Monday, June 17, 2013

Circumstances Change

Stephen Clark,  Pastor of Free School Court Evangelical Church, Bridgend, and Chair of Affinity’s Theological Studies Conference, has written an interesting pamphlet on ‘separation’. In Serving God in His Church in our Generation: Learning from the Past while Living in the Present, he argues that while the verities of the gospel remain unchanged, the circumstances in which these are upheld are continually changing, and that the path of wisdom lies in discerning these changes. My friend the Exiled Preacher drew attention to this publication and commended it, otherwise I might not have known about it. It can be downloaded here.

The context of the piece is the claim (made in another pamphlet, to which Clark's is a rejoinder)  that the evangelical inter-church organisation Affinity no longer stands where its direct antecedent, the British Evangelical Council, once stood, and that true separatists will do the right thing if they shun it. ‘Separatist’ here refers to someone who believes it is a Christian duty to refuse to work in concert with any who are members of a denomination or other group that is theologically ‘mixed’, accepting evangelicals and non evangelicals in equal standing therein.[There is no end to such separationism - a separationist of the second degree would presumably shun a person who was in an approved-of separationist church but who in fact was non-separationist in his views.]

Stephen Clark begs to differ from this view, for to take such a stand is to forget that circumstances change. In particular, to forget that the wider English church culture in which evangelical churches operate has changed since the 1960’s and 1970’s. Then the call for churches and individuals to separate from mixed denominations of evangelical and other types  had a point. That was in the era of the ecumenical siren-call, and the seeming steady Rome-ward march of the Church  of England. But by now the ecumenical appeal has been marginalized,  and the leadership and punching power of the ‘liberal’ leadership of Christian denominations has dwindled and become emasculated, as have the denominations themselves. So much so that your average 20 and 30-year old Christian is likely neither to know or care what ‘ecumenical’ means, or suffer from sleepless nights fearing the onward surge of the W.C.C. and the B.C.C. He's more likely to think that the initials are of cricket clubs

On top of this, by her advocacy of the ordination of women clergy, the Church of England has erected an electric fence between herself and the Roman Catholic Church. Those Anglo-Catholic clergy who longed for union with Rome have done what John Henry Newman did, they have long since bought a one-way ticket for the Rome express. And many of the current evangelicals in the Church of England,  the product of the work of the Proclamation Trust and of Oak Hill, do not have the ambition of their immediate predecessors as far as the upper echelons of the Church of England are concerned, nor a penchant for 'social action'. Instead, they teach a more biblically robust and trenchant version of the Gospel, more so (Stephen Clark whispers) than some of their dissenting and nonconformist brothers. Finally, in the couple of generations since the 1960’s the general culture of the British Isles has become more hostile and less deferential to all things Christian even as it has become more ignorant of them. Secularism reigns.  Circumstamces change. New dangers and new opportunities.

[In parenthesis, one of those who caught the train to Rome, William Oddie, has written recently written as follows: 
Why does the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) still meet, as though Anglican ordinations to their episcopate of openly gay men living with their partners, and also of women to their priesthood and episcopate, despite the warnings of successive popes of the fact that these steps would erect insuperable barriers to unity with the Catholic Church, why do we still carry on with the farce of behaving as though these insuperable barriers just did not exist at all?]

Stephen quotes John Calvin to the effect that the Roman church is not a church but may nevertheless have churches within it. (Inst. IV. 2. 12) 'Therefore, while we are unwilling simply to concede the name of church to the papists, we do not deny that there are churches among them'. Such a recognition is what Stephen Clark refers to as a ‘nuanced’ attitude to separation and alliance, more discriminating than the 'ecumenism at any price' or 'separation at any price’ outlooks. The point of principle that must not be lost sight of is ‘opportunity’: Does a prospective church situation provide the opportunity for unfettered preaching of the gospel?

Clark develops this 'nuanced' approach by an appeal to the behaviour of Dr Lloyd-Jones over the years.  In the 1940's he counselled the late Leslie Land (late of Melbourne Hall, Leicester), to find a preaching place in the Church of England. For many of his years as a minister,  he himself was in a ’mixed’ denomination, and his preaching-place, the church meeting  at Westminster Chapel, was a part of such a denomination. Only latterly did each becoming separate. And while Lloyd-Jones’ 1966 clarion call for evangelicals to come out of their mixed denominations and federate together was right (Stephen Clark thinks) for then,  the era of ecumenism, it was not right before then, and (Clark claims) is not right after then, in 2013 for example. The prevailing question for  Dr Lloyd-Jones was not separation for its own sake, (that was negativity of the sort that he (privately?) reprobated in T.T.Shields), but always ‘In situation X or Y is there (or is there not) opportunity for preaching the gospel in an unfettered way?’

