Thursday, July 15, 2010


Gilbert Ryle

All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. Acts 17.21

Luke the physician, the companion of Paul and the chronicler of his exploits, has many virtues, and one of these is his ability to be cool, in at least one sense of that many-sensed word. He is able to provide the reader with detached, descriptive details, providing us (particularly in the so called ‘we’ passages) with off-the-cuff remarks which enhance and enliven his account. He tells us that Paul had a haircut at Cenchrea, and that he made tents, and that the ship in which Paul and he sailed into Rhegium en route to Rome had as a figurehead the twin gods Castor and Pollux.

His words here , (‘All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas’) have this character. This is an aside. In the NIV it is placed in brackets as if to emphasise this fact. It is not a general remark about Athens, of course, but about the Areopagus. For a few verses earlier we are told that Athens also had a synagogue attended by Jews and some God-fearing Greeks. And there was a market, with buyers and sellers. But the people who turned up at the Areopagus, perhaps at stated meetings, the ‘Council’, as Luke also calls them, spent their time in doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. So (in my view) we are not to understand Luke (in saying what he does) to be moralising. He is not tut-tutting at the Athenians, but simply setting the scene in which Paul quickly found himself.

In fact it seems to me that he presents the Athenians in a rather positive light. They are portrayed as behaving in fairly seriously, you’ll notice. When the group of Stoics and Epicureans that Paul had been disputing with in the market took him from there to a Council meeting of the Areopagus, they tell him that they want to know about his strange ideas and particularly about what they might mean. These were serious men, men who held views of their own, Stoics and Epicureans, but men who are also interested in any new ideas. in order to dispute about them from their own respective points of view. Certainly Paul himself takes them seriously, but that’s another story.

Not only is Luke not moralising, he is not (or should not be) telling us anything about academic life, or the life of the mind, that we ourselves should not know already. But I have to say that it took me a while to realise the truth of what Luke tell us. Let us call it the Athenian Factor. When I arrived in Oxford as quite a young man, and settled down to study philosophy I was in awe of the place, and especially of its teachers. In those days, in philosophy, Oxford prided itself on being the centre of the philosophical world, at least in its Anglophone form. Somewhat immodestly, you may think, Oxford philosophers thought that the entire course of western philosophy had reached its climax in what they believed and taught there in the 1950’s and 1960’s. For this was the hey-day of ‘linguistic philosophy’, as it was called, of ‘ordinary language philosophy’, whose proponents and exponents held (it was said) that simply by attention to the detail of language, and especially to its ambiguities, all of the philosophical problems that had hitherto bothered mankind could be solved. For all of them rested only upon linguistic confusions of one sort or another. Western philosophy, the story went, ended in Oxford, in two senses. Oxford linguistic philosophy was both the climax and the demise of the centuries of western philosophising.

So graduate students from the United States, Australia, and no doubt Canada and other places came to sit at the feet of Gilbert Ryle , grandson of J.C. Ryle, the staunchly evangelical first Bishop of Liverpool, an the author of The Concept of Mind; and J.L. Austin, the person who developed speech-act theory and who died early, in his forties, during my time there; and A.J. Ayer, lately returned to Oxford, clever and flashy and funny, who had some years earlier, when in his twenties, already made his name by writing Language, Truth and Logic, a short handbook of Logical Positivism. In that work he argued, among other things, that the language of religion was literally meaningless, indeed he argued that the language of anything other than that of the natural sciences was literally meaningless.

My mistake, I now realise, though it took some time for this to dawn, was to suppose that the Oxford to which I came was how it was and was to be. Partly, I believed this propaganda about the all-importance of language. But partly also I invested the people that I have mentioned with a permanent significance with which, now I look back, they probably did not give themselves, despite their Oxford arrogance. It took me rather a long time to rid myself of this notion. This was not because I was sucked into this world and so lost perspective, because my own Christian convictions, such as they were, and the influence of friends, of one friend in particular, gave me some detachment and perspective. Some other students whom I knew were less fortunate. But I failed to reckon with the Athenian factor.

