Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Nature and Grace

We are trying to get a handle on the question, is Christian theology words about words about words, or does it pass the reference test? Does the subject-matter of theology, God, his character, ways and works, actually refer to God, or does it refer only to further words, further sentences whose grammatical subject is God, but which may not, at the end, succeed in referring to God? In this post we look at the place that nature, human nature, plays in Reformed theology’s answer to that question.

In his account of theological method, Francis Turretin, the seventeenth –century Reformed theologian, emphasises the importance of human resources or tools. Christian theology, particularly Christian Reformed Theology, does not rely upon the operation of a superhuman sixth-sense, or a special mystical afflatus, in order to gain true, saving knowledge of God. Our knowledge of God is not simply the result of of what we feel or imagine.

Rather, in a way that Turretin no doubt thought that it was vital to grasp, but which it is easy to skip over, at the very outset of his enquiry, he unfolds the place of reason in faith. Before this he had dismissed the idea that human reason is the principle and rule by which the doctrines of the Christian religion and theology ought to be measured. None the less in his view reason still has a vital role, as we shall see.

Logic, reason and the senses

To the questions, Does any judgment belong to reason in matters of faith? Or is there no use for it? Turretin proceeds not to offer a yes or no answer to the questions, but to discriminate carefully between those who give reason too great a role in religion, and those who give it too little. (At the time when Turretin wrote the issue was a tense one because of the then-current power and influence of Socinianism.) He then goes on to argue that reason is not the rule of faith. But that’s not the question that interests him. The issue is whether reason has a part to play in the ‘judgment of private discretion by which truth is distinguished form falsehood’. It plays a role in judging the truth of conclusions in all propositions, whatever their source, whether from general or special revelation. But in the case of propositions that are from general revelation only, it is used both to establish the truth of such propositions and then what follows from them. So natural reason may judge of the truth of natural matters, but it plays a subordinate though real role in determining the truth of supernatural matters.

Although the human understanding is very dark, yet there still remains in it some rays of natural light and certain first principles, the truth of which is unquestionable, such as, the whole is greater than its part, an effect supposes a cause, to be and not to be at the same time is incompatible. If this were not the case, there could be no science, nor art, nor certainty in the nature of things. These first principles are not only true in nature, but also in grace and the mysteries of faith. (I.29-30)

But even then Turretin observes several cautions. These are in order to underline the fact that reason is not the source of Christian theology but is useful for illustrating it, for comparing one thing with another, for drawing inferences, and from establishing proofs

And then Turretin asks himself and the reader two simple questions, the significance of which it is easy to overlook. The first is, in matters of faith, does the question of whether some set of propositions is self-contradictory or not matter? This has to do with reason in its narrowest and purest sense. He claims that it is possible for human reason to judge whether a statement or a set of statements is self-contradictory. Why is this important? Because if a set of statements is self-contradictory then some statements included in the set must be false; not every member of the set of statements can be true. Turretin does not posit a higher, spiritual reason, nor does he appeal to paradox to justify theological statements which are manifestly incoherent. A theological impossibility is an impossibility. Full stop. And, by implication, Turretin is telling us that it is important in theology not to indulge in such nonsense.

We can judge the importance of this simple question and the way in which it is answered by noting some remarks of Alister McGrath’s concern that theology might allow itself to be ‘imprisoned’ by logicians.

Evangelicals, of all people, cannot allow revelation to be imprisoned within the flawed limits of sinful human reason. Whatever the extent to which the human mind is noeticially compromised by sin, it is imperative that those finite and fallen minds should not be permitted to be the judges of what is and what is not divine revelation. How can theology so willingly allow itself to be imprisoned by logicians? (A Passion for Truth, The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism, Inter-Varsity), 170

For theology to be imprisoned by a logician presumably means it succumbing to the demand that theological propositions follow the elementary rules of logic such as the avoidance of contradiction, and the drawing of valid inferences from its statements. This may seem rather ironic given the book’s title. Whatever the intellectual coherence of evangelicalism, according to Professor McGrath it need not possess, and perhaps must not possess, the coherence that comes from consistency. That is the way to the prison. Rather it may possess some other non-logical or a-logical coherence which McGrath does not specify nor provide any instances of. He complains that Carl Henry sought to affirm a ‘logically consistent divine revelation' (70), and used the phrase ‘logically consistent’ rather recklessly. Such an approach, McGrath reckons, ‘opens the way to making the truth of divine revelation dependent on the judgments of fallen human reason’. Readers of this section of McGrath’s book will note that there is some confusion between affirming the logical consistency of the mysteries of the faith, and showing that they have not been proved to be inconsistent, and demonstrating their consistency. Perhaps it is McGrath who is using consistency somewhat recklessly. While it may be affirmed that God is both three and one, it is not a requirement of our faith that that claim is proved to be consistent, only that claims that it is inconsistent be successfully rebutted. At any rate, there is a sharp contrast between McGrath and Turretin: each affirms the fallenness of the human mind, and the finiteness of the human mind, but while one bids farewell to logic, the other invites it in.

