Thursday, February 01, 2018

The Westminster Standard - III

John Davenant

In the last of our ventures into the theological terminology of the Westminster Confession we shall have a look at its usage of the phrase ‘the author of sin’


 There are two of these occurrences - 

Decree III.I ‘neither is God the author of sin’

Providence V. IV. ‘…..yet so as the sinfulness thereof proceeds only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.’

Both texts deny that God is the author of sin by (in the case of his decree) affirming that God freely and unchangeably ordains whatever comes to pass, including in this ‘whatever’ evil acts take place. And so by denial of the mistaken inference that God in this business of ordaining evil acts  is  the author of sin, He is nevertheless the source (perhaps by permission)  of that evil of the evil actions he decree.  In the case of the phrase as it occurs in the chapter ‘Of Providence’ the inference is not enthymemetic, the wording being fuller. For the author of sin to apply to God, he would have had to have been the one from whom the sinfulness of an action proceeds. But this is impossible because God ‘is most holy and righteous’  so that he can be neither the author or approver of sin. This harks back to what is stated in III.I. that God orders  evil actions  to fall out in such a way that neither is ‘the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away’, and so they act  ‘according to the nature of second causes’, so for example wicked men produce wicked acts.

The charge that ‘God is the author of sin’ is routinely levelled at Calvinists. But the universal decree is preserved, as is universal and particular divine providence. The decree is important if we are to respect the creator-creature distinction. The Lord ‘respects’ the natures of his creatures, so that it is me who  ties my tie, not the Lord. He decrees me tying my tie.

The Scripture has a variety of expressions to convey this. The chapter on Providence underlines this by the variety of verbs that it uses to cover God’s various providential relations. So the Lord (Providence V.1), ‘doth uphold, dispose and govern’ and  ‘by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently’. Writing of the ‘first fall’ the divines refer to this ’not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful  bounding and otherwise ordering and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his holy ends’ (V.IV); to wicked men he ‘doth blind and harden’, ‘and witholdeth’ and  ‘exposeth’ and ‘gives them over’. (V.VI)


The theologians of the era of the Westminster Confession also had another  way of treating the idea that God cannot be the author of sin, than those that the Confession used. This is based on a further distinction, that between the material constitution of an evil act, and its formal nature. As Theophilus. Gale (1628- 78) (who is fond of this distinction) expresses it. ‘For all sin being, as to its formal nature, but a moral privation or relation, it necessarily requires some natural good as its substrate mater or subject.’  The distinction between form and matter is a fundamental one in the scholastic medieval outlook and its Aristotelian sources., which were largely taken over by those who these days are called the ‘Reformed Orthodox’. It corresponds to two different kinds of cause. A formal cause of something is the essence of that thing, what the thing is or is to be. The formal cause of creating a donkey is different from the formal cause of creating a cat, say. The form is the realization of set of properties  which is donkiness, or catness. The material cause is that ‘stuff’ out of which the efficient cause produces the form of the thing. But in the case of human actions, we are concerned first and foremost with the activity of the soul. Besides. Theophilus Gale,   the learned author of The Court of the Gentiles, here are two more examples.

Andreas Rivet (1572-1651), a Huguenot who became Professor of Theology at Leiden, also takes a similar way in his work on providence in the Leiden Synopsis, characterizing the privative nature of evil.

And so it is rightly said that He exercises providence regarding them [sins], since He disposes to do well regarding them. [To bring good out of their evil.] But if one considers only that which is real and sin and ‘positive’, as they say, what others call the ‘matter’ of sin, namely as an entity or as an action, in this sense sins can be said even to be provided by God, but only in a relative sense and not in itself. That is because the formal structure of sin exists in the absence of being and of good, in a certain deformity and disorderliness, which does not come from God and so cannot have been provided for by Him.

If we think of an action, then God upholds it, but if it is evil, it is privative. Considered as a state of affairs, it is defective.  God does not conserve such deficiencies, but only what is positive in them, and in the case of privative actions, this is the ‘substrate’ of the action.

John Davenant (1572-1641)  was one of the English Delegates to the Synod of Dordt, and later on the Bishop of Salisbury. In his Animadversions, Davenant makes the same general point as Gale on the question of God’s relation to morally evil actions.   The crucial point in his argument is that God’s attitude to the formal differs from his attitude to the material aspects of a sinful act. The material element is the soul and the particular powers of the soul, the formal is the motive or intention of the agent in doing this act or avoiding that act.  ‘This distinction is a sound and necessary distinction, and approved by all judicious divines, whether Papists or Protestants’.

Davenant grants ‘God to be the cause of the materiall part, as it denieth him to be any cause at all of the formal, which is the repugnancy or disconformity which the will of the Agent hath with the law or will of God’. He does not hesitate to refer to these as two ‘parts’ of the soul, even though as with most of his contemporaries, at the same time he upholds the simplicity of the soul, that it  is ‘without parts’. Yet a distinction between the formal and the material cause is a clear and sharp general distinction for him, and critical to his argument that there is a significant distinction between causes, since God has a causal relationship to the one which it is impossible for him to have to the other.
God is the primary cause of all that occurs in his creation, the activity of secondary causes. The formal part of an action (its having the particular form that it has) is, in the case of sin, due to human disobedience of the divine law, his falling short of the divine glory. But the soul is the creature of God and as such is good and upheld by him. So, like Gale, Davenant used the term ‘material’ to refer both to the basis of intentions and volitions, which lie in the soul, and the movements of the body which have their basis in the body. These, the bodily movements, the material part of the act, are also caused by God as the primary cause, as the upholder of the creation. The way of willing these various spiritual and bodily parts and functions, what Davenant calls the modus appetendi, is the way that sinful desiring and believing work against [attacks] the revealed will or law of God in this instance, the form or the formal part of the act
God brings about all the material side of things, but not the ‘disorderly Manner of desiring and eating contrary to the law of God'. This he upholds and governs, but does not cause, ‘being a defect’ as Davenant puts it.

So there is a basic outlook that Davenant and the others we have mentioned have in common, though there were differences of detail. In answer to the objection, Davenant refers to God as the primary cause, but stresses the privative nature of sin less than Gale, who is more overtly Augustinian at this point. 

Why does the Confession not take this tack? It is not clear, but I guess it had to do with the Divines' regard for it as a public. Confessional document. Though in places there is evidence of scholastic influences in its wording, they may have judged that this ‘nice distinction’ which requires some explanation before it is understood, was not fitting for general consumption.