Friday, February 15, 2013

Natural law, revealed law and ‘gay marriage’

Here’s another factor that makes for difficulty in confidently judging whether this or that is clearly in accordance with the natural law, or is a breach of it. The way in which God accommodated himself to the primitive and uncivilised attitude of his chosen people, the nation of Israel.  These accommodations concerned the revealed law of God, which was tempered to the people on account of their rudeness. The most notable of these concerns divorce, as Jesus taught, which was permitted due to the hardness of the hearts of the people.

Or take, for instance, polygamy.  As far as I am aware, polygamy is not forbidden in the Old Testament. And to go no further back, King David, a man after God’s own heart, and King Solomon, the wisest man that ever lived, were polygamists. David had Bathsheba and Michal as wives, Solomon was the husband of Naamah and of a daughter of Pharoah, and later on hundreds of wives and concubines. There is no suggestion, I think, that these two kings ever suffered a pang of conscience over the matter. And Solomon  was condemned not because of the number of his wives, but because they were foreign, and so led him astray.

It is only in the New Testament,  in the teaching of Jesus, which is monogamatic, and of Paul,  who teaches that Christian marriage is a symbol of and a shadowing of Christ’s relation to his church, his bride, that polygamy is ruled out. But by this stage we are moving decidedly outside the field of natural law, pure and simple. As John Murray puts it,

The only thesis that appears to me to be compatible with these data is that polygamy and divorce (for light cause) were permitted or tolerated under the Old Testament, tolerated in such a way that regulatory provisions were enacted to prevent some of the grosser evils and abuses attendant upon them, and tolerated in the sense that openly condemned and censured with civil and ecclesiastical penalties, but that nevertheless they were not legitimated. That is to say, these practices were basically wrong; they were violations of a creation ordinance, even an ordinance which had been revealed to man at the beginning. (Principles of Conduct p.16)                                  

Not a greater good defence, but a greater evil avoidance defence.

Now supposing that the Christian, in his secular, work-a-day world, wishes to argue against polygamy, how can he utilise the natural law to do so? How do we explain God’s toleration, if that is the correct word, of polygamy in the Old Testament? 

Murray goes on

How could this be? How could God allow his people, in some cases the most eminent of the Old Testament saints, to practice what was a violation of his preceptive will? It is a difficult question….[Our Lord] tells us explicitly that for the hardness of their hearts Moses suffered the Israelites to put away their wives, but that from the beginning it was not so (Matthew 19: 3-8; Mark 10: 2-9)…..there is no good reason why the same principle should not be applied to polygamy. (p.17)

[As David Wright showed, this principle of divine accommodation and forbearance was a notable feature of John Calvin’s interpretation of the Pentateuch. See ‘Calvin’s Pentateuchal Criticism: Equity, Hardness of Heart, and Divine Accommodation’ (Calvin Theological Journal, April 1986), and further writing cited there.]

Our question is rather different from Murray’s. It is this.  How could God allow his people, in some cases the most eminent of the Old Testament saints, to practice what was a violation of the natural law, if indeed monogamy is a constituent part of that law? We might say that if the Lord was prepared to temper the demands of his revealed law in respect of the creation ordinance of monogamous marriage so that even the greatest saints of the Old Testament were polygamous and seem to have no bad conscience in being such, how can we clearly detect, unaided by special revelation, the boundaries of the natural law? If what counts as a practice in accordance with natural law respecting marriage were to allow for the widespread Old Testament practices of polygamy and concubinage, as well as divorce, were it not for express, revealed teaching to the contrary, how can the mere widespread acceptance of a practice (though with only special revelation clearly against it) be evidence for that practice being in accordance with the natural law? If polygamy is widespread in a society, what is the natural law argument against the practice?

