, following the book of that title by Edwin C. Van Driel (Oxford University Press.) On this view, even had there be no lapse, the virgin Mary would have given birth to Emmanuel. (Or maybe not, depending on the multitudinous counterfactuals that are possible,  given the view.) Or maybe it is congruent with such a view that the Incarnation could have been repeated at intervals, (not on once 25th December); maybe, accoording to this speculation there could be annual incarnations. That's the way with speculations.

 In Christian dogma, the 'incarnation now' view has had a long ancestry, having been held by,  for example, Alexander of Hales, Ockham, Bonaventure and others before the Reformation. At the time of the Reformation it was held by Osiander, a Lutheran whose views bothered Calvin. And since Osiander, Dorner in the 19th century and Barth in the last century have engaged in the same speculation. But this  view is not of concern here:

Calvin says in the Institutes, in the opening section of Book II.Chapter12.

It deeply concerned us, that he who was to be our Mediator should be very God and very man. If the necessity be inquired into, it was not what is commonly termed simple or absolute, but flowed from  the divine decree on which the salvation of man depended.   What was best for us, our most merciful Father determined. Our iniquities, like a cloud intervening between him and us, having utterly alienated us from the kingdom of heaven, none but a person reaching to him could the medium of restoring peace. But who could thus reach to him? Could any of the sons of Adam? All of them, with their parents, shuddered at the sight of God. Could any of the angels? They had need of a head, by connection with which they might adhere to their God entirely and inseparably. What then? The case was certainly desperate. If the Godhead itself did not descend to us, it being impossible for us to ascend. Thus the Son of God behooved to become our Immanuel, i.e. God with us, and in such a way, that by mutual union his divinity and our nature might be combined; otherwise, neither was the proximity near enough, nor the affinity strong enough, to  give us hope that God would dwell with us, so great was the repugnance between our pollution and the spotless purity of God.

What preoccupied Calvin was both God’s freedom in making the act of incarnation, and how it is necessary for human redemption. The statement with which Calvin begins his chapter, where he states that the incarnation was not what is commonly termed‘simple or absolute’, is an unusual yet significant phrase. God is eternal and infinite, absolute in himself. Here using it, Calvin  might be contrasting the incarnation of Jesus Christ with the eternal generation of the Son. That was certainly simple and absolute, being an essential element of the  mystery of the Trinity. So for Calvin the action was not simple or absolute. But was the outcome of such a free decree necessary.

God decreed, and the incarnation followed, as we can follow it, say in the early chapters of Luke, and John 1. But it was not necessitated by the divine essence, as the Son was eternally begotten of the Father’s essence, according to the Nicene formula. The Son was incarnate,  John’s  statement of the Logos, that ‘he became flesh’ In John 1, verse…,  is not a statement about God in himself, like ‘God is wise’. Nor is it like ‘the bulb became a red flower’, a natural necessity.

Calvin’s view of the atonement was that it was the outcome of the mercy and love of God for sinners. He goes on to say this….But there are places in which he sketches another possibility. For example in his sermons on Isaiah 53, the suffering servant, he says ‘If God pardoned us without Jesus Christ interceding for us and being made pledge, we should think nothing of it. We should all shrug our shoulders and make it an opportunity  for giving ourselves greater license, But when we see that did not spare His only Son….’ There are a number of other places when he entertains this possibility, his commentary of John 15.13, in a sermon on Matthew 26. 37-9, and one on Galatians 1. 3-5. (These are reproduced in Calvin at the Centre, 172.) And no doubt more.

So Calvin affirms quite a few times the idea that God could have incarnated his Son without himself  yielding to death for us, but God did not have done so because that would have been inferior to what in fact occurred. God would be free to, but this course would have been an impossible way to acheive our redemption.

Calvin’s successor at Geneva, Francis Turretin adds  (in his rather fuller account, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ii.301.)

It was not only suitable, but necessary (sin and the decree of God concerning the redemption of men concerning the redemption of men being supposed) that the Son of God should be incarnate in order to accomplish this work. (1) The question does not concern a simple and absolute necessity on the part of God for God could (if he had wished) leave man no less than the Devil in his destruction. Rather the question concerns a hypothesis – whether the will to save men being posited, the incarnation was necessary, or whether it could have been brought about  by some other means. (2) Again, the question does not concern the necessity of the decree for no one denies that on the supposition of God’s having  decreed this, it ought necessarily to have been done. Rather the question concerns the necessity of nature  - whether the decree being set aside and antecedently to it) it was necessary for the Son of God to become incarnate to redeem us. (3) The question does not concern the necessity of fitness because all confess that was in the highest decree fitting to the divine majesty – that his precepts might not be said to have been violated with impurity. Rather the question concerns the necessity of justice - that in no other way could the justice of God have been satisfied and our deliverance brought about (which we assert).

 ‘The question’ which Turretin reflects on more than once is, I think, The question at the head of the question in which this passage occurs: ‘Was it necessary for the Son of God to be incarnate? We affirm. (Institutes, 2. 299)  In this passage, Turretin, like Calvin,  that that the Incarnation was not necessary but free. But it was necessary justice had to be satisfied.  Between Calvin's day and Turretin's the Socinians had become numerous. That’s why Turretin (and also John Owen) tightened the reins.

