Saturday, December 01, 2018

Review of Oliphint's new book on Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas

This is the opening sections of a longish review article on Scott Oliphint's new book on Aquinas. The entire review is published in the Journal of IRBS Theological Seminary (2018): 163-93. It may be purchased at"

Thomas Aquinas by K. Scott Oliphint:
A Review Article
Paul Helm*

Here is an account of the thought of Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), one of a new series on Great Thinkers published by P&R Publishing.[1] Aquinas wrote extensively on theology and philosophy, as well as being a biblical commentator. He was a major influence on the rise of scholasticism, which both affected Roman Catholic thought from the fourteenth century onward and which was in turn influential on Reformed Protestantism, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. So, it is appropriate in more ways than one that we should pay attention to him and his legacy.

Approaching the Summa Theologiae

K. Scott Oliphint, Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, has a tall order, which he has approached rather idiosyncratically. Faced with the massive body of Aquinas’s writing, Oliphint has chosen to select material almost exclusively from Part I of the Summa Theologiae (ST), Question 1 on the nature of theology, proofs for the existence of God (Question 2), and on the nature of God, chiefly his simplicity (Question 3). He sees Thomas exclusively through the lens of foundational apologetics, that is, as someone who uses rational proofs of God’s existence as the foundation of Christian theology.

However, someone approaching this great work at the beginning (from Question 1), will note that Aquinas does not begin his theological discussion to follow on with apologetics. Rather, he prepares a Christian readership with a basic discussion of articles, or questions, about theology itself, such as: Is theology necessary besides philosophy? Is theology a science? Is it a theoretical or practical endeavor? How does it compare with other sciences? Does it set out to prove anything? What is its attitude to the “sacred writings”? Is God the subject of this science? Is this teaching probative? Should holy teaching employ metaphorical or symbolical language? Can one passage of Holy Scripture bear several senses? Discussion of these questions ends the articles of Question 1. At least some of these questions, I dare say, are unfamiliar these days.

Question 2, entitled ‘The Existence of God,’ has several articles that arise from the discussion of Question 1. This leads to the following: ‘Whether the existence of God is self-evident?’, ‘Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists?’, and ‘Whether God exists?’ The answer to this final question contains his famous ‘Five Ways’ of proving God’s existence, followed (in Question 3) by a discussion on the simplicity of God. This entails the following questions: Is God a body? Is he, that is to say, composed of extended parts? Is he composed of form and matter? Is God to be identified with his own essence or nature, with that which makes him what he is? Can one distinguish in God essence and existence? Can one distinguish in God genus and difference? Is he composed of substance and accidents? Is there any way in which he is composite, or is he altogether simple? Does he enter into composition with other things? These are strange questions to our minds.

Aquinas’s discussion of divine simplicity is particularly significant in that it is a notion that is entailed both by his opening remarks on the articles of Christian theology and his proofs of God’s existence. Prior to the occurrence of the Five Ways in Question 3 of Part One, Thomas tells us in more than one place that God cannot be known as he is in himself, but by what he brings about, his effects.
He points out in 1a 1.7 that we cannot know what God is but by some effect or effects of nature or grace. For God cannot be defined. He reiterates the point in 1a 2.1, and it is expanded further in 1a 2.3. Shortly after this point he comes to the Five Ways which are five arguments from effects to their divine cause.
Oliphint ignores almost everything else that Aquinas wrote, both in the ST or elsewhere, and what he reflects on he does not do a very good job.

Regarding some of these apologetic questions, there is great pressure to think that the proofs of God’s existence that Thomas sets forth in ST, 1a 1.2.3[2] referred to as the Five Ways, are foundational to the existence of the articles of faith, the doctrines of the Christian faith, such that everyone committed to the articles has first to be committed to the proofs. But this is a mistake, as we shall see. This pressure does not come from Aquinas himself, but from the way in which his proofs of the existence of God have become separated from the body of his theology, as rational ‘proofs’ in the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment sense. Aquinas rarely refers to ‘foundations’ in the modern sense, though they figure prominently in Oliphint’s account of him.

