Thursday, July 30, 2009

August

We are in the middle of a short series of Analyses on Tom Wright's book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. (The trajectory of the series is not quite turning out as originally planned, but never mind.)

This month we continue our examination of the Bishop's argument first by underscoring the point made by John Piper in The Future of Justification that God's righteousness is wider than covenant faithfulness. This is not only a point of sound theology, but also a point of logic.

We then see that most of the elements of the Reformed account of the atonement and its place in justification are in fact endorsed by Wright - Christ's death is the 'basis' of justification, he acts as a substitute, as a result of which God 'reckons' us to be 'in the right'.

In the next post, in September, I do not pursue the obvious next question, which is: What then is so new about the new perspective if so much of the old perspective is still in place? Rather, I shall ask- what is it that Wright objects to about the place that the Reformed account of justification finds for the imputation of Christ's righteousness? And is he consistent to object to it as he does?

The second post is a further draft extract from the forthcoming Calvin at the Centre (OUP), this time on Calvin and Stoicism.

Why Covenant Faithfulness is not Divine Righteousness (and cannot be)

In numerous places in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision Bishop Wright claims that God’s righteousness is his covenant faithfulness. I deliberately stress the ‘is’. How is Wright taking it? One way would be to understand it as ‘God ‘s covenant faithfulness is (an expression of) his righteousness’. But it is clear that he means something much stronger: more like, ‘God’s righteousness is (nothing other than) his covenant faithfulness’.

I think we need to pause for a moment or two on this claimed identity between righteousness and covenant faithfulness. It means, for one thing, that there is no other way that God could express his righteousness than by way of covenant faithfulness. Why? Because the one is the other. So in order to be righteous God must establish a covenant and be faithful to it. God cannot do other than he has in fact done. This would be seem to be, shall we say, rather restrictive? Where is God’s freedom in grace? In his wisdom, could he have seen fit not to establish a covenant? If so, would he nonetheless be righteous?

In making a covenant (with Abraham, say) is God acting righteously? Strictly, not according to Bishop Wright. He is only acting righteously in keeping his covenant, in being faithful to it. Weird. For Wright seems to be implying that God’s making a covenant could be an act of whimsy, caprice, sheer arbitrariness, coin-tossing, or whatever, but that everything changes when it comes to keeping the covenant. Can that be right?

These are points of logic, or conceptuality, I know. They are none the worse for that. But alongside them there are the exegetical remarks made powerfully by John Piper in Chapter 3 of The Future of Justification.

God’s covenant faithfulness

Piper claims that ’Wright’s definition of righteousness does not go deep enough’ (62). What he means is that Wright’s account of divine righteousness starts and stops with his account of divine actions. (62-4) Piper says

Not in the least do I wish to question that God’s righteousness impels him to be faithful to his covenant promises, to judge without partiality, to deal with sin “properly”, and to stand up for those who are unjustly oppressed. But God’s love (hesed) and his faithfulness (emet) and his goodness (tov) could also be said to produce these actions. Yet God’s righteousness and love and faithfulness and goodness are not all synonyms. So the crucial question in defining the righteousness of God is: What is it about God’s righteousness that inclines him to act in these ways? Behind each of those actions is the assumption that there is something about God’s righteousness that explains why he acts as he does. What is that? That is the question, so far as I can see, that Wright does not ask. (62-3)


Wright treats righteousness solely in terms of God’s actions.

So according to Piper the sense of ‘righteousness’ is wider than that of covenant faithfulness, important though such faithfulness is.

Yet it is not merely a question of some definition of righteousness not being adequate, of how we are to understand that righteousness. It is also, and more fundamentally, the question of the coherence of any account of divine righteousness that does not begin with who God is. Being, the being of God, must come first; acting is a consequence of being. This is true generally; glass is not fragile because it easily smashes, it easily smashes because it is fragile. Henry is not vain because he is always preening himself in front of the mirror, but his preening is an expression of his vain disposition. In God’s case, doing righteously follows from being righteous. Acting faithfully is a consequence of being faithful, of having a faithful character, or a character apt for being faithful. Wright’s account is not deep enough, in Piper’s estimate, because it does not start with the character of God, but with the actions of God.

Piper’s identification of this failure in Wright is of considerable significance in his treatment of the Bishop’s view. But it is also more generally important in Christian theology. For various reasons it is at present hugely fashionable to think of theology in narrative form: in terms of covenant (Horton), speech-act theory and ‘theodrama’ (Vanhoozer), and of history (N.T. Wright), for example. More generally, it is vogish to think predominantly in the category of history, redemptive history, biblical history, ‘biblical theology’, and to downplay or abandon the categories of systematic theology. In Wright’s case this way of thinking is habitual because he is first and foremost a historian, and so first and foremost he thinks in terms of historical sequences, of sequences of action, human and divine, and of their significance. He is much less interested in the ‘creedal’ statements in Scripture. He has little feel for the doctrinal debates in the history of the Church, and he sticks as closely as he can to the very words of Scripture and to the use of any analogies and metaphors that throw light on these.

But Piper has put his finger on an inherent weakness with such approaches. To be contributions to Christian theology they all need what a mere narrative, a mere sequence of events , does not and cannot deliver. They need a doctrine of God. What Piper is concerned to do is not to ‘shrink’ the discussion, (as Wright supposes (154)), but to broaden it, to show that God’s covenant , both his making it and his keeping it, stand within the framework of a deeper recognition of God’s character, or attributes. God’s righteousness is his resolve to be true to himself, in all aspects of his character. Such righteousness is ‘ultimately defined in relation to this ultimate value, the holiness or the glory of God ’ – this is the highest standard for “right” in the universe’. (64) ‘This is part of his nature. It is part of what it means to be God. This is the deeper foundation for covenant-keeping (and all other divine action) Coming from this deepest allegiance of God is what makes an action “right” or “righteous”’. (65)

And later

Paul’s vision of God’s righteousness is not synonymous with God’s covenant faithfulness or his impartiality in court. It is deeper than both of these. They are some of what righteousness does, not what righteousness is. God’s righteousness is no more defined by his covenant-keeping than a man’s integrity is defined by his contract keeping. There are a hundred other things integrity prompts a person to do besides keep contacts. And there are a hundred other things God’s righteousness prompts him to do besides keep covenant. (164)


A Riposte

This is what Tom Wright says by way of a riposte

Piper’s attempt to show that that there must be a’ righteousness’ behind God’s covenant faithfulness is simply unconvincing (46) …..Again, it seems that Piper has read it, but he never engages with the basic proposal I make, which is that - fully in line with Daniel 9 and the multitude of Isaiah and Psalms that talk in the same way – ‘God’s righteousness’ here is his faithfulness to the covenant, specifically to the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, and that it is because of this covenant that God deals with sins through the faithful, obedient death of Jesus the messiah. (Rom.3.24-2)


This is good example of the regular way in which ‘narrative’ approaches to the text of Scripture inevitably reduce God’s character to what he does. There are several points to be made:

Such an approach excludes any reference to the need for a covenant (a unilaterally established way of salvation from sin, a restoration) in the first place. It starts the theology too far down the line, too late. Does God’s righteousness have nothing to do with the need for a covenant? Wright says, ‘Dealing with sin, saving humans from it, giving them grace, forgiveness, justification, glorification – all this was the purpose of the single covenant from the beginning, now revealed in Jesus Christ.’ (74, author’s italics). Indeed, and well said. But why are such gifts necessary? But why is it necessary to deal with sin? What is sin? And is it plausible to suppose that righteous Noah (Gen. 7.1), or the hypothetical righteous men of Sodom for whom Abraham interceded (Gen. 18), were faithful to a covenant? To which covenant?