For it has subsequently become obvious to me that philosophy, present-day philosophy, but nevertheless the philosophy that is historically continuous with the Stoicism and Epicureanism that Paul encountered, is subject to changes which are not intrinsically philosophical. Philosophy has to do with clarity, and argument, and philosophers thrive best when they successfully argue against other philosophers. I was certainly aware of that, and the changes that it could bring. But what I was not so ready for was the influence of fashion, and the changes that it could bring.

When we think of fashion, we may think of clothes, and hair-dos, (When I said to someone that I was going to talk about fashion in the Chapel, she said ‘Then I’d better be careful what I wear!’), and music, and so on. But fashion reaches further, into the life of the mind. There are fashions of the mind as well as of the body. And besides the legitimate philosophical interest in ideas and arguments, there is also the interest in novelty for its own sake. I said earlier that when he told us about the Athenians, Luke was simply reporting the activity of serious men. But maybe, come to think of it, he had this idea of intellectual fashion in mind. To coin a phrase, the Athenian philosophers, besides being serious men, were also dedicated followers of fashion.

That was the point that for a long time I did not grasp. The point that the life of the mind does not only consist of disinterested enquiries after the truth, but is also subject to the vagaries of what is ‘in’, and what is ‘out’. Perhaps it is this side of things that Paul meant when, a little later on after his encounter with the Athenians, he wrote of ‘the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind’. Not just the desires of the flesh, but desires of the mind; and no doubt one sort of such desire is the itch for something new, not necessarily the idea that what is newest is best, but that what is newest is most interesting and engaging.

But perhaps it is that in our pride and academic pretentiousness we fail to see that arguments and evidence maybe less powerful than this other influence. Now, as then, at the Areopagus of Paul’s day, philosophers seek to know what other thinkers mean, to clarify concepts, to present arguments, to use reason (in one sense of that multi-sensed term). They pride themselves on their reason and its powers. Somewhat infatuated by these powers, they may think that changes in philosophical views are due solely to the impact of arguments.

Arguments certainly have an impact. I would not want you to think otherwise. I mentioned Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic. Though I must not here go into details, the arguments of that book are now largely discredited, and you would be pressed these days to find a living, breathing logical positivist. That race is well-nigh extinct. But what about Gilbert Ryle? Largely forgotten. Does any one read Ryle? Do people find help from his writings, do research on them`? I rather doubt it. Austin? Well, somewhat more positive. Theologians may certainly have heard of him, but then that may be because yesterday’s philosophy is today’s theology. But that’s also another story.

Even the fact that logical positivists are well-nigh extinct on the planet – and this is what it took me a long time to see – is not due only to the pressure of argument, and perhaps not due mainly to that pressure, but rather to the working of the Athenian factor. This is the fact that it is typical of philosophers, and not only of philosophers, but of proponents of other academic disciplines too, and of human nature more generally, to look, beyond the arguments, for something new. There is academic tiredness. Positions become well worn, and then worn out. There is nothing more to say: no papers to write, no seminars to be arranged, the topic, or issue, or person is played out, exhausted. Here’s the paradox. While the Oxford trio are passé, historical figures, philosophers such as Leibniz, say, or Thomas Reid, or Thomas Aquinas, dismissed by the trio, are now actively read and discussed.

People make their careers, as they make their fortunes, by being, accidentally at the right place at the right time, with their thesis topics and their book proposals. It’s that that has taken me some time to realise.

As I say, fashion affects us Christians, not only in academic life, but more generally. There’s much more that could be said. In all facets of life we are all prone to the influence of pressures of all kinds, and among these is the working of the Athenian factor. To become aware of this, sensitised to it, is, I believe, to win half the battle to limit its effects. But how, besides this, should we deal with it? I’m afraid that that must be a topic for another time.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Voluntarism and Ignorance

In his work On the Bondage and Liberation of the Will Calvin tirelessly insists on the fact, against Pighius but with Augustine, that our present lack of free will is not part of our nature, but is a corruption of our nature.