In his A Biblical Case for Natural Law, (2006) David VanDrunen warns that

looking to natural law as the common moral standard in the civil kingdom demands limited and sober expectations…Sinful human beings will struggle to know how to make appeals to natural law in a relatively helpful and persuasive way….The civil kingdom, regulated by natural law, is severely limited in what it can attain, but Scripture gives us no reason to expect more from it. (p.40-1)

No doubt cautions are appropriate. These look to be cautions about the strength with which society will embrace the norms of the natural law. But our concerns here are rather different, namely, how can those who seek to argue on the basis of natural law alone be sure what the boundaries of the natural law is?  Of course in practice the issue is not as clear cut as this. Because the second kingdom  is presently  influenced not only by the natural law, but by the operation of a residue of beliefs which have been influenced by special revelation in one form or another, by ‘traditional Christian values’ as they are sometimes called, the influence of which still lingers. The tide of faith may be in retreat in certain places, but the beach stays wetted by it for a time.

Even if we hold that the contours of the natural law are provided by special revelation. Jesus  teaches that divorce is a concession due to the hardness of hearts. (So Matt. 19) So is divorce a concession as regards the natural law  too? And polygamy was a concession under the OT? It is not even mentioned in the NT. May it be a concession still?  The incentives offered by Christians to society at large while living in the second kingdom may be various, not only appeals to the natural law, but also reliance on the vestiges of the days when the Christian in our society was more widespread. All that is true. But our question remains, what  are the boundaries of the natural law, and how do we know this nowadays?

Friday, February 01, 2013

The Temporary Christian - Calvin

Calvin’s treatment of faith, permanent and temporary, has features that make it strikingly similar to Augustine’s discussion of perseverance. So it is interesting that though he quotes Augustine many times in connection with God’s imparting of his grace he does not refer to him explicitly on perseverance in the Institutes. Though it seems as if his influence is still being felt; he uses much of the textual evidence from Scripture that Augustine appeals to, for example. In this post I shall try to bring out similarities and differences of emphasis in the treatments of perseverance by these great theologians of grace.

In the Institutes Calvin’s discussion of temporary faith is preceded by a section in which he rebuts the idea that faith, true faith, can exist in isolation from other graces. ‘Christ cannot be known without the sanctification of his Spirit: therefore faith cannot possibly be disjoined from pious affections.’ (Inst. III.2.8) The ‘faith’ that is disjoined from other graces ‘is unworthy of the name’. The discussion is conducted in terms of faith and particularly this thought, that although believers are justified by faith only, the faith that justifies is inevitably accompanied by other sanctifying graces. This is Calvin’s ‘two-fold gift’ which we have discussed before at Helm’s Deep.

As Augustine was concerned to combat Pelagian moralism and self-confidence, and did so by stressing the Christian’s utter dependence on God’s grace at all times, in a parallel way Calvin had in view the Roman Catholic view as faith as mere assensus. (III.2.9) Faith that is merely assent does not penetrate the heart, ‘so as to have a fixed seat there’. (III.2.10) He goes on to introduce the phenomenon of temporary faith, beginning with Simon the Magician (Acts 8) who did not simply pretend to have a faith he did not possess, but he (sincerely) gave some kind of assent to the Gospel. He thought he believed. In his Commentary on Acts, Calvin says

Such, therefore, was Simon’s faith; he perceiveth that the doctrine of the gospel is true, and he is enforced to receive the same with feeling; but the groundwork is wanting; that is, the denial of himself. Whereupon it followed that his mind was enwrapped in dissimulation, which he uttered forthwith. But let us know that his hypocrisy was such as he deceived himself in……(Comm. Acts. 8.13)

This is very similar to Augustine’s view at this point, but there is no direct evidence that Calvin took it  from him.

