Thursday, August 01, 2019

Jonathan Edwards and the Rabbi

John 'Rabbi Duncan, 1796-1870

I dissent from Jonathan  Edwards’ doctrine, because he hazards a speculation, on will qua will, and therefore in reference to all will, divine and human. It is fatal to establish a necessary chain throughout every will in the universe. The divine acts are free, They are necessary, I maintain, qua moral, though free qua will. But I am a determinist as much as Edwards.

That’s John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan, in his Colloquia Peripatetica. Page 29 of the last edition, 1906.  This book is one of a few that I cannot put down when I open it. Here’s a link for a free electric copy: (Colloquia Peripatetica .. : Duncan,  John : Free Download, There's also Only A Talker ed. John Brentnall, published by the Banner of Truth, which features his sayings.

I dare to say that ‘Rabbi’ Duncan  has not got things quite right on Edwards.

A couple of posts back in Helm's Deep, there are some remarks on divine freedom, focusing on a detail of the Westminster Confession, Chapter 2. God is said there to be  ‘most free’. What  follow are some further remarks on this topic.

Edwards was a classical theist, stressing divine fullness. He wrote in correspondence to a Scottish friend after his ejection from the Northampton pulpit, that he could subscribe to the Confession. Although he was a compatibilist regarding the mutable creation, he was in fact able to distinguish the Creator from his creatures, and did so.. In Part III In of his Freedom of the Will he has a chapter or section of Part IV, Section 7, entitled ‘Concerning the Necessity of the Divine Will’. His point is that though God‘s perfections could not be other than they are, nevertheless God is worthy of our worship and admiration, of praise and thanksgiving. God does not create or change or modify his perfections. The Supreme Being is the source of all other being. Creation is the model. He spoke and it was done. Those creatures that are external to him do not determine God's actions, he acts according to his untold power and wisdom. His ‘will was not confined, kept under, and held in servitude by something, which, as it were, maintain a strong and invincible power and dominion over it, by bonds that held him fast, and that he could by no means deliver himself from’. ‘Tis no disadvantage or dishonor to a being, necessarily to act in the most excellent and happy manner, from the necessary of his own nature. This argues no imperfection, inferiority or dependence, nor any want of dignity, privilege or ascendency.’ (377)

The reason why it is not dishonorable, to be necessarily most holy,  is because holiness in itself is an excellent and honorable thing. For the same reason, it is no dishonor to be most wise, and in every case to act most wisely, or do the thing which is the wisest of all; for wisdom is also in itself excellent and honorable. (381)

And so on. God is most necessary and free by being himself. What I venture to say that “Rabbi” Duncan has missed is this distinction between Creator and the creature’, in supposing the idea of determinism would have a parallel effect on both the Creator and the creature if determinism is granted on either, or on both. The creature is a product of the creation, it depends on it and is constrained by it, and has freedom as the power and choice that he or she is gifted with.  The Creator is by definition radically other than this. He is not created, but his possessed of aseity, aseitas, independence, (Not that he has created himself! For he is not created full stop.)

More to the point, nothing in the reality of God can be ultimately determined by any source outside himself. He cannot be determined. Hence he cannot have a determiner. Hence determinism cannot touch him. His actions are expressions of power and wisdom of which grandest of creatures have no real understanding, though we all have some. Rom. 1.18-20) . So if the creature is determined ad extra in everything he does, and so is determined, the Creator cannot be determined. So determinism in that sense cannot touch the Creator. So the question of whether God is acted upon does not arise.

So I suggest Duncan is mistaken to attribute creaturely conditions to the creator (‘It is fatal to establish a necessary chain throughout every will in the universe’ but Edwards does not attempt this, but the reverse). But at the same time God does not have any indeterminateness in his action, no  absolute indifference. This is the state of divine sovereignty. As in Acts 15.16.  James is speaking to the Jerusalem Council, The ESV reads, ‘known from of old’, the  NIV  ‘and have been known for ages’, and best of all the KJV, ‘known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world’’. This is part of his citation of Isa.45.11.