Sure enough, God’s attitude to sin, his grace, the provision of forgiveness, the vindication of men and women by Christ – is part of what it means for God to be righteous. But this does not exhaust God’s righteousness, it (merely!) expresses it. God is faithful to the covenant of grace and redemption from sin that he has righteously established. It is for this reason that Piper thinks that Wright’s insistence that God’s righteousness is his covenant faithfulness is a ‘belittling’ of it, as Wright puts it (74). Rather, it must be filled out, by understanding God’s righteousness as an essential feature of his character. If anyone ‘belittles’ it is Wright, who reduces the righteousness of God to a set of God’s actions. But God acts (and must act) consistently with his nature. So the fundamental question is, what character does the God who does all this have?

How exactly?

So how, exactly, are believers declared to be in the right? What is that declaration and its relation to justification? This is another way of asking that question : How can believers be declared in the right? What is the basis or foundation of such a declaration? (113-4). What are the grounds or reasons for reckoning righteous? Such questions are raised in one’s mind fairly early on in Wright’s exegetical survey of righteousness in Paul’s letters; in fact, raised a number of times. They come up when Wright repeatedly says: for Paul, believers are righteous, they are declared to be ‘in the right’. (133) But how is it that we have no reason to think that the court that issues such a declaration is not a kangeroo court? How can we be sure that the judge is not a crook, but someone to be relied upon? As initially presented, this idea of being declared in the right seems to be curiously hollow. As a consequence of Christ’s death and resurrection, (but never mind how), God declares believers to be in the right. But what makes the court righteous? And what makes its declaration righteous? Even when the Bishop does fill out ‘righteousness as connoting mercy and kindness, faithfulness and generosity’ (69) it is still a strikingly procedural understanding of imputation – Mercy in respect of what? Kindness on account of what?

Wright makes clear, in a footnote, ( Ch. 7 fn. 7, 229) that he does not like the language (used by Piper, and hosts more, of course) of the ‘basis’ of justification. But eventually the need to talk in such ways becomes inescapable, as Wright takes us into the heart of Romans. They are forced upon us by what Paul says. God declares a person righteous by not counting their trespasses against them (138), which in turn prompts the question: what trespasses – how are they to understood? And in virtue of what is it about Christ that results in one’s trespasses not being counted? Does Paul have no answer to such questions?

Substitution

Given the naturalness of such questions it is not surprising that Wright himself provides an answer to the very questions that he thinks ought not to be asked: He says that Christ’s faithful death , ‘the representative and therefore substitutionary death’ is the foundation (180-1) of justification. ‘Foundation’ is obviously another word for ‘basis’, the word Wright uses twice in 113-4. So by this stage in his discussion it is evident that Wright has been able to overcome his reluctance to talk some of the traditional language, the language of what grounds or provides the basis for our justification – what was sometimes called – in language which no doubt Wright likes even less than ‘basis’ – the material cause of our justification.

And what does Christ deliver, by his death and resurrection? – Wright’s answer is that the death and resurrection of Christ is the basis of the pardon of our sins, ‘overarching human sin’ (174). Christ deals with sin (74) in his death , making justification possible. (179) And he does so by being our representative or substitute. (181).

For all the protestations to the contrary, then, the distance between Wright and the traditional view of justification is narrowed at a point like this, narrowed because once he recognises the need for an account of the basis of justification, then the concept of substitution is forced upon him by the argumentative structure of what St. Paul really said.

So that’s the first point,. God’s righteousness is seen in his condemnation of sin.Wright’s account of Paul’s teaching regarding the basis or foundation of the ‘overarching’ problem of sin involves substitution. So God's righteousness cannot only be his covenant faithfulness.

Imputation

Further, Bishop Wright is also happy to use the language of imputation. Well, he does not quite use that word ‘impute’, but he uses the word ‘reckon.’ (Early on he chides J.I. Packer for writing that though Paul does not actually talk of ‘imputed righteousness’ he does talk about ‘reckoning righteousness’ which (Packer thinks, but Wright demurs) amounts to the same thing – the language of imputation is a good and necessary consequence, Packer might say, of Paul’s language of ‘reckoning’ and ‘counting as’. (29-30)) So how has God ‘dealt with our sin’? Answer: he has dealt with it by reckoning us to be ‘in the right’ in virtue of what our substitute has done.

So, almost in spite of himself, Wright identifies three vital concepts which he sees in Paul – Christ’s death the ‘basis’ of justification; then substitution - Christ is substituted as the faithful Israelite; and the outcome - as a result God ‘reckons’ us to be ‘in the right’.

So what now prevents him from subscribing to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness that is vital to the Reformed understanding of the atonement?

I think that I know the answer!

To try to show this, in the third post we shall take a look at Wright and righteousness.

Calvin and the Stoics

Providence and Human Agency

I shall first try to show this by noting what Calvin and the Stoics say about the nature of the causal activity of people. Neither Calvin nor (as we have seen) the Stoics hold the view that the future is fixed irrespective of what men and women desire that future to be, and what they intend and bring about. For the Stoics, a person is fated to enjoy or suffer something not irrespective of their desires and intentions, but through their operation. That is to say, most events are no fated in isolation, but co-fated in a causal and in some cases a teleological sequence

For the Stoics such co-fatedness had a varied character. Some events are causally necessary and sufficient for others. If Laius is fated to have a son then he is fated to have intercourse with the son’s mother to be. Sometimes they are logically necessary. if Milo is fated to wrestle then he is fated to have an opponent to wrestle with, since it is logically impossible to wrestle without having someone to wrestle. So Laius cannot be ‘simply’ be fated to have a son, or Milo to wrestle. Doing either involves other people, and so the fact that Laius is fated to become a father (if he is) cannot be a recipe for idleness, as opponents of Stoicism claimed. But the relation of the elements that are co-fated may be weaker than such a necessary causal connection, it may involve the existence of general but not universal connections; in order for me to recover from my illness it may be necessary for me to consult the doctor, and necessary that I know this, but I may consult the doctor and still not recover. It may in general be necessary for me to take care if I am to cross the road safely, but I may on some occasions be careless and still make it to the other side. As Bobzien says

For the ‘efficiency’ of the refutation of the Idle Argument (which after all is applied to particular situations, since actions are particulars), the existence of an empirically accessible, universal relation of necessary condition is not required and no causal theory with universal laws of nature has to be presupposed. For a non-futile action it is sufficient that there is a chance that the action matters for the outcome in that there is a probability that it is a necessary condition for triggering or preventing a prospective cause from being active and thus furthers a certain envisaged result.

So, for both Calvin and the Stoics, because the order of things is a causal, teleological order, we cannot be idle or imprudent if certain of our goals are to be achieved. So the Stoics reject the ‘idle argument’ that if the future is fixed then there is nothing that we presently do that can affect or influence it.