He includes a short Excursus, 'Coercion versus Necessity', that establishes the difference.The importance of the distinction for Calvin is that while acting out of necessity is consistent with being held responsible for the action, and being praised or blamed for it, being coerced is inconsistent with such praise or blame. In his criterion of praise and blame he explicitly follows Aristotle

When Aristotle distinguished what is voluntary from its opposite, he defines the latter as, to bia e di agnoian gignomenon, that is, what happens by force or through ignorance. There he defines as forced what has its beginning elsewhere, something to which he who acts or is acted upon makes no contribution (Ethic.Ni.3.1).

So normal human activity is not forced or coerced; insofar as it proceeds from fallen human nature it is not free because a person with a fallen nature does not have the power to choose what is good. Nonetheless, where a person is not forced, but makes a contribution to his action, and is not acting out of ignorance, he is acting voluntarily, and is responsible for what he does.

Vermigli similarly follows Aristotle in his comments on the passage, (Book 3.1) but much more closely and in greater detail. The distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary is, for Aristotle, the basis of praise and blame. (373-4) (Ought implies can applies to ‘secular laws’ (Vermigli concedes) but ‘not those of God.) For the latter require things that are impossible, especially in view of the corrupt and spoiled condition of nature’. 374) In civil actions the involuntary and actions done through ignorance are pardoned, as also in Scripture (Deut 19.5).

The voluntary is understood in terms of the absence of force, an impossible-to-resist or difficult-to-resist impulse, an external force which receives no help from the recipient (Aristotle) but which may nevertheless be cooperated with e.g. with the highwayman who shouts ‘your money or your life!’, and of knowledge. (375) Vermigli follows Aristotle in showing considerable analytic interest e.g. in distinguishing the spontaneous from the voluntary, and the range of possible instances of the voluntary, leading to a discussion of ‘cases’, (377), and also a discussion of the blameworthiness of actions in this range of the ‘voluntary’. For example, if one endures evil for a worthy end, this is blameworthy, if for a noble end - one’s country, one’s parents, one’s wife and children - then praiseworthy. (379) Those who act from base motives are not acting involuntarily, as they may claim.(384)

Vermigli goes into all this with great expository skill - clear, orderly and detailed and making judicious points, and then towards the end of the chapter there is a longer than usual discussion of how all these Aristotelian claims accord with Holy Scripture. He cites a number of biblical examples which accord with Aristotelianism.

Of particular interest is the way in which Vermigli thinks that Scriptural examples of moral action, together with praise and blame, follows the same contours as Aristotle’s thinking.

Aristotle famously distinguishes between those actions which are fully voluntarily, and those in which the will is involved, but are not fully voluntarily. ‘Something of this sort occurs in jettisoning good during a storm. There is no one who, strictly speaking, willingly and voluntarily throw away his own property, but people do it to save themselves and others, if they have any sense. (N. Ethics 3.1.11, quoted 376) So as regards responsibility there is a three-fold classification: the fully voluntary, the partly voluntary (as in the jettisoning case), and actions done out of ignorance. Vermigli thinks that this is exactly what we find in Scripture.

First, voluntariness . (396) The faithful are praised for being a willing people (Ps.11.9), the woodcutter is excused if his action is accidental because it was not voluntary (Nu.35.18) The Devil is compelled to tell the truth, and is not praised nor is Balaam who is forced at the point of a sword to curse the people of God. (Num.22.1-35)

Mixed actions, that is, those where we are constrained, though we still act of our own accord, are commended in Scripture – e.g. self-denial for a greater good, to suffer rather than to sin, to endure persecution. (397) We are praised for such mixed actions for those who endure persecution are blessed. (Matt 5.10) What should be endured for what? We should endure anything rather than depart form Christ. Base actions may be as voluntary as honourable actions, as Aristotle taught.