Secondly, Turretin asks, Is there any use of the testimony of the senses in the mysteries of faith, or ought such testimony be entirely rejected? To this he says ‘We affirm the former and deny the latter’. Reliance on the senses ought not to be rejected. The senses are needed.

Although the orthodox are unwilling that the testimony of the senses should be heard in all mysteries, they nevertheless maintain that a proper regard should be paid to their testimony when the discussion concerns sensible and corporeal things which come within the sphere of their activity.

That is, we may place reliance on them. If we could not, how would we know that we were reading the Bible and not Gulliver’s Travels? And how could we identify the marks on its pages so that we can read them? So, according to Turretin, both human reason and the senses have a distinct role to play in Christian systematic theology. (Turretin has a nice proof text: ‘Touch me and see’ , Luke 24.39)

What the point of stressing such basic matters? Turretin is simply making the point that gifts and powers that are essentially human play a role in theology, where it is appropriate for them to do so. Theology is a humane discipline. These powers are, as we might put it, natural in the sense that they are universally-distributed tools and powers. They are the resources that we rely on in making observation, and drawing conclusions, and making calculations about all matters of fact, including the matters of fact of the Christian faith. Of course, besides stressing human finiteness, and the consequent mysteriousness to us of the doctrines of our faith, Turretin also maintains that these powers and tools are universally corrupted by sin, and that for a true, spiritual understanding of the teaching of Holy Scripture, and the appropriate response of faith and obedience, the regenerating and illuminating work of the Holy Spirit are necessary, indispensable. Turretin is, when all is said and done, a Reformed theologian. (But, he is implying, in regeneration the Spirit works through human nature, the intellect, the senses, and the will.)

He is not so emphatic upon asserting the need for special revelation and supernatural grace that its operation overrides or bypassed such powers in favour of some direct, mystical, inner light. Rather Turretin attempts to hold a fine balance between nature, human nature, even the senses and the intellect of fallen human nature, and the supernaturally-acquired knowledge of God our Creator and Redeemer.

So far we see that nature plays a vital instrumental role in acquiring the knowledge of God. But it also has an important thematic place.

Human nature created and fallen

Alongside this, Turretin argues in true Reformed fashion for the two-fold knowledge of God, that of God our Creator and of God our Redeemer. However it must be stressed that there is not for him (any more than for Calvin) a one-to-one correspondence between nature and the knowledge of God the creator on the one hand, and special grace and the knowledge of God the Redeemer on the other. To know of the true God the Creator, special revelation and divine grace are every bit as much needed as they are in order to know God the redeemer in Christ. Nevertheless, there is some rudimentary and rather inchoate knowledge of God the creator available to everyone. And to know God the redeemer in Christ, human senses and the exercise of the human intellect are every bit as vital (where appropriate) as are the regenerating and illuminating agency of the Holy Spirit of Christ. In these ways grace builds upon nature, it does not destroy it.

Besides this, and in a rather more formal way than Calvin, Turretin argues for what he calls ‘natural theology’, a term which he does not use exclusively to refer only to arguments for God’s existence. (I. 6-16) He uses it interchangeably with ‘knowledge’ as in ‘natural theology or [natural] knowledge of God’. There are, in fact, two parts to such natural knowledge, one ‘partly innate, (derived from the book of conscience by means of common notions and partly acquired (drawn from the book of creatures discursively)’. (I.6) Such knowledge is derived from the natural law written upon each person’s conscience which necessarily implies some knowledge of God the lawgiver. So the acquired knowledge of God (and the scope of the term ‘natural theology’) is not confined by Turretin to cosmological proofs for the existence of God , for example, but includes those matters referred to in passages of Scripture such as Ps.19.1 Acts 14:15-7: Rom 1.19. Obviously enough such natural knowledge of God cannot be derived from Scripture, and Turretin goes on to claim that it is a matter of universal experience. (I.7), referring to Cicero to provide evidence for this universality (as well as to the reports of contemporary explorers (I.8) ) as Calvin had done before him; the universal sensus divinitatis, and the place of of religious observances throughout the world). ‘The special knowledge of true faith (by which believers please God and have access to him, of which Paul speaks) does not exclude but supposes [i.e. presupposes] the general knowledge from nature’. (I.8)