So, transposing this outlook into Calvin’s theism, while it was eternally ordained by God (let us suppose) that Joe climbs the ladder, God's decree that he does so is a necessary condition of the truth of 'Jones climbed the ladder'. But it is not by itself sufficient, because the decree has also to take effect in time. In ordaining that Joe climb the ladder God must also ordain that there is an available ladder, that Joe was not too frightened to climb it, that he had an objective for which ladder-climbing is necessary, the desire to climb, and so forth. And for this sort of scenario to be a cure for Joe’s idleness then he must want to climb the ladder, knowing or believing that it is (probably) connected with something further that he wants to achieve. Such factors have to be ordained in the correct causal and teleological order and to 'fall out' thus.

Further, this co-fatedness is what explains why Joe uses the ladder, in the way that merely to assert 'he was fated to climb the ladder does not. 'Whatever you do it was fated that you do it' offers no guidance as to what you should do. To the question 'Why are you turning on the television?' 'Because I am fated to turn it on' or ‘God has decreed that I do so’ are not justifying reasons for that action in the way that 'Because I want to see the match this afternoon' is. It's not a reason because (according to Stoicism) I am fated to do everything I do, or (according to Calvin) everything I do is decreed by God. But (in general) I have no epistemic access to the future. All I know (by past experience in some fashion) is that in order to watch the match this afternoon I have to take necessary steps to do so. I might not take those steps, and still, by a series of unintended coincidences, see the match that I wanted to see. But this is no way to live. Effort is causally contributory to an envisaged end. Calvin is assuming, of course, that for the most part God does not disclose the future to us until it becomes the present. So he is saying that at the human level, action causally contributes to what occurs, and so having reasons to do a certain action and to refrain from doing another sort of action are explanations of why I act or forbear to act. Nevertheless, what I do is necessitated by the divine decree.

Of course both Stoic fatalism and Calvin’s appeal to the divine decree impose fixity on the sequences of events. Yet if the type of fatalism, (for the Stoics) or providence (for Calvin) were that sometimes called logical or ‘simple’ fatalism, such that Joe is fated to climb the ladder whether he wants to or not, or perhaps even though he does not want to, and particular events are fated in abstraction from any particular causal nexus, then his wanting or not wanting to climb the ladder does not explain anything about how it comes to be climbed. Nothing explains that except fate, or the God of such fate. Calvin cites Cicero’s De Fato on the connectedness of means and ends.

In the Institutes Calvin’s appeal to co-fatedness (he does not use the term confatalia as far as I know) occurs in a variety of contexts. His use of it to reject the idle argument occurs in his discussion of the use to which the doctrine of providence ought to be put. Those convinced of the doctrine should view their lives and the lives of others not only in terms of secondary causes, which he here calls 'means', but in terms of God's will, the primary cause. But in referring to the primary cause, they should also not forget or neglect the place of secondary causes.

For he who has fixed the boundaries of our life, has at the same time entrusted us with the care of it, provided us with the means of preserving it, forewarned us of the dangers to which we are exposed, and supplied cautions and remedies, that we may not be overwhelmed unawares. Now, our duty is clear, namely, since the Lord has committed to us the defence of our life – to defend it; since he offers assistance – to use it; since he forewarns us of danger – not to rush on heedless; since he supplies remedies – not to neglect them. But it is said, a danger that is not fatal will not hurt us, and one that is fatal cannot be resisted by any precautions. But what if dangers are not fatal, merely because the Lord has furnished you with the means of warding them off, and surmounting them? See how far your reasoning accords with the order of divine procedure. You infer that danger is not to be guarded against, because, if it is not fatal, you shall escape without precaution; whereas the Lord enjoins you to guard against it, just because he wills it not to be fatal.


Such immanent causation, the order of secondary causes, coincides with part of the Stoic view, the considerations used to rebut the idle argument. Where it differs is that for Calvin God is at work through these chains of immanent causation; that is, they have a transcendent causal source and not, as with Stoicism, a merely immanent source. What happens is the result of God’s use of means to achieve his ends, means which he also decrees, of course, and also announces the connection between means and ends. If I am destined to post the letter, then I am destined to use the appropriate means to post it. If I want to cross the road safely, then I must (usually) be alert to the traffic. This connection of means and ends, or more precisely, this general though not universal connection of means with ends has, for Calvin, a consequence that may seem surprising. There is an element of 'as if' in Calvin's practical approach to providence. While the future is fixed we approach the future as if it were open. He says,

Hence as to future time, because the issue of all things is hidden from us, each ought to so to apply himself to his office, as though nothing were determined about any part. Or, to speak more properly, he ought so to hope for the success that issues from the command of God in all things, as to reconcile in himself the contingency of unknown things and the certain providence of God.


There does not seem to have been the same emphasis in early Stoicism. Later Stoics, such as the Roman Stoic Epictetus ( c.55-c.135) had a great interest in the moral value of their outlook. Fatalism should promote a prudent approach to life, to living within one’s limits, avoiding recklessness and risk, and so living in accordance with Nature. According to Bobzien, Epictetus, and no doubt others, were thus future-orientated, whereas earlier Stoics such as Chrysippus tended to be past-orientated.

Calvin’s outlook here is rather different. He has a concept of nature, though it does not play a central role in his thought on providence. The pivot is ‘the will of God’, understood as covering both the command of God and his decree. Confidence in the wisdom, power and grace of God that belief in his providence promotes, and a willingness to do what he has commanded, arm us against the undeniable vagaries and (epistemic) uncertainties of what God has decreed. Nevertheless there is something of the Stoic in this:

But when once the light of divine providence has illumined the believer’s soul, he is relieved and set free, not only from the extreme fear and anxiety which formerly oppressed him, but from all care. For as he justly shudders at the idea of chance, so he can confidently commit himself to God. This, I say, is his comfort, that his heavenly Father so embraces all things under his power - so governs them at will by his nod – so regulates them by his wisdom, that nothing takes place save according to his appointment; that received into his favour, and entrusted to the care of his angels, neither fire, nor water, nor sword, can do him harm, except insofar as God their master is pleased to permit.


There is another context of Calvin’s in which co-fatedness is invoked, though again not in name. Calvin argues that God's determination confers necessity on what otherwise would not be so. He gives the example of Christ's bones.

At the same time, that which God has determined, though it must come to pass, is not, however, precisely, or in its own nature, necessary. We have a familiar example in the case of our Saviour’s bones. As he assumed a body similar to ours, no sane man will deny that his bones were capable of being broken, and yet it was impossible that they should be broken (John 19.33, 36). Hence, again, we see that there was good ground for the distinction which the Schoolmen made between necessity, secundum quid, and necessity absolute, also between the necessity of consequent and of consequence. God made the bones of his Son frangible, though he exempted them from actual fracture; and thus, in reference to the necessity of his counsel, made that impossible which might have naturally taken place.


The prophecy (i.e. a revelation of a divine decree) that none of Jesus' bones will be broken is co-fated (or co-decreed) with the failure of anyone to break any of his bones. So what failed to happen depended upon the prophetically-announced decree and is explained by it. The co-fatedness (or co-decreed) account of Jesus’ bones would be something like: the infallible prophesy, Jesus' bones will not be broken, is co-decreed with certain other events e.g. that there are no successful attempts to break them, or no attempts at all, and no ‘accidental’ breakings.