Oliphint underscores this, incidentally, by pointing out that several different versions of the proofs are extant in Thomas’s writings (56-57). This suggests a philosopher working on arguments that he is not altogether satisfied with, rather than with someone aiming at canonical finality. The reference to Exodus 3:14 in the proofs (1a 2.3) does not detract from their philosophical character in the ST; rather, it shows them to be a philosophical project whose aim is to demonstrate that a conclusion, namely, that God exists, is not only reasonable, but is also consistent with the God of revelation.

It is a great pity that the author has not given to his readers some idea of the sweep of Thomas’s philosophical and theological ideas. He has also decided to pay very little attention to the different ways in which he has been influential in the history of theology subsequently, both in Roman Catholicism and in Protestantism. In this review we shall be following him in his largely unsatisfactory discussion of material in the first articles of Book I of the ST, which he treats in an avowedly ahistorical way (2-3). This extends to the idea of apologetics itself, which Aquinas hardly mentions.

Oliphint’s Approach

In starting his treatment of Aquinas in his book with Part One, Question 2 of the ST, and ending it at Question 3, I believe that the significance of Question 1 is missed. After a brief Introduction to Aquinas’s life and work, his book has two main chapters (‘Foundation of Knowledge’ and ‘Foundation of Existence’) derived from Oliphint’s estimate of the proofs, rounded off by a Conclusion. By this time the reader is aware that the author’s interest in his material is almost wholly conditioned by his interest in apologetics as it is taught in a modern evangelical seminary, and in particular the apologetics of the late Cornelius Van Til, not with understanding Aquinas historically, on his own terms. If we pay attention to what Thomas asserts and implies in Question 1, then it becomes obvious that Oliphint’s treatment is thoroughly askew of what Aquinas is endeavouring.

Once he starts reading the ST, the reader will notice at once the place of Scripture as a prime theological authority in Question 1: 2 Timothy 3:16, Isaiah 64:4, 2 Thessalonians 3:2, James 2:3, Proverbs 9:3, Isaiah 11:2, Deuteronomy 4:6, 1 Corinthians 3:10, Proverbs 10:23, Romans 1:19, 1 Corinthians 10:4-5, 1 Corinthians 2:15, John 20:31, Titus 1:9, 1 Corinthians  15:12, Hosea 11:10,  Romans 1:14, Matthew 7:6, Hebrews 7:19, and Matthew 19:8 are carefully cited. We shall consider the significance of the authoritativeness of such citations later, but from the start the Summa is to be regarded as a Christian production.
In the course of the treatment of this Question a number of significant contrasts are also introduced. For example, ‘Hence the necessity for our welfare that divine truths surpassing reason should be signified to us through divine revelation.’  ‘[T]he rational truth about God would be reached only by few, and even so after a long time, and with many mistakes.’ ‘[T]here is nothing to stop the same things from being treated by the philosophical sciences when they can be looked at in the light of natural reason and by another science when they are looked at in the light of divine revelation. Consequently, the theology of holy teaching differs in kind from that theology which is ranked as a part of philosophy’ (ST, 1a 1). Here Thomas compares philosophy to theology to the disadvantage of the first. These expressions bear on the relation of the nature of the proofs to the articles of theology.

So, it is Thomas’s view that revealed theology is in many ways superior to rational theology. What he refers to as ‘theological articles’ presuppose the existence of God. But the existence of God is not one of the articles of faith. Rather, it is presupposed by every one of the articles. Because of the greater certitude and worthiness of its subject-matter, theology is the noblest of the sciences. The topic of natural theology can achieve demonstration about God without faith, and may involve mistakes. So, there is a rather complex relation between the two.
Besides this emphasis on Scripture, and hence on the Christian character of the entire work, Aquinas informs his readers early on that there are within the project two kinds of what he calls scientia, an orderly body of knowledge. These are two because there is scientia from ‘the innate light of intelligence’ and then there is the scientia ‘recognized in the light of a higher science.’ I suppose Christian apologists must recognize that ‘personal foundations’ differ often in marked ways from person to person in those who are engrafted into Christ (e.g., the Philippian jailer differed from Lydia the seller of purple, Zaccheus from Nicodemus, Peter from Paul).

