Monday, January 01, 2018

The Westminster Standard - II

Last time we looked at the wording of the Westminster Confession on effectual calling, more specifically on regeneration. The passivity of the soul in regeneration cuts off any role for the independent human will to ‘accept’ regeneration. The will must first be brought to life by the direct operation of the Spirit.

In this blog we look at the wording of the Confession on middle knowledge. The two themes of the passivity of the self in regeneration and that of middle knowledge, are connected. The Molinist says that God is guided  by his knowledge of what humans would freely choose were they to be placed in certain circumstances. So guided by that knowledge, God creates those people and their wills and circumstances that best fits his wise providence.

The Confession is against this idea. There are at least two passages that particularly caution against it. The first is in the chapter ‘Of God, and of the Holy Trinity’. Consider this statement on God’s knowledge.

II…….[God] is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom, are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them. To do by them, for them, or upon the, whatsoever he himself pleaseth. In his sight all things are open and manifest;  His knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to Him contingent, or uncertain, ……

God as the Creator is the fount of all being and their actions, and his decree is such that it is unqualifiedly ‘independent upon the creature’, that is, not contingent upon what God first foresees what the creature is going to do, or might do, and then decides to do such and such on the basis of what he discovers. Much less is God like a creature among creatures, in time. So the decree as understood by Westminster is eternal, and has no contingent results, but it unfailingly necessitates what is decreed. 

This is amplified in the next chapter, ‘Of God’s eternal decree’. The second paragraph reads:

II. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed
conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.

God’s knowledge of all things is ‘independent of the creature’. That is, God’s knowledge is not derived from the creature, but from God’s own counsel.  His decree is absolute. He does not know as we do, by first learning, and then by inspecting our fellow - creature and what he might do, as states of affairs in his own mind, but every creature that comes to exist, and all their actions, are decreed as God sees fit.  From untold possibilities in his mind he selects a set of states of affairs, down to the last dot. The hairs of our head are all numbered.

This tells us something very important about the Westminster divines’ understanding of divine knowledge. You might think that ‘foreknowledge’ is a weaker idea than predestination. But that is not so. Predestination arises from foreknowledge, not the other way round. Divine foreknowledge is of course a biblical concept. So let us consider two or three occasions of its use in Scripture. Here are three instances of the verb ‘to foreknow’ applied to God and his works:

…. ‘this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men’ (Acts 2.25)

 ‘…for those whom he [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son….. (Romans 8. 28)

God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew…(Rom. 11.2)
The first of these, the crucifixion, was according to God’s plan. God had a plan and he brought it to pass according to his foreknowledge of it. The Scripture teaches a number of times. It is a leading motif of Mark’s Gospel that Jesus had foreknowledge of what would befall him in Jerusalem. The source of his foreknowledge was not the disciples, or Pilate, or the Jews, or Judas, but his own mind, part of whose fullness was to have a plan which he foreknew. The second shows that divine foreknowledge is the source of his predestination. It is more basic than predestination. In this second passage ‘foreknowledge’ is virtually synonymous with election. On what he knows, he predestines. The third case shows  that God’s care for his people is grounded in his foreknowledge, his plan for them. It shows how foreknowledge operates, as something that is first in the mind of God and then is made actual in the course of events, as one would expect.

Essential to God’s middle knowledge, is knowledge that is not unconditional but is conditioned upon the creature.   Middle knowledge has the supposition that human beings possess a strong libertarian  will. Suppose he does. The God's foreknowledge would at best a ratification of the choices of the will. This is a sharp difference from Confession’s idea of divine foreknowledge as unconditional, as unfailingly directive of God’s plan, as having its source in God’s mind alone. This view  embodying libertarian choice characterizes modern Calvinist attitudes to middle knowledge – actually Arminian attitudes -  since Alvin Plantinga ‘rediscovered’ Molinism during work on his free will defence.

Foreknowledge is based on God’s ‘middle knowledge’, so-called because it is allegedly in the ‘middle’ between all the possibilities and necessities God knows, called his eternal knowledge, and all that he wills to do, called his free knowledge. The Reformed deny that there is such knowledge.

The teaching of the Confession is not simply that God is omniscient, but that he is independently himself, his knowledge is his own resource. He is not dependent on the creation even in determining matters . 

The Westminster chapter on providence ought also to be consulted.

V.1. God, the great Creator of all things, does uphold,  direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even unto the least, by His most wise and holy providence,  according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.

So his knowledge of the creatures  does not at all proceed from investigating what the creature will do. God already knows that from his necessary knowledge, including what the creature would do if placed in such and such circumstances.
When Reformed theologians such as Samuel Rutherford and William Twisse offered critiques of middle knowledge (in Latin), their basic point was that Molinism overthrows the absoluteness of the divine decree, its unconditionality. They paid less attention to the Molinists’ strong libertarianism, though this view of human freedom was criticised in other places.

