Saturday, February 28, 2009

Two Concepts of God

The Secret Providence of God is a reply to fourteen Articles or theses, each of which has a commentary. Each thesis claims to assert something about providence that Calvin taught. The document was circulated anonymously, but it is generally held to be the work of Sebastian Castellio. At the end of expounding and defending the Articles the writer draws a comparison between Calvin’s God, the false God, and the writer’s concept, the true God. In due course Calvin replies. The material that now follows touches on this contrast.

We have noted the doctrinal and metaphysical differences between the two antagonists. But behind these are important epistemological distinctions. In Calvin’s eyes Castellio’s epistemological approach to Scripture has two important and rather ominous defects. First, Castellio is fond of employing analogies which he devises and then applies to Scripture. These provide him with an interpretative lense. For example, his uses the analogy between God as our Father and fathers in both human society and the animal kingdom. Such fathers care for their children equitably and equally, and can our Heavenly Father be different? How can the one Heavenly Father have those of his children that he elects and those that he passes by? But for Calvin God is one who has the right to discriminate and choose, even though his reasons for choosing are inscrutable to us. He is our Father in the sense that he is our Creator and sustainer, but he has the rights of a Creator and this must never be forgotten. Castellio’s fondness for analogies which fly in the face of what Calvin regards as the clear teaching of Scripture touches on what Calvin sees as Castellio’s second epistemological deficiency, his intolerance of and impatience over any attribution of mystery or unaccountability to God’s ways. Calvin is ready to emphasise human limitations in understanding or explaining God’s ways. Castellio is not.

This differences are symptomatic of two different concepts of God, as Castellio notes in his closing remarks. Calvin certainly does not demur, though quite understandably he objects to the personally insulting way in which Castellio writes. In his theology Calvin never resorts to paradox or logical incoherence to address theological problems, even though he readily recognises God’s inaccessibility. But how can his account of God possibly be consistent? How can he have two wills, and not generally permit evil but willingly permit this evil and that evil and so on? How can he proclaim the freeness of his grace, and at the same time elect and predestinate only some (a small minority, Calvin believes) , to salvation? Calvin’s response to such questions is three-fold: To affirm the meaning and truth of the Scriptural data that call forth these distinctions, to resolutely refuse to apply human analogies to God that are not themselves warranted by Scripture , and to affirm (also on Scriptural precedent) that God’s ways are mysterious and unfathomable. Castellio’s strategy is to ignore Calvin’s nuances and to straightforwardly charge Calvin’s God with being the author of evil. Dialectically, Calvin is at something of a disadvantage at such points because he has to answer the charge by deploying these distinctions, as well as by appealing to divine inscrutability, and this procedure seems contrived or self-serving to someone as impatient as Castellio.

It is not clear that this exchange changed anyone’s mind, certainly not Calvin’s. What of Castellio? He died six or so years after the circulation of his Calumnies, in 1563, but not before writing a good deal more on these topics. His direct reply to the De Occulta was Harpago, sive Defensio ad authorem libria, cui titulus es, Calumniae Nebulonis. This was finished in May 1558, but only published posthumously. ‘Harpago’ means ‘harpoon’ or ‘grappling hook’ and is probably a reference to his response to Calvin’s charge that he stole wood; Castellio maintained that he dragged driftwood from the Rhine. The book was republished in Gouda, Holland, in 1613, and so was able to contribute to the rise of the Remonstrants in the Reformed church there.

It is of course difficult to extrapolate beyond the lives of Calvin and Castellio. But it may be that what Calvin writes against Castellio in 1557 provides us with some clues as to how he would have responded to Jacobus Arminius. Or if not how he would have responded, then how someone who continued to hold the views expressed in the De Occulta would have responded. For we can at least say this much, that Castellio’s concepts of divine foreknowledge and of the relation of the will of God to evil, his rejection of the two-wills doctrine, and of the idea of willing permission, are also characteristic of and central to the theology of Arminius. For Arminius, as for Castellio, divine foreknowledge is conditional divine knowledge of actions in the future, and the divine permission of sin is a ‘bare’ rather than a willing permission, though expressed in a rather more developed and polished way than the rather crude or inchoate theological style of Castellio. Indeed, one might go so far as to appropriate Richard Muller’s description of Arminus’s thinking as a ‘theology of creation’ (rather than a ‘theology of grace’) to the Fourteen Articles and to Castellio’s defence of them.

The Language and Theology of the 'Free Offer'

Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election….if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life. (Calvin. Inst. 3.14.5)

The ‘free offer’ is one of those topics that occasionally arises among those who hold to the definiteness of the atonement, to eternal election and to the need for an effectual work of the Spirit in conversion. It has been a source of conflict at least since the Marrow Controversy and no doubt before that, and partly this is because those who deny or have serious reservations about the free offer fear being tarred with the brush of hyper-Calvinism.