It is at such points that the Magisterial Reformers, as well as clearly referring to Romans 1 and 2, draw upon Augustine, especially his anti-Pelagian work On Nature and Grace. In the short chapter 3 (and also chapter 22) Augustine makes a series of important distinctions. The first is between two senses of ‘nature’: nature as fallen and as unfallen. ‘Man’s nature, indeed, was created at first faultless and without any sin; but that nature of man in which every one is born from Adam, now wants the Physician, because it is not sound.’ Second, he draws a distinction between the good qualities that remain in human nature despite the Fall and the evil qualities it comes to have as a result of the Fall. ‘All good qualities, no doubt, which it still possesses in its make, life, senses, intellect, it has of the Most High God, its Creator and Maker’. Here we see a possible antecedent of the later Calvinist view of common grace. But we also see that these distinctions are fundamental to the idea that nature is fallen but not obliterated, on which divine grace builds.

Augustine has a view of nature and of evil drawn in metaphysical terms, some of the language of which is in turn drawn from Platonism, though it ultimately finds warrant, for him, in the biblical account of the goodness of the creation by an all-good Creator. Existence is good, and the only proximate source of good. Evil is the absence of good, a privation, a lack or loss or defect. So it follows as a metaphysical truth for Augustine that evil can ‘exist’ only by being parasitic upon some good, and only in so far as it is a ‘withdrawal from a substance’. An evil nature or an evil agent insofar as it exists, is good, despite its evil, for its existence is given by the good Creator. So that the Fall, since it did not entail the annihilation of the ones who fell, must be thought of as the perversion of the good and not as the total annihilation of the good:

Sin is not a substance; but God is a substance, yea the height of substance and only true sustenance of the reasonable creature. The consequence of departing from Him by disobedience, and of inability, through infirmity, to receive what one ought really to rejoice in, you hear from the Psalmist, when he says: ‘My heart is smitten and withered like grass, since I have forgotten to eat my bread’.

So the coming of sin led to loss, since sin is itself a loss, infecting us with defects, disabilities and infirmities, as Augustine calls them. This is a forceful expression both of Augustine’s view of evil as basically privative and also of the organic character of human nature; the Fall, like a pathogen, eats away at human nature without annihilating it.

All this is in sharp contrast to the modern theological outlook, both conservative and liberal, which has less and less time for the Biblical doctrine of the Fall. One characteristic of modern narrative theology is that all too frequently the narrative begins not with the Adamic fall but with the Abrahamic covenant, while the original creation, the so-called covenant of nature or covenant of works, is largely ignored. This may partly be due to embarrassment over the doctrine of evolution by natural selection, which tends to shut theologians’ mouths at this point. But it also may be due to a more widespread departure from the very idea of nature as a theological resource. Similarly the biblical account of the Noahic covenant is downplayed. In it the Lord appears to covenant with himself on behalf of mankind, giving the rainbow as a covenant sign both to himself and the human race, to preserve and regulate nature for the benefit of mankind, notwithstanding their sin. In our eagerness to arrive at the covenant with Abraham we tend to push past this covenant with creation, So just as torah supplants natural law, so Abraham pushes out Noah.

Grace on nature

Grace builds upon human nature, we are arguing. Human nature is fallen and perverted, but it remains functioning human nature nonetheless. The Fall does not literally de-humanise the race. Why is this important? Because it is through the investigative resources of human nature, our reason and our senses, that we gain our basic awareness of what is objectively true and false which in turn gives us good reason to believe that we are able successfully to refer to what is distinct from us, and really there, and come to establish what is objectively true, and not a mere fable or fantasy. As we earlier quoted form Turretin, ‘If this were not the case, there could be no science, nor art, nor certainty in the nature of things’. Of course more than nature is needed, but not less than nature. We make mistakes, and are self-deceiving about what is really true, but there are also corrective mechanisms which enable us to finesse our claims about objective reality, reducing the chance of error. We know that the table is real and not a phantom, because of the judgment of our sensory experience, and the obvious ways in which the top and legs of the table resist us and support us, and ways in which we can mend and re-varnish the table, and so on. And we use these same objectivity-recognising tools, where it is pertinent to do so, for the purpose of enquiring about God and gaining knowledge of him. Yes, once again, these alone are not sufficient, but they are necessary, and if they neglect their importance then theologians can never hope to pass the successful reference test.