It is a pity that  DMLJ is knitted into and has become an intrinslc part of Clark’s case. For one thing it provides ammunition for the barrack-room Doctorologists, and they certainly don’t need any more encouragement. For another (no doubt unintentionally) it gives comfort to the Doctor-apers. If it is not the Doctor’s gait and voice, then it is the Doctor’s views on co-operation and separation.  Maybe it is impossible to have one without the other.

To develop a nuanced attitude requires the employment of another trait, or traits. One is the ability to distinguish big issues from small issues, another is being prepared to change one's mind, and still another  is the willingness to sacrifice the expression of or insistence on dearly-held views in the interests of cooperation with others who do not hold these views. As Stephen puts it - ’some things may have to be borne in order to ensure that the most important matters are dealt with’. (11)

I like to imagine that in the days before his clarion-call, while he was still mulling it over,  Martyn Lloyd-Jones might have met up with John Stott over a cup of tea at the Liberal Club, and sounded him out. I dare say this did not happen. From this distance the two seem like chalk and cheese. But, if his issuing of the clarion-call was the result of views which developed from a new analysis of the times,  perhaps they should have had that cuppa. Or maybe we should conclude that since the clarion call fell largely on deaf ears it ought not to have been made, though Stephen Clark does not say as much as this.

Nevertheless if, as Clark suggests, nuanced views arise from a fresh look at circumstances, to see if they’ve changed in important ways, and if you (supposing you are a church leader of some sort) conclude that they have, then (so it seems to me) you have a duty to confer with others, to see if they have changed their views, before one issues the call in public, dramatic circumstances. Clearly Stott and Lloyd-Jones did not see eye to eye. Different nuances?

You see, appealing to nuanced distinctions carries a price. It is much more difficult than making a black-and-white clarion call to ‘Come out!’ (even if this also arises from 'nuanced' thinking) or in thinking of the church in terms of 'marks' - the preached word, the ordinancies, discipline. In order for the clarion-call to carry weight there is need for wide agreement on the facts about a situation and the weight that should be attributed to each of them. It’s fearsomely difficult to agree on nuances. So if we are now in the day of nuances, then clarion calls are (for the time being) a thing of the past, yet may be (if circumstances change) a thing of the future. If so, it seems that in an age of individualism ministers and churches of Christ are catching that spirit. 

Another thing, a policy according to which ministry in a mixed denomination is permissible in the 1940’s, but not in the 1960’s and permissible again in 2000 seems hard to take as a strategy.  Look at this in terms not of time, but of place. What is allowable in Wales may not be so in England, or what is allowable on Bridgend may not be in Bala. What stops the appeal to opportunity from being ‘opportunistic’? Unfortunately the appeal of a principle that it is possible to define, as ‘separation’ is, will always have more pull to a certain kind of mentality than one that is based in what it is permissible to do, or requires judgment to be made, balancing one issue with another, and allows that good men may differ.

Several different things need to be kept distinct. We should all be able to distinguish large issues from small, in all manner of circumstances. That way we show we are grown-up. That's one element in what for Stephen is 'nuance'. But Calvin (who as he have seen, he cites) had not only this in mind, and (I dare say) not even this first of all, but his approach to what is and is not a church is rather different from that which prevails presently. For Calvin whether a church is a true church or not is a matter of 'marks'. 

....we do not deny that there are churches among them. The question we raise only relates to the true and legitimate constitution of the church, implying communion in sacred rites, which are the signs of profession, and especially in doctrine.....Hence, however it is obvious that we do not at all deny that churches remain under his [the Roman Roman pontiff's] tyranny....In one word, I call them churches inasmuch as the Lord wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably torn and  scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols of the church still remain - symbols especially whose efficacy neither the craft of the devil nor human depravity can destroy. (IV. 2. 12)

We must agree that there is something rather unbalanced about a church situation in which calls to separation are judged to be sour and negative if not nuanced, and the only alternative is a nudge in this direction or that, a touch on the tiller, in the light of opportunities. Surely the centre-ground should ideally be filled by an outlook on the church and her confession that is more principled than this.

However this may be, Stephen Clark's pamphlet is a good read - well-written, informative, and thought-provoking.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Vermigli and Calvin on Aristotle's ethics

Peter Martyr Vermigi, Commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

On Helm's Deep we last looked at Peter Martyr Vermigli here. So this post is  a belated post-script. (The page references given in brackets are to the translation of Vermigli's Commentary illustrated above.)