The question is not, must ministers of the gospel offer the gospel freely, but may they? The issue is not, must a minister always and exceptionlessly offer the gospel, but may he? But what is the ‘free offer’? Our chief task here is to try to get an answer to that question.

The language of the free offer

In one of his treatments of the free offer Professor John Murray writes of the ‘invitation, command, demand, overture and promise of the Gospel. ‘ (Collected Writings, Vol. I, 84) There is quite a range here, and few would argue that on biblical grounds that men and women should not be invited to Christ and presented with the promise of the Gospel. The question of whether the preacher should demand or command men and women to come to Christ seems more problematic. It seems to hit the wrong note, doesn’t it? The Gospel is good news. The idea that we have an obligation to hear and receive that good news, that it is a duty, seems odd. Perhaps this is one of those areas where faith and repentance, otherwise so closely allied, differ. That God commands all men everywhere to repent is part of the apostolic message. (Acts 17.30) Is it also part of that message to command all men everywhere to have faith, even though it is sinful to prefer darkness to light and not to believe on the only-begotten Son of God?

The case for the free offer

It is generally held that the free offer is necessary for evangelism, and that it is therefore part of a rounded gospel ministry.

There is first of all the basic fact that a preacher must not intentionally say something that is false. It is false that a fallen human being has the innate or natural ability to turn to Christ. He or she is in bondage to sin and needs to be released by the illuminating and regenerating work of Christ’s Spirit. The grace of the Spirit is not merely an aid which the sinner may accept or refuse, but when it comes it is effectual.

There is a difference, then, between saying that Christ will receive a person whenever he comes to him, and saying or implying that they have a natural ability to come to Christ whenever they choose to do so. So it would seem to follow, in order not to speak falsely, that those wishing to ‘offer’ the Gospel must also affirm that fallen human beings are unable of themselves to come to Christ. So in the issue of the free offer, it is not so much what is said as what else is said, and built upon.

The word ‘offer’, which does not occur in the NT in connection with gospel preaching but is present in some catechetical documents – is suspect to some because it suggests the power to reject the offer. Offers may be refused, it is true, but it is also true there are some offers that are too good and too persuasive to be refused. So provided that the idea of innate ability is explicitly denied, there cannot be anything wrong with the use of the language of ‘offer’, surely. We must obey the law of God from the heart, but can’t. Christ offers his grace to sinners, but they can’t take it.

Secondly, it is necessary to preserve the freeness of justification by faith alone. The danger with those who hesitate about the free offer is that they are strongly inclined to interpose conditions. Christ’s words about the weary and heavy laden are turned into qualifications. ‘Am I weary and heavy laden? Am I weary and heavy laden enough?’ That is a bad move. It is bad move because it turns the attention of the person primarily on themselves, and on whether they fulfil certain qualifying conditions. If that move is encouraged then proclamations degenerate into descriptions of the state of grace. Of course one cannot avoid a certain amount of reflexiveness. Even Calvin’s famous words about Christ being the mirror of election, the basis of Christian assurance, carry reflexiveness.

But what is the positive case for the free offer? It seems to me that Professor Murray gets himself into unnecessary perplexities in the case that he presents. (Collected Writings Vol.4 113f.) The question for him is whether in offering (through his ministers) the grace of God in Christ, God may be said to desire the salvation of everyone, even of those for whom he has not provided salvation. Murray uses Matthew 5:44-8 as his chief biblical warrant for asserting that God does desire in this way, but of course the passage does not prove the point about desire, only that God provides sunshine and rain for those who do not deserve it.

It is certainly necessary to distinguish between the revealed and the secret will of God. But it’s a difficult area, made more difficult, it seems to me, by claims such as Murray’s that in the free offer God reveals a desire for the salvation of men and women whom (God alone knows) are reprobates. Which naturally leads us to ask, how can God publicly and sincerely desire what he does not secretly will?

Why is there need to go down this particularly tortuous path in the first place? For the free offer is the offering of Christ to anyone, not to everyone. The gospel is to be preached indiscriminately, and unconditionally, in order that God’s elect (presently unknown) may be effectually called by the word of grace and brought to penitence and faith. The preacher does not know who will respond, and he must (following the Great Commission) play his part in preaching the gospel to every nation. It seems to me that the language of unconditionality and freeness, declared in a warm and urgent way, suffices for the offering of the gospel freely; it integrates with other doctrinal elements in the faith, it does not turn people in on themselves in concern as to whether or not they are ‘qualfiied’ to come to Christ, and it does not get us unnecessarily entangled in the secret and the revealed will of God. It is not part of the presentation of Christ freely to say that God sincerely desires the salvation of everyone, and to say such a thing makes preaching sermons on definite atonement and eternal election all the more difficult, leading to unnecessary perplexity.