So how does it come about that in Scripture faith is ascribed to the reprobate when Paul teaches that faith is a fruit of election? The answer he gives is ‘though there is a great resemblance and affinity between the elect of God and those who are impressed for a time with a fading faith, yet the elect alone have that full assurance which is extolled by Paul, and by which they are enabled to cry, Abba, Father.’ (Inst. III.2.11)

Here’s one significant difference in Calvin’s treatment of the nature of perseverance; true faith, the faith which continues to the end, persevering faith, is assured faith. (III.2.11) ‘However feeble and slender the faith of the elect may be, yet as the Spirit of God is to them a sure earnest and seal of their adoption, the impression once engraved can never be effaced from their hearts, whereas the light which glimmers in the reprobate is afterward quenched.’ It is not only that Calvin features assurance and Augustine doesn’t; his understanding of assurance is that it is a distinctive impression made known to the believer through introspection, self-knowledge, which tells him that however weak his faith may be it can never be extinguished. By contrast, in referring to ‘perseverance’ (Calvin never uses the word in this discussion, though he had earlier (II.3.10-13) referred approvingly to Augustine’s remarks on merit and perseverance),  Augustine never mentions assurance as far as I can see, but uniformly refers to ‘piety’ as the sign of perseverance, indeed as what perseverance is.

The prominence that Calvin gives to assurance as an interior impression suggests that he reckons that the believer knows that he will endure to the end, because he presently is favoured with an infallible sign of his adoption as a child of God. By contrast  the use of the language of ‘perseverance‘ by Augustine suggests a linear progression, a walk, a race, a fight, a climb. Then the answer to the question of personal belief is grounded on the fact that the Lord continually makes the person to stand. That is, the Lord enables him to press on as a Christian, to have ‘pious thoughts’ which produce faith which works by love. (Gift of Perseverance, ch.20)  There is also a suggestion of regeneration through baptism. Augustine refers to the laver of regeneration which both those who persevere and those  who come not to, enjoy, but this need not be to have any more sacramental implications (or less) than Paul's 'washing of regeneration'. There is no suggestion of baptismal regeneration  in Calvin, of course. And this continuation of the believer’s ‘standing’ is expression by Augustine in terms of obedience, virtue, and continued communion with visible church.

In my view this emphasis, rather than Calvin's on assurance, makes much more sense of Scripture’s warning passages. This is another difference between Calvin and Augustine. The Bishop of Hippo discusses the warnings of the New Testament as integral to the question of perseverance, but Calvin is silent on them in the Institutes in his treatment of temporary faith. The reason for Calvin’s silence is presumably that if someone has a God-given, infallible assurance that he is adopted into God’s family, one of the elect, what need of warning?  Nothing that could happen to him could dislodge him, for having the inward impression he can be confident that no-one can pluck him out of the Father’s hands.

In his treatment of I Cor. 10.12, which Augustine also discusses, Calvin says ‘we must not glory in our beginnings’, [that is, our ‘conversion story’]. And he is concerned about the Papists [who]

wrest this passage for the purpose of  maintaining their impious doctrine of faith, as having constantly doubt connected with it, let us observe that there are two kinds of assurance. One arises from reliance on the promises of God which yet keeps in mind its own infirmity, casts itself upon God, and with carefulness  and anxiety commits itself to him. This kind of assurance is sacred, and is inseparable from faith…..The other arises from negligence, when  men, puffed up with the gifts that they have, give themselves no concern, as if they were beyond the reach of danger, but rest satisfied with their condition’. (Comm. I Cor 10.12, italics added.)

So here is a more balanced outlook than we saw earlier. The sense of assurance must be coupled with watchfulness, and assured Christians must not regard themselves as being out of danger.

‘Perseverance’ is a gift of God’s effective grace, and is one of the petals of the Calvinistic tulip. But what our discussion shows, perhaps, is that different pastoral situations may call for different emphases, now on the assurance of faith, now on the fruit of faith, now on adherence to the public means of grace. ‘Perseverance’ is capable of considerable nuance, therefore, but the key to it is that those who enjoy the grace of perseverance actually persevere.

We can see here the misguidedness of continually stressing 'once saved, always saved' without keeping in place other New Testament emphases, the need for watchfulness, the need for fruit, and the danger of making a merely formal profession.