Some contend that the Reformers were  'necessitarian', but Calvin's attitude to the Incarnation is firmly non-necessitarian.

Monday, December 02, 2019

‘He is not here’

There was a time when some met Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh,  as we meet each other. Notably, his mother and father, and sisters and brothers, met him. And then his disciples met him, who when they talked with Jesus more often than not seemed to be puzzled by what he had to say about himself. Then there was the crucifixion, watched by quite a few; and his rising again, when he was seen by his disciples again, who talked to him, and more importantly, were talked to by Jesus.

After his crucifixion, the angels who attended the place where Jesus was buried, said to those perplexed men and women who brought spices to anoint him. ‘He is not here’. They went on: ‘He is risen.’ (Lk.26. 6) But since then the words ‘He is not here’,  prevailed. True, and thankfully, he was resurrected, and remained so. And for a while he remained with his disciples, still instructing them. But then he ascended, and such words about not being here came to have a more permanent significance. Since his ascension, when a cloud received him, those man years ago, it has been that true that he is not here,

Where is he?  We have several answers. He has gone to his God and our God. He is in heaven. He is at the right hand of God Almighty. What does this mean? Someone once suggested that, like an author who is creating a play, as far as the creation of our space and time is concerned, Christ (one of the figures in the play) was ‘written out’ at that point. Others have suggested that ‘heaven’ where Jesus is, is  like another wave length in a radio. As we switch from one station to another, we leave one world and ‘arrive’ at the other.

These are only analogies, with many deficiencies. But they do make the point that ‘the heavenly’ is not make-believe, but is a reality that is different from ‘the earthly’. Each has its own temporal sequencies (and frequencies!), which at certain points merge, as in Christ’s ascension, and in the appearance of the risen Christ to Paul on the road to Damascus, (Acts 9). Perhaps there is such a merging in the story of the account of Elijah who ‘went up by a whirlwind into heaven’  (2 Kings 2.11)   and another merging later when  Elisha prayed for the young man’s eyes to be open. ‘And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all round Elisha.’ (2 Kings 6.17) And of course, there is Paul on the road to Damascus, converted and commissioned as the Apostle to the Gentiles. But again, rather unclear.

But with such exceptions in mind,  if thy are exceptions, the era since those two events, the Resurrection and the Ascension of Jesus,  is one in which the risen Christ is absent from our reality, the age of ‘He is not here’.

All this is to show that the events of the Son made flesh were events in real time, when his birth was at a time, his remaining in the temple when he was twelve was a later time, and death and resurrection and ascension were at subsequent times, each later on after the next. The modern language about ‘meeting with Jesus’, understood literally, disregards what we may call redemptive history. We live in the ‘last days’ awaiting the return of Jesus. That return is also to be a bodily appearance, as we have already noted. As Jesus does not come again each Christmas, so he does not come again each Sunday. When he appears, believers will be like him, because they will see him as he is. (1Jn.2.2)

Jesus has disappeared. We must be thankful, then, that before that He taught his disciples of the coming of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him or knows him’. (See John 14. 16-17) But we do not meet the Spirit as his disciples met with Jesus; by God’s grace we are indwelled by him, if we are believers. And there are more clues about the Spirit’s operations here: ‘But the Helper the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’(14. 26) So we get from these words a different set of ideas than those of ‘meeting Jesus’. We are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, the Helper or Comforter, the teacher sent in Christ’s name to bring to the memory of the apostles the words of Christ, and reliable accounts of what he did, reports that are to be with the church - the body of Christ in a different sense -  for ever.

We are constrained by the calendar to celebrate of the coming into flesh of the eternal Son of God on one day each year. It was celebrated last year, and will be celebrated in the next. So an annual reminder, with its pantomime-like celebration of the Nativity, tends to weaken in our minds the uniqueness and reality, and seriousness,  of what we celebrate. (This is not a complaint of the usual kind, about the commercialization of Christmas). This was a once-for-all event, on which our forgiveness and reconciliation hinge. At his ascension the angels also told the astonished disciples that the no-longer visible Jesus , who was taken into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1.10) We live by faith, not by sight. Until then, the clock continues to tick. But there is assurance of his coming again. In the mean time, Paul says, don’t doze off. However long there remains for the church militant to  wait,  ‘….salvation is nearer than when we first believed.’ (Rom.13.11) ‘He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon’. To which the church replies ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (Rev. 22.20)

Friday, November 01, 2019

.....And more on Molinism

Luis De Molina (1535-1600) 

The Reformed theologians in the 17th century who faced Molinism, such as Rutherford and Twisse, seem to have focused their arguments against middle knowledge by stressing the divine decrees. It is a pity that most of their writing is in scholastic Latin. The most direct source of this approach is Turretin’s  discussion of middle knowledge in Institutes !, 212-217, now joined by the excellent translation of relevant passages  by Todd Rester, in volume II of Petrus Van Mastricht’s Theological - Practical   Theology,  2.267f. (Reformation Heritage Books, 2019)


Ch, III of the WCF, Of God’s Eternal Decree  starts as follows -

I. God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will, not is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
 III  Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet hath he not decreed anything because he foreknow it as future, or as that  which would come to pass upon such conditions.

