Saturday, October 30, 2010

Aquinas on Predestination

This is the second of three posts dealing with topics that are important in Reformed theology that were already carefully dealt with in the medieval era. In the last post we looked at Anselm’s perfect being theology, its rootedness in Scripture, and its elaboration in his Proslogion. So when later on we find John Owen elaborating his defence of orthodoxy against Socinianism in his great work Vindiciae Evangelicae by referring to God as a perfect being, he is consciously or otherwise tapping into this medieval view that God is a being than which a greater cannot be conceived.

In this post we shall briefly consider two places where Thomas discusses predestination:First, Summa Theologiae 1.23. ( See Summa Theologiae, Volume 2, The Mind and Power of God , (Part One: Questions 14-26) General Editor, Thomas Gilby (Garden City, New York, Image Books, 1969). Ia 23.2, 164. And then Article 6 of his De Veritate. Translated by Robert Mulligan in Thomas Aquinas: Providence and Predestination, (Chicago, Henry Regnery, 1953). All page references are to this edition)

Unlike the standard Reformed layouts, the Summa Theologiae does have a distinct locuson the divine decree or decrees. This is an historical accident due to the fact that the decrees became a hot potato in the Arminian controversy, and for that reason were often discussed in great detail, and thought worthy of a place of their own. Thomas deals with predestination and reprobation as part of the doctrine of God, of the will of God. So we should not make a big deal of this.

In any case the treatment of the topic in the Summa is very similar to that in De Veritate. Thomas's thought is governed by two ideas. The first is that predestination is an eternal act, and the second is that it has those temporal effects that are intended by God, who ‘plans' and 'sends' predestination, in rather the way in which an archer sends an arrow. In these respects predestination is an aspect of providence. Although in the final edition of the Institutes (1559) Calvin put predestination in a separate place from his treatment of providence, it’s clear when you read him on providence that the two are intertwined in his thinking. Here is Thomas:

Clearly predestination is like the plan, existing in God's mind, for the ordering of some persons to salvation. The carrying out of this is passively as it were in the persons predestined, though actively in God. When considered executively in this way, predestination is spoken of as a 'calling' and a 'glorifying', thus St. Paul says,Whom he predestinated, them also he called and glorified'. (164)

Election and predestination are interrelated. What is a predestinating act for God becomes an effective or effectual call in the one predestined. Note Thomas’s use of the golden chain of Romans 8. The following extract summarizes the overall position.

By its very meaning predestination presupposes election, and election chosen loving. The reason for this is that predestination, as we have said, is part of Providence, which is like prudence, as we have noticed, and is the plan existing in the mind of the one who rules things for a purpose. Things are so ordained only in virtue of a preceding intention for that end. The predestination of some to salvation means that God wills their salvation. This is where special and chosen loving come in. Special, because God wills this blessing of eternal salvation to some, for, as we have seen, loving is willing a person good, chosen loving because he wills this to some and not to others, for, as we have seen, some he rejects. (168)

Notice the concise yet clear way in which Thomas writes, and his appeal to Scripture. (I once had a graduate student from Ulster whose mind had evidently been poisoned against Thomas. I required her to read some Aquinas, and when I next talked to her she expressed her shock: ‘He quotes the Scripture!')

Thomas also provides a full and clear account of reprobation.

The causality of reprobation differs from that of predestination. Predestination is the cause both of what the predestined expect in the future life, namely glory, and of what they receive in the present, namely grace. Reprobation does not cause what there is in the present, namely moral fault, though that is why we are left without God. And it is the cause why we shall meet our deserts in the future, namely eternal punishment. The fault starts from the free decision of the one who abandons grace and is rejected, so bringing the prophecy to pass, Your loss is from yourself, O Israel. [Hosea 13.9] (167)

Here is the vital nuance, later picked up and emphasized by the Reformed. Note the similar asymmetry in the Westminster Confession

The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praised of His glorious justice.

Where did the divines get this nuance from? It can be traced back to Aquinas, (and no doubt further)

Reprobation is significantly different from predestination, though each issues from an eternal decree. God does not cause people to sin because they are reprobated. God passes them by, and they are ‘ordained to dishonour’ on account of their sin. Even if predestination were granted in accordance with the foreseen merit in the ones predestined, (Providence and Predestination, 144) (which it according to Thomas it isn’t), such merits are themselves the product of divine predestinating grace. So predestination is not on account of any merits foreseen, but they are the cause of it only in the sense that they are part of the ordained divine sequence which begins in the calling of men and women and ends in their glorification.

The fact that God wishes to give grace and glory is due simply to His generosity. The reason for His willing these things that arise simply from His generosity is the overflowing love of His will for His end-object, in which the perfection of His goodness is found. The cause of predestination, therefore, is nothing other than God’s goodness. (Providence and Predestination, 116)

And so what about the place of free will?

God does not act on the will in the manner of one necessitating; for He does not force the will but merely moves it, without taking away its own proper mode, which consists in being free with respect to opposites. Consequently, even though nothing can resist the divine will, our will, like everything else, carries out the divine will according to its own proper mode. Indeed, the divine will has given things their mode of being in order that His will be fulfilled. Therefore, some things fulfill the divine will necessarily, other things, contingently; but that which God wills always takes place.

