Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Ethics of 2K

 Two Kingdoms and Two Cities

Occasionally, there are single verses of Scripture the Bible student encounters that encapsulate a doctrine or a duty completely. So it is, I believe, with this verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. ‘As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.’ (Gal. 6.10) It is a balanced contribution to 2K teaching. I’ve heard it said that the 2K outlook is ‘antinomian’, presumably in the mistaken idea that those who hold that view regard themselves to have obligations only to the church of Christ, and the needs of the kingdom of this world may be safely ignored. Paul clearly contradicts this idea.

The verse occurs in the conclusion of his teaching,  towards the end of his writing to the churches of Galatia, but there is no antinomianism here, as can be immediately seen from the prominence that Paul gives of doing good to others, that is, to doing good acts of benevolence, of mercy, or of other sorts of help. The whole is conditioned by how they behave within the household of faith, and outside it.

This is supported by his use of the teaching that a Christian is a member both of the body of Christ, and to human beings more generally. There is not a visible or tangible barrier for inhabitants of the two kingdoms. The Christian is also a member of the earthly city, as well as of the heavenly. But this is not true of the people who are not Christian. There is no doubt the prospect of tension between this dual citizenship.  Fulfilling the requirements of the one may be at the expense of the fulfilling the other. Just as the desire of the Samaritan to complete his journey on time was interrupted by seeing a bleeding Jew by the side of the road. Nonetheless, the implication of what Paul advises is that it sometimes makes for difficult situations, but that the Christian will be afforded ‘opportunities’ to help by doing good to both types.

The whole is governed by the place of what the opportunities to do good are. Opportunities like this, often accompanied by shock or dismay, are not in our hands, but are part of God’s providential rule. It is as we have such opportunities that the Christian ought to do good. This suggests that the Christian is not to have a policy of doing good, or to manufacture conditions of human need in order to exhibit his benevolence. But as he or she comes across need in their ordinary course. When, in Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan came upon the Jew beaten, and left wounded on the side of the road, this provided for him an opportunity to help, to restore him in some measure. He had not sought this man. Nor had the man sought him.

There is a difference then, in Paul’s advice,  between doing good and ‘do goodism’. The doing good that Paul recommends is not planned or engineered, but is responsive to circumstances that come about unannounced.  The Samaritan was not idle, but was following his duty, perhaps, or his pleasure, when he came across the man in need. And does not the 'by chance' in the Saviour's story suggest the overriding of providence in the incident? That’s how providence works, though not the only way, obviously.

 ‘The household of faith’ may be  an expression for a local church, or for the church generally. By and large, we don’t use it. It occurs seldom in the new Testament,  I Pet. 6.17  being the closest in meaning to Paul’s use in Galatians. It is no doubt difficult to be sure that a person in need is a Christian or not. Paul’s use of the word  presents an interesting picture of the church at work, in varied tasks animated by the confession of the faith, like the members of a family working together in mutual support at home. But sometimes there are special needs, emergencies in the church. It suggests that the church is a special group of people working in harmony working together. It is one rather indirect example of Paul’s view that the Christian life is not one of continuous success, but there can be expected instances of set-back, a legitimate for help.  It suggests a variant of the expression ‘the body of Christ’, Paul’s chief picture of the church, stressing the working together of many members in  the outworking of their faith. And he is making the point that even in this picture of a sort of well-oiled normality, which generates obligations in its members, needs will crop up of one or another kind, to which another believer may have the help and opportunity of doing good. He should attend to such a happening ‘especially’, as a priority, overriding his other actions.

In fact, as if to underline the 2K point, Paul also the term ‘member’ to refer to membership of the body of Christ which is the church, and the same word, to describe a person our fellow in the human race. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul uses the word ‘member’ to refer to Christians in a churchly setting, as you would expect. (3.6)  But rather surprisingly he uses it again to members of the kingdom of this world, our neighbours in the widest sense, (4.25) We do good to our neighbours by being honest in our speech with them. And the reason? ‘for we are members one of another’. Christians  have at least a two-fold membership, one of the church, another membership of wider society.

Calvin says, on this verse,
‘he demands that every kind of communication shall be sincere; and enforces it by this consideration, for we are members one of another. That members should not agree among themselves – that they should act in a deceitful manner towards each other, is prodigious wickedness!’
But in the same way, Paul is vague, or general or indefinite in his advice. What counts as doing good to the members of the church and of the members of society is not specified. We are to do these things for the doing of good, and Paul leaves us with a blank to fill in as we may wish. Paul is not a casuist, ranking kinds of doing good in other kinds of action.  He does not come near to saying the doing of good in situation X is greater in goodness than in situation Y, and is therefore to be preferred as an act of doing good to another kind of act. It may be a ‘cup of cold water’ for all Paul seems to care.  Given the main argument of the letter to the Galatians, he might have in mind the duties to Christians who are Jews to Jews who are not Christians. Pure surmise.

