Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The many dimensions of Calvinism - again.

John 'Rabbi' Duncan (1796-1870)
Professor of Hebrew, Free Church College, Edinburgh
''I think I'm a high Calvinist. I have no objections to the height of the Calvinists; but I have objections to the miserable narrowness of some, their miserable narrowness"

Here we are again! ‘My Calvinism is not your Calvinism. Your Calvinism is not real Calvinism.  Here are a few thought on the latest wisdom on 'Calvinism'.

John Piper has some responsibility for in his Gaffin lecture he gives 13 points regarding something called ‘New Calvinism’ or ‘the new Calvinism’ some of which it is said to share with Old Calvinism and all of which he offers as ‘features’ and not as defining properties. That’s not a lot of help. The language-game of denominational religion.  It ought to remind us of the words of Bishop Berkeley, ‘They first raise a dust, and then complain they cannot see’. Though in this case ‘and then assert they can see’.  (Not so much 'Tulip' as  'Chrysanthemum'.) But there are more varieties still: 'Rabbi' Duncan reminds us of 'high' Calvinism, and by implication of a 'low' variety. And William G. T. Shedd refers to Calvinism 'pure' and 'mixed'.  Oh, and hyper-Calvinism. Old, new, high, low, pure, mixed and hyper. And more, no doubt.
Here are three obvious points about Calvinism on the other side of this particular spectrum of Piper and others; there are those who assert ‘No Westminster Confession, no Calvinism’. Then something  about ‘accountability’. Finally, about  Baptist Calvinists. These points put this whole business in perspective, I hope.

The Westminster Confession of Faith

Most adherents to the Confession of faith in fact adhere ex animo to a sanitized version, cleansed of references to Presbyterianism as the state religion. This is no small change. No more the Crown Rights of the Redeemer. Ever since the Solemn League and Covenant was rejected in England, this has been the de facto position here, different in the US in the eighteenth century, awaiting the passing into law of the Constitution and its various amendments, one of which concerned the separation of church and state.

The Westminster Confession says inter alia regarding the civil magistrate –

….they whom, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity, whether concerning the faith, worship, or conversation; or to the power of godliness; or such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintain them, are destructive the external peace and order which Christ has established in the church; they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against by the censures of the church, and by the power of the civil magistrate. (XX.IV)     

This went off stage de facto in England in the seventeenth century, when Puritanism failed as a political project, and  it failed in America  some time later de jure .

The move from intolerance to what was by today’s standards limited tolerance is not a change that was prompted by theological reasoning or doctrinal revision, but it was wholly political, due at least in England to the presence in society of dissenting groups whose vigour and Christian orthodoxy and place in society could not be gainsaid. They were hear to stay.

Such a politically-inspired change had important consequences for Christology. No more are kings regarded as the foster fathers of the church, or queens their nursing mothers. (Isa. 49 22f.) Or rather, such passages have been 'revisited'. No more is it thought that Christ has established ‘external peace and order….in the church’. No more is state support for the Reformed religion, nor state persecution of others on behalf of Reformed congregations, regarded as support for the one true religion that the state had an exclusive obligation to protect. No more are these things the norm for Confession-believing Presbyterians. Freedom of conscience. Pluralism. Toleration-Calvinism.

These comments  are not meant to apply to Covenanter congregations of today. Maybe they are still praying for the fulfilment of Isaiah 49 stricto sensu for their own, and for others. But they do apply, obviously, to others who claim their pedigree by their adherence to letter of the Confession. That's self-confessedly 'paleo-Calvinism' as one Covenanter said to me. And so the question is, is the dominant form, adherence to the purged Confession of Faith, let us call such a position ‘tolerant confessionalism’, a significant change in ‘Calvinism’, the Calvinism of Calvin and of the authors of the Solemn League and Covenant? It could hardly be said not to be. 

These changes, both in doctrine and in practice, were not small. They obviously affected the whole ethos of Reformed religion.  How much of a deviation from the original outlook was it? Does the abandonment of the early view of establishment compare in seriousness, centrality and the like compared with, say, the abandonment of exclusive psalm-singing, or of the Presbyterian ecclesiology of the early Reformed churches by Congregationalists and Baptists? Since the body of Presbyterians is not governed by a magisterium, who is to say what the answer is? How reads your Calvinometer?  Nowadays there cannot be an ‘Old Calvinism’ but only an ‘Older', not  a ‘New’ but a ‘Newer’. No one possesses the copyright of the noun.


In running our slide-rule over Calvinism, whether New or Old, the guiding benefit is said to be that of accountability. The New Calvinism is the place where ‘celebrities’ are to be found, accountable to no-one but to their own egos, a minus; the Old is where congregations, and especially the teaching and ruling of the godly eldership, are held accountable, a plus. My own brushes with presbyterian discipline over the years, light brushes it has to be said, have not been very positive. The procedures have been long-winded and personally hurtful and intrusive. Months may pass, while meetings are called, and the rapidly accumulating written evidence is digested and diaries are rearranged, and appeals are made.  In that time the individuals who are charged are hardly able to retain, socially, the common-law presumption that they are innocent until otherwise shown. But then if for such reasons presbyterian order is not your cup of tea there are Calvinist congregations of all shapes and sizes to pick from. I know this argument is 'anecdotal', but it reminds us that no church is perfect, and claiming to have discerned the biblical pattern of church government is hazardous.