But there are issues over which Aristotle and Scripture deviate. For what if the evil we do is due to the presence of original sin? ‘Supposing someone said that knowledge or awareness is lacking when this sin is contracted and that the sin is cause by the first evil motions of our soul, in which there is no deliberation or choice?’ Answer: ‘Aristotle teaching should be understood of ethical and actual behavior, ut that he had no knowledge of original sin. It is enough for us that they cannot be called compulsory because they have an internal principle.’ Original sin is an internal principle. (400) So Aristotle is confirmed after all! (396-7)

Finally, (in this rather rapid survey) what of ignorance? Aristotle distinguished between those actions done from ignorance about which we feel remorse etc. when our ignorance is uncovered, and those over which we don’t feel remorse. The fact that we don’t feel remorse when sin is uncovered does not mean that we committed no sin. (398) if we ought to have known. (398) ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ They had sinned, and needed forgiveness, ‘I know that you acted in ignorance’ But if they could not have known what they were ignorant of, this ensures non-culpability. (He cites the drunkenness of Noah) Culpability depends partly on how important and central a matter the ignorance is of. (398) Actions done when drunk are voluntary, both for Aristotle and Scripture. (399)

So the approach here is that what Aristotle says is true because and insofar as it accords with Scripture. So we might say that Vermigli sees Aristotle as an astute observer of and commentator on human life, as a recipient of ‘natural light’, ‘common grace’ etc.

Several things are interesting about this treatment. There is no discussion of the metaphysics of human action, nothing on what is nowadays called determinism or compatibism, or agent causation. His reference to original sin would present him with an invitation to discuss these issues, but he does not accept it. There is no attempt to discuss Aristotle’s account of the voluntary and the blameworthy in the light of Aristotle’s own indeterminism and fear of fatalism to be found in his account of the Sea Battle Tomorrow in Book V of the De Interpretatione. It is true that Aristotle’s account of blameworthiness in terms of voluntariness and knowledge (or awareness) can be bolted onto either compatibilist or incompatibilism accounts of action, depending on what one takes the sources of voluntariness to be. But it seems that Vermigli, (in common with Calvin, say,) is sympathetic to some form of compatibilism and in ignoring the questions of the overall consistency or otherwise of Aristotle’s moral psychology and his ethics, is simply content to help himself to this chunk of Aristotle’s thought without bothering about its significance for Aristotle’s overall views themselves. (This may be partly at least because he takes Aristotle to be discussing ethics from a civil or public angle rather than from the angle of metaphysics, and he may be correct in this.) There is considerable merit in the care with which he discusses voluntariness, and Calvin’s short statements on the matter, could certainly have benefited from the discussions of his friend, discussions taking place at around the time he himself was in exile in Strasbourg.

Vanhoozer III - KJV and Lydia of Thyatira

(Above is a thumb-nail of the Big Orange, Kevin Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine, which both precedes and animates Remythologizing Theology, the book in focus in these posts. Confused? Read on.)

There are undoubtedly some excellent features in Vanhoozer’s theological proposals. To begin with, take the central motif - the God who acts and speaks. Christians confess that God has acted and still speaks in Scripture, telling the reader the abiding significance of his actions. And then there are a number of theological emphases that this carries with it – such as the importance of Scripture itself, the upholding of divine freedom, and the asymmetry of the Creator/creature distinction, and of his intention to uphold a strong account of divine grace.

The question is, even with all these emphases in play, can one construct satisfactory Christian theology by means of remythologized theology? This boils down to two sorts of questions, it seems to me. The first is whether the Bible, as it stands, is a theological document, and in what sense. Is God’s word theological? Is the word of God in a position to remind the theologian of some theological strand or element that he is overlooking, or to caution him over his excesses? Or is it simply raw data, to be manipulated and ‘modelled’ at will? This is the issue between the first-order, the data of theology, and the second -order, the theology itself. If theology is alreadythere, in Scripture, then the difference is between theology and the reading of Scripture is not one of kind, only one of degree. And the second is whether, granted that Scripture is in some sense a theological book, is the Vanhoozerian theme of the God who speaks and who acts sufficiently rich and clear to enable the development of a satisfactory Christian theology from it?

