Friday, December 21, 2012


To begin the New Year,  something a little different.

The idea of perseverance in the faith is (alas) more complex than at first appears. At first, it seems to be the one theme that Calvinists and Arminians and others can see eye to eye over. Each can sing 'Safe in the arms of Jesus' (provided each can find a copy of Sankey's Sacred Songs and Solos),  with equal gusto and abandon.  'Once saved always saved', along with 'God's love is unconditional', are religious mantras that are currently widely accepted as axiomatic, fundamental to a personal assurance of salvation.

The  next two posts will look at the theme of the 'temporary Christian' and at individuals, such as Simon the magician, who along with others believed and was baptised, but who later was said to be in the 'gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity' (Acts 8). For a time all in the early church thought him to be a Christian. And (the modern evangelical reasons at this point),  he was once saved, so he is always saved. But he turned out (it seems) to be a Christian of the temporary variety. And what of  the warning passages of the New Testament? Warnings such as 'be not high-minded, but fear'? What is the relationship between perseverance and the taking such passages seriously? Whatever one's view of perseverance, it obviously should not result in consigning these passages to the theological lumber room, along with the dietary laws of the Old Testament.

So in January we shall look at Augustine's view of the temporary Christian and in February at John Calvin's. As we shall see, there are interesting similarities and even more interesting differences between them.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Two Kingdoms and 'gay marriage'

The current rebirth of a modified form of the Reformers’ doctrine of the Two Kingdoms is certainly to be welcomed. Without going over all the ground why this is so, we can mention two reasons here. One is that it emphasizes the otherworldliness of the kingdom of Christ, and the place of the visible church as the focus of the proclamation  and growth of that kingdom. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, otherwise his servants would fight. The authority which the risen Christ has been given  (‘all authority in heaven and on earth’) is concentrated on seeing to it that his ordained ministers obey his charge of making disciples of all nations, bringing them into the pale of the visible church through baptism, and teaching them to obey all his commands, and promising his presence for ever. (Matt 28 18f.)

The Two Kingdoms and ‘Christian culture’

A second reason is that the Two Kingdom's emphasis curbs the pretensions of some Christians to become engaged in the ‘christianising’ of culture, to extend the present reign of Christ to every sphere of life, as an expression of his Lordship. At present few Christians seek one historically-important form of such alleged ‘christianising’, formal alliance with the state (though many are content with existing state-church arrangements). Rather, these days Christians attracted in the christianising direction have the tendency to think of this extension not into the life’s mundane and sordid aspects, but to provide a mandate for Christians with enough time and money to engage in ‘Christian art’ and (a current favourite) in ‘care for the environment’. To prevent (inter alia) Planet Earth from being boiled into a stew, through the influence of an excess of man-made ‘greenhouse gases’.  But are either of these trajectories legitimate expressions of Christ’s kingdom?

More could be said, and no doubt should be. (For some of that more, see David VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, (Crossway, 2010)). But here I want to raise an area of the Two Kingdoms’ outlook that requires more thought than (as far as I can see) has so far been given to it. I shall state this difficulty and then try to sharpen it by using the current issue of ‘Gay Marriage’ as an illustration.

The Difficulty

Part of the Two Kingdoms outlook is to emphasise that Christians may take part in various societal activities on the basis of the ‘natural law’, which all men and women to some degree recognize. On that basis Christians may foster their own particular political preferences, say, or participate in one or more of countless voluntary recreational and charitable organisations, Edmund Burke’s ‘little platoons’ which make up ‘civil society’ in every modern democracy, and in some societies which are not so democratic. We look for agreement on how such groups are to be run by appealing to natural law, to what all men and women hold in common, despite the other competing and contradictory views that they may hold on other matters.

But what is ‘natural law’ and how is it to be identified and estimated?