Some qualifications

But though Edwards holds that God had no reason to change whatever is in his plan, this emphasis on the nature of divine freedom does not mean for Edwards that God cannot be thought of making such a deviation , for he says that God could do what he has not in fact done. This is not the biblical case like Christ refers to the stones that could have been turned into children of Abraham.  “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’, “for I tell you, ‘God is able from these stones to raise children to Abraham.’ ”  (Matt. 3.9) Christ refers openly to what God is able to do.

The Bible refers to matters that could have happened but have not occurred nor never will occur. Christ refers to the stones that could have been turned into children of Abraham. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’, for I tell you, ‘God is able from these stones to raise children to Abraham.’ ”  (Matt. 3.9) This is clear.

But in Edwards’ case there are instances of him thinking what God could have done, or that he thinks that God could do. These are some of what we can call his ‘thought experiments’. These are experiments in language, part of the stock in trade of philosophers. They have a long history, but Locke gave them a new lease of life, and Edwards follows Locke. By them you are intended to put pressure on your intellectual intuitions,.

In his book on the freedom of the will he uses thought experiments sparingly. For example, he writes in Part IV S. 8, ‘Some Further Objections Against the Moral Necessity of God’s Volitions Considered' (364 f.) as follows – ‘Let us for clearness’ sake suppose, that God had at the beginning made two globes….. ’perfectly alike in every respect, and placed them near one to another……..

The details do not concern us. The fact is, here is a supposition on Edwards’s part’, which for all we know God did not choose and may never have chosen. The question is, given what Edwards allows regarding God’s necessity, is such a supposition allowable consistently? Everything that happens is an expression of the wisdom and power (and other perfections) of almighty God. Is this supposition about God warranted? Is any supposition about God that we devised from our own heads, warranted? Here is something that God has not done. Human beings may have done other than what they did. But in Edwards's doctrine of God cannot do other than what he has done. For him 'it is impossible but that God should be good'  (480) and this impossibility reaches down to each expression of that goodness, no matter how seemingly trivial. 

Perhaps this reaction is over-scrupulous. But isn't Edwards on dangerous ground here? Or because he is warranted by Jesus,  who taught  that God could have done things that he did not do, then so may we? In any case, he was notably cautious. Perhaps he wanted to avoid the slippery slide ahead.

Friday, July 26, 2019

'Most free'

In the Westminster Confession’s (and its relations’) chapter on ‘Of God, and the Holy Trinity’, (Ch II.1) tucked in a long list of divine perfections, there is the expression ‘most free’. It is nestled after ‘most  wise, most holy’ and before ‘most absolute’. What does ‘most free’ mean? What is it to be ‘most free’ in a list of divine perfections? (Note, the listing continues in Ch. II.2)

It is interesting that while much attention has been given to free will at the creaturely level, comparatively little has been devoted to divine freedom. Where it has occurred it has been spread over a variety of theological topics, creation, providence, the decrees.

Free from

The Confessionally-minded Reformed theologians of the 17th century referred to this state of affairs as what they call ‘indifference’. By this they understood that the divine action does not, and cannot depend on, or is affected by, anything that is not ultimately in the character and will of God. In other words God’s freedom is freedom from any factor outside of God, who is after ‘most  wise, most holy’ and before ‘most absolute’. These are the sources of his action ad extra, as a Creator and what is to occur in that creation. His own knowledge of what is possible. ‘most absolute’, the ‘most free’. His absoluteness means that God did nothing because there was a need to, a lack that he had to act to fill. These expressions appear to imply that God’s independence and unconditioned character, and his freedom, are capable of degrees. If he is most free then there is no greater degree of freedom that God enjoys in doing what he does. This echoes the way that God’s character is referred to by the superlative ‘most’ in Scripture, as in ‘Most holy’. If he is most holy, this refers to the greatest degree of holiness. So we must think of those perfections either side in the Confession, expressing in his creation his wisdom and holiness and whatever is due to his wonderful, perfect self, his identity.