Debating about the hardness of the human heart and the need for grace, Calvin states Pighius declares that the hardness [of the heart] was incurred through bad habit. Just as if one of the philosophers' crew should say that by evil living a person  had become hardened or callous towards evil’. Calvin's (and Augustine's) view is at odds with the Aristotelian idea - the idea of the 'philosophers' crew' - that we become just by doing just acts, prudent by doing prudent acts, brave by doing brave acts, and so on. For if, for example, being just is not simply a matter of habitually or spontaneously doing what is objectively just but also a matter of having the right motives and dispositions in doing so - if, in other words we take a motivational view of ethical goodness, as Calvin and Augustine do - then the first question is how we come to do the just thing in the first place, how we come to be motivated to love justice.  Calvin's answer is that we can only do a just act in the first place by having the habitus of our minds redirected, a redirecting that, at least in its first stages, must be done for and to us rather than our doing it.

However, there is reason to think that Calvin is not being quite fair to Aristotle here, if indeed he had Aristotle clearly in view.   For Aristotle does not only say,

This then, is the case with the virtues also; by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and by being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly. 

 He also says

Again, the case of the arts and that of the virtues are not similar; for the products of the arts have their goodness in themselves, so that it is enough that they should have a certain character, but if the acts that are in accordance with the virtues have themselves a certain character it does not follow that they are done justly  or temperately. The agent also must be in a certain condition  when he does them; in the first place he must have knowledge, secondly he must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character. 

There is plenty of scope here for Calvin to adapt Aristotle to his own view, by claiming that a firm and unchangeable desire to be virtuous can only be brought about  by the efficacious grace of God, though he does not appear to want to take it. Probably because he takes issue with Aristotle's view that such a character is naturally acquired.

In dealing with the same passage in which Aristotle argues that moral virtue is acquired through habit,  Vermigli makes the same point as Calvin, though he also provides Aristotle with a get-out-of-prison card. Moral virtues are (like intellectual virtues, though distinct from them) though  not co-natural or innate,  yet not contrary to nature. Virtues derive from the exercise of the will - 'or rather, the will, God, and action; we should also add reason, with which right actions should agree'. (296)  As is his custom, Vermigli compares what Aristotle says to holy scripture. 

Though expressed in a very mild and undemonstrative way, Vermigli makes serious criticisms of Aristotle.   Men have sometimes been made wise in an instant; more generally, God is the primary and most powerful cause of all the virtues (Citing I Cointhians, 4.7)

With respect to vitiated and corrupt nature, however, these statements [of Aristotle’s ] are true in the normal course of things and according to ordinary reason. Aristotle, however, was unable to see this corruption of nature, since he was left without faith and the light of holy scripture  It is also true that our nature, in its present state, is suited to and capable of receiving the virtues, if we are speaking of the civil and moral kind,  although not all people are disposed to them in the same way. (296-7)

The 'civil and moral' kind of virtue is presumably being contrasted with the theological virtues, though as far as I am aware Vermigli does not use this phrase in this work, but he goes on the refer to the 'true virtues, such as faith, hope and charity and the like'. (297)  (See also 331-7)

Voluntariness and Ignorance

In his work On the Bondage and Liberation of the Will against Pighius Calvin tirelessly insists on the fact, against Pighius but with Augustine, that our present lack of free will is not part of our nature, but is a corruption of our nature.

He includes a short Excursus, 'Coercion versus Necessity', that establishes the difference. The importance of the distinction for Calvin is that while acting out of necessity is consistent with being held responsible for the action, and being praised or blamed for it, being coerced is inconsistent with such praise or blame.  In his criterion of praise and blame he explicitly follows Aristotle

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 (Ethic. Ni.3.1).

So normal human activity is not forced or coerced. Insofar as it proceeds from fallen human nature  it is not free because a person with a fallen nature does not have the power to choose what is good.  Nonetheless, where a person is not forced, but makes a contribution to his action, and is not acting out of ignorance, he is acting voluntarily, and is responsible for what he does.

Vermigli  similarly  follows Aristotle in his comments on the passage, (Book 3.1) but much more closely and in greater detail than Calvin. The distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary is, for Aristotle, the basis of praise and blame. (373-4) (Ought implies can applies to secular laws’ (Vermigli concedes) but  ‘not those of God.) For the latter require things that are impossible, especially in view of the corrupt and spoiled condition of nature. (374) In civil actions the involuntary and actions done through ignorance are pardoned, as also in Scripture. (Deut. 19.5).