The ultimate explanation of why events, including human actions, occur is not in the last analysis to be referred to any immanent set of causes, much less to a set of causes to which God himself is bound. Calvin is not willing to consider the power of such a series, particularly the idea of a necessary set of causes, apart from the one who ordains it, Almighty God. But this does not mean that Calvin denies the existence of such a series. It is simply that this is not the whole story. What it does show is that Calvin is not attracted by immanent fatalism and in particular he is adamantly opposed to astrological fatalism, the more so if it is claimed not only that the stars are merely the evidence of fate, but that they act independently of God, and even more so were it claimed that even God himself is bound by what is written in the stars, written by a non-divine hand.

So it is the type of causal necessity that is at issue between Calvin and Stoicism, (and not chance or fortune). This is underlined by the next question considered by Calvin in the Institutes. Does nothing happen by chance, nothing by contingency? The question obviously implies a negative answer. So the necessitarian presumption is retained. Nevertheless, even for Calvin, human choices are voluntary in an irreducible sense. God necessitates all that happens, but in a way that is consistent with the varied natures of things. It follows that 'chance' is for Calvin a purely epistemic term, following Augustine.

I say then, that though all things are ordered by the counsel and certain arrangement of God, to us, however, they are fortuitous – not because we imagine that fortune rules the world and mankind, and turns all things upside down at random (far be such a heartless thought from every Christian breast); but as the order, method, end, and necessity of events are, for the most part, hidden in the counsel of God, though it is certain that they are produced by the will of God, they have the appearance of being fortuitous.


Augustine is approvingly noted by Calvin as one who rules out chance, and even rules out that things occur partly by man's free choice, partly by divine providence, and 'he also excludes the contingency that depends on human will'.

So it is clear that Calvin, though ostensibly taking a via media between fortune and chance on the one hand, and Stoic necessity/fatalism on the other is, like his mentor Augustine, in virtue of his commitment to divine sovereignty, inclined more to the side of fatalism than to the side of fortune and chance, or to some view of providence which has to find place for the 'contingency which depends on human will'. The sense of fortuitousness is purely epistemic, since necessity is the basic metaphysical component in his account of providence.

'That which God has determined, though it must come to pass, is not, however, precisely, or in its own nature, necessary.' It is a case of the necessity of the consequence, not of the consequent. This necessitarianism is not logical necessity or in some weaker sense inevitable, having a causal necessity deriving only from immanent forces. If God had created a Stoic world, adopting a deistic stance towards it, this would not for Calvin have been equivalent to the Christian doctrine of providence, because it would lack the divine attention that is paid to the governing of each particular.

Calvin’s form of compatibilism is grounded in the autonomy of human (and angelic) agency, like the Stoics. Autonomy in the sense that human agency is not simply the effect of sets of external forces. In this sense God works through those distinct individual natures that he has created and upholds, and not merely through laws of nature and initial conditions which together are causally necessary and sufficient for everything that occurs in the world.

All of this reminds us that insofar as Calvin is a determinist as a result of holding his view of providence, he does not avow determinism, any more than he avows providence, for theoretical reasons. He does not adopt his view of meticulous providence because he thinks that it solves philosophical problems. Undoubtedly, his doctrine of primary and secondary causes (taken from the medieval tradition) and his distinction between doing and willingly permitting (taken from Augustine) involve theoretical, philosophical difficulties. Calvin acknowledges as much when he stresses the mysterious character of the doctrines that involve these distinctions. Yet he adopts these views, aware of their attendant difficulties, because he believes that other views involve an even greater difficulty, that of not doing as much justice to the Scriptural data as his own view.

So it is doubtful that Calvin thinks that appealing to a hierarchy of agents, and his utilising of the distinction between doing and willingly permitting, are sufficient to explain God's relation to sin. One clue to this is that he frequently appeals to the 'modesty and sobriety' of his immediate readership to ward off what he regards as invalid inferences of both a theoretical and a practical kind. If someone draws the inference that because he is an instrument of divine providence then he is not to be blamed for his evil, Calvin regards this as a serious mistake not because he can provide a convincing argument to the contrary, but because (as, he believes, his Christian readers will readily concur) such a proposal is immodest. Why should someone think of making such an inference except to further express and to safeguard their wickedness? To objections of a more theoretical kind that don't express such an antinomian tendency but focus instead on Calvin's failure to demonstrate his position, he would I suspect be more accommodating. But because he is ultimately concerned to foster the correct practical religious responses to the doctrine of providence rather than to offer a satisfactory explanation of it, the plain fact is that he is less interested in pursuing the theoretical issues. His confidence in his position does not arise from a belief that he has explained it, nor answered all objections to it, but because he is persuaded that this is what Scripture teaches.

Our true wisdom is to be embrace with meek docility, and without reservation, whatever the holy Scriptures have delivered. Those who indulge their petulance, a petulance manifestly directed against God, are undeserving of a longer refutation.


Here as elsewhere, Calvin's first aim is persuasio rather than demonstratio.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Expressing the Ineffable

Cindy Aalders has written a fine monograph on the hymns of Anne Steele (1717-1778), entitled To Express the Ineffable: The Hymns and Spirituality of Anne Steele (Studies in Baptist Thought and History, Paternoster Press/Wipf and Stock, 2008). Steele was once well-known for her hymns, sung particularly in Particular Baptist chapels in England but also elsewhere, for some of them were widely reprinted in various collections. There is also a CD of fifteen of the hymns set to new tunes, ‘Awake the Sacred Song’, composed (and sung) by Andrea Tisher, available from the Regent Bookstore.

In fact this is very much a Regent College effort. Cindy is Director of Admissions at Regent, Andrea directs the worship there, and the book began as a thesis supervised by Bruce Hindmarsh, who is Professor of Spiritual Theology at the College.

Steele was born and lived in Broughton, Hampshire, in well-off circumstances (her father supplied timber to the British Navy), living a life that was deeply embedded in the Strict Baptist communities of Hampshire and Wiltshire. Her grandfather, Edward Froude, had been a member of the 1689 Assembly of Particular Baptists which issued the well-known Confession of Faith of that year. Her mother died when she was young, and Anne never married. She regarded her literary talents as both a gift and a calling.

Cindy Aalders slays a couple of dragons, tales that in the past have been routinely accompanied introductions to Steele’s hymn, or at least severely wounds them: Steele’s fianc√© was not drowned in a river on the evening of their wedding (there is no evidence that she was engaged), though there was such a drowning, nor did she suffer life-long injury as a result of a fall from a horse, though she did fall, more than once. In a day of small-pox epidemics, and when a standard medical treatment was ‘bleeding’, Steele’s extended family were constantly plagued by ill-health and by the sorrows of premature deaths. Anne Steele was much caught up in this, in her expressions of sympathy and practical help, and in the offering of prayer. She was herself bed-ridden for the last years of her life.

Not only does the monograph serve to re-introduce Steele’s verse, but it also provides the results of interesting research based on the Steele papers which have recently been lodged in the Angus Library of Regent Park College, Oxford. Some of Steele’s correspondence is available there, as well as unpublished hymns and poems.

Anne Steele appears to have modelled her verse (and poetry) on Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, and her themes were drawn not only from her own life and the theology of the Particular Baptists, but often from Isaac Watts, the pioneer of what turned out to be a great flowering of evangelical hymn writing in the eighteenth century – Watts, Newton, Cowper, Charles Wesley, Toplady, and Benjamin Beddome, (with whom Anne was acquainted), and several others, including female hymn writers (besides Anne) such as Anne Dutton.


