Saturday, January 31, 2009

Analysis 23 - Nemo obligatur ad impossibile

I think I’m a high Calvinist. I have no objection to the height of the Calvinists; but I have objections to the miserable narrowness of some, the miserable narrowness.

- ‘Rabbi’ Duncan

In the last Analysis I introduced John Gill to people who may never of heard of him, and reintroduced him to others, arguing that the ‘hyper-Calvinist’ charge is somewhat overdone, though not altogether, but that it is better that we should think of him as a ‘high’ rather than a ‘hyper’ Calvinist. In any case this should not distract us all (and in particular Gill’s fellow Baptists) from availing ourselves of the many good things this learned man has to offer to the church. In this Analysis I wish to demonstrate this further by discussing what Gill has to say about ought and can in his early work, The Cause of God and Truth.

The question is, does ought entail can? That is, does the obligation that one has to do something, or to refrain from doing something, entail that one has the ability to do it? Or is it possible to be obliged to do something while not having the ability to do it? How one answers that question is something of a theological criterion, like a blood-test is for the state of the body. If one answers ‘No’ then this is generally the sign of Augustinianism. (It is a pervasive theme in his Anti-Pelagian writings, see, for example, On the Grace of Christ, Ch.20, and in Calvin. Inst. I.2.3) If on the other hand one replies ‘Yes’ then this is generally a sign of Pelagianism or Arminianism or of a moralistic liberalism. For instance, that ought implies can is critical for Immanuel Kant’s view of ‘pure moral religion’ as developed in his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.

One can readily think of cases where ‘ought implies can’ does apply; for example, I cannot be obliged to help an old lady across the road if I am 50 miles away, unless of course, I have a prior duty not to be so far away but to be minding her. On the other hand, one might equally readily think of cases where it may not apply. For example, I might have an obligation to keep the law of God when, through original and actual sin, I lack the ability to do so. The so-called first use of the law, to convict of sin, requires (it seems to me) that one deny that ought always implies can. It is the very realisation of the inability that may drive a person into the arms of Jesus.

It is sometimes said that the hyper-Calvinist and the Arminian agree together on the claim that ability implies obligation. The Arminian thus holds that a person has an obligation to believe in Christ only because he has ability to exercise faith, and the hyper Calvinist holds that a person ought not to be commanded to believe in Christ because he does not have ability to do so. If Gilll were a hyper-Calvinist then one might expect him to follow this line. Our question is, does he?

In a number of places Gill clearly says that obligation does not imply ability. In his The Cause of God and Truth, discussing the biblical teaching about reprobation he considers the following argument

This decree is said to be ‘contrary to the justice of God; because by it God is made to require faith and obedience of persons from whom he has either taken away strength to perform, or to who he has absolutely decreed not to give it; which make it impossible for them to believe and obey: and no man is bound to do that which is impossible’.[This looks like a paraphrase or perhaps a direct quotation from Curcellaeus or from Limborch, both of whom Gill cites. I have not been able to check].

Gill replies

I reply, that the rule , which is so frequent in the mouths and writings of our opponent, [viz. Daniel Whitby] Nemo obligatur ad impossibile, no man is bound to that which is impossible, in many cases will not hold good. (292)

He cites the case of a debtor who may not be able to pay his debts and yet may still have the obligation to do so. The fact that a person may become habituated to evil does not entail that he does not have an obligation to live uprightly. Second ‘It is man’s duty to believe the word of the Lord, and obey his will, though he has not a power, yea, even though God has decreed to withhold that grace, without which he cannot believe and obey’.

This looks like a fairly standard Augustinian position. But then he goes on to say

However there are many things which may be believed and done by the reprobates, and therefore they may be justly required to believe and obey; it is true, they are not able to believe in Christ to the saving of their souls, or to perform spiritual and evangelical obedience, but then it will be difficult to prove that God requires these things of them….(292)

It is evident that in this passage as a whole Gill makes a distinction between obedience to the law, and the performing of spiritual and evangelical obedience. This seems a curious difference , because Gill appears unnaturally to restrict spiritual obedience only to the gospel. But what is this obedience to the law which is required of us all, but a purely-motivated and perfect obedience, of which we are incapable? (To confuse things further, in one place Gill grants that God requires all men, and it is their indispenable duty, to love him with all their heart, soul , and strength, to fear him always, and keep his commandments.’ (278)) Is not the ‘preaching of the law’ intended to drive a person into this particular corner? (As with Jesus’ discussion with the rich young ruler.) But such preaching is the call on men and women perfectly to keep the law, not merely to keep it in an outward, self-righteous or hypocritical manner. So it would seem that unless Gill is going to restrict obedience to the law in an implausible and unsatisfactory fashion, then the inability fully to keep the law does nevertheless entails an ability to keep it fully; and, by parity of reasoning, the inability to exercise true faith in Christ ought not to remove the obligation to believe in him.

Gill makes a further distinction, seeming to use the ‘inability limits obligation’ principle himself. He says

However, there are many things which may be believed and done by reprobates, and therefore they may be justly required to believe and obey; it is true, they are not able to believe in Christ to the saving of their souls, or to perform spiritual and evangelical obedience, but then it will be difficult to prove that God requires these things of them, and should that appear, yet the impossibility of doing, arises from the corruption of their hearts, being destitute of the grace of God, and not from the decree of reprobation…..(292-3)

Ought implies can, but there are different grades of ability, and so different grades of obligation, or so Gill seems to say. Yet it also seems that he has not quite made up his mind on this issue. On the one hand since the reprobates may believe and do certain things, they are required to believe and do them. They cannot however believe in Christ to the saving of their souls, but – here Gill appears to hesitate – it is ‘difficult to prove’ that these are required by God. But ‘should that appear’ that they are required to do such things, the impossibility of doing so arises from their hearts, not from the decree.

So there is some inconsistency in Gill’s attitude to the principle that ought implies can. In some cases not covered by straightforward cases of physical impossibility he seems to imply that ought does imply can, in other cases not. This inconsistency is unfortunate; nevertheless, it makes it harder to pin the label of ‘hyper-Calvinist’ on Gill.

But does Gill nevertheless ‘offer the Gospel’? And what is it to make such an offer? We shall consider these questions in our next Analysis.

The Cause of God and Truth (A New Edition, London, Thomas Tegg & Son, 1838)

Thomas J Nettles has an attempt (unsuccessful) to harmonise Gill’s position in his interesting account of Gill in Ch. 2 of By His Grace and for His Glory.