As it came to be expressed, in the carrying out of the decree God acts in accordance with the ‘mode’ of the will; he does not bypass it, or coerce it. To coerce the will is to abuse it. If the sailors have to abandon the cargo in order to save the ship, they do this under constraint, their will acts imperfectly. They’d rather not. If a person is physically coerced, thrown to the floor say, his will is totally ignored. Notice, however, the strength of what Thomas says: we have our wills as they are so that the divine decree can be carried out as God wills it. Some things are necessary, like the man being thrown to the floor; other things are contingent, like David’s sinning with Bathsheba. (Compare the Confession again at this point (‘nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established’). In Thomas the contingency in question is the contingency of choice. Whether it is that in the Confession is another question; as it relates to 'liberty' is another question still.

From Hippo to Escondido - II

So far we have seen that the two kingdoms idea is a variant of Augustine's idea of the two cities,and that it implies that the church is a spiritual body, and the Christian, though free from the laws of men intruding into the church, is yet nevertheless bound by the laws of men (insofar as these do not infringe the law of God) in society. The kingdom of Christ is not of this world. We then saw how this view was modified by Abraham Kuyper into a sharp distinction between church and kingdom, and the idea of Christian culture. We now enter the twentieth century, with its strong disparagement (in Protestantism, and especially in its Reformed segment) of natural theology and natural law. We ended by noting some narrowing of focus.

Let us see how this works out. To come, there are two more chapters, each dealing with ‘The Kuyperian Legacy’. As Van Drunen sees things, Kuyper himself is on something of a knife-edge.He retains elements of the classic position, but (so it seems, and so it has provide by hindsight) the idea of a Christian cultural mandate in all spheres of life has swamped the two kingdoms idea and has transformed the idea of natural law into that of a number of cultural spheres, each retaining its own integrity in a kind of cluster. The idea of the church and the culture existing side by side, the spiritual character of the Church, and the operation of natural law in society more generally, have at best been skewed, at worst they have been lost from view. At the very least, we can make this generalisation: that those who form the Kuyperian legacy have not developed their ideas in conscious opposition to, or qualification of, the two kingdoms/natural law position, but either in total unawareness of it, or in caricature of it. This caricature has taken the form of warnings against the nature-grace ‘dichotomy’ or ‘dualism’, according to which ‘nature’ is a mythical human state unaffected by the Fall, the brainchild of the Roman Catholic Church in its medieval expression. They reckon that the failure to see this Pelagianising element in medievalism is a weakening of the Reformation outlook, until in the late nineteenth century it regained its balance.

(Incidentally this understanding of nature and grace, the distinction between which goes back to Augustine, is actually decidedly unmedieval, as I try to show in Chapter 10 of Calvin at the Centre. It is rather the product of the Counter-Reformation, and more exactly of one party of the Counter-Reformation, those who regarded the Fall as leaving human nature intact, as a state of ‘pure nature’. This was most certainly not Thomas Aquinas’s view of the effect of the Fall, yet it came to be regarded by Reformed thinkers such as Bavinck (and as Hodge) the standard Roman view. That too is partly the result of the Kuyper-legacy, as a result of which proponents of a supposedly more consistently view of culture get off on the wrong foot.)

Back to VanDrunen’s treatment of that legacy, the first trustee of which is Herman Dooyeweerd, whose mantle then passes to Cornelius Van Til. What of Dooyeweerd? His views of the Christian’s attitude to culture place on it an ‘eschatological burden’ (a nice phrase, which the author uses more than once). We see an effort to impose such a burden on the currently-faddish idea that Christians must make a positive response to ‘global warming’ as part of their preparation for the renewing of the heavens and the earth in the eschaton. Dooyeeweerd moves further away from the two kingdoms view than did Kuyoer, his theoretical spheres taking the place of the continued functioning of natural law in earthly kingdom. For Dooyeweerd theoretical thought(including the thought of Christian theology) starts pre-theoretically in the possession of a religious ’ground-motive’ which conditions all one’s theoretically influenced activities in whatever sphere. So the Christian religion is pre-theoretical, a relation between God and the heart, ensuring membership of the invisible church, and theology is theory. The state is to gain its Christian character not through its relation to the church but through expression of the Lordship of Christ in its members. Common grace is rooted in Christ. Hence the eschatological burden. Adherence to natural law, it is said, represents an unfaithful synthesizing of Christian ideas with Greek, a nature-grace ground-motive that is alien to a thoroughly consistent Christian view. The laws of the various ‘spheres’ of creation, worked out in detail, take the place of natural law, and relate directly to the Christian ground-motive, and cultural endeavour is thus a direct fruit of Christ’s redemption. VanDrunen looks at certain of Dooyeweerd’s North American disciples, Henry Stob, Cornelius Plantinga, Albert Walters, Craig Bartholemew and Michael Goheen. Naturally enough, he finds in them the same emphases. You see the narrowing?