Christian Two Kingdoms thinkers at this point appeal to how the Reformers understood it, rooted as they were in the medieval natural law tradition. But in the final analysis they appeal to how the New Testament writers, particularly Paul, refer to natural law in Romans 1and 2 and in Acts 14 and 17, and so on. They may augment this appeal, or frame it, by reference to the Noahic Covenant in Genesis 9, especially verses 8f.  (See VanDrunen, 78f.)  (You may wonder if such appeals are self-contradictory. I don’t think they are. A topic for another occasion, perhaps.) The point about such data is that, in contrast to the exclusivity of the Abrahamic Covenant, they have a universal, inclusive scope, an appeal to mankind, (fallen mankind of course), to people of all nations, to what ‘nature’ teaches, and so on. (David VanDrunen, A Biblical Case for Natural Law, (Acton Institute, 2006, especially Chs. II & IV))

Bearing this in mind, we may return come to the question: How is the appeal to natural law to be gauged or estimated?

We might think that the way to estimate it is to count heads. That is, to regard ‘natural law’ as a ethnographic or demographic concept. Natural law is the set of norms that all people hold in common. Just as it is natural for men and women each to have two legs, with only a few having less, and even fewer having more, so ‘natural law’ is what all (or almost all) people, or nations, or social groups, hold and observe in common in respect of certain basic matters: common moral standards governing making and keeping promises, rules for the holding and disposal of property, relations between the sexes, a sense of equity, and so on. If not what all people hold in common, then what the vast majority of mankind holds in common.

The trouble is, that while Genesis 9 (for example) reveals a covenant that includes certain norms, it also recognises breaches of these norms. While Paul writes of the working of the natural law (2.14) he also notes actions against nature. (1.27) And so on. ‘Nature’ is not simply a statistical or ethnographical concept, merely descriptive of what people hold, it is also and pre-eminently a normative concept. Its norms maybe and are flouted by civil society.

‘Gay marriage’

And so we arrive at ‘gay marriage’, the proposal that people of the same sex may fully participate in the rites of a relationship instituted for a man and a woman, having as one its principal aims the procreation of new members of the race. (As the BCP puts it, ‘It [marriage] was [among other things] ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name’.)

How is ‘gay marriage’ to be regarded? Is there a natural law argument that, if successful,  prohibits it?  Either understanding of the natural law, either in statistical or normative terms, is somewhat shaky. There obviously isn’t a statistical or ethnographic argument. The success of the ‘gay rights’ movement has seen to that. Is there a normative argument against it? There was a time when homosexuality was regarded as ‘unnatural’ because its activities flouted what was (as we saw) one of the chief ends of sexual relations, the procreation of the human species. But  where does one hear of that today? Such has been the success of the ‘gay lobby’ that such a view is hardly heard. It may be that the views of people in general have changed little about the unnaturalness of ‘gay marriage’. But it is hard to tell. Has the success of gay rights been solely due to an ideologically-driven campaign? That also is hard to tell.

Paradoxically, under present circumstances the only normative argument against ‘gay marriage’ would involve an appeal to what is revealed about the content of natural law. A natural law argument is going to have to appeal to Scripture, which (you may think) rather defeats the purpose of an appeal to natural law.

So how are Christians in society at large to argue their position? Are they, while seeking to influence the political tide, to go along with the majority? Is arguing in the secular kingdom a mix of the pragmatic, the concessionary (as according to Christ the toleration of divorce is concessionary), the revealed,  and the norms of the natural law? Or must Christians, as part of their responsibility to the secular kingdom, take what is decidedly a minority view, and argue that ‘gay marriage’ and homosexuality in general violates the natural law as presented in Scripture?

There is at the present time in the UK a perfectly understandable prudential argument against ‘gay marriage’, namely that to legislate that churches may be permitted not to conduct such marriages will inevitably lead to pressure on the courts, and ultimately on the European Court of Human Rights, to require all Christian churches (and others) to conduct ‘gay marriages’ for those who request them. Otherwise they will be actionable on the grounds of discrimination. But at the time of putting together this piece it appears that Government proposes to legally prohibit the Church of England and the Anglican Church in Wales (and perhaps other groups) from conducting ‘gay marriages’, and underpin this with other legal safeguards. 

