Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Salvation and the Life after Life

Note: this is part of a symposium on the thought of N.T. Wright published in Table Talk. I was invited to comment on the extract from Wright with which the article begins.

From Wright’s book What Saint Paul Really Said

People like Saul were not primarily interested in the state of their souls after death; that was no doubt important, but no doubt God would have the matter in hand. They were interested, urgently, in the salvation which, they believed, the one true God had promised to his people Israel” (p. 118).

How do we estimate what a person is primarily interested in? Perhaps by seeing how often they return to the subject, or what they mention on important occasions. And perhaps, also, by the manner in which people write about things: is it detached, or is it impassioned, ‘urgent’ as Wright says?

How do we decide whether a person thinks that something is important for him but is nevertheless a matter which he is not primarily interested in? How does one weigh that kind of thing? That’s more difficult, I suggest, because many things may be important for a person which he does not keep talking or writing about. He may only talk about such things when they are challenged, or when he is asked a question about them. Such people may be intensely personal, or private. So it’s not altogether easy to test Wright’s claim about Saul and what was important for him.


However, we can say this much, There are numerous occasions in which Saul writes about the destiny of the soul after death, about his own soul, and the souls of Christians more generally. Writing to Timothy he refers to the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to him on that Day (2 Tim.4.8) And more generally, he argues at length to the Corinthians that the resurrection of Christ is the key to their own resurrection. For if Christ is not raised, we are yet in our sins. (I Cor. 15. 17) Bearing in mind his teaching in this passage, when Saul thinks of ‘the soul after death’ he clearly does not mean ‘the soul in exclusion from the body’. What about the marvelous passage in Philippians 3 of his determination to gain Christ and to be found in him, not having a righteousness of his own but that which come through faith in Christ – this looks intensely personal, does it not?

But of course the importance that Paul attached to the state of the soul after death was also one way of expressing his concern for the salvation of Israel. As in Romans 9.2, where Paul writes movingly of his ‘great worry and unceasing anguish’ for his people the Jews, being willing to be ‘accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh’. The expression ‘cut off from Christ’ seems pretty comprehensive. Charles Hodge says that the word, accursed, ‘applied to all those who were regarded as deservedly exposed, or devoted to the curse of God’. The plight of God’s people was such that Paul harboured the wish that he himself might be accursed for their sake.


There is another way of understanding what Wright says. Perhaps he is hinting that there is no tension in Saul between his concern for his own individual, personal destiny and his concern for the destiny of other people. Here the evidence is rather mixed, or unclear. It is mixed because we might take ‘Israel’ to refer to the Jewish nation, or we might take it to refer to those who Paul called ‘inward’ Jews, real Jews, those whose hearts were circumcised. (Rom.2.29) Of course Saul’s concern for the salvation of such people is unbounded, but as we have seen, though he says that he could wish that that he himself were accursed for his own people, the Jews, he did not actually call upon God to curse him for their sake. There was certainly tension between Paul’s concern for himself and his concern for his ‘own people’. That was why, even as the Apostle to the Gentiles, he was willing to be a Jew to the Jews that he might by all means save some. (I Cor.9.20)


There may also be a something of a false antithesis that Wright is posing in the quotation at the top of this piece. Why must we choose one option to the exclusion of the other?

Why not both together, at once? Why may not Israel’s salvation, however this is understood, whether of ethnic Israel or of the ‘true Jews’ variety, be a corporate salvation that is composed of saved individual people? Is this not how, guided by the New Testament, we usually understand these things? In another context, Paul writes of God who had made both Jews and Gentiles one people in Christ. (Eph.2.14)

Further, why may not the state of a person’s soul after death be one way, perhaps the chief way, in which the salvation which the one true God had promised to his people Israel was to be, or is, realized? God’s ‘promised salvation’ and the ‘state of the soul after death’ may on some occasions be two ways of saying the same thing.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Edwards and The Freedom of the Will

To begin with, it is worth noting that in the Freedom of the Will, which is of course is a highly polemical work on a grand scale, on a central issue in theological anthropology, the footnoting is altogether different. We may note on one side his antagonists, Thomas Chubb the deist, Daniel Whitby the Arminian, and Isaac Watts, the Dissenter whom Edwards had a connection with, and who, perhaps for that reason, was treated anonymously in the text. Who else does Edwards cite? Well, Locke, of course, and Samuel Clarke, and lesser philosophers, such as George Turnbull, and eminent Arminians, such as Episcopius, and John Taylor of Norwich, who was to be his chief antagonist in The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin. Thomas Hobbes, and John Gill, a fellow opponent of Whitby, and Andrew Baxter, and Philip Doddridge. The European market, in other words.