As VanDrunen understands things, the problem with Van Til, the second beneficiary of the Kuyperian legacy, is that he is more emphatic even than Kuyper. This is because of his stress on antithesis, there is no area, such as ‘the natural’ where Christians and non-Christians can speak the same language. There have to be Christian schools, VT says, because otherwise Christians would not learn to count properly, which of course makes the task of computing one’s Income Tax liability rather difficult. Nevertheless, there can be no natural theology, no natural law, no space for civil society or for the formation of ‘little platoons’ through which Christians may engage with their societies and cultures. Unless the unbeliever understands reality with the help of special revelation, there is no point of contact between belief and unbelief, except through a piece of make-believe. It is always nature and Scripture, special revelation and general revelation, the one interpreting the other. For God is ‘the interpreter’ par excellence,and we shall be in the mire unless, taking his special revelation in our hands and in our spirits, we succeed in interpreting nature and all else by its means.

And yet Christians are in society as non-archists. How so? They can get along on an ‘as if’ basis, that’s all. ‘As if’ means, I presume, that we have to pretend, or deceive ourselves, or play the game of living in a common, objective world, when all along we know that we do not and cannot do so. Playing the ‘as if’ game is the only way you can trust the cash machines at the supermarket. This hopping from one extreme to the other is characteristic of the thought of Van Til, I’ve always thought. There is absolute antithesis, enough to give us the shakes. What must I do to live? Ah, ‘from a relative point of view’ the non-Christian ‘knows things after a fashion’ because the unbeliever receives God’s truth without knowing it; he borrows from the bank without realising it, believing all the while that he is financially sound. This kindness of God prepares for his redemptive grace, it is the field in which the seeds of grace can be sown and (by God’s sovereign grace) germinate and bear fruit. This emphasises, once more, is that common grace is not ‘nature’, it is not a distinct order where Christ, the Logos of creation and its conservation rules, separately from the order of grace where, as the Mediator between God and man, he redeems. So culture is a Christian task, with non-believers as assistants but not among the ultimate beneficiaries.

So, what are to say about natural law and the two kingdoms? Some things may suggest ‘nature’; it is as if ‘natural law’ and ‘common gracious are mere stylistic variants. But this is not so. For the heart of the matter is Christ’s rule over every sphere of life; Christ as the God-man Messiah, that is, not as the Logos of creation. Van Til’s criticisms of Kuyper take him beyond Kuyper, heading in the direction of special redemptive grace swamping common grace, which has no independent standing. ’We must unite the idea of creation in Christ with that of His redemption of all things’. Extremes meet, Van Til, the strong critic of Barth, has Barth’s view of the unity of Christ’s creating and redeeming work. On this choppy sea, it is as if they look up and suddenly realise that they are in the same boat.' There is no realm of common grace, no natural theology or natural ethics where Christian and non-Christian may share projects in abona fide manner. Common grace is simply the setting for the growing and harvesting of the fruits of God’s special grace.

The philosopher Peter Geach said of the philosophy of John Locke: you pays your money and you takes your choice. There is something similar about Van Til, as is witnessed by the fact that two of his disciples, Greg Bahnsen and Meredith Kline, ‘develop’ his ideas in entirely different direction. Bahnsen heard Van Til say ’no natural ethics’, so he developed a scheme under which Christians are obliged to keep the whole law of God ‘as a pattern of sanctification’. Revealed law swallows up natural law. Christ’s kingship may be affirmed, but it is not the two-fold kingship of the two kingdoms. Yet not quite, since according to Bahnsen, it is the state, and not the church, which bears the sword.

On the other hand Meredith Kline, who ended his career as a teacher at Westminster West, Escondido, ‘develops’, if that is the word, Van Til’s thoughts back in the direction of the classic position, while being (so it seems) largely ignorant of that position. He did this by the way in which the covenant comes to play a crucial part in his thought. Common grace, though antithetical to God and his redemptive kingdom, has beneficial purposes ordained by God. Behind this lies the covenant of works, and the covenant of common grace made with Noah for the benefit of failed humanity, which legitimizes the state and culture more generally, but has a temporal and provisional character. This then approaches the conceptuality of the two kingdoms without (apparently) Kline being aware of this. However, his view of natural law seems much more tenuous, indeed, hardly present at all, though VanDrunen does his best.


Many of the figures treated earlier in the book, from Calvin to Stuart Robinson, wererepresentative. But from Kuyper onwards the single (not representative) figures are thinkers who in their own right amend or overlook the classical view: Dooyeweerd, Van Til, and then (narrower still) Greg Bahnsen and Meredith Kline; the whole tradition comes to balance upon a pinhead. It seems to me that it might have been better to organise things not in terms of a kind of linear descent but a wholesale dissolving or abandoning of the tradition, or alternatively to note other post-Kuyperian figures such as Herman Hoeksema, or even (dare I say it?) adherents of the sister confessions of the Westminster Confession, such as the Baptist Confession of 1689. They too have the same two-kingdoms/natural law heritage. What has become of thinking about nature and grace in these quarters? Is there any? What about John Piper or Al Mohler or D.A.Carson or Mark Dever?