The hymns are noteworthy for their intense, nervous, questioning moods, and for their stress on the divine transcendence centring, of course, in the gift of the Saviour, and of his Cross. They are infused with Calvinistic doctrine and are ‘experimental’ in character. That is, they not only relate the ups and downs of Christian experience, but also recall its ‘testings’, the testings of faith and assurance by trials and losses and needs of various kinds. They are deeply personal, and I suppose one could raise the question as to whether some of them are suitable for congregational singing. Though to be fair to Steele, she did not intentionally write for congregational use as did, say, Newton and Cowper, and Beddome.

Cindy Aalders draws attention to the interrogative mood of the hymns, contrasting them with the exuberance of Charles Wesley, and even of Watts. She suggests that if the mark of Charles Wesley’s hymns is the exclamation mark, that of Steele’s is the question mark. Cindy offers well-informed, thoughtful and perceptive analyses of the hymns, from several angles; Steele’s recognition of the limited powers of our language to express the greatness of God, as in

But O, in vain our humble songs,
Attempt the honours of they Name,

Too weak our words, too low our tongues,

Thy countless favours to proclaim


And in her recognition of divine sovereignty in more straightforward terms

Eternal power, almighty God,
Who can approach thy throne?

Accessless light is thy abode,

To angel-eyes unknown


Before the radiance of thine eye,

The heavens no longer shine,

And all the glories of the sky,

Are but the shade of thine.


How strange! How awful is thy love!

With trembling we adore.

Not all the exalted minds above

Its wonders can explore.


While golden harps, and angel tongues,

Resound immortal lays,

Great God, permit our humble songs,

To rise and mean thy praise.


And the theme of Anne Steele’s own suffering, expressed in the attitudes of longing and resignation, and in the petitions of this verse, as the hymn-writer moves from physical disease to spiritual sickness

Dear Lord, we wait thy healing hand;
Diseases fly at thy command;

O let thy sovereign touch impart

Life, strength and health to every heart


Then shall the sick, the blind, the lame,

Adore their Great Physician’s name;

Then dying souls shall bless their God,

And spread they wondrous praise abroad.


And in this hymn

Thy deep decrees from creature sight,
Are hid in shades of awful night,

Amid the lines, with curious eye,

Not angel minds presume to pry.


Great God, I would not ask to see

What in futurity shall be;

If light and bliss attend my days,

Then let my future hours be praise.


Is darkness and distress my share?
Then let me trust thy guardian care;

Enough for me, if love divine,

At length through every cloud shall shine.


Cindy is careful to distinguish such expressions of resignation to the divine will from the Quietism of Fenelon and Madame Guyon.

As the inaccessible God is made known in Christ, the hymns express a deep reverence for the Saviour,

When sins and fears prevailing rise,
And fainting hope almost expires,

Jesus, to thee I lift my eyes,

To thee I breathe my soul’s desires.


And in the better-known hymn

And did the holy and the just,
The Sovereign of the skies,

Stoop down to wretchedness and dust,

That guilty worms might rise?


Yes, the Redeemer left his Throne,

His radiant throne on high,

(Surprising mercy! Love unknown!)

To suffer, bleed and die.


He took the dying traitor’s place,

And suffer’d in his stead;

For man, (O miracle of grace!)

For man the Saviour bled.


Questions, certainly. But also exclamations of praise.

The differences between these restrained, thoughtful, solemn addresses to Almighty God, and what today pass for 'worship songs', are obvious enough


(A selection of Steele’s hymns has been made available by John R. Broome, Hymns by Anne Steele, (London, Gospel Standard Trust, 1967))

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

July

This month I begin the first of a series of four posts on Bishop Tom Wright's book on justification.

I'll say this as a short preface to this series: It's a good thing to have a Bishop of the C of E debating the great things of the gospel. How many English bishops are there? Thirty? Forty? Two hundred? I've no idea. Their sepia features make them merge as one, the whole tribe apparently consumed by Anglican bureaucracy and political correctness

Where is there a theologian among them? Answer: There's one in Durham. So though, as I shall try to show, some of Bishop Tom's ideas on justification are off-centre, and his way of debating these matters is very strange (that is, if the idea is to home in on the truth), who can nonetheless fail to admire the commitment and industry of the man?

Side by side with the four posts on Wright on justification I shall be putting out four drafts of short extracts from a book, Calvin at the Centre, to be published by the Oxford University Press in November. The book is in central respects a sequel to John Calvin's Ideas, (OUP, 2004).

In a post on mental error, 'Hodge and Hymn Singing' I cited three Reformed theologians on the matter, without providing references. I am now in a position to reveal...that these are ....

(1) J.I.Packer, ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God, 1958, 124
(2) Jonathan Edwards, Works, (Yale edition), 19, 242
(3) John Owen, Works, ( ed. Goold), 5, 163-4

Wright in General

Wright's Approach

Tom Wright’s new book on justification (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (London SPCK)) is a good read, and with much of it I found myself nodding in agreement . He writes in a ‘jolly hockeysticks’ way, with great verve, enthusiasm and self-confidence. But he is not so good at running towards the goal. He is not as clear as he ought to be about identifying the matters at issue; what is common ground, and what is, or are, the remaining problems. In this first post on his book I shall try to show some of why this is.

Those expecting a blow by blow engagement with John Piper’s book on Wright (The Future of Justification) will be disappointed. The strategy is to outflank Piper exegetically - to say: ’If your aim is to see what Paul teaches about justification in its original context, then this is the way to do it, and what he teaches is substantially different from the Reformed view of Paul’s account of justification’. In my view, he does not succeed in showing this. It’s a pity, though, that the author did not have time to extend the same courtesy to John Piper as Piper extended to him, to invite him to read the MS in draft. Had he done so he might have saved himself some trouble. One has the feeling, occasionally, that Bishop Wright is not content unless he has the last word. One reason for the failure of the outflanking strategy is a straightforward but irritating misunderstanding, which a dose of Piper would have cured, as we shall see in due course.

The theocentricity of his approach, and the material on covenant history are excellent. – Of many statements, there is this:

God’s single plan always was to put the world to rights, to set it right, to undo Genesis 3 and Genesis 11, sin and the fracturing of human society which results from that sin and shows it up in its full colours…:to bring about new creation, through Abraham/Israel and, as the fulfilment of the Abraham/Israel shaped plan, through the Messiah, Jesus. (78. See also, for example 26, 73f, 83, 155, 174).