Monday, June 03, 2019

'Most free'

In the Westminster Confession’s (and its relations’) chapter on ‘Of God, and the Holy Trinity’, (Ch II.1) tucked in a long list of divine perfections, there is the expression ‘most free’. It is nestled after ‘most  wise, most holy’ and before ‘most absolute’. What does ‘most free’ mean? What is it to be ‘most free’ in a list of divine perfections? (Note, the listing continues in Ch. II.2)

It is interesting that while much attention has been given to free will at the creaturely level, comparatively little has been devoted to divine freedom. Where it has occurred it has been spread over a variety of theological topics, creation, providence, the decrees.

Free from

The Confessionally-minded Reformed theologians of the 17th century referred to this state of affairs as what they call ‘indifference’. By this they understood that the divine action does not, and cannot depend on, or is affected by, anything that is not ultimately in the character and will of God. In other words God’s freedom is freedom from any factor outside of God, who is after ‘most  wise, most holy’ and before ‘most absolute’. These are the sources of his action ad extra, as a Creator and what is to occur in that creation. His own knowledge of what is possible. ‘most absolute’, the ‘most free’. His absoluteness means that God did nothing because there was a need to, a lack that he had to act to fill. These expressions appear to imply that God’s independence and unconditioned character, and his freedom, are capable of degrees. If he is most free then there is no greater degree of freedom that God enjoys in doing what he does. This echoes the way that God’s character is referred to by the superlative ‘most’ in Scripture, as in ‘Most holy’. If he is most holy, this refers to the greatest degree of holiness. So we must think of those perfections either side in the Confession, expressing in his creation his wisdom and holiness and whatever is due to his wonderful, perfect self, his identity.

So much for God’s freedom understood as ‘freedom from’. He is free from every possible condition  implied by the creation and its contents. This idea introduces another notion, the self-sufficiency of God, his independence or aseity. These attributes or powers - freedom from, self-sufficiency, independence, aseity – are characteristics of God’s creatorship. They are absent from his creation. It – we  - are creaturely, of the dust of the ground, breathed in by God’s Spirit, made in God’s image, fallen in Adam. We depend on our creator, despite talk about human autonomy. We live, move and having our being in him, and for our latest breath. Through our brains, spirits, and bodies, and the powers inherent in the non-human and inanimate creation, we devise and work with tools, and cooperate into developing our environment. Everything we do therefore bears testimony to our dependence.

Free to

But God is free to do what he decrees. The decree of God is said in Ch.III to be ‘the most wise, and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass’. He is free from, and free to. He is free and his decree (or decrees) are similarly free to serve his wisdom. What is actual is not all that is possible. The world and all that it contains is the wisdom of God. As Paul noted in Romans 1 (and elsewhere) ‘his invisible powers, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made’.  (Rom. 1.20)

Choice seems a prominent feature of God’s character. The Bible refers to matters that could have happened but have not occurred nor never will be. (Christ refers to the stones that could have been turned into children of Abraham. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’, for I tell you, ‘God is able from these stones to raise children to Abraham.’ ”  (Matt 3.9)) God is able to do what he has chosen not to do. The doctrine of election is the doctrine of God’s choice, as is vividly illustrated by the God’s choice of Jacob over his elder brother Esau, ‘A it is written “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”. And John Calvin had the opinion, (though you may not agree with him), that although we are redeemed by the Son’s Incarnation and Cross and Resurrection, by union with Christ and faith in him and so on, God could have saved us by a word.


But there is also ‘most wise’ in the Confession. Here we meet an implied reference to his will. He has an unsurpassedly wise will. Over the immense, intricate, universe that he has created, and that possesses a history, he exercises a most wise judgment. Wisdom has to do with the choice of ends, and of the means he ordains that effectively and wonderfully bring about those ends, and the wsdom of the ends themselves

The Larger Catechism (question 12) affirms, that ‘God‘s decrees are the wise, holy, free, and holy acts of the counsel of his will.’ (No doubt having Ephesians 'the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will' .(1.11)


Certanly there  are those matters which God cannot do? Clearly, there are those attributes and wisdom which he possesses necessarily, his holiness and wisdom. He cannot but act holily; he cannot but be wise.
'Tis the glory and greatness of the divine sovereignty, that God's will is determined by his own infinite all-sufficient wisdom in everything: and in nothing at all is either directed by any inferior wisdom, or by no wisdom: whereby it would become senseless arbitrariness, determining and acting, without reason, design or end' 
Jonathan Edwards, The Freedom of the Will, Part IV, Section 7.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Can God change?