English church history witnesses the forced disestablishment of the dissenting congregations, whether they liked the idea of establishment or not, at the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which cemented the Great Ejection of 1662. So that these dissenting congregations were forced into a two kingdoms position, in rather the way that the American Constitution operated on the American churches. But this was compromised in England both by dissent’s continued loyalty to the Anglican Protestant establishment, and its petitioning of Parliament for relief from discrimination through the representations of the Protestant Dissenting Deputies, and, in the nineteenth century, their increasing commitment to the political agendas of Whig Liberalism. John Gill, though a Baptist, has his place in Richard Muller’s galaxy of Reformed Orthodox, and I think that it would be interesting to see what he has to say on these issues. Next month I hope to post a discussion of his views (which are themselves uncharacteristically short), and of English Dissent more generally.

In the Conclusion to the book VanDrunen helpfully raises a series of issues that present themselves as obstacles to the further revival of the natural law/two kingdoms tradition. There are five of these, some rather theologically arcane, others more practical. He is concerned about the Son’s distinct mediatorship of creation and redemption the extra calvinisticum. But this is not a novelty in Christology, going back to Augustine at least, as David Willis showed in his book Calvin’s Catholic Christology. Are there matters which God concerns himself with apart from the redemption of the race? Obviously so. Must not Christ, as God, concern himself with these, particularly in the light of the Johannine Prologue and Colossians 1? Then there is the question of the status of the Noahic covenant. What part does this play in a doctrine of common grace? Third, has Christ’s death and resurrection made a difference, as Oliver O’Donovan claims in his book The Desire of the Nations, and elsewhere. But the time when the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever (Rev. 11.15) and when Christ delivers the kingdom to God the Father, after destroying every rule and every authority and power, (I Cor. 15. 24) are surely future. Then there are a couple of questions about what exactly is meant by spiritual things which is, on the classic position, the realm of the church, and the ever-present danger of compartmentalisation between the character of a person as a church member and as a citizen. There is tension here, but that is how it should be.

VanDrunen also asks questions about the status and meaning of natural law in pluralist societies many elements of which are hostile to Christianity, and are in favour of moral relativism. Here I think that the Christian’s role in society is affected by the mood swings of societies. Christendom has left a legacy, a fund of moral capital which is presently running down. But just as politics is the art of the possible so is cultural engagement, surely. That is, to his cultural involvement the Christian should take with him a decent stock of what we might call cultural scepticism. It is surely foreign to the Christian ethos, whatever the context, to endorse political utopias, or messianic and redemptive views of politics, whether of the left or the right; we ought to be as suspicious of the Tea Party as of the Marxists. The ‘earthly’ of ‘earthly kingdom’ does not only denote its location but also its fallenness. The first is of the earth, earthy, and that earth soils the best endeavours of the Christian. So, no perfectionism.All politics is the politics of imperfection, and that applies also to the entire range of cultural endeavours, whether we call them 'Christian' or not.

Friday, October 15, 2010

On Getting Involved in Politics

These things come in cycles. A few years ago it was John Stott and Christian social action. Currently there is a push in the direction of the Christian and politics, on political ‘involvement’, a rather nauseating word, I tend to think. A new book by Wayne Grudem, and now another by Michael Geron and Peter Wehner, in a new series books on culture, edited by Tim Keller and Collin Hansen. (This is reported by Justin Taylor on the Gospel Coalition website, who reproduces the foreword to the book by Tim Keller. Most of my information about the book is gathered from here).

‘Culture’ is another rather queasy word, don’t you agree? Think of the Kuyperians everlastingly talking about ‘transforming culture’. But one thing at a time.

I have not read Wayne Grudem’s book, and I probably won’t read the second. That qualifies me for a comment or two, perhaps. (Like the senior professor who was asked by a young colleague whether he had read such and such a book. ‘Read it?’ he retorted, ‘I haven’t even reviewed it!’) I am pretty certain that both books, without reading either of them, will advocate Christian ‘involvement’ in politics. And no doubt that’s a good thing, at least for some, though I expect that others will feel that they are a whole lot better out of it.

First off, then, who’s to say that there is a God-given universal obligation to be involved in politics?


In his Foreword to the book, which Taylor reproduces, Tim Keller sketches the current American polarisation between rising Christian orthodoxy and rising secularism, with the ageing liberalism squeezed somewhere in-between, and in decline. But, apparently, the ‘evangelical constituency’ is culturally impotent; read ‘politically impotent’. So what’s to be done?

Politics is a messy, imperfect, compromising business. Like life itself, only magnified. Where second-best is the rule. Where the unexpected happens, and platforms and manifestos are blown apart. Where spoiling the opposition may seem a better thing to do than to seek to further one’s own principles. The point here is not, ought a Christian to be involved in this? (The answer to that is obviously, ‘Why not?’) But, is this bear-pit the place for Christian principle?

Christian principle? Ah! Now we are coming to it. In their book, The Kingdom of Man Geron and Wehner think that young evangelicals think that their churches have been captured by the political Right, as mainline churches have been captured by the political Left.

Is that so? And if so what’s the matter with that? Perhaps what’s the matter is the bit about ‘capturing’. It seems unhealthy for Christians to seek to capture a political party and demeaning to be captured by it. That certainly seems on the right lines. (Pardon the pun.)

So what is to be done about that? Not political withdrawal, nor should the ‘alienated go down the mainline path’. (Presumably, not become Leftist liberals).