(Interestingly, in another discussion of the ‘free offer’, written nearly twenty years later, Murray restricts himself to writing in terms of indiscriminate or unlimited overtures of grace. (Collected Writings I. 81))

Gill on the free offer

Finally, a few remarks on John Gill on the free offer. As Nettles shows, Gill upholds the vigorous preaching of the Gospel , and the urging of men and women to come to Christ. (101). But he has some idiosyncratic touches of his own. I will mention one. He has a theological objection to the offering of Christ or his grace by a minister (Nettles, 100), for (Gill says) only God can give grace, and he does not do so by offering it, but by sovereignly bestowing it. Gill holds that God alone grants grace, and therefore that it is improper to suppose that ministers of the Gospel may offer Christ. He is not theirs to offer. The grace of God is bestowed on the elect, and grace is not offered to the non-elect. (The Cause of God and Truth, 288-9)

Of course the NT teaches that preachers of the gospel proclaim in the name of Christ and are his representatives. ‘We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us….’ (2 Cor. 5. 20) So when they preach, God preaches through them. But they are not, literally, in the place of God. They are not the bestowers of grace, nor are they the judges of men a nd women. (I Cor. 4.5) Another significant difference is that preachers do their work ‘blind’. They do not know whether, when they preach, their audience will hear, or forbear. Like Paul in respect of his own people, who had a strong desire for them to be saved, and could wish that he himself might be accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of his others (Rom. 10.1, 9.2-3), so ministers may have desires for the salvation of their hearers that (unknown to them) do not accord with God’s decree. So while Gill is perfectly correct to say that grace is not bestowed on the non-elect, yet it may be offered to them by ministers of the gospel out of (what we might call) ‘blind compassion’. So we might say that Gill’s point might, with Scriptural warrant, be turned around. God does not offer grace to the non-elect. So there is ‘no falsehood or hypocrisy, dissimulation or guile, nothing ludicrous or delusory in the divine conduct towards them’. (289) But his ministers might, from their lowlier position, offer the grace of the gospel indiscriminately, and there’s nothing hypocritical or ludicrous about that either.

John Murray, Collected Writings, (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust, 1982)
Thomas Nettles, By His Grace and for His Glory, (Lake Charles, Louisiana, Cor Meum Tibi,)
John Gill, The Cause of God and Truth, (London, Thomas Tegg, 1838)

For those who aspire to consult the pages of Gill, through the help of my friend Alec Clark, the following are worth following up:

John Gill's Exposition of the Old and New Testaments — his magnum opus


The John Gill Archive — containing most of Gill's published works, including many sermons and tracts, The Cause of God and Truth, A Body of Doctrinal Divinity, and A Body of Practical Divinity, and Solomon's Song.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Taking a Line VI - Tough Civility and Civic Religion

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.

On the eve of President Obama’s Inauguration, Os Guinness wrote a piece ‘Faith and Inauguration’ in USA Today. Among other things he pleads for a ‘new civility’ in the US culture wars. According to Guinness, yesterday the battle lines were drawn on the issue of race, now it’s religion. What is needed, he says, is a ‘tough-minded civility’ among those with opposed ambitions for their country. A civility between those who work towards a sacred public square, for whom ‘one religion or another is privileged, though not established’, a view associated in the US with the programmes of the religious right, (whose hold on public opinion, however, at present seems to be waning). On the other side is a vision of a naked public square, ‘in which all religion and religious symbols are excluded from public life’.

Tough-minded civility requires

A framework in which citizens of all faiths – and none – are free to enter and engage public life on the basis of what is agreed to be just and free for people of all other faiths, too. Such a view of civility is not a matter of niceness, political correctness or squeamishness, about giving offence. Nor is it a search for an interfaith dialogue or lowest common denominator unity that glosses over serious and important differences. Rather it is a framework in which differences are taken serious, conflicts are debated robustly and policy are (is?) decided civilly – something which is a republican virtue and a democratic necessity.

What are some of the conditions which allow ‘tough civility’? Civility is, to begin with, a manner of speech and demeanour. It involves the adoption of a certain kind of language, language which does not inflame, which is gentle and courteous, which recognises the right of another to hold different views, and does not seek to inflame by intemperateness or wilful ignorance or misrepresentation. This includes resilience, a temperament that does not easily take offence and reckons on having to live without all the time getting one’s own way. Such civility is the precondition of toleration. But such an attractive disposition can only be a necessary condition of settling deep divisions, not a prescription for settling them, or for living a peace in a situation in which incompatible position are advocated side by side. A man can smile and smile and be a devil.

Civility of the sort that Os Guinness advocates can only flourish if there are shared values about the shape of the public square, together with a recognition that politics does not provide us with ‘final solutions’ but is part of the flux of our lives.