In this second manner is Christian theology a science, for it flows from founts recognized in the lights of a higher science, namely God’s very own which he shares, with the blessed. Hence, rather as [musical] harmony credits its principles which are taken from arithmetic, Christian theology takes on faith its principles revealed by God. (ST 1a 1.2)

So, the demonstration of God’s existence is a science, as is Christian theology, founded as it is on the Scriptures and on the teaching and preaching of the church.

We also stand in need of being instructed by divine revelation even in religious matters the human reason is able to investigate. For the rational truth about God would be reached only by few, and even so after a long time and mixed with many mistakes; whereas on knowing this depends our whole welfare, which is in God. In these circumstances, then, it was to prosper the salvation of human being, and the more widely and less anxiously, that they were provided for by divine revelation about divine things. (ST 1a 1)

Thomas has more to say about the science of theology:

Holy teaching can borrow from other sciences, not from any need to beg from them, but for the greater clarification of the things it conveys. For it takes its principles directly from God through revelation, not from the other sciences. On that account it does not rely on them as they were in control, for their role is subsidiary and ancillary; so an architect makes use of tradesmen as a statesman employs soldiers. That it turns to them in this way is not from any lack or insufficiency within itself, but because our understanding is wanting; it is the more readily guided into the world above reason, set forth in holy teaching, through the world of natural reason from which the other sciences take their course. (ST 1a 5)

Holy teaching, Scripture, special revelation, is directly from God. It can be clarified to our limited understanding by the help of other sciences such as logic, languages, history. But it is above reason, conveying the divine mysteries.

So sacred Scripture, which has no superior science over it, disputes the denial of its principles; it argues on the basis of those truths held by revelation which an opponent admits as when, debating with heretics, it appeals to received authoritative texts of Christian theology, and uses one article against those who reject another. If, however, an opponent believes nothing of what has been divinely revealed, then no way lies open for making the articles of faith reasonably credible; all that can be done is to solve the difficulties against faith he may bring up. For since faith rests on unfailing truth, and the contrary of truth cannot really be demonstrated, it is clear that alleged proofs against faith are not demonstrable, but charges that can be refuted. (ST 1a 1.8)

Perhaps these words tell us about Thomas’s views on apologetics. If so they are very different from those of Oliphint. These words will be a surprise to those who hold to his views. The entire article ought to be weighed.

So, there is a scientia of Christian theology derived from Scripture. Then, in Question 2, there is the question ‘Whether the existence of God is self-evident?’ Thomas’s answer is that God is evident, but not to us, and so that evidence has to be made to be self-evident to us by arguing from God’s effects as grounding God’s existence. This is a philosophical scientia: “From effects evident to us, therefore, we can demonstrate what in itself is not evident to us, namely that God exists.” And, as already mentioned, in that question Aquinas attempts to show this in detail, in five parallel arguments from effects, the Five Ways, that God exists. This is his natural or rational theology, for which he finds precedent in Paul’s positive remarks in Romans 1:20. So even his natural or rational theology is warranted by Scripture.
The fact that rational or natural theology begins with the existence of God while the articles of faith presuppose it, may make it seem as if natural theology complements or completes revealed theology, and that it serves to put the articles of faith on a firmer footing. But to draw this conclusion is a temptation that must be resisted. It finds no warrant in what Aquinas said of each of them. The proofs and the development of articles of theology are two distinct, complementary activities. Nevertheless, they are in some way related, or connected, as we shall shortly see.

Consider these two extracts from another writing of Thomas.