At this point he could have been reading John Calvin. Wright seems never to have heard of covenant theology, writing as if the phrase is his, (222) and as if the idea of a single history, a single covenant of grace, is a fresh exegetical insight. He’s also good on grace and faith.(184)

On tradition, the bishop has curious views. He routinely thinks of tradition as constraining what is thought in the present, and so anything ‘traditional’ must be rejected or at least viewed with suspicion. (eg 135, 223, and many other places.) But a rejection of all tradition seems unbiblical and in any case tends to lead to the reinvention of the wheel. Why does a traditional view, if it is a correct view, not inform and liberate? Belief in the resurrection of Jesus, is that not 'traditional'? He writes of ‘refreshing’ the tradition, and this could mean merely smartening it up, or replacing it with a fresh view. He does not say which. It is as if semper reformanda, together with the mantra that the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Holy Word, are phrases which warrant a never-ending research project. The idea that we need a continuous stream of fresh readings of Paul, newer and newer new perspectives, is both wearying and scary. (13)

One has also to get over Wright’s understanding of Romans 2. 1 – 16 as being a description of Jew and Gentile believers. But though disagreeing with this view, one can live with it. It was after all Augustine’s view, and so part of the ‘Augustinian tradition’ which Wright elsewhere dismisses. (Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter, Ch.44)

Faith and Works

I gained three general impressions of a theological nature. One is that the gap between Wright and the classic Reformation view of justification (as expressed by John Piper, for example) seems to be not as great as before. If one presses the logic of Wright’s present position, then the gap is even less. Where the gap has already narrowed is over the question, Are believers justified now? Or are they only justified at the last, on the basis of a whole life? In the new book he writes that the 'future judgment.... corresponds to the present verdict which... is issued simply and solely on the basis of faith’ (165) See also 179, 207-12, 223. But it has to be admitted that Wright wobbles on this, as in 166-7 ‘the verdict on the last day will truly reflect what people have actually done’. The vagueness of the language irritates: 'corresponds to', 'anticipate', 'reflect'. How corresponds to, anticipates, reflects?, one vainly asks.

Nevertheless, despite the wobbles in stating his position, wobbles that could be given a good and a bad sense, this is a change from his Edinburgh paper on justification in which he was clearly striking a different note. There justification was reserved for the final judgement, giving his account a moralistic flavour, which invited one to draw a comparison with Richard Baxter. (See here) But this has to be said: the relation of faith to actions badly needs a clarificatory word from the Bishop’s cathedra to settle this vital question: are Spirit-imbued virtues a sign of faith (√† la Epistle of James)? Or do they complete faith, supplement it, fulfil it? These questions cry out for an answer, but answer is there none. A clear sentence of two would have done it. It is this sort of gap that holds up the discussion and the meeting of minds. So where, according to the Bishop, (one is left to wonder) does Paul stand on this issue? And where does the Bishop himself stand? (More on the difficulty in handling the Wright output in the fourth post.)

Imputation

To get to the heart of the second matter, imputation, one first has to negotiate one’s way through a whole tangle of issues. It is clear throughout the book that Wright has a forensic, law-court approach to justification, seeing this clearly in Paul. The second half of the book works this out in great and repetitive detail. The difficulty that arises is over what exactly is imputed and how it is imputed. As we shall see later on Wright has a clumsy and unsympathetic understanding of the Reformed doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. It’s hard to say, even at the end, whether Wright has got the picture.

Part of the reason for this failure may be the Bishop's strong belief that God’s righteousness (in Paul) is his covenant faithfulness, that such faithfulness is identical with the character of God’s righteousness, and is not simply an expression of it, or the chief expression of it. And so he repeatedly claims that what God reckons, in law-court fashion, to his people, is what Jesus, the faithful Israelite, achieved for his people in his death and resurrection. Because of what he did they are ‘in the right’. But (for Wright) being in the right cannot be having Christ’s righteousness imputed, since (in that sense) Christ has no righteousness to impute and to suppose otherwise is to be guilty of a ‘category mistake’.

John Piper insists that God requires a moral righteousness of us, and that since we have none of our own God must reckon or impute such a moral righteousness from somewhere else – obviously within this scheme, from the ‘righteousness’ of Jesus Christ . I can see how that works. But ‘righteousness’, within the very precise language of the courtroom which Paul is most clearly evoking, most obviously in Romans 3, is not ‘moral righteousness’. It is the status of the person whom the court has vindicated.’ (71)


I suspect that this failure to appreciate a deeper sense of God’ s righteousness (which is both a logical and a theological failure) lies at the heart of Wright’s present view of what it is that the judge in court declares the offender to be. But it is not so easy to tell because he has such a weird understanding of what the Reformed view is. (By the way, note the little word ‘moral’, ‘moral righteousness’. It seems no bigger than a man’s hand, but it will turn out to be much larger).

Imputation and fudge

The third matter is Wright’s fudging of the Reformed view. He writes blithely of it involving the transfer of merit from a ‘treasury’. So imputation is the granting of some of Christ’s merit. He says, writing of Paul’s teaching in Galatians, that God’s purposes have been accomplished through the single person of Israel’s faithful representative.

But this does not mean that he [Jesus] has ‘fulfilled the law’ in the sense of obeying it perfectly and thus building up a ‘treasury of merit’ which can then be ‘reckoned’ to his people. That scheme, with all its venerable antecedents in my own tradition as well as John Piper’s, always was an attempt to say something which Paul was saying, but in language and concepts which had still not shaken off the old idea that the law was, after all, given as a ladder of good works up which one might climb to impress God with one’s own moral accomplishments’(114, also 201, 134-5 the ‘amassing of a treasury of law-based ‘righteousness’, which a ‘blind alley’ (204, also 205, ‘a category mistake’, ‘legalism’)


If the imputation of righteousness is the treasury view, what is the imputation of sin? Does Christ get our sin? Is being made sin his being made sinful? (Did the Reformers never think about such points?) The language of the treasury, which I have never met in Reformed theologians, seems more reminiscent of Tetzel than of Luther and Calvin. It must at best be thought of as figurative or analogical language for imputation, and misleading at that.

Such language arises, I believe, because of a generally slap-happy approach to doctrine and its history, resulting in utter unclarity as to just who those Wright refers to as the followers of Augustine, those in his tradition, are intended to be, and especially what the history of Reformed theology in its relation to Augustine looks like. This failure is odd in view of the claim, at the end of he book, that the author is the one who has finally established Reformed theology. (224) One wonders, is he well-informed? Can he be serious?

This lack of seriousness is seen, for example, in comments on Gal. 3.29. He claims that for the ‘old perspective’ no one has even asked the question of why Paul concludes his argument, ‘you are therefore Abraham’s seed’ and not merely ‘you are therefore children of God’. (19) But glancing at John Calvin, we find

The conclusion rests on this argument, that Christ is the blessed seed, in whom, as we have said, all the children of Abraham are united. He proves this by the universal offer of the inheritance to them all, from which it follows, that the promise includes them among the children. It deserves notice, that, wherever faith is mentioned, it is always a relation to the promise.


Calvin does not ask the question, but he does give an answer that is strongly in accord with Wright’s own answer.

Here’s another sweeping claim - that the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is the central failure of Reformed people. (e.g. 71f.)

we have undercut in a single stroke the age-old problem highlighted in Augustine; interpretation of ‘justify’ as ‘make righteous’. This has always meant, for Augustine and his followers, that God, in justification, was actually transforming the character of the person, albeit in small, preliminary ways (by, for instance, implanting the beginnings of love and faith within them). The result was a subtle but crucial shifting of metaphors: the lawcourt scene is now replaced with a medical one, a kind of remedial spiritual surgery involving a ‘righteousness implant’ which, like an artificial heart, begins to enable to patient to do thing previously impossible.


‘Much of the post-Augustinian tradition has used ‘justification’ to cover the whole range of ‘becoming a Christian’ from first to last…’ linking with this, in the next paragraph, to John Piper! (71) This tradition is clearly intended to include the Reformers. Or this

There is indeed a sense in which ‘justification’ really does make someone ‘righteous’ – it really does create the righteousness, the status-of-being-in-the right, of which it speaks – but ‘righteousness’ in that law court sense does not mean either ‘morally good character’ or ‘performance of moral good deeds’, but ‘the status you have when the court has found in your favour’. (71)


There is absolutely no awareness that this is precisely the standard Reformed meaning of ‘imputation’, ‘reckoning’ and ‘count as’; and no recognition that what he then goes on to say about that view is filled with serious misconceptions.