It may be that for the Prime Minister this is a political tactic to help him to keep the political initiative, or a Christmas present to fellow old-Etonian Julian Welby, shortly to be the Archbishop of Canterbury and a known opponent of ‘gay marriage’. Whatever David Cameron’s motive, for such a Bill to become law would create a roadblock on the otherwise smooth descent in which, over many decades, the Church of England has shed historic Christian positions and followed the mores of the secular, liberal ruling elite. It’s difficult to suppose that this legislation is intended to give expression to the views of ordinary men and women, and in that way to be an expresson of the natural law at work. But it may be that, nevertheless.

Maybe the strongest ground that Christians and others have currently to argue against ‘gay marriage’ is not to appeal to the unnaturalness of same-sex marriage, but to other values that the legal validation of ‘gay marriage’, when it is legalized, will call into question, such as freedom of conscience in religious observance. Though whether the self-governance of the Christian church, and the consciences of Christian and other people in such matters, are cases of natural law, also seems very debatable.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

A Small Helping of Negative Theology

Reformed Theology in Contemporary Perspective ed. Lynn Quigley

Plantinga’s proposal (‘Plantinga’s Point’) is  that it should not be surprising that we cannot understand how God knows what he knows. This commits him (and us) to accepting some negative language about God - saying what is not true of God, as well as what is true of him - and so  it may be worth exploring this matter a little further. Suppose we think about this question: When is negative theology justified and what is its role? To try to form answers to these questions we shall look at parts of a Conciliar Statement, and of a Reformed Confession


Consider these words extracted from the Definition of Chalcedon. (451)

[We also teach] that we apprehend this one and only Christ - Son, Lord, only-begotten - in two natures [and we do this] without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them into two separate categories, without contrasting them according to area or function. (The wording is taken from Creeds of the Churches, ed.John H Leith. (36))

The two natures of the one Christ are
- without confusion
- without transmutation
- without division
- not divided into two separate categories
- not to be contrasted according to area or function

What lies behind this negativity? And what is its role? The words in italics are negative conjunctions equivalent two ‘and these two are not.....’. The Definition here states that the Son has two natures, and that he has these in such a way that they are not confused. That is, he has them without the two natures being mixed together, or without either or both being changed into something else. These two natures are the divine nature which he has as the Logos, and the other is human nature, with which the Logos unites in incarnation. And necessarily - so it is reasonably assumed - the divine and the human are distinct. So the human nature of Christ is not made into a divine nature, nor his divine nature changed into a human nature.  His divine nature does not have exclusive responsibility for certain areas, and the human nature for others. And so on.

So this part of the Definition is a venture into negative theology, saying (in this  case) what being the God-man does not imply, but not venturing into the business of theorising how the union of the divine with the human in one Person is to be understood. The intention is clearly to ward off the inclination to construe Christ’s two-naturedness in one positive way or another, a way that we can imagine, perhaps, or which we can use as the basis of a theory or explanation of the exact features of Christ’s two-naturedness. For that way (Chalcedon affirms) blurs the distinctiveness of the divine and the human.

But such negative theology is not to be confused with the negative theology of the Jewish medieval thinker Moses Maimonides, say, which so influenced Aquinas in his account of analogical language about God. For Maimonides the only legitimate statements about God are negative, informing us what God is not and what God is not like. The language of Chalcedon is gentler, it is intended to shape our thinking in a positive way. It is language which is meant to have, overall, a positive effect. What is that over there - it is clearly not a mouse, or a hairbrush, or a crumple of brown paper. What is it, then? Although we may still be in ignorance, after these negative conclusions we have a clearer idea about what it might be. The more targets that it is possible to rule out the fewer that it is possible to rule in, and the more accurate our aim will become. That is one way in which the use of negative language may be justified. In fact the position is more promising than this, as we shall see shortly.