A thing is . . . an object of belief not absolutely, but in some respect, when it does not exceed the capacity of all men, but only of some men. In this class are those things which we can know about God by means of a demonstration, as that God exists or is one and so no body and so forth.[3]

And this from later on in the ST:

The truths about God which St. Paul says we can know by our natural powers of reasoning—that God exists, for example,—are not numbered among the articles of faith, but are presupposed to them. For faith presupposes natural knowledge, just as grace does nature and all perfections that which they perfect. However, there is nothing to stop a man accepting on faith some truth which he personally cannot demonstrate, even if that truth in itself is such that demonstration could make it evident. (ST 1a 2.2)

The articles of the faith are for everyone, not for those only with the necessary aptitude and intelligence to study demonstrative proofs for God’s existence at their leisure, etc. Special gifts are necessary to formulate and follow philosophical arguments such as the Five Ways. So Christian Theology is available to all persons, learned and unlearned alike, but in different, though overlapping ways.
That God exists is a precondition for faith, the Christian faith. It may seem from this that the results of one kind of knowledge form the foundation for another kind. Yet we are not to assume that every time Aquinas refers to the existence of God he has the proofs in mind, much less that reasonable proof is a precondition of faith or  that such a proof leads to faith. In fact, the precise opposite of this is the case. If someone is not able to reason philosophically, they are nevertheless able to assent to the matters of the Christian articles by faith through grace.

There is need here to distinguish between Aquinas’s references to preambles, the praeambulae fidei and similar expressions, and his references to articles of faith and other similar expressions. It may seem that the words referring to preambles refer to preliminaries that are necessary to exercise faith, such that ‘God is one’ is not by itself an article of faith but what is preliminary to something being an article of faith. It is a presupposition of an article of faith that is, he thinks, demonstrable by reason by those who are appropriately gifted. Aquinas recognises that proving that God exists requires ability, leisure, and aptitude to carry out such a demonstration. Other such demonstrable truths that depend on the proof of the existence of God are that God is truthful, and that God reveals himself.

[T]he first principles of this science are the articles of faith, and faith is about God. Now the subject of a science’s first principles and of its entire development is identical, since the whole of a science is virtually contained in its principles. (ST 1a 1.7)

So we learn, for example, that since adherence to the Christian faith is a matter of faith in the main articles of the Christian faith, it entails an end beyond the grasp of reason [quoting Isa. 64:4]. This faith is meritorious,[4] and has the quality of certitude. Certitude is the unreserved assent of the intellect. It may occur where demonstration has not been achieved. This is a matter that involves the will as well as the intellect, being not objectively but subjectively certain, and so of primary importance. ‘[D]ivine truths surpassing reason should be signified to us through divine revelation’ (ST, 1a 1.1). By contrast, the ‘rational proofs’ are attainable only by a few, who have the necessary gifts. But the place of reason in Christian theology operates within what is revealed.

Aquinas teaches that Christian theology argues from its premises, not to them. He says:

As the other sciences do not argue to prove their premises, but work from them to bring out other things in their field of inquiry, so this teaching does not argue to establish its premises, which are the articles of faith, but advances from them to make something known, as when St. Paul adduces the resurrection of Christ to prove the resurrection of us all. (I. Cor. 15.12) (ST 1a 1.8)

Aquinas goes on to make clear that arguments for the articles of faith are held through revelation.

All the same Christian theology also uses human reasoning, not indeed to prove the faith, for that would take away from the merit of believing, but to make manifest some implications of its message. Since grace does not scrap nature but brings it to perfection, so also natural reason should assist faith as the natural loving bent of the will ministers to charity. (ST 1a 1.8)

In considering Aquinas’s thought we are dealing with the pre-Reformation church. As far I can see he does not regard working on the proofs as similarly meritorious.

Argument from authority is the method most appropriate to this teaching [viz. the understanding of the articles of faith] in that its premises are held through revelation; consequently it has to accept the authority of those to whom revelation was made. Nor does this derogate from its dignity, for though weakest when based on what human beings have held, the argument from authority is most forcible when based on what God has disclosed. (ST 1a 1.8.)