The Freedom the Will, more than other of Edwards’s writings, is in a significant Reformed tradition; in this case, a tradition of writing about the will, its metaphysical character, its bondage to sin, and its liberation. Edwards follows in the line both of Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, and of John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will, whose treatments, especially Calvin’s, informed the growing Reformed dogmatic output. So Calvin’s work provides us with a significant point of comparison between Edwards and the earlier Reformed dogmatic outlook, on a crucial anthropological locus.

So what of Calvin and Edwards? The first thing to say is that the New England divine cut the cake rather differently from Calvin and from the tradition. For Calvin, the dominant question, what makes the freedom of the will a vital issue, is the loss of moral and spiritual freedom as a result of the Fall. He argued at length against the semi-Pelagian divinity of the Roman theologian Albertus Pighius. Such a loss resulted in spiritual death, and restoration to life required the operation of the effective (or ‘effectual’) grace of God which immediately brings new life to the soul. In an earlier post we saw Edward, in his Religious Affections, with the help of his band of Puritan practical divines, contending for this radical view of conversion involving the imparting of a new spiritual sense. We might, for clarity, call this the moral or spiritual sense of freedom.

Calvin takes for granted that the Fall left the will of mankind intact, in the sense that fallen human beings were still able freely to exercise their choices between such alternatives as did not involve any spiritual issue. Though dead in sin, a person might choose to wear either a red tie or a blue one, and whether to marry Nancy or Natalie. While I believe that it is plausible to suppose that Calvin had a broadly compatibilist view of such freedom, such as Edwards espoused, he does not advise his readers of this in so many words. This is partly because the terms ‘determinist’ or ‘compatibilist’ are anachronistic when used of the thought of the sixteenth century. The issues were not contested in these terms. Rather the student of Calvin has to infer his position for what he regards as the criteria for human responsibility, in which the power to choose with the freedom of indifference is not mentioned, not affirmed but scarcely ever denied, but voluntariness, the awareness of alternatives, and the absence of external compulsion are stressed as conditions of responsibility. These signs provide clear evidence for what later came to be called a compatibilistic outlook. There is some evidence of reliance upon Aristotle, but otherwise the amount of explicit reasoning is small.

When Aristotle distinguished what is voluntary from its opposite, he defines the latter as to bia e di agnoian gignomenon that is, what happens by force or through ignorance. There he defines as forced what has its beginning elsewhere, something to which he who acts or is acted upon makes no contribution.

Only very occasionally does Calvin express an explicitly compatibilist belief by denying libertarianism. For instance, in one place he argues against the idea that a person may possess the power to turn himself ‘in this direction or that, according to the mere freedom of his own will’. This implicit compatibilism is of course supported from another direction by Calvin’s convictions about predestination and particular providence.

The contrast with Edwards’s method at this point is rather stark. Edwards begins with a Lockean account of freedom, according to which freedom is choice that is the outcome of desire. This is drawn from the English philosopher’s chapter ‘Of Power’ in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which Edwards modifies somewhat. Equally significant is his commitment to Locke’s unified account of the self, according to which the question is not whether the will is free, (the faculty of the will in its relation to the faculty of the intellect), but whether the person is free. ‘For the will or the will itself is not an agent that has a will; the power of choosing, itself, has not a power of choosing. That which has the power of volition or choice is the man or the soul, and not the power of volition itself’.