I shall briefly try to test these questions by looking at what Vanhoozer says about divine calling, the effective, empowering, gracious call of God to sinners. This is another point at which the author clearly wishes to strike a Reformed, Augustinian emphasis. in the call God speaks, and speaks efficaciously, he utters the call that brings a response. There is a wide variety of biblical data which together give us a doctrine of effectual calling. And then there is a rich history of discussion of the concept, particularly in Reformed theology. Here is some of what Vanhoozer says.

The Calling

Vanhoozer’s overall project is to replace theologies of causal agency characteristic, he believes, of classical theism, with a theology of divine convincing presence, a matter of God’s and human kind’s aymmetrical interpersonal interaction (367-8). He wishes to replace generalities about mechanical causation with specifics about divine personal action is Karl Barth’s ‘stroke of genius’, and Vanhoozer willingly takes his cue from it. (370) In this he follows the ‘personalist’ turn in modern theology which he outlines in Part I of his book.

Initially, it may seem surprising that the author treats effectual calling as an aspect of divine providence. Yet the calling of men and women occurs in the providential order, God’s government of his world. More especially, calling involves people, as providence more generally involves God’s interacting with those made in his image. At all events, God’s call of people by grace serves Vanhoozer’s expository and exploratory purposes well – a clear case of God speaking and acting, and of men and women entering into dialogue with him. In this instance, of God acting as he opened Lydia’s heart (Acts 16.14), the case that the author focusses his attention on.

The author is unconvinced by Calvin’s (and, more generally, by the Reformed tradition’s) view that in effectual calling it is the Spirit that ‘causes the preached Word to dwell in their hearts’. (Inst. III.24.2) This is because for something to be a personal communication, on the modern personalist view of things, it has to be expressed in person - to – person relation. That is, it has to involve both divine and human persons exclusively at the level of conscious intention-forming and willing, and only at that level. So the divine calling is heard by those called, and they learn, and respond, or (alas) they fail to respond. ‘Is the grace that changes human hearts thus a matter of energy or information? It is both’. (373) The effectual call is a divine speech-act that has both illocutionary and perlocutionary force. It is effectual because of the self-communicative power of the triune God. ‘The effectual call is a sovereign summons to participate in the light and life of the triune God.’ (373) So the effectual call represents a distinct communicative causality, ‘one that moreover lies at the core of the theodramatic action, where infinite and finite freedom meet.’(373) It is causal, then, but not mechanically causal. (It is a pity that the author does not help his reader more at this point by spelling out the difference in clear terms) The Spirit has perlocutionary power, that is, the power to bring it about that the story of Jesus is received with its intended significance. Or does it? It is a 'sovereign summons'. The sign ‘Beware of the Dog’ is a warning, summoning us to take avoiding action. But it only has perlocutionary force for me if, understanding it as a warning, I take it seriously, and I am thereby warned, and actually do take avoiding action. So the theological alternatives (as far as providence is concerned, and more generally) are: a response that is free and willing, as against one that is brought about mechanically, coercively. Naturally, faced with such a choice, Vanhoozer opts for freedom and willingness.

Who can deny that a free and willing response must be part of the effectual call? Here I do not wish to go where Vanhoozer himself does not venture. If it is free and willing, why doe the story of Jesus have perlocutionary force for some and not for others? I can well imagine that he may be irritated by these dichotomies, urging us to mature beyond their binary character.