Baptist Calvinists

Finally, let us turn to others who have deviated even further from paleo-Calvinism, the Baptist Calvinists, sometimes called ‘particular Baptists’ or these days ‘Reformed Baptists’. Take, for example, the considerable figure of John Gill. What are we to think of Gill and those who thought and think like him?

At the level of scholarly research and reflection upon matters to do with Reformed Orthodoxy, there is none greater than Richard Muller.  In his monumental work Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics Muller finds a place not only for Congregationalists or Independents such as Thomas Goodwin and John Owen, but for John Gill as well.   Gill lived in a period of the ‘de-confessionalisation’ of Reformed Orthodoxy, and when there was less confidence in the philosophical tools and underpinnings of theology than earlier stages of RO. (Muller discusses the relation of Gill to RO at greater length in ‘John Gill and the Reformed Tradition: A Study in the Reception of Protestant Orthodoxy in the Eighteenth Century’ in Life and Thought of John Gill (1697-1771): A Tercentennial Appreciation ed. Michael A.G. Haykin, (Leiden: E. J. Brill), 51-68.) Besides, Muller’s work has always shown appreciation for the theological variations within RO. For the latest examples of this, see Calvin and the Reformed Tradition (Baker, 2012).

So, if where the ‘Reformed tradition’ ends is something of an elastic-sided judgment in the eyes of the premier scholar of the field, the same surely applies to the denotation of the floppier term 'Calvinism'. If you hold the form of doctrine of the Westminster Confession, are an Independently-minded chap, and  are not averse to being in the company of dippers, (whatever other bells and whistles you may be adorned with), there's nothing as far as I can see that prevents you calling yourself a Calvinist, and being one


Tuesday, April 01, 2014

John Frame - God, time and space

John Frame

So far in our consideration of the ‘modified classical theism’ of some contemporary evangelical and Reformed theologians we have looked at the proposals of Rob  Lister regarding God and emotion, and Scott Oliphint’s account of ‘covenantal’ theism. In the case of Lister the relationship between him and his doctoral supervisor, Bruce Ware, is evident, and we have also looked briefly at Ware, at what he has to say in God’s Greater Glory. In the case of Oliphint there is possibly a similar connection with John Frame, who taught at Westminster Philadelphia in the early part of his career, then at Westminster Escondido, and latterly at Reformed Seminary in Orlando. So there is a chance that he directly influenced Oliphint, though this side of things is not our chief interest. What is of interest is the coincidence of outlook.

God and time

In The Doctrine of God (2002) we find Frame discussing  God’s relationship to time and space. (The sections are reproduced almost verbatim in Frame’s recently published doorstopper, his one volume Systematic Theology. (On God and time compare pages 557f. of The Doctrine of God with pages 359f. of his Systematic Theology. He also has similar, though briefer things to his along these lines in his Salvation Belongs to the Lord; An Introduction to Systematic Theology (2oo6), 27-9)  So these are long-held, re-affirmed views. Let’s look at them in order. First, the eternal God’s relation to time. Frame says this:
Obviously, God is unchangeable in his atemporal or supratemporal existence. But when he us present in our world of time he looks at his creation from within and shares the perspectives of his creatures. As God is with me on Monday, he views the events of Sunday as in the past, and the events of Tuesday (which, to be sure, he has foreordained) as future. He continues to be with me as Monday turns into Tuesday. So he views the passing of time as a process, just as we do. (570-1)
So God ‘in his atemporal existence’ is unchangeable. In his temporal existence, he changes, as  we do. He keeps in step with the unfolding of his creation. God himself changes.  He changes as things in time change. This is one perspective, or one set of such, or mode of existence; the eternal, atemporal  mode is another.  And Frame is clear that these two perspectives, the eternal perspective and the temporal perspectives,   cannot contradict each other. He says this, though he does not argue the point, not at least here. They are ‘two modes of existence’. (572)

But there is an obvious prima facie contradiction. God is atemporal, outside time, or without time. He knows all creaturely times from an atemporal point. But given creation, ‘He is not merely like an agent in time; he really is in time, changing as others  change’. (571) God is in time; he has a temporal vantage point and a temporal agency like ours.

God transcends time, he is eternal, unchangeable, immutable. More than that, he is essentially eternal, unchangeable and immutable.  That is, if he were to mutate, he would not be God.

But also, according to Frame, God is in time, changing with his changing creation, and therefore is mutable. So is God both mutable and immutable.