So Edwards bids farewell to the faculty psychology that was characteristic of the Reformed Orthodox. He then proceeds to argue, throughout Part II, on purely philosophical grounds, that the Arminian concept of the human will as essentially possessing the freedom of indifference between alternatives, and as being opposed to causal necessity, is not possible. In Part III, he claims that such a view is in any case is not necessary for moral agency and responsibility, and in Part IV he considers the arguments given in support of the Arminian views of liberty. Each of these theses is argued for in a purely philosophical manner, examining the cogency of the idea of indifference and offering definitions, and then arguing against its being necessary for praise and blame, and considering the Arminian arguments given in support of it.

In a way The Freedom of the Will is an exercise in overkill. Establishing the thesis of Part I, that there can be no sense of freedom of the will such as is claimed by Arminians, is logically sufficient to establish Edwards’s position. But with characteristic relentlessness in the next Part Edwards argues that even if there were such a viable concept of freedom, it is not necessary for the ascription of praise and blame; while in Part IV he shows that the arguments used by the Arminians to support their view are insubstantial. So three times over Edwards offers a different, decisive attack on the Arminians, not the Arminians of the era of the Synod of Dordt, but contemporary, up to the minute Arminians, such as Thomas Chubb and Daniel Whitby.

Only in the Conclusion of the work does Edwards briefly consider the consequences of his philosophically-argued conclusions for certain theological topics, including ‘The Total Depravity and Corruption of Man’s Nature, Efficacious Grace’, to which he devotes precisely two pages. Why this brevity? It is not because he does not have strong views on the topic, as can be seen from his teaching about the new spiritual sense in the Affections. It is rather thatThe Freedom of the Will is dominated by one metaphysical thesis which Edwards deploys and defends in the different ways noted. He makes conceptual distinctions, presents arguments, and considers objections. This thesis is that necessarily, every event, including every human action, has a cause, a thesis defended obliquely in Part II by showing that the contrary thesis - that there are causeless events, namely actions of a libertarianly free will, acts exhibiting the freedom of indifference – are impossible.

To Edwards’s way of thinking human choice between alternatives is an instance of a more pervasive truth, that every event has a cause. Human choices cannot be uncaused, or self-caused, because nothing can be uncaused or self-caused.

[I]t has been already shown, that nothing can ever comes to pass without a cause, or reason why it exists in this manner rather than another; and the evidence of this has been particularly applied to acts of the will. Now if this be so, it will demonstrably follow, that the acts of the will are never contingent, or without necessity, in the sense spoken of, inasmuch as those things which have a cause, or reason of their existence, must be connected with their cause.

I think that it is fair to say that no claims as explicit as this are to found in Reformed thought before Edwards. For Edwards, operating in a world increasingly influenced by the emerging natural science, and by the empiricist philosophy of John Locke, human action is the result of one sort of cause, a ’volition’, which is in turn the outcome of certain beliefs and desires. Such causal links, of different kinds, necessarily pervade the entire creation. Edwards’s stress is on this all-encompassing metaphysical principle.

Calvin on Universal Preaching

Here are some representative quotations from Calvin about preaching:

Some object that God would be inconsistent with himself, in inviting all without distinction while he elects only a few. Thus, according to them, the universality of the promise destroys the distinction of special grace. ……The mode in which Scripture reconciles the two things, viz., that by external preaching all are called to faith and repentance, and that yet the Spirit of faith and repentance is not given to all, I have already explained, and will again shortly repeat. ……But it is by Isaiah he more clearly demonstrates how he destines the promises of salvation specially to the elect, (Isaiah 8:16;) for he declares that his disciples would consist of them only, and not indiscriminately of the whole human race. Whence it is evident that the doctrine of salvation, which is said to be set apart for the sons of the Church only, is abused when it is represented as effectually available to all. For the present let it suffice to observe, that though the word of the gospel is addressed generally to all, yet the gift of faith is rare. Isaiah assigns the cause when he says that the arm of the Lord is not revealed to all. (Isaiah 53:1.)

Calvin’s concern is to establish that the external call to believe and repent, and the provision of the true faith and repentance only to the elect are not contradictory. A universal call does not imply a call that is ‘effectually available to all’.