In this piece we shall consider   God’s immutability, and its consequences. But what is the nature of  his  immutability? God is surrounded in mystery, and it is often prudent to stress the negative side of things, lest we think that we are involved in a detailed search for what God is like, or even worse, a search for what it is like to be God. Such endeavours involve a qualifying of the sharp distinction between the almightiness of God, his transcendence, and the creation of changes. God is unlike the Sun and Moon whose being causes shadows as they ‘turn’. (James 1.17)

But the God who does not change brings about changes. How can this be? Augustine, a greatly-gifted man, put his finger on the lines, if not of a solution, yet of a way of thinking of the one who is changeless brings about changes. ‘Willing a change is not changing a will’ occurs a number of times in his writings. That is, there is a difference between one will that creates changes outside itself, and many changing willings in a created person or some other agent, who changes. The first involves no change in the will, the other many changes, a changing will. The immutable God has an unchanging will which brings about the innumerable changes in his creation

Reformed theology gives a prominent place to the decree of God. In the Westminster Confession the decree or decrees have a separate chapter to themselves. Chapter III ‘Of God’s Eternal Decree’. If you have not consulted it regularly, then I say that it is worth a look over. No doubt the will of God has a prominence in other traditions, but not the place that the decrees of God have in the Reformed tradition.

Note that the Westminster Divines used the phrase ‘eternal’. God’s eternal decree. If we measure that decree by its effects, then we might say that there are uncountably many decrees. If the decree is counted by its origin, then one. It is the one eternal decree of Almighty God gives that gives rise  many happenings, each of them (of course) involving changes. In the letter of James, he cautions those who make  plans without regard to the will of God. God’s will covers what will happen tomorrow. He says ‘you do not know what tomorrow will bring’. This is not a reference to what fate may have in store, or Lady Luck, but to the will of God, but it can only be a reference to what the decree of God brings to pass. James counsels ‘You ought to say "If we Lord wills, we will live and do this or that"'. Without that qualification, we boast, as if we were in charge of our futures. ‘All such boasting is evil’ (James 4.16)

It is that eternal decree that Paul referred to when he said that God works all things according to the counsel of his own will. (Eph. 1.17) This is not an example of cockiness in the Apostle, a kind of know-all religion. Paul refers in the same passage to the ‘mystery’ of God’s will. It gives rise to many puzzles and perplexities. It encompasses the number of the hairs of our heads, and the falling of the Tower of Siloam. But it ensures that at all points in our lives we are in the hands of God. This should be an unmovable feature of the piety of those who believe it.

In this post I want to seek to answer to a question. If God is eternally unchanging and decrees in his creation, why as a result does he not change? We have seen that God’s decree is eternal, part of the unchangeable divine life. It is easy to  think of God himself living in some heavenly location, along with us. But he is apart from us, not in any way localized,  but simply immense and infinite, unbounded. The perfection of God is a fit subject for meditation, but we must make our best efforts not to parody God’s reality and fullness when we think of him. If all else fails, we can use negatives when we cannot get our minds around the divine  perfections. There is too much of God for us to comprehend him. He is too wonderful for words. ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor?’ (Rom.11. 34)

So it is with a comparison between God’s eternal decree and our goings-on,  the contrast between his ways and ours. Let us think for a moment of his creation. In creating God does not add to his reality. The creation does not distend God’s boundaries, for he has no bounds. So thinking of God as if has he has boundaries would be inconceivable. The contrast between God’s ways and ours is not one of degree,  but one of kind. For this reason the decree of God may be considered as the eternal aspect of his mind.

Turretin on change

Turretin has an interesting page on God and change. (Inst. I.205) He notes the frequency with which his divine unchangeableness is asserted. (e.g Mal. 3.6., Ps. 102.26., Isa.46.10., Heb. 6.19.)  He then makes three assertions. 

(i) Now when God became the Creator, he was not changed in himself (for nothing new happened to him, for from eternity he had the efficacious will of creating the world in time) but only in order to the creature (because a new relation took place with it). 

Turretin’s terms for God’s being the Creator is that it is transient as far as God is concerned, the creation is from him, not in him, so not immanent. (As being in three persons is immanent.)
(ii) God was not changed by the incarnation; the Word was made flesh, not by a conversion of the Word into flesh, but by an assumption of the flesh to the hypostatis of the Word.
(iii) God changes the things he has created without changing himself. ‘The knowledge of God does not change with the thing known because God who knew it not only knew this change would take place but even decreed it.’(206) 
Stephen Charnock

In his well-known work on the The Existence and Attributes of God Charnock takes a similar line to that of Turretin. In the chapter on divine immutability, Proposition II there is a good ration of discussion: For example:

There was no change in the Divine nature, when he assumed human nature. There was an union of the two natures, but no change of the Deity into the humanity, or of the humanity into the Deity; both preserved their peculiar properties.  The humanity was changed by a communication of excellent gifts from the divine nature, not by being brought into an equality with it, for that was impossible that a creature should be equal to the Creator.

Christ’s human nature was gifted by union with his divine nature, and so changed. But his divine nature ‘was not extinguished nor diminished, though it was obscured and darkened, under the veil of our infirmities’.

There is mystery to the extent that the Incarnation is without parallel in our experience, and so we do not have the capacity to comprehend it. Remember, if the formulations from Turetij and Charnock we have inspected are in line with what Scripture teaches, they nevertheless tell us nothing about what it is like to be God.