That apart, what he has given us may be part of an account of the effectual call, but can it be the whole of it? Do we not have to know (from a place other than the narrative) the state that Lydia was in? If she is dead in trespass and in sins, facing the wrong way, in rebellion and repudiation of God, then before she can enter into dialogue with God through his word, she has to want to do this. On the Vanhoozerian interpretation, Luke’s account is back to front. According to remythologized theology Luke should have said, ‘who attended to things spoken of by Paul, and the Lord opened her heart’. But Luke in fact says ‘whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended to the things….’ Being opened, (in our terms, being made willing, wanting to hear), her heart then attended to the apostolic message about Jesus the Saviour. As regards regeneration and conversion, Reformed theology has insisted on two things. First, that there is a moment of passivity in regeneration, when new life is given, light to those in darkness, life for the dead. Hence 'regeneration'. Second, that such a granting of life is wholly along the grain of the personality of the one who is give that life. Is this monergic causation? Yes. Is it mechanical? Certainly not. Is it mysterious? Yes it is. This suggests that the grid of Vanhoozer’s theodramatic, speech-active, remythologized theology does not have the right shape.

The Grid

The trouble is, the grid is not appropriately shaped to receive the variety of biblical data. Sir Arthur Eddington famously quipped ’What my net cannot catch isn’t fish’, and that’s what is seriously adrift with Vanhoozer’s new proposal. His net misses important fish. Consider first some of the language of Scripture relating to the effectual call:

A new heart will I give them, and I will write my law into their hearts.

The God who said let there be light has shined in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ

We are spiritually dead in trespasses and sins

The seed of new life needs to be implanted

We need the new birth through the mysterious and sovereign work of the Spirit.

It is essential to the Augustinian and Reformed view of divine grace that in regeneration the soul is passive. The passivity of death leads, through grace, to the activity of new life. So there has to be a way of thinking about this in which the choices presented by the grid are more than ‘either communicative or manipulative’. However described, there is a passive moment, one in which the soul, being helpless to produce its own life, is acted upon.

The data of Scripture regarding the effectual call include that the Lord will give a new heart to people who are dead in trespasses and in sins, shining in hearts to give them the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Surely these are not mere metaphors, Biblical raw data manipulable by the theological modeller, but they are already theologically loaded, carrying unavoidable theological implications.

Besides, presenting us with the dichotomies: either personal and so not manipulable. And: coercive and so not personal, looks like a failure in imagination. The slapping of a newborn baby, ensuring a first sharp intake of breath: is that personal or mechanical? Dragging a body from the freezing lake and giving it the kiss of life. What sort of a relation is that? And think of some cases of conversion. Was Saul’s conversion ‘free and voluntary’? And then think of some of the complications and nuances over that word ‘free’ and its relation ‘voluntary’.

Such data are missed because Vanhoozer’s net is of a shape and size only to pick up instances of interpersonal dialogue, and so monergistic data slip through and cannot be regarded as relevant for formulating a biblical doctrine of the effectual call. To refer to an intellectual procedure that I think that Vanhoozer does not much like when used as a theological tool, but which is inevitable, his new proposal gives us a bad induction of the biblical data. And this is because the beliefs that he brings to the data are so obviously theory-laden.

Part of the aim of achieving a degree of systematic theological understanding of conversion, say, is to achieve the integration of the various elements of the Scriptural presentation, both the personal and the impersonal, the conscious and the unconscious, the merely logically separable and the temporally separable. These accounts will include, of course, reports of conversion in Scripture, such as those of Lydia and of Saul, part of its narrative. But then we also need to take account of data of other areas of revelation about the effect of sin in the darkening and corrupting of the human mind and will, and with the work of the Holy Spirit in applying the fruits of Christ’s redemption, and so on.

A Final Question

All this biblical evidence points to the divine effectual call of a sinner being something deeply mysterious. It most certainly cannot be ‘demystified’ (Vanhoozer’s word) by thinking of the entire business along the lines of a well-led academic seminar in which some of the participants eventually come to adopt the Professor’s point of view. Some who have thought about the new birth have seen it not as a divinely-conducted conversation but as a radical turnaround for those who are not on speaking terms.

Is Christian theology intended to de-mystify? To an extent, yes, to the extent that it shows that what may be prima facie contradictory in the biblical data is not so, and instead is consistent, and to conceptualise it in a way that is both consistent and faithful to Scripture. But the success or otherwise of that theological endeavour is determined by the character of the data, not by the urge to de-mystify.