We assume that ‘God’ whether in time and mutable, or eternal and immutable, refers to the same reality. Suppose this one reality is both in time and timeless. With respect to his timelessness he is unchanging, while in time he changes from time to time. But surely nothing can be both in time and timeless. He is one God who both changes with time, and who has eternally foreordained the future. The one God has both an eternal essence, but also has relations which mutate. Necessarily eternal but contingently temporal. How can these things be? So how can Frame so easily say that there is obviously no contradiction?

Alternatively, God refers to different realities, ‘God-atemporal’ and ‘God-in-time’. These are two ‘divine realities’, (572) Frame may say. If so, how do these two realities relate to each other? And what has happened to classical theism according to which God is both transcendent of his creation and immanent in it?

It is interesting that Frame goes on to say ‘My approach bears a superficial resemblance to process theology’. (572) Indeed it does. He presents a bi-polar theism. Of course, as he goes on to say, there are serious differences between him and process theism, which he lists. Nevertheless, his view is bi-polarish. So it is odd for him to conclude his summary critique of process theism by saying that process theists have ‘no meaningful Creator-creature distinction and no sovereign Lord’ when his own theism appears to attribute creaturely properties, change nad a temporal 'perspective' to God himself. (573)

God and space

Following his discussion of God’s temporality Frame discusses ‘God’s Spatial Omnipresence’.  He says that ‘Covenant presence is a Lordship attribute of God’. (579) So what is spatial omnipresence?  It is God’s presence ‘both now and here, with all his creatures at all times and places.’ (579) We have seen covenant lordship as regards times, what does Frame say about places? (Ch. 21 in the Systematic Theology, esp 383f.)

As far as I can see Frame gives the same treatment to God’s relation to space. But as he himself points out, God is not corporeal, and so he does not have a spatial location. Though there is a section where he seem to be attracted to the idea that the universe is God’s body, in rather the way in which the late Grace Jantzen argued in her book, God’s World, God’s Body. The chief point being that God is wholly present at each part of his creation, and that the universe is to God as our bodies are to us, accessible immediately via ‘basic actions’. (583-4) But he does not go through with this.

Nevertheless, God’s omnispatiality has parallels with his account of temporal omnipresence. He says, for example, that God’s presence is analogous with the way in which our presence is to us.
Second, God feels directly everything that is going on in the universe he inhabits as the omnipresent one. Third, God can move “directly” any object in the universe. Fourth, as omnipresent in time and space, God “looks out from” every location. Fifth, God’s thoughts are not ‘affected’ by happenings in the world, but he certainly perceives them and responds appropriately….to the events of the world. (584)
There is more.

He inhabits all times and all places equally. (584) and 
is present to the world he has made. In his immanent temporal and spatial omnipresence, God experiences the world in ways similar to the ways in which we do. His experience of the world is analogous to what it would be if the universe were his body. Indeed, we can say more than this. God experiences the world, not only from his transcendent perspective and the perspective of the whole universe, but also from every particular perspective within the universe. Since he is with me, he experiences the world from my particular perspective, as well as from the perspective of every other such being in the universe. (585) (See Systematic Theology 386f. for similar language.)  

(Frame does not say whether such perspectives include those of all sensate creatures, lobsters and lions as well as men and women. Perhaps there are sets of sets of such perspectives. But it's a funny way of affirming divine omnipresence or ubiquity.)  

These expressions suggest a failure to distinguish the thing itself, omnipresence, and the consequences of God being omnipresent. The consequences may be as Frame suggests, let us suppose, even though it is a curious way of stating God's ubiquity. But God’s omnipresence is such that it is in virtue of God being wholly present at each point in his creation that he is able to act in the finite world. From Frame’s language one gets no sense of God’s ubiquity.

So, here are more creaturely properties are being ascribed to God. Not only temporal situatedness but also hosts of spatial perspectives, billions of them. Very different from classical Reformed theology.

God’s transcendence

Here’s John Owen:
In respect of place, God is immense and indistant to all things and places, absent from nothing, no place, contained in none; present to all and in his infinite essence and being, exerting his power variously, in any or all places, as he pleaseth, revealing and manifesting his glory more, or less, as it seemeth good to him.  (Owen 92)
Notice two things. The first, that the fundamental fact is that God is transcendent. And second that his omnipresence is a consequence of that transcendence as it concerns the contingent creation. So it is ‘by and in his infinite essence’ that his power is manifest variously, over the varied phenomena of his creation.
For God to be immense, infinite, unbounded, unlimited, is as necessary to him as to be God; that is, it is of his essential perfection, so to be. The ubiquity of God, or his presence to all things and persons, is a relative property of God; for to say that that God is present in and to all things supposes those things to be. Indeed, the ubiquity of God is the habitude of his immensity to the creation.  (93)
Immensity, as far as it relates to the created order and things within it, is ubiquity.  The point for Owen and for the Reformed tradition more generally, is that omnipresence in the physical universe is a function of God's transcendence, and an expression of it. There is no sense in which God ‘relocates’ in time, and in space  in order thereby to have billions of different points of view, to effect this. As infinitely immense he is also omnipresent throughout his creation.