But I’m not sure that either of these prospects is what the two authors have in mind. For (according to Dr. Keller) they are advocating thoughtful theological study. Who can fault that? But thoughtful theological study about political involvement, how would that go? With the authors’ faulting of the left and the right, even though (apparently) they themselves hold right wing views, the course seems set fair for ‘Christians-as-middle-of-the-road’.

‘Christians-as-middle-of-the-road’. Is that it? The trouble is not the conclusion, but the method. Why should thoughtful theological study lead to any generalisation of the form ‘Christians ought to be of the Left’, or ‘of the Right’, or ‘of the middle-of-the-road’? Why should not the conclusion be, ‘Christians who are concerned about politics ought to think for themselves?’


It’s a deep-seated, fundamental principle of the Reformation that Christians have liberty. Not only the liberty to smoke, or drink, or go to the theatre, or to take anti-depressants. It’s more fundamental than that. Here’s John Calvin:

The pretext, then, on which our false bishops burden the conscience with new laws is,

that the Lord has constituted them spiritual legislators, and given them the government

of the Church. Hence they maintain that everything which they order and prescribe must,

of necessity, be observed by Christian people.

He goes on

The pretext, then, on which our false bishops burden the conscience with new laws is,

that the Lord has constituted them spiritual legislators, and given them the

government of the Church. Hence they maintain that everything which they order

and prescribe must, of necessity, be observed by Christian people. The pretext,

then, on which our false bishops burden the conscience with new laws is, that the Lord

has constituted them spiritual legislators, and given them the government of the Church.

Hence they maintain that everything which they order and prescribe must, of necessity,

be observed by Christian people. (Inst. IV.10.6)

[Calvin’s views on liberty are to be found in Institutes IV.10, but chiefly in III.19]

Doesn’t Calvin’s sharp and beautiful prose speak for itself?

The position should be that when you sit in church you may find yourself next to a libertarian, or a left winger, or a Kirkian conservative, or a climate change denier, or a supporter of the UK ‘s membership of the European Union, or a political cynic, or a Cameron Tory, or someone who has not an ounce of interest in politics, except for the need for the local Council to provide more child care and to keep the Library open. And so forth. A rainbow congregation. This is an obvious implication of what used to be called the ‘spirituality of the Church’. This is the idea that the church’s business has to do solely with the Gospel, with its faithful exposition, the calling of Christians to engage in public worship, and with the consequences of this good news being received as the word of God by men and women. If Christians think their social and political views should be expressed in the public square, then they should enjoy the support of the state. But that’s the extent of it. It is uncalled-for for the church to take any particular political stance, just as it was impudent and out of order for C.H. Spurgeon to advise his hearers at the Metropolitan Tabernacle to vote Liberal at a forthcoming election. What has that to do with him? As a minister of the gospel, it was none of his business. It is as offensive to think of the Liberal Party as the Metropolitan Tabernacle at prayer, as it is to think of the Tories as the Church of England at prayer.

Tim Keller says of the two authors that they

begin by making critical distinctions between the roles of the believing individual, the institutional church, and the state. On this foundation, they introduce the issues of human rights, law and order, the role of the family, the nature of wealth and prosperity, and public discourse. In each case they define the field, show what religious believers can contribute, outline mistakes that have been made in the past, and finally hint about directions they would like to see believers take in the future. Evangelicals who are Democrats will probably wish the authors struck some additional notes or made some points differently, but overall this is a wonderfully balanced and warm invitation to believers of every persuasion to re-engage in political life, more thoughtfully than before, but as passionately as ever.

Good for them. But it is depressingly easy to see the flaw. The idea that it is possible for anyone to ‘outline’ what mistakes have been made, and ‘hint’ (no more!) ‘at what religious believers can contribute’. Who is in a position to do that? What qualifies them? What could qualify them?

These chaps, and perhaps Dr Keller as well, seem to think that a Christian’s attitude to politics is a part of Christian doctrine. But on each of the topics that they treat of - ‘human rights, law and order, the role of the family, the nature of wealth and prosperity, and public discourse’, there are umpteen different views. Who is to say what is the Christian view of human rights, or of law and order, or (even) of the family? Not to speak of the nature of wealth and prosperity, and of public discourse.

It is true that Scripture does have some things to say. About prosperity: ‘In the day of prosperity rejoice, in the day of adversity, consider’. Of wealth ‘I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content’; ’Trust not in uncertain riches…..’ Of ‘law and order’? This is a difficult one. The Bible certainly has lots to say about law, but these days ‘the phrase ‘lawand order’ tends to give the game away. No one being sick in the park, if you don’t mind. No singing in the streets. Thuggish behaviour should certainly be dealt with, but that’s a matter of law, not of order. In the church, things should most certainly be done ‘decently and in order’. In society too? What would that mean? Christian vigilantes?


So you see, this is the perennial problem for would-be Christian cultural and political analysts. Usually, by the time they come to write their books, they have stepped over the line. Repeat after me: Such analysts are not doctors and teachers in the church. Isn’t that a shame? No, it is not. Rather, it sets in relief what should be the glory of the Christian church – that the body of Christ is an Accident and Emergency Unit of men and women of various political hues and outlooks, and of none: social misfits, political oddballs, the proud, the vain, carpet-baggers as well as the filthy rich, and those who could not care less. Each affirming the fact of being united with Christ in his death and resurrection. Such it was from the beginning. Why should it be any different now?

