Sunday, August 30, 2009

Providence and Puritanism

'Scholastic' and' Scholasticism', at least when used of Reformed theology, are frequently terms of abuse and are used to imply degeneracy and deformation, a theological fall from the purity of the creative theological genius of John Calvin. Those who charge the later generations of Reformed theologians with scholasticism do so in the spirit of Ecclesiastes 7.29 'God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes'. And the schemes allegedly searched out by the Reformed Orthodox are many. They are variously accused of arid rationalism, of adopting a theological methodology which was deductive and foundational, based upon the divine decrees; of evolving a natural theology in the place of the revelational theology of the Reformers; of replacing Calvin's warm, direct Christocentrism with speculative hair-splitting; and of compromising Calvin's gospel of unconditional grace. Thus it is said that ‘later Reformed writers are better described as philosophical, rather than biblical theologians.... concerned with metaphysical and speculative questions.’ ‘With Perkins we can see, as with Beza, a more severe, more speculative and less biblical version of the doctrine of grace, lacking Calvin's attempt to give it christocentric emphasis.’

Most of these charges are ill-defined, and some of them cancel each other out. As we noted in Chapter Two, the federal theology of later Calvinism, championed as a movement away from rationalism to a more biblical, historically-oriented theological method, was in fact sympathetic to Cartesianism, at the same time that Cartesianism was being excoriated by high Calvinists such as Voetsius. So on the not unreasonable test of sympathy for Descartes, the allegedly non-rationalist federal theologians were rationalistically inclined, while those accused of being rationalists, the high Calvinists, were not.

Other charges of rationalism are clearly at odds with the facts; with the fact, for example, that some of the divines who stand accused of aridity reveal themselves as masters of experiential divinity. But this is sufficient for them then to stand accused of another set of charges - introspectionism, legalism, preparationism, and much else. Other scholars on the Reformed theology of this period, without using the term 'scholastic', have claimed to discern sharp discontinuity, and even a theological reaction, between the theology - particularly the soteriology - of Calvin and the Westminster divines.

This is not the place to address all these charges as they are leveled against to Puritanism and the Westminster Confession of Faith. The charges as they relate to Reformed theology more generally are in any case now being given a fair assessment in the literature. What I shall endeavour to do is to consider such charges as they relate to one prominent Chapter in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter Five, 'Of Providence'. I shall evaluate the charge of scholasticism and rationalism by a review of this Westminster document and the writing of John Arrowsmith, one of the Westminster Divines, on the same theme.

The Confession's treatment of divine providence follows on from the Chapters on God, God's eternal decree and his work as Creator. So there is a logical, natural order: each of the Chapters II-V presupposes the material of the immediately earlier Chapter. But it does not follow from this that each Chapter is deduced from the earlier material. The framers of the Confession sought to ground each of their assertions in the text of Scripture, while recognising that in our thought about these matters there is a logical order. One cannot sensibly consider the decree of God without first establishing the existence of God, and his work of creation and providence is the unfolding of his decree. So if 'scholasticism' means 'deduction from an axiom asserting the eternal decree of God' the Chapter on providence in the Confession is emphatically not a piece of scholastic theology.

But is the Chapter scholastic in some other sense which reveals its degeneracy from primitive Calvinism? We shall attempt to answer this question by first briefly summarising what the Chapter on providence asserts.

To begin with, it maintains the theocentric teaching of the earlier chapters. Providence is an expression of the Creatorship of God; the Lord governs his creation to the praise of his glory. All events, whether they are instances of laws of nature ('necessarily'), or of human choices ('freely'), or of unforeseen happenings ('contingently'), or miracles, and including the Fall itself, are in the direct control of God. So the Confession asserts that providence is all-encompassing and particular; nothing escapes, nor ever has or can; divine providence is both macroscopic and microscopic in its scope. The wording of the Confession is emphatic on this point, for having stated that God 'doth uphold, direct, dispose and govern all creatures, actions and things, from the greatest even to the least', it proceeds to stress that this control, even where it extends to the 'first fall, and all other sins of angels and men' is not a bare permission, 'but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering and governing of them'.

So God governs every minute particular of his creation, even the sins of men and angels, without himself being tainted by sin or approving of it. At the same time the wording of the Chapter strongly affirms the responsibility and culpability of the wicked. The sinfulness of sin 'proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God’ .