So what is it that makes civility into tough-minded civility? I found Os Guinness’s piece less enlightening on this. To make progress I think we at least need a firmer grip than is usual on the distinction between what the law requires and what it permits, and to stress how essential this distinction is for a workable society. Citizens who wish to exercise tough civility with each other over important issues must come to terms with this. It means recognising that others have views which are sharply at odds with one's own about actions which one could not in conscience perform or agree to, but which they have a right to advocate and may in good conscience themselves perform or agree to. Such recognition is not easy, for it means standing and watching views being advocated and accepted which one may sharply dissent from on the grounds of conscience. But that’s also part of the common ground of a civilised society. For the law to require the permission of abortion is not for the law to require abortion. For the law to require the permission of conscientious objection in a time of war is not for the law to require conscientious objection. For the law to permit the advocacy of public policy based on Cristian doctrine is not to is not for the law to require acceptance of such policy. And so on.

Putting this in older-fashioned words, the law has to allow for the conscience. And that is so even if a change in the law is successfully promoted as a result in some surge of Christian opinion, or of secular opinion. The example set by those who once in power change the rules of the game is not an edifying one. Put in still older-fashioned language, the law must not require a person to sin. But – and this is what it is hard for some to stomach – it may permit a person to sin; or, alternatively, it may permit a person violate the liberal and enlightened conscience. In a toughly civil society each participant is responsible for his or her own views and what they do with them. (A current very serious problem for freedom of speech and pulic debate is that apparently some have a conscience about the very expression by others of their deeply-held beliefs.)

And on the other hand…..the very thing that modern liberal democracies pride themselves on having achieved – pluralism – is not only the symptom but part of the cause of this problem. Originally - in the writings on toleration of John Locke or Pierre Bayle, for example - ‘pluralism’ was to have been the way in which people of different faiths and none occupied a ground in which they could live side by side. But secularism does not see things that way. At least in the hands of its most strident evangelists it envisages first the ‘privatising’ and then the ridiculing and sweeping away of religion , particularly at present the Christian religion, because it is 'simply irrelevant', as part of one kind of ‘enlightenment’ being implementing through legislation. First make it irrelevant and then dismiss it as irrelevant. To such people it is particularly galling that some expressions of religion are not content with being of merely private importance, but seek to express themselves in the ‘public square’, aiming to affect public policy.

So one question is, are the secularists themselves also prepared to be committed to ‘tough civility’? It can only flourish where those who advocate religious or secularly-inspired policies in the public square are willing to accept not only political setbacks but the basic legal restraint guaranteed by the recognition that what the law permits it does not require.

Some may think that at present there is little or no middle ground for tough civility to occupy. Yet the Christian has no reason to take this exaggerated and pessimistic view. For he holds that because this is God’s world, there is the common ground of humanity made in the image of God, though fallen. The existence of conflicting values which their holders attempt to turn into policy does not mean that there is not common ground between the proponents of the competing world views.

As I read Os Guinness’s piece as an accompaniment to an American breakfast it made me think, naturally enough, about the US. Although church and state are formally separate there, its people, whether secular or religious, if they are to be judged by their political language, still see their country in religious terms. As has been remarked, the rhetoric and symbolism which framed the Inauguration were significantly religious – the prayers, the Bible, the oaths of office – ‘So help me God’. And for its people of all kinds, including some secularists and non-Christians, as well as some of those who are deeply and avowedly Christian, the U.S. is still the ‘city set on a hill’ that cannot be hidden, by whose light the American Dream will finally be realised in America as well as by its values being exported to other countries who presently sit in darkness.

It is worth reflecting on the original setting of that language. The words are clearly, explicitly addressed to the disciples of Christ. They are to be the city set on a hill. Words used elsewhere of Christ himself, ‘the light of the world’, are applied to his disciples, his body. The words have to do with the work and witness of Christ’s church. To use them of the nation of the United States, or any other nation, is clearly to misapply them in a serious way. A classic instance of the politicising of Scriptural teaching

I also wondered about the UK, with the vestiges of religious establishment and of colonialism and of a more strident political rhetoric, a society in which today secularism is steadily advancing. The Empire (as well as the Monarchy) was another case of the use of Christian language and symbolism for political purposes, one which has now has largely been dismantled or neutered. In the UK today the missionary and the colonial administrator no longer walk in step, nor does the UK see itself, as it in a hundred or so years ago, as the exporter of 'Christian values'.

For all the current distresses we are regularly told that the US remains ‘a city set on a hill’, whose gospel is the good news of individual freedoms and democratic accountability. But what exactly did the British Empire, and what does the American Dream, have to do with the Christian faith?

Paradoxically, one element of 'robust civility' lies in seeing that civic reilgion is no substitutes for the old, old story and its political implications.

Besides the piece referred to here, Os Guinness has also written The Case for Civility – And Why Our Future Depends On It.