The terms of debate

If a person is participating in a discussion and separating his own view from others' views then two things are needed: he needs to convey a clear sense of what his own view implies and does not imply, and he needs to show that he understands the view or views from which he dissents, representing them with the greatest sympathy and clarity that he can muster. On the matter of justification it is not sufficient to provide the reader with acres and acres of what St. Paul really said. The writer has also to say how this differs from standard Reformed views (if those are the issue) and to do this one needs to set out those views with clarity and sympathy. I don't find this in this book, and the failure lowers visibility. In the course of the next posts we shall from time to time find ourselves surrounded by this swirling mist.

So, beta minus for presentation.

In the next post I shall argue that there are good theological reasons why God’s righteousness cannot mean ‘covenant faithfulness’, (Piper 45, 71) and then, in the post after that I try to show that Wright’s root and branch opposition to the very idea of the imputation of righteousness also lands him in a certain amount of inconsistency. Finally, in the fourth post, I shall re-present the standard Reformed view of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, showing that it is a clear alternative both to Rome and to Wright's view as presented in his book. I do this in the hope that the differences between his view and the ‘traditional’ Reformed position, which may have already narrowed, may be narrowed further.

Augustine and Calvin on the Knowledge of God

In his use of Augustine what Calvin latches onto what, for Augustine, came after the vision, the knowledge of God and of ourselves which it initiated and made possible. Although Calvin looks to the Bishop of Hippo for much of his theological inspiration, or at least for the formulation of it, we need to bear in mind that he is no means an uncritical Augustinian. This often comes out in incidental details. So in his work on predestination, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, Calvin notes that Augustine's account of evil as a privation, which he accepts as true, is nonetheless a subtlety 'which does not satisfy many';1 and elsewhere he is critical of Augustine's platonically-influenced account of the creation.

Augustine, who is excessively addicted to the philosophy of Plato, is carried along, according to custom, to the doctrine of ideas; that before God made the world, he had the form of the whole building conceived in his mind; and so the life of those things which did not yet exist was in Christ, because the creation of the world was appointed in him. But how widely different this is from the intention of the Evangelist we shall immediately see.2

So one line of Calvin's criticism is over the evident or avowed platonism of Augustine. We may also see such filtering of Augustine's thought at work in the way in which Calvin assimilates the Augustinian theme of the interrelatedness of the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But it must also be remembered that Calvin was never in agonies over Manicheism and over what might take its place.

So we should not assume, a priori, that in developing his thoughts on the relation between the knowledge of God and of ourselves, Calvin slavishly follows Augustine. It is obvious that he cannot do that, for we have seen that this theme is an important strand in his discussion of the nature of faith, and the relationship between faith and assurance. And though Augustine discusses the place of faith in justification, and the relation of faith to belief, (as we shall note in Chapter Seven), there is nothing comparable in Augustine to Calvin's discussion of the nature of faith. The Reformation sola fide had intervened, as well as Calvin's genius as a 'theologian of the Holy Spirit'.

For another thing, there appears to be nothing in Calvin's experience that corresponds to what, for Augustine, followed the reading of the books of the Platonists. It is true that Calvin, by comparison with Augustine, was a very reticent, private individual. Nonetheless, he tells us something of his conversion and of other turning points in his life, and from time to time he mentions his own character traits. But even if we were to read portions of the Institutes autobiographically, there is nothing that corresponds in Calvin's experience to Augustine's 'ascent'. We have noted that at the centre of Augustine's experience of 'ascent' to God is both a metaphysical and an epistemological conclusion. As a result, he both learns how to think about God, and is certain of him. Through the use that he makes of these conclusions in the Libero he endeavours to bring them to others in a discursive way. There is nothing like this in Calvin. No vision, and no concern to establish the certainty of God's existence in such a manner.

Nevertheless, in the context of the Reformation and of his polemic against the Church of Rome, Calvin was most certainly interested in certainty, in the assured authority of Holy Scripture and what it teaches, and in the assurance of faith, as we have already noted. Calvin believed that he and all other Christians have certainty, or may have it, through the work of the Holy Spirit illuminating the revealed truth of Holy Scripture.3 But of course he does not discuss the character of this certainty in epistemological vein, carefully comparing it with that incorrigibility that later on Descartes was to claim for his knowledge of himself. Though it is interesting that there is one isolated example of an Augustinian (and by implication a Cartesian) turn of phrase. In his early Psychopannychia (1542) a sustained polemic against the Anabaptist doctrines of post-mortem 'soul-sleep' and of 'mortalism', commenting on Hebrews 11.6 ('they desire a better country') Calvin says,

Here our opponents argue as follows: If they desire a heavenly country, they do not already possess it: We, on the contrary, argue; If they desire, they must exist, for there cannot be desire without a subject in which it resides. 4

Calvin here commits himself to 'Necessarily, if A desires, then A exists'. This was, for him, in the case in hand, a refutation of the doctrine of 'mortalism', the belief that at the death of the body the soul also died, albeit temporarily, a refutation drawn from a premise of Holy Scripture. Despite at least one commentator drawing a parallel with Descartes' cogito it would be unwise to ascribe any greater epistemological significance to it than Calvin supplies in the context.5 It is an exaggeration to suppose that 'Both Calvin and Descartes start from an Augustinian premise, namely that personal experience is our gate of access to being. Calvin, however, places the experience of the self in desire rather than, as Descartes does, in thought.' 6 This is to promote an inference from a biblical text into a fundamental epistemic principle. It is not so much the individual experience of desire, but the fact of post-mortem desire, from which Calvin draws the inference that therefore there must be post-mortem awareness.

Further, Calvin's appreciation of divine transcendence was couched in much more negative terms than Augustine's - he stresses the incomprehensibility of God, the 'secrets' of his providence and grace, the fact that we cannot know God 'in himself', and the inscrutability of his will. Calvin was not so much concerned with scepticism as with what does and ought to count as the knowledge of God in the Church. No mere assent, not implicit faith, was sufficient, only explicit trust in God as he is to us, the God of the covenant, the God of promise. So, much of what there was of value for Descartes in Augustine passes Calvin by.

In addition, Calvin differs rather markedly from Augustine in one respect that we have not so far brought out very fully, and this also will be significant when, in the next Chapter, we consider the question of the reception of Descartes and Cartesianism in the Reformed churches. We noted at the beginning of the Chapter that in the opening sentences of the Institutes not only does Calvin assert the importance of the knowledge of God and of ourselves, but he imparts his own distinctive emphasis to this. He finds in our knowledge of God as Creator another source of wisdom. Calvin here opens the door onto a significant difference between Augustine and himself over what I shall call 'worthwhileness', a difference which at the same time brings him nearer to Descartes. We now go on briefly to look at this, and to tease out some of its importance for our theme.

Contrary to a widespread misconception, Augustine certainly had a positive view of the body, and of the physical world in general. It was after all the creation of God, and was originally good. And he had been emancipated from Manichean dualism. Yet he never ceased to be concerned with his own physicality and with what he judged to be its negative impact on his life with God. The external world was also distracting. The lizard on the wall is something that, despite himself, fascinated Augustine. But it is a distraction which results in his mind being filled with 'a mass of empty thoughts',7 not something to be interested in or to wonder at. For Augustine the place of the physical world was an element in a life-long tension, a deep strain in his thought between use and enjoyment, uti and frui; a strain revealed, for example, in human friendship, and over his reaction to the death of his mother Monica. 8

Augustine sets out the distinction between uti and frui in a rather deadpan, matter of fact way in his On Christian Teaching.