These various extracts and references underline the fact that the ST is a Christian work from the start and it assumes a Christian readership. It is taken as granted that this readership is familiar with and sympathetic to the theological articles. Such theology is drawn from the canonical Scriptures. From them have been derived articles of faith that may be accepted with certitude by which a person may have faith in the articles of the faith.

Sacred doctrine employs such [philosophical] authorities only in order to provide, as it were, extraneous arguments from probability. Its own proper authorities are those of canonical Scripture, and these it applied with convincing force. (ST 1a, 1.8)

The entire section of Article 8 is enlightening for Aquinas’s approach to nature, and by implication, to rational theology.

It is almost as if the conduct of natural theology and of Christian theology take place in two distinct groups at arm’s length from each other. And in a way this is true. For the curriculum of teaching philosophy and theology was such that natural theology (following Aristotle) is part of philosophy, preliminary to the study of the articles of Christian theology that is based on the canonical Scriptures. These matters reflect the character of the education for would-be theologians who had philosophical education before the study of revealed theology. Natural theology was conducted under philosophical auspices. Revealed theology had its source in special revelation.

As if to underline this, Aquinas draws attention to the relation of each, and to the relative value of each to the other in later on passages such as: ‘By faith we hold to many truths about God that philosophers could not fathom, for example the truths about his providence, omnipotence and sole right to adoration. All such points are included in the one article of faith “I believe in one God”’ (ST 2a 2ae 1.8).
The following on the theological virtue of faith is very similar.

From divine effects we do not come to understand what the divine nature is in itself, so we do not know of him what he is. We know of him only as transcending all creatures . . . It is in this way that the word “God” signifies the divine nature: it is used to mean something that is above all that is, and that is the source of all things and is distinct from them all. This is how those that use it mean it to be used. (ST 1a 13.8)

Aquinas’s opening words in the ST that we have been considering are very different from what they would have been had he believed that accepting the proofs are indispensable preliminaries to attending to Scripture.

* Paul Helm is Emeritus Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London
[1] K. Scott Oliphint, Thomas Aquinas, Great Thinkers, foreword by Michael A. G. Haykin (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017, 145pp.).
[2] References to the Summa Theologiae are by Part, Book, and Question, placed in the main text of this review. The translation used is that of the Dominicans, general editor, Thomas Gilby (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1963-70). It is also available in Kindle, and parts of it were reprinted in Image Books (1969), including the passages we shall cite.
[3] Thomas Aquinas, The Disputed Questions on Truth, Vol. 2, trans James V. McGlynn S.J. (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1953) 14.9. I have taken this and some other extracts of Aquinas from Arvin Vos,  Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), 88.
[4] The presence here of the idea of personal merit, which came to be central to the opposition of the Reformation, reminds us of Thomas’s Roman Catholicism.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

"On Being Reformed" - A Review

On Being Reformed, Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, Scott Clark, and Darryl Hart.
Christianities in the Trans-Atlantic World, (London, Palgrave Macmillam, 94 pages.)

If you are interested over the question of what constitutes being in the ‘Reformed’ tradition, what its special genius is and what its limits are, then ‘On Being Reformed’: Debates over a Theological Tradition, is for you.   It is the first of a series of debates,  Palgrave Pivots, a series devoted to ‘Christianities in the Trans-Atlantic World’. The contributors are Matthew C. Bingham, (Oak Hill College), Chris Caughey, (Queen’s University, Belfast), R. Scott Clark, (Westminster Seminary, California), Crawford Gribben (Queen’s University Belfast), and D.G. Hart, (Hillsdale College, Michigan), and the book is published by Palgrave Macmillan. 