The concluding paragraphs (V-VII) make three practical applications of the doctrine set forth. The first asserts that the providence of God is not at odds with the fact that at times the children of God suffer. In his wisdom God by his providence may order suffering in order to chastise, to humble them, to increase their dependence on him and to make them more watchful. Similarly God hardens 'wicked and ungodly men' by withholding grace and withdrawing gifts from them. Finally, and by way of summary, the Confession asserts (VII) that while the providence of God extends to all, he takes particular care of his church, for whom all things are made to work together for their good. – a theme common to both Aquinas and Calvin, as we have seen. Far from presenting the doctrine of providence in an arid or a merely academic way, the divines strive to relate it to the practicalities of Christian life and experience.

So far we have seen that the treatment of providence cannot fairly be accused of scholasticism in that it is not deductive, nor is it dry and theoretical in temper. There is a further noteworthy feature of this Chapter which marks it off from certain kinds of scholasticism in theology. At no point in their treatment of providence do the divines offer a theory of divine providence; an account of how it can be that God can remain pure while ordaining the minutest particulars of evil actions, or of how men and women remain responsible for their actions even though all their actions are governed by divine providence.

Why is this? I suggest that it is because, in their concise summaries of Christian doctrine, they wished to adhere as closely as possible to Scripture. And because they could find no theory of providence in Scripture, no statement of how it is that God is both the governor or all things good and evil and yet remains untainted, and evil men are still responsible for those sins which God in his providence ordains, they did not offer a theory as part of the Church's public confession of faith. In this respect the Chapter on providence may be said to be resolutely a posteriori in intent. The divines do not approach providence in an a priori fashion, imposing a set of ideas on the raw data of Scripture, but by a process of induction they attempt to formulate such a doctrine from the canonical documents, going as far as, but no farther than they judge those documents warrant.

This is also the reason why the Chapter on providence cannot be thought of as scholastic in yet another sense, in the sense that it depends upon a natural theology, a theology arrived at by some general appeal to what all men consider to be true or reasonable. It is certainly possible to attempt to build up an account of providence in this way, and the attempt has been made; in deism, for example. But there is not a trace of such an approach in the Confession. There is nothing, for example, that approaches the language of David Hume's Cleanthes

Look round the world: Contemplate the whole and every part of it: You will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions, to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain. All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy, which ravishes into admiration all men, who have ever contemplated them.

There is no appeal to what is reasonable, to clear and distinct ideas, to natural light, or to what may be judged to be probable on the basis of human experience alone. Rather, in a way which no doubt some may regard as tedious and hide-bound, because the compilers of the Confession seek to ground their assertions about divine providence on the assertions of Holy Scripture, they give prominence to the 'unsearchable wisdom' of God. Thus, in asserting that God orders all things to fall out according to the natures of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently, the authors of the Confession cite Gen. 8. 22 and Jer. 31. 35 as proof of God's ordering of necessary secondary causes; Exod.21.13, Deut 19 .5 and l Kings 20.34 as his ordering of contingent secondary causes; and Isa. 9.6,7 as his ordering of free secondary causes.

It is at this point in the Chapter on Providence that the only concession that is made in the direction of theorising about divine providence, namely the use of the distinction between primary and secondary causes, is introduced. As we have just noted, according to the Confession God 'ordereth them (viz. all things) to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently'. In this way the Confession asserts that natural events and human actions are the secondary causes of what they bring to pass, while it implies (though it does not assert) that God is the primary cause. Is the use of the distinction between primary and secondary causes an evidence of scholasticism? Perhaps it is. Certainly the medieval scholastics used it. But if it is evidence of scholasticism then John Calvin is also a scholastic, since he also uses the distinction in his elucidation of the doctrine of providence.

So far we have briefly surveyed some of the ways in which the Confession's chapter on Providence might be said to be scholastic, and the reasonable conclusion is that it is scholastic in none of them. But there is one way in which the influence of scholasticism may be discerned. A characteristic of scholasticism in the medieval period is that it developed theology in a highly technical way; by means of the disputatio, and the use of carefully formulated distinctions, and by the use of definition and argument, theological topics were carefully discriminated, and discussed with equal care. There is no doubt that the influence of scholasticism in this sense may be discerned in the Chapter on providence. For in that Chapter, as throughout the Confession, there is a premium placed on precise and economical turns of phrase. Central Christian doctrines are defended against many errors in few words. As B. B. Warfield judged the compilers of the Confession of Faith

The authors were men of learning and philosophic grasp; but above all of piety. Their interest was not in speculative construction, but in the protection of their flocks from deadly error. It results from the very nature of the case, therefore, that it is a religious document which they have given us. And the nicety of its balance in conceiving and the precision of its language in stating truth, will seem to us scholastic only in proportion as our religious life is less developed than theirs.