So much for God’s freedom understood as ‘freedom from’. He is free from every possible condition  implied by the creation and its contents. This idea introduces another notion, the self-sufficiency of God, his independence or aseity. These attributes or powers - freedom from, self-sufficiency, independence, aseity – are characteristics of God’s creatorship. They are absent from his creation. It – we  - are creaturely, of the dust of the ground, breathed in by God’s Spirit, made in God’s image, fallen in Adam. We depend on our creator, despite talk about human autonomy. We live, move and having our being in him, and for our latest breath. Through our brains, spirits, and bodies, and the powers inherent in the non-human and inanimate creation, we devise and work with tools, and cooperate into developing our environment. Everything we do therefore bears testimony to our dependence.

Free to

But God is free to do what he decrees. The decree of God is said in Ch.III to be ‘the most wise, and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass’. He is free from, and free to. He is free and his decree (or decrees) are similarly free to serve his wisdom. What is actual is not all that is possible. The world and all that it contains is the wisdom of God. As Paul noted in Romans 1 (and elsewhere) ‘his invisible powers, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made’.  (Rom. 1.20)

Choice seems a prominent feature of God’s character. The Bible refers to matters that could have happened but have not occurred nor never will be. (Christ refers to the stones that could have been turned into children of Abraham. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’, for I tell you, ‘God is able from these stones to raise children to Abraham.’ ”  (Matt 3.9)) God is able to do what he has chosen not to do. The doctrine of election is the doctrine of God’s choice, as is vividly illustrated by the God’s choice of Jacob over his elder brother Esau, ‘A it is written “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”. And John Calvin had the opinion, (though you may not agree with him), that although we are redeemed by the Son’s Incarnation and Cross and Resurrection, by union with Christ and faith in him and so on, God could have saved us by a word.


But there is also ‘most wise’ in the Confession. Here we meet an implied reference to his will. He has an unsurpassedly wise will. Over the immense, intricate, universe that he has created, and that possesses a history, he exercises a most wise judgment. Wisdom has to do with the choice of ends, and of the means he ordains that effectively and wonderfully bring about those ends, and the wsdom of the ends themselves

The Larger Catechism (question 12) affirms, that ‘God‘s decrees are the wise, holy, free, and holy acts of the counsel of his will.’ (No doubt having Ephesians 'the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will' .(1.11)


Certainly there  are those matters which God cannot do? Clearly, there are those attributes and wisdom which he possesses necessarily, his holiness and wisdom. He cannot but act holily; he cannot but be wise.
'Tis the glory and greatness of the divine sovereignty, that God's will is determined by his own infinite all-sufficient wisdom in everything: and in nothing at all is either directed by any inferior wisdom, or by no wisdom: whereby it would become senseless arbitrariness, determining and acting, without reason, design or end' 
Jonathan Edwards, The Freedom of the Will, Part IV, Section 7.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Ethics of 2K

 Two Kingdoms and Two Cities

Occasionally, there are single verses of Scripture the Bible student encounters that encapsulate a doctrine or a duty completely. So it is, I believe, with this verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. ‘As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.’ (Gal. 6.10) It is a balanced contribution to 2K teaching. I’ve heard it said that the 2K outlook is ‘antinomian’, presumably in the mistaken idea that those who hold that view regard themselves to have obligations only to the church of Christ, and the needs of the kingdom of this world may be safely ignored. Paul clearly contradicts this idea.

The verse occurs in the conclusion of his teaching,  towards the end of his writing to the churches of Galatia, but there is no antinomianism here, as can be immediately seen from the prominence that Paul gives of doing good to others, that is, to doing good acts of benevolence, of mercy, or of other sorts of help. The whole is conditioned by how they behave within the household of faith, and outside it.