Friday, October 01, 2010

From Hippo to Escondido - I

We have noted before the renaissance in the appreciation of the place of natural law in Reformed theology, as exemplified by Stephen Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law In Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2006), and in Michael Sudduth’s The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (Ashgate, 2010), in John Calvin’ s Ideas (Ch. 12) and more recently, in Calvin at the Centre (Ch.10), as well as in a number of articles. It is fair to say that in his new book Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, David VanDrunen gives a considerable fillip to the trajectory of this recovery. After its publication the way in which natural law is integrated into Reformed thought from the very start becomes as plain as a pikestaff. The book also well illustrates the tensions inherent in the two kingdoms doctrine, as well as what appear to be lesser tensions in the appeal to natural law. The book cannot safely be ignored by anyone who wishes to make a contribution to this area in future.

There are several reasons for this. The first of these is its panoramic sweep, from Augustine’sCity of God through Abraham Kuyper, a figure of transition, to Van Til and his disciples including Meredith Kline, David VanDrunen’s former colleague at Escondido, in which the fate of these two themes is thoroughly treated. Then there is the way in which the author shows the integration of natural law and the two kingdoms doctrine in Reformed thought. These are not two isolated theological loci, but integral to the classic Reformed view of ethics and culture, Christology, and ecclesiology, the life of faith and the life of the citizen. The twin themes become too pervasive to ignore.

At the most basic level these themes are biblical ways of addressing the church’s difference from the world, and yet its present situatedness within the world. The author orchestrates variations on the central theme of Augustine’s two cities, and then of Gelasius’ doctrine of the two swords. These two thinkers are among the first to articulate versions of what makes the church distinctive, while recognising what Christians have in common with their non-Christian fellows. The reader is taken through later developments in Aquinas, where the idea of natural law receives considerable prominence. But not only in Aquinas, also in Duns Scotus and William Ockham, two thinkers who allegedly began to unpick the ‘medieval synthesis’ but who were nevertheless firm upholders of the moral law as natural (in the sense of concreated). All identified natural law with the moral law, and the moral law with the law of God, its universality to be understood as part of the original created endowment, though now disordered by the Fall.

This preliminary material is covered in the chapter two. The next four chapters are central to the book: on Calvin and other early Reformed figures; on Reformed resistance theory (Goodman, Hotman, Beza, Knox),and on Reformed Scholasticism (Turretin, Althusius, Owen, Rutherford, The Westminster Standards, and hosts of other sources); and on ‘theocratic New England’. At Chapter 6, ’Theocratic New England, Disestablished Virginia and the Spirituality of the Church’, the book takes (for me) a surprising twist. Through his treatment of John Cotton, VanDrunen shows how the earlier, two kingdoms doctrine which (in Calvin et al.) already had evident tensions between the role of the magistrate in upholding true religion and the ministerial function of the church, was corrupted in Puritan New England in a direction which ‘christianised’ the state in an Erastian, if not a theocractic, direction. The liberty of conscience was contracted in its scope, and there was blurring of the distinction between natural law and judicial law.

Contrasted with this is the reassertion in Virginia (at a time when the Anglican church was established in that state) of ‘the spirituality of the Church’ through the submissions of the Hanover Presbyter to the state legislature over disestablishment, leading to the passing of Statue of Religious Freedom, and the influence of the individual presbyterians Samuel Davies and later Stuart Robinson and John Henley Thornwell. By this phrase, ‘the spirituality of the Church’, is meant that the church is to be concerned exclusively with the gospel. But what if the state enacts laws which depart from the standards of Scripture? What if the church supports voluntary associations that have the moral improvement of society as their aim? VanDrunen traces some of the intricacies of such issues through the clash between Thornwell and Charles Hodge over church boards. While tensions remain in the articulation of doctrine of the two kingdoms, he sees this period as providing a further purifying of it. Throughout this time the natural law continues to be upheld, occasionally using the Scottish Common Sense Realism introduced to the United States by John Witherspoon, as a vehicle for its expression. But contrary to the charge routinely made, this was not evidence of an optimistic, ‘Enlightenment’ mood, for account was taken of the effects of sin upon the apprehension and expression of such law, and the need for Scripture to supplement and to refine it.

As an aside, VanDrunen notes the two kingdoms’ integral relation with Christian freedom, and the paradox that while the church can require of her people only what is intrinsic to the gospel, the state can require much more. He also seems to hint that the two kingdoms doctrine and postmillennialism are in a rather abrasive relationship.

So far in the panoramic survey, the two swords doctrine and the upholding of the validity of the natural law have kept a close relationship, twined around each other like the honeysuckle and the bindweed. But in Chapter 7 the author introduces the reader to another, more radical twist in the saga: the transitional figure of Abraham Kuyper, a catalyst for significant changes.