The voluntary is understood in terms of the absence of force, an impossible-to-resist or difficult-to-resist impulse,  an external force which receives no help from the recipient (Aristotle) but which may nevertheless be cooperated with e.g. with the highwayman who shouts 'your money or your life!', and of knowledge. (375) Vermigli follows Aristotle in showing considerable analytic interest; for example, in distinguishing the spontaneous from the voluntary, and the range of possible  instances  of the voluntary, leading to a discussion of 'cases', (377), and also a discussion of the blameworthiness of actions in this range of the 'voluntary'.  For example, if one endures evil for a worthy end, this is blameworthy, if for a noble end  - one’s country, one’s parents, one’s wife and children - then praiseworthy. (379) Those who act from base motives are not acting involuntarily, as they may claim.(384) 

Vermigli goes into all this with great expository skill - clear, orderly and detailed, and making judicious points, and then towards the end of the chapter there is a longer than usual discussion of how all these Aristotelian claims accord with Holy Scripture. He cites a number of biblical examples which accord with Aristotelianism. Of particular interest is the way in which Vermigli thinks that Scriptural examples of moral action, together with praise and blame, follows the same contours as Aristotle’s thinking.

Aristotle famously distinguished between those actions which are fully voluntarily, and those in which the will is involved, but are not fully voluntarily. ‘Something of this sort occurs in jettisoning good during a storm. There is no one who, strictly speaking, willingly and voluntarily throw away his own property, but people do it to save themselves and others, if they have any sense'. So as regards responsibility there is a three-fold classification: the fully voluntary, the partly voluntary (as in the jettisoning case), and actions done out of ignorance.  Vermigli thinks that this is exactly what we find in Scripture. 

First, voluntariness . (396)  The faithful are praised for being a willing people (Ps.11.9), the woodcutter is excused if his action is accidental because it was not voluntary (Nu.35.18)  The Devil is compelled to tell the truth, and is not praised, nor is Balaam who is forced at the point of a sword to curse the people of God. (Numbers 22.1-35)  Mixed actions, that is, those where we are constrained, though we still act of our own accord,  are commended in Scripture  – e.g. self-denial for a greater good, to suffer rather than to sin, to endure persecution. (397)  We are praised for such mixed actions, for those who endure persecution are blessed.  (Matthew 5.10)  What should be endured for what? We should endure anything rather than depart from Christ. Base actions may be as voluntary as honourable actions, as Aristotle taught.

But there are issues over which Aristotle and Scripture deviate. For what if the evil we do is due to the presence of original sin?  'Supposing someone said that knowledge or awareness is lacking when this sin is contracted and that the sin is cause by the first evil motions of our soul, in which there is no deliberation or choice?' Answer: 'Aristotle’s teaching should be understood of ethical and actual behavior, but that he had no knowledge of  original sin. It is enough for us that they cannot be called compulsory because they have an internal principle.'  Original sin is such an internal principle. (400) So Aristotle is confirmed after all! (396-7)

Finally, (in this rather rapid survey) what of ignorance?  Aristotle distinguished between those actions done from ignorance about which we feel remorse etc. when our ignorance is uncovered, and those over which we don’t feel remorse. The fact that we don’t feel remorse  when sin is uncovered does not mean that we committed no sin. (398) if we ought to have known. (398)  'Forgive them, for they know not what they do'. They had sinned, and needed forgiveness,  'I know that you acted in ignorance.'But if they could not have known what they were ignorant of, this ensures non-culpability. (He cites the drunkenness of Noah.) Culpability depends partly on how important and central a matter the ignorance is of. (398) Actions done when drunk are voluntary, both for Aristotle and Scripture. (399) So the approach here is that what Aristotle says is true because  and insofar as it accords with Scripture. So we might say that Vermigli sees Aristotle as an astute observer of and commentator on human life, as a recipient of 'natural light',  'common grace' and so forth.

Several things are interesting about this treatment.  There is no discussion of the metaphysics of human action, nothing on what is nowadays called determinism or compatibism, or agent causation.  His reference to original sin presented him with an invitation to discuss these issues, but he does not accept it. There is no attempt to discuss Aristotle’s account of the voluntary and the blameworthy in the light of Aristotle’s own  indeterminism and fear of fatalism to be found in his account of The Sea Battle Tomorrow in Book V of the De Interpretatione.  It is true that Aristotle’s account of blameworthiness in terms of voluntariness and knowledge (or awareness) can be bolted onto either an compatibilist or an incompatibilist account of action, depending on what one takes the sources of voluntariness to be. In ignoring the questions of the overall consistency or otherwise of Aristotle’s moral psychology and his ethics, Vermigi is simply content to help himself to this aspect of Aristotle’s thought without bothering about its significance for Aristotle’s overall views themselves.   (This may be partly at least because he takes Aristotle to be discussing ethics from a civil or public angle rather than from the angle of metaphysics, and he may be correct in this.) There is considerable merit in the care with which he discusses voluntariness, and Calvin’s short statements on the matter, could certainly have benefited from the discussions of his friend.