There are some things which are to be enjoyed, some which are to be used, and some whose function is both to enjoy and use. Those which are to be enjoyed make us happy; those which are to be used assist us and give us a boost, so to speak, as we press on towards our happiness, so that we may reach and hold fast to the things which make us happy. And we, placed as we are among things of both kinds, both enjoy and use them; but if we choose to enjoy things that are to be used, our advance is impeded and sometimes even diverted, and we are held back, or even put off, from attaining things which are to be enjoyed, because we are hamstrung by our love of lower things. 9

Yet things are not always that clear for Augustine

When you enjoy a human being in God, you are enjoying God rather than that human being. For you enjoy the one by whom you are made happy, and you will one day rejoice that you have attained the one in whom you now set your hope of attaining him.... Yet the idea of enjoying someone or something is very close to that of using someone or something together with love.10

There is enough ambivalence here to have provoked a justifiable scholarly controversy over the relation of uti to frui in Augustine.11

Calvin has a different emphasis. He does not seem to have been plagued by physical temptations as Augustine was, any more than he was attracted by the pull of Platonism, and as a consequence, and as a part of his reaction against the medieval clergy-laity distinction, he himself supported secular disciplines and callings, and emphasised, with Luther, their legitimacy. He was, after all, at one time destined for the law, and then set out to become a Renaissance scholar. In his conversion he does not turn his back on all this, but comes to have a different estimate of it.

At the personal level he did not feel the strain between uti and frui as Augustine did. He was as aware of the dangers of misusing things below, and setting one's affection on things below and not on things above. We shall look at this, and at the different kind of strain that it imposes on Calvin's thought , in Chapter Ten. Nevertheless, in drawing the distinction between 'things below' and 'things above', a distinction he took, of course, from the New Testament,12 and giving overriding importance to the second, Calvin nevertheless recognised the legitimacy of the first in a way that Augustine found it difficult to do. He was comfortable with the everyday world in a way that Augustine never was, not at least after his conversion.

As far as one can tell Calvin finds little or no tension in uti and frui because he thinks, in a fairly straightforward way, that the same things can be both used and enjoyed. This is because he believed that many created things possess features which are at one and the same time both useful and enjoyable, and are designed as such by their Creator. In his treatment of marriage he writes that man may 'enjoy a help-meet for him',13 something that it would be difficult to imagine Augustine saying. In his discussion of the present life and its helps it is striking that Calvin has a positive view of life which goes well beyond regarding it as merely a disposable means to a greater end. There is not only necessity, but delight.

For if we are to live, we must use the necessary supports of life; nor can we even shun those things which seem more subservient to delight than to necessity. We must therefore observe a mean, that we may use them with a pure conscience, whether for necessity or for pleasure. 14

He refers to

some good and holy men who, when they saw intemperance and luxury perpetually carried to excess, if not strictly curbed, and were desirous to correct so pernicious an evil, imagined that there was no other method than to allow man to use corporeal goods only in so far as they were necessaries: a counsel pious indeed, but unnecessarily austere; for it does the very dangerous thing of binding consciences in closer fetters than those in which they are bound by the word of God.15

Calvin counsels moderation, and enjoyment, not abstinence. Our guide is to discern the end for which God gave us the gifts. They are for our good, not our ruin.

Now then, if we consider for what end he created food, we shall find that he consulted not only for our necessity, but also for our enjoyment and delight. Thus in clothing, the end was, in addition to necessity, comeliness and honour; and in herbs, fruits and trees besides their various uses, gracefulness of appearance and sweetness of smell….The natural qualities of things themselves demonstrate to what end, and how far, they may be lawfully enjoyed. Has the Lord adorned flowers with all the beauty which spontaneously presents itself to the eye, and that sweet odour which delights the sense of smell, and shall it be unlawful for us to enjoy that beauty and that odour? What? Has he not so distinguished colours as to make some more agreeable than others? Has he not given qualities to gold and silver, ivory and marble, thereby, rendering them precious things above other metals and stones? In short, has he not given many things a value without having any necessary use? 16

No tension here, then, between use and enjoyment or delight. Certainly not an emphasis upon the first to the exclusion of the second, but moderate enjoyment, moderate delight, as expressed in this amusing passage.

For many are so devoted to luxury in all their senses, that their mind lies buried; many are so delighted with marble, gold, and pictures that they become marble-hearted - are changed as it were into metal, and made like painted figures. The kitchen, with its savoury smells, so engrosses them that they have no spiritual savour. 17

This outlook translates itself into Calvin's regard for secular callings, including those of philosophy, law and medicine, as quaintly expressed in Arthur Golding's translation of part of a sermon on Job.

Furthermore, they have also trades and handicraftes: as, one is a Baker, another a Plowman, another a Shoomaker, and another a Clothyer: and all these trades are the gift of God, and they be common, as well to the unbelievers, as to the faythfull whome God thath inlightened by his holy spirite.... to speake of some handicraft: before a man come to be cunning in the occupation, he shall find straunge things: yea there are some woorkes that require such cunning, as ye would woonder. Howe is this possible to be done, will men say? Howe coulde men know where Golde lyeth in the earth? Beholde men make Salt of water. Howe commeth that to passe? Surely even bycause God has given men the skill.... When wee once knowe these things, wee thinke them not straunge at all, but yet is it God that hath given us the skill of them...18

Calvin and Calvinism, while generally Augustinian in outlook, had a regard for those callings that proved to be the seedbed of modern science, and so of modern industry, an outlook that was quite foreign to Augustine himself. The wisdom of God could be known in these ways also and those who are properly versed in them would become, in their turn, wise. Such wisdom is enjoyable and worth having for its own sake, even though it is eclipsed by God's saving wisdom as revealed in Jesus Christ, the key to which is the fear of God.


1 Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God , (1552), trans. J.K. S. Reid (London, James Clarke and Co., 1961), 169.
2 Comm. on John's Gospel 1.3, perhaps a reference to Book XII of the Confessions.
3 Inst. I.7
4 Psychopannychia, in Selected Works of John Calvin III. 473
5 George Tavard, The Starting Point of Calvin's Theology, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2000.), 103
6 Tavard, 103
7 Confessions, X 35.57
8 On one aspect of this tension, see Paul Helm, 'Augustine's Griefs' in Augustine's Confessions ed. William E. Mann, (Lanham, Ma., Rowman and Littlefield, 2005)
9 On Christian Teaching, trans. R.P.H. Green (Oxford, Oxford World's Classics, 1997), 9
10 On Christian Teaching , 25
11 For a summary of this see Raymond Canning, 'uti/frui',
in Augustine Through the Ages , ed. Allan D Fitzgerald, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans,
1999)
12 Inst. III.10.2
13 Inst. II.8.41
14 Inst. III.10.1
15 Inst. III.10. 1
16 Inst. III.10.2
17 Inst. III.10.3
18 Sermons of Maister John Calvin, upon the Book of Job, trans.Arthur Golding (London, 1574; repr. in facsimile, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 477