A version of this Chalcedonian terminology is used in the Westminster Confession’s statements about the two natures of the Mediator,

So that the two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition or confusion.  (Westminster Confession of Faith Ch.VIII.II, (Leith, 203)

The Confession had also used such negative language earlier, in its statement that God ‘is without body, parts, or passions’ (Ch.II.I (Leith, 197)),  and in a rather different way in its statement regarding the divine decree (Ch III, ‘Of God’s Eternal Decree’ (Leith, 198), to which we shall now turn.

God’s Decree

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and  unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass, yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor is liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (Leith 198, emphases added.)

The structure is to assert the decree in an unqualified way and then to append three qualifying, negative clauses to ward off the drawing of inferences which are in the eyes of the Westminster divines not warranted by Scripture to anyone who adopts the Scriptural view of God’s decree.

God ordains whatsoever comes to pass

yet God is not the author of sin

nor is violence offered to the will of the creature

nor is liberty or contingency of second causes taken away

and a final, positive, perhaps rather surprising, claim

the decree establishes the liberty or contingency of second causes

Quite like Chalcedon, but not  the same.What the Confession’s negative clauses here  do, is to draw attention to the fact that there are other scriptural statements about God’s nature and actions that must be respected. For example, take the claim that God is not the author of sin. This affirmed the apostolic teaching given in explicit terms in passages such as

Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’. For God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by how own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is full grown brings forth death.(James 1.13-15)

Note the language. First, a modal statement, God cannot be tempted. Then a statement of fact about God, that he is not a tempter to evil.  And thirdly a universal statement, that everyone is tempted by his own desire. The first two warrant the Confessional statement that God is not the author of sin. He is incapable of forming an evil intention, or of an evil action. The all-decreeing God is one whose nature is holy and pure, and any inference from the decree that denies this has failed to take into account of other such revealed data. And the third together with the other two also warrants the clause that God’s decree establishes the liberty or contingency of second causes. For temptation, and being tempted, given that neither can originate with God, must originate in the operating of certain secondary causes, that is, with causes at the creaturely level.

These statements of Chalcedon and the Confession offer a limited, circumscribed via negativa. They are set in the middle of many positive theological statements, and are to be regarded as qualifications (themselves stated in literal language) indicating a certain reserve when we approach the understanding of the divine nature and operations.

Plantinga’s Point once again

Plantinga’s point is a rather different one. It d0esn't have to do with God’s character as an agent, with what he can and cannot do, for instance, but with our lack of knowledge of how God knows. Not with how we are talk of God’s knowledge, but of our knowledge of his knowledge. Plantinga applies this in a way different from what the negative knowledge of God discussed earlier warrants. In his view our ignorance allows a person  tenaciously to hold on to the claim that God’s has knowledge of the counterfactuals of freedom, (say), notwithstanding the fact that the grounding of God’s knowledge of the counterfactuals of freedom is beyond us.

Three further matters. The first is that in this case the object for which God’s knowledge is not understood is not a revealed datum of Scripture but a creaturely philosophical construct, the counterfactuals of creature freedom.

The second thing  is that Plantinga’s point is nevertheless sufficient to  weaken  the strength of our belief that p, or should be, since the negative language permits  belief (for all we know) in God's ability to know q, where it is not possible that both (p and q) are true. In our example it permits belief in the divine decree and human responsibility even though we cannot seen how God knows how to decree while conserving the creaturely responsibility for what is decreed. 

Thirdly and most significantly, our ignorance of how God knows has a bearing on what God knows or may know. For if we do not know how God knows, how do we know what propositions God can and cannot know?

(For further discussion of the language of the Confession respecting God’s eternal decree see Paul Helm ‘Of God’s Eternal Decree’ in Reformed Theology in Contemporary Perspective, ed. Lynn Quigley, (Edinburgh, Rutherford House, 2006))