I shall take a little time giving the flavour of the four chapters, and then making comments from further away. In this debate, the authors of the first two chapters, Caughey and Gribben together, and Bingham alone, are left in the hands of Clark alone and Hart alone. So the reader truly crosses the  Atlantic in debate, but an important strand of influence in the exchanges is found in the neo-Calvinism of the Gospel Coalition,  and groups of Reformed Baptists in the States, even the Banner of Truth Trust, who don’t have a spokesman in this debate. That I reckon might have issued in a change to its terms, which are, perhaps it is fair to say, focused on the works of print history. All contributions work to a high academic standard, well-read and well-informed, supplying the reader with numerous facts and ideas, in footnotes and evidence of out-of-the-way learning.

The advocates of a hard-line view of what ‘Reformed’ implies are Darryl Hart and Scott Clark, who have published extensively.  So they are given the last says, Darryl Hart ‘Baptists are Different’ and Scott Clark’s ‘A House of Cards? A Response to Bingham, Gribben, and Caughey'. They have the first two papers  ‘History, Identity Politics, and the “Recovery of the Reformed Confession”’ , by  Chris Caughey and Crawford Gribben, and ‘Anachronistic Oxymoron or Useful Signposts’, Matthew Bingham.

The ‘hard line’  is the view that the numerous early Reformed Confessions,  including of course advocacy of paedobaptism and a state or city-wide divinely warranted to take political charge of the welfare of Reformed churches.  But the state church element was surrendered, trumped by the American Constitution. Caughey and Gribben make the further point that there are numerous early Reformed confessions, each of which have changed over time, which they document,  making the plenary view untenable, for ‘Reformed’ is invoked by those who differ among themselves theologically. So they advocate that judgment should be exercised, involving a core of doctrines, surrounded by a periphery. Denominational distinctives, with the Baptists in the interstices between the different Reformed confessions, plus difficulties in policing confessional boundaries, make recovering the original position futile, from a historical point of view. Gribben and Caughey identify Clark’s strategy, and its weakness.  (15) And aren’t 16th and 17th Confessions now ‘dated’? 

Matthew Bingham centres on the term ‘Reformed Baptist’, minted during the post Banner of Truth era, identifying the resurgence of interest  in Reformed theology  in various parts, on both sides of the Atlantic. What are the losses and gains of calling others, and of being called, ‘Reformed Baptist’? From personal experience those who bear the title are not generally speaking confessional sensitive. (Would more of them were of a 'predestinarian stripe’)  (54)  They bridle at the 1689 Baptist Confession’s commitment to divine simplicity, and pass it by. Others  (the ‘really Reformed Baptist’ perhaps), are more like some Presbyterians are with the Westminster Confession, fully confessing it still, after nearly 500 years.  Nevertheless in a book almost exclusively contained with the printed word, there is surprisingly little attention paid to the remarkable fact that three Calvinistic confessions, The Westminster,  the Savoy Declaration,  and the 1689 Baptist,  are substantially the same, and identifiably Ref0rmed, what else? No mention here of open or closed communion in the Baptists, or the formation of  'union' chapels of Baptists and Congregationalists  in the past, with alternating ministers. Anyhow,  Bingham opts for 'Reformed Baptist', which is fair enough, but perhaps off the target of the book.

Hart has produced a more institutional approach. I think he could have saved a bit of effort by not calling his well-received survey of Reformed institutions, Calvinism but, say,  The Reformed World. He distinguishes between the historical methods of  lumpers and splitters, following J. H Hexter. (55 f.) He classes the Reformed Baptist sympathizers in the book as lumpers in their irenic attitude to those who count themselves as Reformed, while he himself is content to be a splitter, along with Clark. It seems however, that lumpers a la MacCulloch or Carlos Eire (and perhaps DeYoung, a traitorous splitter?)  each make lumps of different shapes. I do not however believe that the lump shaped by Reformed Baptists contains 16th century Anabaptists (or Mennonites), (a rare breed in the UK) in preference to, say, Calvin and Rutherford. Hart’s chapter is wide ranging, but it was a transatlantic mis-routing to allow him devote an entire section to ‘the 600-pound gorilla, Lutheranism', as there is hardly a Lutheran congregation in the entire United Kingdom. Despite the provocative nature of Clark’s position (adorned with a great deal of  theological learning, I 
was puzzled by his view that John Owen is regarded as a Reformed theologian (63), and even more surprised with Michael Allen’s view that John Owen and Jonathan Edwards are ‘the greatest Reformed theologians”. (41) The latter is certainly politically incorrect among some Reformed hardliners. And Clark's  'truly Reformed'  position cannot  withstand his judgment on Owen.