The expression of our Savior, “Many are called, but few are chosen,” (Matthew 22:14,) is also very improperly interpreted. There will be no ambiguity in it, if we attend to what our former remarks ought to have made clear, viz., that there are two species of calling: for there is an universal call, by which God, through the external preaching of the word, invites all men alike, even those for whom he designs the call to be a savor of death, and the ground of a severer condemnation. Besides this there is a special call which, for the most part, God bestows on believers only, when by the internal illumination of the Spirit he causes the word preached to take deep root in their hearts.

There are two gospel calls, each with a distinct purpose and effect

But if it is so, (you will say,) little faith can be put in the Gospel promises, which, in testifying concerning the will of God, declare that he wills what is contrary to his inviolable decree. Not at all; for however universal the promises of salvation may be, there is no discrepancy between them and the predestination of the reprobate, provided we attend to their effect. We know that the promises are effectual only when we receive them in faith, but, on the contrary, when faith is made void, the promise is of no effect. If this is the nature of the promises, let us now see whether there be any inconsistency between the two things, viz., that God, by an eternal decree, fixed the number of those whom he is pleased to embrace in love, and on whom he is pleased to display his wrath, and that he offers salvation indiscriminately to all. I hold that they are perfectly consistent, for all that is meant by the promise is, just that his mercy is offered to all who desire and implore it, and this none do, save those whom he has enlightened. Moreover, he enlightens those whom he has predestinated to salvation. Thus the truth of the promises remains firm and unshaken, so that it cannot be said there is any disagreement between the eternal election of God and the testimony of his grace which he offers to believers. But why does he mention all men? Namely that the consciences of the righteous may rest the more secure when they understand that there is no difference between sinners, provided they have faith, and that the ungodly may not be able to allege that they have not an asylum to which they may retake themselves from the bondage of sin, while they ungratefully reject the offer which is made to them. Therefore, since by the Gospel the mercy of God is offered to both, it is faith, in other words, the illumination of God, which distinguishes between the righteous and the wicked, the former feeling the efficacy of the Gospel, the latter obtaining no benefit from it. Illumination itself has eternal election for its rule.

The scope of the call, to ‘all men’ or ‘the world’, does not determine the extent of God’s salvific intentions. When he has the chance to say that the scope of God’s tose intentions are similarly expansive, or are indiscriminate or universal, Calvin does not take it, but instead denies it. As we are seeing, he takes some trouble to argue that the universality of the invitation is consistent with the particularity or exclusivity of the salvific intentions.

Our epistemic condition requires such invitations in order to highlight the graciousness of the gospel. This comes out vividly in the lengthy sermon on I Tim 2.4. Why may preachers of the gospel make indefinite or universal statements regarding the death of Christ? That the epistemic situation of hearers and preachers figure here become all too clear. For among the reasons that Calvin offers for such universalistic language is that Paul’s wording here is a sign or token of God’s love to the Gentiles, and draws attention to our ignorance otherwise

For we cannot guess and surmise what God his will is, unless he shew it to us, and give us some sign or token, whereby we may have some perseverance in it. It is too high a matter for us, to know what God his counsel is, but so far forth as he sheweth it by effect, so far do we comprehend it.

When it is said that God will receive sinners to mercy, such as come to him to ask forgiveness, and that in Christ’s name. Is this doctrine for two or three? No, no, it is a general doctrine. So then it is said that God will have all men to be saved, not having respect to what we devise or imagine, that is to say so far forth as our wits are able to comprehend it, for this is that measure that we must always come to.

Calvin is here adopting the point of view of the hearers of gospel preaching, but this is easily transposed to preachers and teacher.

Consider this illustration: one way in which a bank shows its sincerity in stating that it will meet all of its obligations to depositors is by honouring them in fact. According to Calvin God shows his sincerity in offering grace to sinners by receiving any and all who respond.

Let us suppose for a moment a preaching economy which was conducted in all its stages under uniform epistemic conditions, either in terms uniformly directed to the elect, or in terms uniformly directed to the reprobate. If this happened (as it has tended in fact to happen in some hyper-Calvinist settings), the hearers could not be invited to come to Christ, but first (by the terms of the preaching) they would each be forced to ask ‘Which am I? Am I among the elect, or among the reprobate? Do I fulfil the requirements or conditions or states of being among the former or among the latter?’ In these circumstances there could be no full, free invitation. The gospel could not be received ‘by invitation only’, but only through the fulfilment of some prior state or condition together with the assurance that such a condition had been fulfilled.