There is little by way of rhetorical flourish. Issues are stated - or rather understated - in a calm and concise way. In this sense - but in this sense only - can the Confession, including its chapter on providence, be regarded as 'scholastic'. But it is precisely as used in this sense that 'scholastic' is presentational rather than theologically substantive.

Additional collateral evidence for the claim that there is no substantive theological difference between the Westminster Confession of Faith's teaching on providence and the earlier teaching of John Calvin, none, at least, due to the malign influence of 'scholasticism', can be obtained in a less direct fashion.

John Arrowsmith (1602-1659) was a leading Westminster divine, a member of the Cambridge Puritan establishment, and a friend of Antony Tuckney, whom we met in Chapter Three. While Master of St. John's College, Cambridge, (he was later to be Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and also Regius Professor of Divinity) he began to write a systematic theology designed in the form of thirty aphorisms with corresponding exercitations. Only six aphorisms and sets of exercitations were finished at his death. The work was posthumously published in 1659 as Armilla Catechetica. A Chain of Principles.

His A Chain of Principles contains a treatment of divine providence. Unlike either Calvin or the Confession, Arrowsmith starts from the fact that human life is a mixture of prosperity and adversity, and draws some lessons from this; for example, that God allows such a mixture to magnify his goodness, and to be known to be the Sovereign Lord of all persons and things, and draws practical lessons for the life of faith in typically Puritan fashion.

Then, in the last Aphorism of the work, he proceeds to discuss providence in a more formal way. 'Providence extends it self, not onely to all created beings, and to all humane affairs, especially those that concern the Church: but even to the sins of Angels and men'. As we have seen, this is essentially the same teaching as Calvin's and the Confession's. Arrowsmith proceeds to 'demonstrate' these claims, this demonstration consisting of the provision of scriptural proofs. For example, the proposition that divine providence extends itself to all created beings is demonstrated from Nehemiah 9.6. and a number of other texts. He then proceeds in a similar fashion to demonstrate the truth of the proposition that divine providence extends to all human affairs, distinguishing between Economical, Civil, Military, Moral and Ecclesiastical affairs. These are treated in turn in the same way, scriptural proofs being provided for each.

In Exercitation 2, God's providential care over the church is given the same treatment. The third Exercitation concerns God's concurrence with sinful actions. 'Divine providence is an actour even in sin it self. I shall single out hardness of heart, a sin common to all sorts of men, though in different degrees….' Partial hardness may occur in the elect, total hardness in the reprobate; in each degree of hardness 'the providence of God is an actor'. Arrowsmith goes into some detail as to how this can be. Among the ways he mentions are that God hardens hearts by 'privation', and by denying his blessing, by permitting evil ('Although he frequently permit it, yet we must say he is not altogether willing to have it, however willing to suffer it').

There is undoubtedly some development here, and in a way in which perhaps Calvin himself would not have altogether welcomed. For Calvin did not favour the use of Augustine's idea of evil as a privation. Yet Arrowsmith relies on that idea in his account of providence and evil. There is also a tendency to offer explanations of how it can be that God' s providence extends to evil, a tendency that we saw was absent in both the Confession and in Calvin. For even where Calvin appears to intend to tell us how God's impulse comes to pass in men (as in Inst. I. 18.2) he does so not by using a metaphysical idea such as the privative nature of evil, but simply by reaffirming the Scriptural teaching (as Calvin understood it), that God works inwardly in men's minds.

Yet the significance of this use of the Augustinian idea of evil as a privation (a development, or degeneracy, as you prefer), ought not to be exaggerated. In going into further, and perhaps questionable, detail as to how it is possible for the providence of God to encompass the evil actions of men, Arrowsmith is explicitly endorsing the doctrine both of Calvin and of the Confession. By his use of the idea of evil as a privation he could be said to be offering a gloss on V. III of the Confession, or on Book I Chapter 18 of the Institutes. What he is making use of here is not the scholasticism of natural theology, nor is he attempting to make deductions from the divine decree treated in axiomatic fashion, nor is he attempting a rationalistic reconstruction of this tenet of the faith, but he is nevertheless endeavouring by this distinction to gain further understanding of what he already firmly believes, very much in the tradition of ‘faith seeking understanding’.