I’m not sure about there being a current debate on this topic in England, though
maybe one could be started. Perhaps there’s the makings of a debate in Scotland and Northern Ireland. That’s because of the fact that there Presbyterians are the most conspicuous in having as their history the history of reformation confessional - writing of the seventeenth century. Yet even uncommitted or unconcerned readers can benefit from the learning and diversity of the debaters, with the greatest stake being in how their history can be ‘read’ as we enter new phases of culture. In reading of their endeavours we get clearer about what a tradition is, and about what in the eyes of some brings a tradition to an end or causes it to flourish. 

However, without being ungrateful to the debaters for their learned labours, I cannot help thinking that there is a one-dimensionality about the debate. It has busied itself solely with documents as validating or invalidating the identity of complex human institutions. There is more to them than keeping their founding documents to the fore, as if this were all!  Reading the book we come to learn more about the way the foundational purpose of confessions have been to certain churches and denominations. But what are the churches, and the congregations of these churches, for? What are their co-confessors like? Do they have any friends across religious divides? And where is their heart, and centre, that makes them tick? One thing we know from church history is that churches can die while their foundational documents are still displayed and revered, but untouched.

This debate has smothered a different approach, that of verstehen, of 'smelling the coffee'. It is one thing to argue the (false) claim that our confessions of faith have remained unchanged since the Reformation, another wonderful thing to live by their gracious doctrines. With others, to rejoice in the privilege of being 'in Christ'. As already stated,  it is a singular, remarkable providence that three of our English confessions are word for word almost identical in Reformed soteriology, including  the classic catholic trinitarian and incarnational positions. We could therefore unite here, and encourage each other thereby, even strengthening our grasp of our respective confessions, like ironing sharpening iron.  Is that not a distinctive form of Reformed religion,  whether or not we are credobaptist or paedobaptist, even if different in our ecclesiology and in the administration of baptism.  At a time when the faith is increasingly under threat, and our family life as Christians is being undermined, and as there are various popular distortions as well as ancient heresies freely peddled, to have the strengthening of distinctive Christian fellowship is a traditional activity that should outweigh  our marginal confessional differences.  Perhaps fostering such fellowship requires a little more social ostracism, and perhaps that will come. 

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Creatureliness and Freedom

By ‘creatureliness’ I mean the creatureliness of  human beings. This is a dominant fact about you and me and our neighbours. And somewhat underplayed at present. We are, together, creatures of the living God. That is, to use a more familiar word, we are his products. We are in the state of creatures whether we like it or not. But though all of this is true, the fact of creatureliness is one that few people gave much thought to. The fact that we are made by him in the most intricate fashion, and are what we are by virtue of his creatorship and by his providential upholding of us, has  been surrendered by most of us. At best, it is a notional rather than a real fact.

Having done no research on the question, nonetheless I have the conviction that this awareness, the awareness of creatureliness, has in our culture shrunk to almost disappearing point. So that those who are aware of being creatures are exclusively to be found among conservative Christian and perhaps also the conservative Jewish communities, and Islam. Among its fate in other groups I am almost totally ignorant.

And even among Christians there is often only a token recognition of the point. Which is a great pity. There is not such a thing as a doctrine of creatureliness; a doctrine of creation, yes, and of the Creator – creature distinction, of course. Without an awareness that we are creatures of God it is hard to see us ever being aware of those ills that Jesus came to deliver us from.