In other words, under such terms ‘gospel preaching’ would have the effect not of turning men and women to face a Christ who invites freely and graciously, but of turning hearers in upon themselves in a search for sure signs of election. And such a turning in on oneself is but a very short step from a person being concerned about whether or not he is qualified to come to Christ, in which case there is the prospect of despair over what would be taken to be the marks of retribution, or presumption as to election. Either way, instead of facing Christ who has outstretched arms, a person would introspect. At such a point the ‘grace’ of Calvin’s gospel of free justification would be become legalistic by the need for the fulfilment of certain preconditions.

So I suggest that what Calvin is identifying in his use of indiscriminate, universalistic language is a necessary feature of the preaching of God’s free grace in Christ as Calvin understood it. This is a pastoral necessity, and perhaps even a logical necessity. So while God’s procedure is ‘ineffable’ in the sense that it is difficult, as Calvin clearly recognizes, to see how the one will of God is fulfilled in a series of temporal phases, there is a strong pastoral rationale for maintaining that this is so, as well, of course, important dogmatic grounds for holding to it.

While Calvin, as the medievals before him, is willing to speak of the will of God’s sign and the will of God’s good pleasure, his announced will and his secret will, and while he is convinced of the harmony of these two wills, he sometimes experiences difficulty in demonstrating that harmony. The attempts to effect such a harmonisation are one type of situation in which, when faced with a theological conundrum, Calvin occasionally resorts to one of his favourite strategies, an appeal to divine accommodation. Though God’s will is one and simple, nevertheless he reveals himself to us as if he has two wills. Even though we may readily see that there is equivocation over the use of ‘will’, nevertheless it is difficult if not impossible to demonstrate how the will of command, both when it is obeyed and when it is flouted, is an integral part of the one divine decree.

In the universalistic language that Calvin employs, God commands men and women to come to Christ, he commands with the same divine authority as when he commands ‘Thou shalt not steal’. To use Petrine language, ‘he commands all men everywhere to repent’. This language, the language of command, draws attention to the scope of human obligation or responsibility. But this command or invitation, being indeterminate or universal in scope, actually serves God’s will of decree. For in responding to it men and women will come to Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel, or they will not. Thus God’s decree of election will be fulfilled. By contrast, his commands may be flouted and his invitations spurned. Men and women may not in fact repent and believe the gospel, though invited to do so. This is an application of Calvin’s teaching about providence more generally, that it is means-ends order; in the case of election, the means of being assured of it are universalistic or indiscriminate in their logic, an indiscriminate invitation to come to Christ. In the case of some the invitation will be accepted in penitence and faith, and in the assurance of faith, and so the assurance of being one of the Lord’s chosen.

We may take this a step further. For it is possible to see that such universal or indiscriminate preaching is a working out of Calvin’s well-known teaching that Christ is the mirror of election. He raises this question: If God’s grace is decreed only for the elect, and hearers of the gospel may know that, how will a person who is told this come to know whether or not he is among those to whom God’s grace comes effectively? His answer is: Christ is the mirror of election. We cannot know of our election in Christ by some direct appeal to God himself to intimate the fact that we are eternally elect, but only as this is reflected to us (by inference) through our communion with Christ.

But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life.

Calvin goes on

The practical influence of this doctrine ought also to be exhibited in our prayers. For though a belief of our election animates us to involve God, yet when we frame our prayers, it were preposterous to obtrude it upon God, or to stipulate in this way, ‘O Lord, if I am elected, hear me’. He would have us rest satisfied with the promises, and to not inquire elsewhere whether or not he is disposed to hear us. We shall thus be disentangled from many snares, if we know how to make a right use of what is rightly written, but let us not inconsiderately wrest it to purposes different from that to which it ought to be confined.

Note here that, one again, Calvin clearly links this entire matter with our ignorance of certain things. But here our ignorance is not of the future, but of God’s secret will. We cannot know directly that we are elect, or that we are not. But we can know God’s promise, and trusting that, and thus being in communion with Christ, we may make a right use of what is rightly written.