There are various general factors at work in Kuyper’s thought which must be noted. He propelled the idea of an antithesis between the regenerate and the non-regenerate into the sphere of culture. He introduced other new terminology besides ‘antithesis’ – ‘ordinances’, ‘common grace’, the church as both an ‘institution’ and an ‘organism’, the idea of Calvinism as a ‘world-view’. Theologically, he gives some priority to general revelation over special revelation. This language, and a rhetorical style that was at once pugnacious and romantic, make an assessment of his position vis a vis the historic natural law/two kingdoms view of Reformed theology somewhat difficult. Nevertheless VanDrunen sees Kuyper as falling within that tradition. For Kuyper sees the effects of common grace in restraining sin, in rather the way of natural law, and he sees the institutional church as distinct from culture. `Though somewhat misleadingly (in terms of the tradition) he thinks of the contrast in terms of the kingdom (culture and nature) and the church (grace). Christian values may percolate through the windows in the walls of the church to exert a positive influence on the surrounding culture, thus exerting the rights of Christ over all spheres of culture which nonetheless has an independent value. (I’m not sure about this, for if Kuyper is a supralapsarian, as I’ve heard alleged, then nature must be subordinate to, and for, saving grace.) In Christology, VanDrunen sees Kuyper as echoing the tradition’s distinction between the Logos’ s role in the creation and sustaining of the universe and as the Messiah and Savour of his people, and as affirming the spirituality of the institutional church in his support for religious liberty. The author finds support for this view from the fact that followers of the Kuyperian vision such as Jeremy Begbie bemoan the presence in Kuyper of what is left of the two-kingdoms’ conceptuality.

The problem is that despite all of this, the weight of Kuyper’s thought falls on the cultural side of things; the organic church triumphs over the institutional church, and the kingdom receives greater emphasis than the church. Despite his Christology, Kuyper comes to advocate the ‘christianising’ of culture, the establishing of a Calvinistic world-view, as seen in his Stone Lectures, for example. The otherworldliness of the tradition is muted, if not lost from sight. As we shall shortly see, it is this side of things that attracts his followers. the neo-Calvinists. Cultural grace swamps redemptive grace, the church as organism triumphs over the church as institution, and the cultural mandate of Genesis retains its integrity and priority, despite the Fall.

But before the author develops all this, there’s a chapter on Karl Barth. The problem that the author has with Barth is even greater than with Kuyper. Partly this is because Barth inhabits a very different thought-world, where the chief categories are not objective states but acts and events. So the concept of nature, say, is not one that Barth is very happy with. And partly it has to do with his oblique, playful, even skittish style. (I was reminded of the chapter on Barth in Eller's The Christian Anarchist.) VanDrunen notes the Christocentric character of Barth’s theology according to which every theological category must be given a Christological interpretation. He has no room. therefore, for any action of the Logos apart from his being viewed as the incarnate Christ. Hence his rejection of natural theology, and also of natural law.

Sometimes Barth seems to change the terms but leave the realities. No natural law, for we can know nothing about the world except through revelation in Jesus Christ. Is there no truth in areas of life out of contact with that revelation? Oh, says Barth, there are ‘secular parables of truth’. In such a fashion Mozart presented the world as it is, though not theologically, but as a secular parable. But how can this be? When the word of God allows itself to be reflected and reproduced in them. Though there are tests for these, such words are never valid for all times and places. So what might it mean for the character of these true but fleeting words to be guaranteed christologically?

All this is not without some interest, but it is easy to see how the author finds it impossible, almost, to categorise Barth. For even where there may seem to be some overlapping between Barth’s views and the natural law – two kingdoms categories, as in his remarks on conscience, one has the feeling that such identification may be purely nominal. When he says that the state ‘as such’ relies upon the natural law, does he mean what the tradition means? A different theological foundation, a different doctrinal superstructure, presumably.

I think that it is fair to say that the `Barth chapter is an interlude, as far as the book is concerned, except insofar as Barth was a significant factor in the developing of a strong mood in the early twentieth century that was antagonistic to the very idea of natural law. In a way this is the least satisfactory chapter of the book, but then it is the least necessary, written, I suspect, simply in order to parry the question ‘Where’s your chapter on Barth?’ The reason for this is that Barth, though regarded and regarding himself as a Reformed theologian, is not in the affirmative confessional tradition that VanDrunen is exploring, and in which what he regards as the classic Reformed commitment both to natural law and to the two kingdoms finds its normative expression. The remainder of the book addresses characteristic developments within that confessional tradition, and, as this has found expression in smaller and smaller groups over the years, so the book bears witness to a narrowing of focus, not by design, but a narrowing which is a simple consequence of the narrowing of the confessional Reformed constituency in the late twentieth century.

Perfect Being Theology

The idea of ‘Perfect Being Theology’ gets short shrift from modern Reformed Christian theologians, even from some who should know better. The phrase is associated with St. Anselm, and with his ontological argument for God’s existence, which some have regarded as a stroke of genius. Here I am less concerned with that proof than with the idea of God as a perfect being, or as the sum of perfection; ‘God is a being than which no greater can be conceived’ is a premise of that argument but it is worth thinking about it on its own account.