The sense of creatureliness is a state of mind which is the fruit of other, more obvious doctrines, but which has its own part to play for those who are aware of it. These other doctrines, of creation, and providence, when they also are not merely notionally believed, may water and feed it. To say that they function as an ingredient in a state of mind shows that it can ebb and flow in our awareness of it. Why it is rather stricken in the modern Christian western mind is not hard to guess. This fundamental truth is forgotten:

Know that the Lord, he is God
It is he who made us, and we are his;
We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. (Ps.100.3)

Such words are now never heard in public, not even at harvest time, which is now a somewhat antiquated festival. The ‘tone’ of our fellow citizens of themselves is much more likely to be of one who is an initiator in human life, here to make, to enjoy and to fulfil, understood a set of purely  human projects. Human life is for expressing and enjoying ourselves, and so for ‘making’ ourselves.  In this sense we view ourselves not so much as creatures but as creators. Our horizons are this world, in the sole enjoyment of some of its riches and of its temptations.

In the pride of his face, the wicked does not seek him
All his thoughts are, ‘There is no God’ (Ps.10.4)

Insofar as such pride is true of ourselves, it shows signs of a lack of belief in our creatureliness. From this lack flow some of the dominant features of our culture: a preoccupation  with fairness, and with physical fitness, and of gaining and maintaining our rights.

Christians hold that God’s eye is on us; and that in him we live and move and have our being. I suppose, therefore,  godliness is not  next to cleanliness, as we were taught, but it is certainly next to creatureliness! Unlike sheep and seals, say, human beings can be aware of being a creature, and this asymmetry between the Creator and his self-aware creatures is a fundamental factor in God’s providence and grace, and of taking stock of human life more generally.  

Creatureliness and freedom

Being creatures having the awareness of our creatureliness does not make us robots, or puppets, or fated by the stars, for we are obviously not. But the point is, human choice can only do so much. From God who ordains who we are, we receive gifts and are ourselves gifted one way or another, as we say without realizing what we are saying. And he supports and works through us to bring to pass his own purposes, re-creating us moment by moment. As the Westminster Confession puts it, by God’s providence, ‘ordereth them [all things] to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.’ (V. II)  God, our creator and Lord, works through us, and so to speak ‘respects’ our individuality, an individuality which is distinct of each person, another part of our creatureliness.

There are contemporary philosophers who hold that it is an infringement of human autonomy to come into the world with a particular endowment, and subject to parental nurture and example, and further formed by an early education. In their view we ought to have the right to choose  what character we have, what our strengths and weaknesses are, and what life chances we are given. What we would the ‘me’ be like who has to plan his or her own life, selecting one’s DNA and all,  is not made clear. It looks incoherent and it in any event is fantastical. This fantasy can be regarded as an  attempt to destroy or erase the features of our creatureliness or at least to circumvent them.

The desire for a 'freedom' in which we are at first, or constantly, or periodically,  can ave some freely chosen new start in our lives is an illusion. In such situations we believe that we are  faced with a blank future on which we can impress our character uninfluenced by other effects from sources not solely our own.  In sharp contrast to this human, freedom is conditioned freedom. Each choice, free in the sense that the choice is our choice, and is not forced upon us, and  is the product of our inner likes and dislikes, our character as creatures. Libertarian or countercultural freedom, unconditional choice,  is a illusion, in my view, whether it is the character of our everyday choices, or as the ability exercisable at some definitive turning point of our lives.  It is an attempt to be free from the shape of our creatureliness. Our creatureliness here is invariably expressed in terms of preferences or goals, the product of our beliefs and desires, and they are the result of our initial endowment of genetics, culture, upbringing. We own these as our own, as indeed they are, and not anyone else’s. We face choices that we may not know the outcome of. These familiar situations are the results of creatureliness. This is the nature in which the regenerating grace of God operates. If we would be pilgrims, then try as we may we cannot avoid our heteronomy.