‘Inquiry should be made more strictly after his other learning, and whether he hath skill in logic and philosophy’.
- Directory for the Ordination of Ministers, Westminster Assembly of Divines, 1643.
The Bit of logic
There are important differences between:
(1) (p and q), and
(2) not both (p and not-p) and
(3) (p entails q).
That’s the bit of logic. What it is says is that there’s a significant logical difference between two propositions being consistent (1) , two propositions being inconsistent by being self-contradictory (2), and one proposition entailing another proposition, such that if the first proposition is true, then the second proposition must be true (3).
This may seem abstract and remote. Abstract it is, but not remote. By neglecting such simple, basic logical distinctions some are led to some ludicrous ideas about systematic theology. How many times have we heard that since some of what John says about God is different from some of what Paul says about God, the unity and consistency of Scripture, and therefore of systematic theology that seeks to depend only on Scripture, is compromised? But ‘The apple in the bowl is red’, while different from ‘The apple in the bowl is sweet’, is perfectly consistent with it, a case of (1) and not (2) .
How often have we read that according to Calvinism, or some forms of Calvinism, Christian theology is of the form: p entails q, q entails r, r entails s, and so on. That according to Calvinism theological unity and coherence is thought of a being in the form of a proof like a theorem of Euclid. But while ‘This apple was picked yesterday’ and ‘this apple is red’ are both true (let us suppose), and so true together, the first does not entail the second, nor the second the first. It may follow that if p is true then, as a matter of logic, q is true, but it may not follow. And in the case of many of the propositions of systematic theology, it does not follow. ‘God the Son became incarnate’ and ‘The incarnate Son offered himself as a sacrifice’ are both true, and the second depends upon the first, but the first does not entail the second. A case of (1) rather than (2).
What matters for the unity and coherence of systematic theology, is that none of the various loci contradict each other, that cases of both (p and not-p) don’t occur, and that many theological claims depend logically upon other claims. That is, some claims are logically necessary conditions for other claims. The reasons for this are, I hope, obvious.
Theology and theologians
Besides these points of logic there is one further matter involving issues of logic that is relevant. Systematic theology is often built up by using the thought and ideas of individual theologians. In appropriating their thought for systematic theological purposes, it is necessary to distinguish between what that individual’s words imply, and what he intended by those words. After all, not being omniscient, a person cannot be held responsible for all the logical consequences of his thoughts.
Let us illustrate these points of logic by a couple of issues that engage those interested in Reformed theology. Firstly, Calvin and the Covenant of Works. The following questions become relevant.
1. Did Calvin believe in the Covenant of Works?
2. Did Calvin intend to teach the Covenant of Works?
3. Did Calvin deny the Covenant of Works?
John Murray: ‘[Calvin] is insistent that there was no covenant answering the requirements of justification and acceptance with God prior to the covenant with Abraham'. (Comm. Gal.3.17) (Collected Writings, 4.219, Murray’s emphasis)
4. Is some of what Calvin believed consistent with the Covenant of Works?
John Murray: The Adamic representative headship was present in his teaching ‘but he did not construe this Adamic constitution as a covenant of works or of law’. (Collected Writings, 4.219, Murray’s emphasis).
5. Is the covenant a dominant motif of Calvin;s theology?
‘In Calvin too mention is frequently made of the covenants. However, his theology was built on the basis of the Trinity, and therefore the covenant concept would not arise as a dominant principle in his case’ (Geerhardus Vos. ‘The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology’ in Redemption History and Biblical Interpretation ed. Richard B Gaffin Jr., 236)
6. Does some of what Calvin believed entail the Covenant of Works?
The answers in brackets are intended to represent plausible though not definitive answers to the respective questions. Suppose that we were to accept these answers. There seem to me to be two possible conclusions that we might draw.
(a) Calvin taught some elements of what later become the developed doctrine of the Covenant of Works but denied others. We might base the reasons for holding this on upon (3) and (4) and (5) and (6) above.
(b) Overall, Calvin’s thought was ’organically’ connected in a positive way to the developed Covenant of Works.
(a) is not very satisfactory from the point of view of integrating Calvin’s theology into the developed theology of ‘Calvinism’, particularly of course covenant theology. Nevertheless, it may be the truth. (b) involves a weakening of the assessment of the relationship between Calvin’s thought and the Covenant of Works from that of logical connectedness to a much weaker idea, ‘organic connection’. In places Geerhardus Vos seems to take option (b). Vos says something like this, though not explicitly connected with Calvin. ‘Whoever has the historical sense to be able to separate the mature development of a thought from its original sprouting and does not insist that a doctrine be mature at birth, will have no difficulty in recognizing the covenant of works as an old Reformed doctrine’. (237) This, even when uttered with a Dutch accent, seems dangerous territory for a Reformed theologian to occupy. Historical development is one thing. Development that is like that of a seedling into a tree is reminiscent of J.H. Newman’s The Development of Doctrine, which is dominated by such organic metaphors. The trouble is that the dominance of organic metaphors makes the control of doctrinal development by reference to Scripture and its good and necessary consequences less and less possible.
In Calvin and the Calvinists, published more than twenty five years ago, after citing data from Calvin supporting penal substitution from such places as Institutes II.16. 2.3. 5, and passages from III. 22. 7. 10 on the definite scope of the atonement, I made the distinction between Calvin being committed to definite atonement and committing himself to that view. This is a further point of logic that is, I believe, worth dwelling on a little.
A person may be committed to a doctrine without committing themselves to it. How so? Because the proposition or propositions that a person believes may have logical consequences that that person does not realise (even though such consequences may, to later students, be as plain as a pikestaff). Why may this be so? Perhaps through a simple failure of logic, simply not noticing that p and q entail r. Or perhaps through simple ignorance, because the logical consequences had not been brought to that person’s attention. One result of controversy is that those in the controversy, and bystanders too, come to have their noses rubbed in some of the logical consequences of the positions being argued over. (Think of the connection Christ drew between ‘God is the living God’ and ‘Abraham, having died, nevertheless lives on’.) Seeing that p entails q might make a person affirm q. Or seeing that p entails q might make him deny p. So the question, did Calvin commit himself to limited atonement, is bound up with another: Is it plausible to believe that, had the fully developed doctrine of definite atonement being available to Calvin, he would have embraced it? Or would he have back-peddled to a vaguer or to a contrary view? In asking and attempting to answer such questions the mists and fogs of anachronism loom. So perhaps we are better not to ask them, or not ask them very often. What we know for sure is that the bulk of later Calvinists embraced definite atonement, the Amyraldians havered, and the Arminians backpeddled.