It is more or less agreed that ‘perfect being theology’ is the brainchild of St. Anselm of Canterbury ( ) But where does St. Anselm get that idea from? Kevin Vanhoozer thinks that ‘he might have pulled it down from the metaphysical shelf’, whatever that means. But is the idea not central to the Bible’s account of God? Consider, for example, what the writer to the Hebrews says

For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, ‘Surely. I will bless you and multiply you’……For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, [the reference here is certainly to Gen.22.16 ‘ By myself I have sworn…’]so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope ‘set before us’. (Heb. 6.13-4)

This is a significant and interesting argument. (I reckon that it’s one of the most significant statements in the whole of Scripture). It goes something like this

Necessarily, anyone who swears an oath, swears by someone greater than themselves.

Necessarily, had there been a greater than God, then God would have sworn by that greater.

He swore by himself

Therefore, there is none greater than God

Therefore, God is the greatest being

But that may be thought to be a little too quick. Perhaps we ought only to conclude that God is the greatest in respect of veracity, or faithfulness, leaving it an open question as to whether he is the greatest in love , or mercy, or….

So perhaps we ought to conclude the argument

There is none greater than God in respect of veracity, or faithfulness

Therefore, God is the greatest being in respect of faithfulness

It is interesting, however, that regarding the greatness of God, the writer makes his point in an unqualified way, referring to the one besides whom there is no greater, and not simply to some attribute of that being. It seems an appropriate inference from what he is saying to suppose that he is talking about the being of God, and therefore saying, or implying, that he is a being than which none greater can be conceived. Not simply that he has this or that feature which is an instance of something than which no other instance can be considered greater.

Where does the writer of Hebrews, or the writer of Genesis, get this idea from, that God is a being than which a greater cannot be conceived? I suggest that he does not get it from the metaphysical shelf, but from reflecting on the biblical teaching that God is the Creator of all that is. If he is the Creator of all that is, then by definition no one thing other than himself is as great of he is, let alone greater than he. For there is one God, and he is the only creator of all that is. This conclusion is supported by the Second Commandment, which makes a sharp distinction between that which is in the heavens above, the earth beneath, or the waters under the earth; that is, is a created something or other, and that which is God. Such created objects are not fit objects of worship, any more than they are fit objects to swear by. The only such object is he who is uncreated, the greatest.

Of course there are other biblical data to support the wonderful verses of Hebrews in their assertion about God’s unsurpassable greatness. David refers to the greatness of God, and the fact that there is no God besides him (2 Sam. 7 22); Nehemiah refers to the great, the mighty God, (Neh. 9.32, also Jer.32.18, Titus 2.13)). Besides, the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods (Ps. 95.3); he is to be feared above all gods (Ps. 96.4. 77.13); he is greater than all gods (Ex.18.11) ; his greatness is unsearchable ( Ps. 145.3). (Perhaps I should apologise for all this proof-texting, but I know of no other way to draw attention to these data of Scripture.)

A strong human intuition that arises from or is strengthened by reading the overall presentation of the being and character of God in Scripture, is the instinct that tells us that none is greater than God, and that God alone is worthy of worship. How could God be worshipful if he could have been greater than in fact he is? If there is a being greater than God then why is he not God instead? It is hard to see, from these data, and from the intuition, what objections there can be to the idea of God as the most perfect being, or as that than which a greater cannot be conceived.

It may be that the animus against perfect being theology is not so much due to the idea of God as the most perfect being, as to St. Anselm’s procedure in his work the Proslogion. It is a pity (to my mind) that Charles Hodge is rather dismissive of this method in the Introductory Chapter to his Systematic Theology. He says that his method is ‘to a greater or less degree’ reduced all the revealed doctrines of Scripture to a philosophical system. But a careful reading of Anselm shows how inaccurate that is. Yet Hodge is somewhat ambivalent. Later on he refers to the Cur Deus Homo? as ‘epoch-making’

If you have never read this short work, with its carefully-constructed, spare, lean, chapters, then I urge you to do so. It consists of a series of short, elegant arguments, by which Anselm develops a doctrine of God from what we earlier concluded, that the idea that God is the sum of perfection is wholly and purely biblical, the one than whom no greater can be conceived.

How does he do this?

Once Anselm has stated a version of his ontological argument, establishing the existence of the God than whom no greater can be conceived, he proceeds by successive applications of the claim that whatever is better to be than not to be must be true of God, than whom no greater can be conceived. So, for example, it is better to be just than not just, blessed than not blessed, perceptive than not perceptive, and the same with omnipotence, mercy and impassibility; as well, God is ‘living, wise, good, happy, eternal, and whatever it is better to be than not to be.And (for those who think of Anselm as neglecting the Trinitarian life of God), he claims that God’s Trinitarian character expresses his supreme goodness. Is this a priori reasoning? In a way, yes, but the premises of the reasoning are biblical themes and biblical doctrines, as with the Trinity. Is it speculative? It is hard to see how it is. Does the exact character of God’s life, his wisdom, his happiness etc. not have to be drawn from Holy Scripture? Yes of course. But not for a minute does Anselm deny this. There are numerous supporting references to Scripture in the work.

Finally, far from being a piece of a priori, logic chopping theology which some love to excoriate, it is worth noting that the Proslogion is a Christian meditation. Think of that. Theology as meditation.