This is supported by his use of the teaching that a Christian is a member both of the body of Christ, and to human beings more generally. There is not a visible or tangible barrier for inhabitants of the two kingdoms. The Christian is also a member of the earthly city, as well as of the heavenly. But this is not true of the people who are not Christian. There is no doubt the prospect of tension between this dual citizenship.  Fulfilling the requirements of the one may be at the expense of the fulfilling the other. Just as the desire of the Samaritan to complete his journey on time was interrupted by seeing a bleeding Jew by the side of the road. Nonetheless, the implication of what Paul advises is that it sometimes makes for difficult situations, but that the Christian will be afforded ‘opportunities’ to help by doing good to both types.

The whole is governed by the place of what the opportunities to do good are. Opportunities like this, often accompanied by shock or dismay, are not in our hands, but are part of God’s providential rule. It is as we have such opportunities that the Christian ought to do good. This suggests that the Christian is not to have a policy of doing good, or to manufacture conditions of human need in order to exhibit his benevolence. But as he or she comes across need in their ordinary course. When, in Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan came upon the Jew beaten, and left wounded on the side of the road, this provided for him an opportunity to help, to restore him in some measure. He had not sought this man. Nor had the man sought him.

There is a difference then, in Paul’s advice,  between doing good and ‘do goodism’. The doing good that Paul recommends is not planned or engineered, but is responsive to circumstances that come about unannounced.  The Samaritan was not idle, but was following his duty, perhaps, or his pleasure, when he came across the man in need. And does not the 'by chance' in the Saviour's story suggest the overriding of providence in the incident? That’s how providence works, though not the only way, obviously.

 ‘The household of faith’ may be  an expression for a local church, or for the church generally. By and large, we don’t use it. It occurs seldom in the new Testament,  I Pet. 6.17  being the closest in meaning to Paul’s use in Galatians. It is no doubt difficult to be sure that a person in need is a Christian or not. Paul’s use of the word  presents an interesting picture of the church at work, in varied tasks animated by the confession of the faith, like the members of a family working together in mutual support at home. But sometimes there are special needs, emergencies in the church. It suggests that the church is a special group of people working in harmony working together. It is one rather indirect example of Paul’s view that the Christian life is not one of continuous success, but there can be expected instances of set-back, a legitimate for help.  It suggests a variant of the expression ‘the body of Christ’, Paul’s chief picture of the church, stressing the working together of many members in  the outworking of their faith. And he is making the point that even in this picture of a sort of well-oiled normality, which generates obligations in its members, needs will crop up of one or another kind, to which another believer may have the help and opportunity of doing good. He should attend to such a happening ‘especially’, as a priority, overriding his other actions.

In fact, as if to underline the 2K point, Paul also the term ‘member’ to refer to membership of the body of Christ which is the church, and the same word, to describe a person our fellow in the human race. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul uses the word ‘member’ to refer to Christians in a churchly setting, as you would expect. (3.6)  But rather surprisingly he uses it again to members of the kingdom of this world, our neighbours in the widest sense, (4.25) We do good to our neighbours by being honest in our speech with them. And the reason? ‘for we are members one of another’. Christians  have at least a two-fold membership, one of the church, another membership of wider society.

Calvin says, on this verse,
‘he demands that every kind of communication shall be sincere; and enforces it by this consideration, for we are members one of another. That members should not agree among themselves – that they should act in a deceitful manner towards each other, is prodigious wickedness!’
But in the same way, Paul is vague, or general or indefinite in his advice. What counts as doing good to the members of the church and of the members of society is not specified. We are to do these things for the doing of good, and Paul leaves us with a blank to fill in as we may wish. Paul is not a casuist, ranking kinds of doing good in other kinds of action.  He does not come near to saying the doing of good in situation X is greater in goodness than in situation Y, and is therefore to be preferred as an act of doing good to another kind of act. It may be a ‘cup of cold water’ for all Paul seems to care.  Given the main argument of the letter to the Galatians, he might have in mind the duties to Christians who are Jews to Jews who are not Christians. Pure surmise.