Friday, December 01, 2017

The Westminster Standard - I

In a radio discussion some time ago with William Lane Craig (A transcript can be found in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (Spring 2014, pp.62-78)), regarding the   Arminianism espoused by Craig,  and the Reformed faith,  we came to the differences between effectual calling, and the sense of calling defended by Craig. I believe he thought they were incidental. But there are big differences. Craig’s understanding of divine calling is only saving, that is, it only is able to bring new life to the sinner, if it is received by the human free will. As Craig puts it, ‘grace is not irresistible; it becomes efficacious only when it meets with an affirmative response from the human agent’.

He later stated about the Westminster Confession that ‘ I find that when I read the Westminster Confession, I resonate with virtually everything it…..’ These words may suggestive mere stylistic differences, nothing substantial. But  in fact the Confession places an insuperable barrier between Craig’s view of calling, which requires the cooperation for its efficacy of the human free will, and the effectual calling which was first articulated clearly by Augustine, and maintained by the Westminster divines.  The second paragraph of Chapter X of the Confession is as follows.

II. This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.

The italicized words (my emphasis) make a crucial difference between the two views. Men and women who are in need of God’s grace are altogether passive in first receiving that grace,  in being regenerated. That is, they are completely passive. Each power of the soul is similarly dead. Their souls as souls are spiritually dead, with no appetite or force for the terms of the Gospel. The passivity is a death. How can a person receive the grace of God? What they need – is what the WCF calls the quickening – making alive – and renewing by the Holy Spirit. The making alive is the renewing.

These expressions take seriously the various biblical language of regeneration as indicating this spiritual death. So when Christ told Nicodemus that he must be born again, the rebirth is like natural birth, a unilateral action that the one born benefits from but which he or she does not first contribute to. It makes no sense to say that a person could  have contributed, or could contribute,  to  their own birth. The  ‘must’ in ‘you must be born again’ is thus not the ‘must’ of a command that we have the power to comply with, but the ‘must’ of necessity: 2+3 must equal 5, and a molecules of water must contain hydrogen, and a cook must have eggs in order to make an omelette. In the same way, it is required of us, if we are to enjoy the privilege of spiritual life, to undergo  a new birth. The work of the Spirit, as Christ told Nicodemus. Paul adds to the figurative language that in the NT characterises it, by writing of regeneration as a new creation.’  ‘For God, who said, Let light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of  in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (1 Cor. 4.6) And John adds another figure, ‘No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God’. Luke commented on the behavior of Lydia that ‘The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul’. (Acts 16.15) John has a different figure: ‘No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God’. (I Jn. 3.9) And writing to Titus Paul referred to the ‘washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit’. (3.5)) Sacramentalists may move to the baptismal font at that point, but though baptism is a washing, Paul’s washing here signifies a washing that water cannot give, the cleansing and renewal of the Holy Spirit.

Lydia’s experience, as commented on by Luke,  shows that in regeneration there is a conjunction  of word and Spirit. Does this view of the deadness of the soul and the role of the Spirit in regeneration Spirit squeeze out the role of the word of the Gospel? Not at all. The Spirit’s action is the infusion of new appetites, central to which are a desire for the words of the Gospel,  ‘what was said by Paul’, in Lydia’s case. As we shall  see regeneration leads to conversion.

The Puritan Stephen Charnock is best-known for his tome The Existence and Attributes of God, but he also wrote four smaller treatments of regeneration, to be found in volume III of his writings. In The Nature of Regeneration he follows Paul in stressing the soul’s passivity in regeneration, and contrasts it with  conversion.

In regeneration, man is wholly passive ; in conversion, he is active as a child in its first formation in the womb, contributes nothing to the first infusion of life ; but after it hath life, it is active, and its motions natural. The first reviving of us is wholly the act of God, without any concurrence of the creature ; but after we are revived, we do actively and voluntarily live in his sight : Hosea vi. 2, ' He will revive us, he will raise us up, and we shall live in him ; then we shall walk before him, then shall we follow on to know the Lord.'

Charnock goes on

Regeneration is the motion of God in the creature ; conversion is the motion of the creature to God, by virtue of that first principle ; from this principle all the acts of believing, repenting, mortifying, quickening, do spring. In all these a man is active ; in the other merely passive ; all these are the acts of the will, by the assisting grace of God, after the infusion of the first grace. Conversion is a giving ourselves to the Lord, 2 Cor. viii. 5 ; giving our own selves to the Lord is a voluntary act, but the power whereby we are enabled thus to give ourselves, is wholly and purely, in every part of it, from the Lord himself. A renewed man is said to be led by the Spirit, Rom. viii. 14, not dragged, not forced ; the putting a bias and aptitude in the will, is the work of the Spirit quickening it ; but the moving the will to God by the strength of this bias, is voluntary, and the act of the creature. (III 88-9)

Well said. The coming of this new phase, conversion, is what the Confession at this point is referring to when it refers to a person  who is regenerated:  he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it’. Not that God’s part is now at an end. More generally, ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ (Phil.2.13)

Once regenerate, always regenerate. Seeded for ever? Regeneration takes place in the secret of the  heart. Who can know it? Conversion is its chief test.



Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Something else that Martin said

Luther and the 95 theses?

Last time we saw how Martin Luther taught that self-knowledge is essential to the proper worship of God. He then went on to show that we need to know about God’s ‘character’ in order to sustain the life of faith.

I would also point out not only how these things are true…..but also how godly, reverent and necessary it is to know them. For where they are not known, there can be no faith, nor any worship of God. To lack this knowledge is really to be ignorant of God  – and salvation is notoriously incompatible with such ignorance. For if you hesitate to believe, or are too proud to acknowledge, that God foreknows and wills all things, not contingently, but necessarily and immutably, how can you believe, trust and rely on His promises? When He makes promises, you ought be out of doubt that He knows, and can and will perform what He promises; otherwise, you will be accounting Him neither true nor faithful, which is unbelief, and the height of irreverence, and a denial of the most high God! And how can you be thus sure and certain, unless you know that certainly, infallibly, immutably and necessarily, He knows, wills and will perform what he promises? Not only should we be sure that God wills, and will execute His will, necessarily and immutably ; we should glory in the fact, as Paul does in Romans 3 – ‘Let God be true, but every man a liar (v.4) and again, Not that the word of God has failed (Rom. 9.6),  and in another place, ‘The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, the Lord knoweth them that are his’. (2 Tim.2.19) In Tit.1 he says: ‘Which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began’ (v.2) And  Heb. 11 says ‘He that cometh, must believe that God is, and that he is a rewarder of them that hope in him (v.6). (83-4) 

The phrase ‘knowing God’ is currently used glibly and sentimentally, as if God is a creation of imaginations.  We can rely on God’s promises because God is immutable, unchanging. And not otherwise.  If we know God, this is the God we know.If God is changeful as we are, he cannot function as the ‘rock’, and we would be in the business of anticipating what mood he will be in tomorrow, and what his plans are for the day. That God foreknows all things;  that he is omniscient,  and is immutable, are fundamental features, of who God is, features without which he could not be God.

We may knowing that knowing God is having  the sort of relationship with him that we may have with some other people. We know some people who, perhaps, we would prefer not to know. Is God like this? Or is he a projection of our fantasies, like something out of Tolkein or J.K.Rowling? Luther is telling us that the character of God is fixed, and that this character should control our worship, our hopes and fears and our obedience.  Fundamental to our religion is not whether  we know God but  whether  this God knows us.  And whether or not  we enjoy the fruits of his promises of grace and salvation.

We are often told that God’s love is unconditional, but what Luther tells us means that we should be careful on that point. If we are not careful the attractions of unconditionality will sweep us away. If no conditions, anything goes. You can see that unconditionality appeals to the temper of the ages. Unconditionality, no responsibility? If anything goes, then anything goes with regard to God. But knowledge inevitably conditions.  Luther  insists that our relationship with God is shot through with conditions. There are conditions in our relationship with him. For example, if we are ignorant of who God is and what he does and has done then our condition will be that we shall not begin to know how to approach him.

The doctrine of God is often rubbished as being abstract and ‘theological’ (as it is, naturally.) Whereas our knowing him is personal and intimate. Well, we must be careful. His omniscience or his immutability are not to be thought of as abstractions, the playthings of theologians,  but as divine powers or perfections. Of course he has these powers necessarily or essentially. If he lacked any of them he would not be God. It is to be hoped that it is this God we know when we affirm that we know God.

And so we ask the same question as in the earlier post. Do our preachers tell us such things? . Or are all sorts of other things more ‘relevant’? To neglect such things is not to teach them or to take them for granted. It is to bless our ignorance.

Luther again…….

If, then, we are taught and believe that we ought to be ignorant of the necessary foreknowledge of God and the necessity of events, Christian faith is utterly destroyed, and the promises of God and the whole gospel fall to the ground completely; for the Christian’s chief and only comfort in every adversity lies in knowing that God does not lie, but brings all things to pass immutably, and that His will cannot be resisted, altered or impeded.  (84)

Heard any sermons on these themes, on the object of Christian faith, and how that who God is the solution of many of the  setbacks we have as a Christian? Heard one sermon in 2018 on such a theme? Without the knowledge of God our heads will be filled with the character and goals of our culture, and be filled with fear and stress?

‘Whoever draws near to God must believe that he exists, and that he rewards those who seek him’ (Heb. 11.6)