Paragraph III cuts off middle knowledge, which has God being presented by an array of counterfactuals of (libertarian ) freedom, and his election of that one which is most accord  with his purposes. Not so, says the Confession.  God’s decrees and his foreknowledge cover the same ground, and are grounded by the divine intuition, not by God's inspection of un-decreed possibilities.  His decrees are the ground of whatever happens. They do not include decreeing based on what he foreknew as future, nor of what he foreknew would occur as a result of conditions other than his decree. These statements should be amplified by the chapter on Providence, and on questions 12- 14 of the Larger Catechism.

Van Mastricht

Petrus van Mastricht regards middle knowledge as superfluous for Christian theology for the several reasons, including this:

 ‘[S}ince every knowable thing is subject to the two received knowledges, natural and free [knowledge]. For if a thing is considered as merely possible, then undoubtedly it falls under natural knowledge. If it is considered as having a connection with various second causes, and thus as a thing that will occur if it should be construed with  those second causes, even though it never actually will occur, it  belongs to that latter knowledge that depends upon the decree, the decree that constituted at creation the order that would thereafter  be applied to things, so that for example, dry straw would be burned if it were laid near  a flame, even though God never did decree that it would be laid there or burned, And finally, a thing will actually occur belongs to the free knowledge.’(2. 268)

Note two or three things about what is quoted above. The divine decree is free, for as the Confession earlier has asserted, God himself ismost free; that is, it is only brought about by the divine nature that had the power to make other decrees, or none at all. Second, providence it is in effect a continuous creation, as God in effect extends the initial creative acts according to his decree. It is a primary effect, of God himself, embodying sets of secondary effects as what is decreed in accordance with the nature of what is being continued in existence. As stated in the Westminster chapter on providence, ‘[God] ordereth all things to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either  necessarily, freely or contingently’ (V.II) The falling out of a rock, is different from that of a plant, or a human being. So the things created are by God’s power and wisdom, ‘established’.

Theologians such as William Twisse and Samuel Rutherford were not so much interested in whether Molinism was internally satisfactory,  that whether God know the outcome of a counterfactual of libertarian freedom, as in cutting it off at the root,  because they could not conceive of any counterfactuals of creaturely freedom being true that were not first decreed by God, and true because of this, and so part of his free knowledge. What is a counterfactual? It is not a ‘factual’, what is decreed. So if X, something decreed, were be expressed in a counterfactual of the form, ‘If X were to have….’ Or If X had done D, it would have …..’ none of these are facts, because not decreed. The counterfactual does not follow from what has already been decreed, but it is simply a ‘free floating’ form of words. So they argued ad hominem against Molinism by denying the very idea of middle knowledge.

Their answer to the ‘grounding’ objection would be that what grounds the truth is not a state of affairs that exists apart from the decree of God, but only what is decreed, one of the countless events, or states of affairs, brought to exist by God’s decree. For what comes to pass is only what is decreed. So the idea of middle knowledge, some category between the divine natural knowledge (his knowledge of all possibilities), and free knowledge (his knowledge of actualities) of what he has decreed, and so brought into being, all actualities), of God, is inadmissible. How could it be known to God that in circumstances C, A will freely do P other than by being unconditionally decreed by him, and so being an aspect of the divine free knowledge.

For the Reformed who debated Molinism in the seventeenth century, God’s knowledge of what takes place in his creation, whatever else it is, is necessarily knowledge of what he will decree. So the idea that there are states of affairs, including the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, which are distinct from the divine mind and which are made true or false only by acts of creaturely freedom which God abets by supporting and enabling, is quite unacceptable. Theologians such as Bruce Ware, who find a place for ‘Reformed Molinism’ (God’s Greater Glory, pp.110-112) are an odd and an inexplicable exception. The problem with introducing such a theological view into the current work on middle knowledge is that it has the effect of changing the subject.

Those contemporary scholars with Calvinistic convictions do not figure very prominently in current debates about Molinism, which is (as a rule) defended by those who wish to retain a traditional understanding of the scope of divine omniscience, and rejected the possibility of csuch future libertarian actions, and is held by those who uphold libertarianism and who let go of the traditional view of God’s omniscience. So viewed theologically, modern discussion  is a debate within the libertarian guild, discussed without any reference to the necessity and scope of the divine decrees. To admit a Calvinist to the party would be a conversation-stopper or at least a conversation-changer, in which the Calvinist would do his best to show how inaccurate it is to characterise his position as theological fatalism, and ourselves as puppets or machines, being run along fatalistic lines.


Note – those whose appetite for discussion of middle knowledge is not at this point assuaged might care to read the article of Charles Rennie,  in two parts, currently available at Reformation 21. His article, a confessionally-based discussion, is entitled ‘Is Middle Knowledge Biblical?' An Evaluation’.