Monday, January 06, 2020

'Not Simple or Absolute'

This is the second of the posts on ‘Christmas reflections’. The first was on Jesus's present physical absence which  Christmas nativity plays, on  baby Jesus’s appearance, are rather misleading rather than helpful. The Christmas (of 2019) is by now rapidly  disappearing, which is how it is with anniversaries. Needless to say, a Christian should mull over the significance of 'God was in Christ’, whatever the day of the year.

So now we are going to briefly reflect on the fact that God decreed the coming into flesh of his one and only Son, and what the character was of that decree.

The view of the  ‘incarnation anyway’ a ‘supralapsarian’ Christology has  provoked some discussion, following the book of that title by Edwin C. Van Driel (Oxford University Press.) On this view, even had there be no lapse, the virgin Mary would have given birth to Emmanuel. (Or maybe not, depending on the multitudinous counterfactuals that are possible,  given the view.) Or maybe it is congruent with such a view that the Incarnation could have been repeated at intervals, (not on once 25th December); maybe, accoording to this speculation there could be annual incarnations. That's the way with speculations.

 In Christian dogma, the 'incarnation now' view has had a long ancestry, having been held by,  for example, Alexander of Hales, Ockham, Bonaventure and others before the Reformation. At the time of the Reformation it was held by Osiander, a Lutheran whose views bothered Calvin. And since Osiander, Dorner in the 19th century and Barth in the last century have engaged in the same speculation. But this  view is not of concern here:

Calvin says in the Institutes, in the opening section of Book II.Chapter12.

It deeply concerned us, that he who was to be our Mediator should be very God and very man. If the necessity be inquired into, it was not what is commonly termed simple or absolute, but flowed from  the divine decree on which the salvation of man depended.   What was best for us, our most merciful Father determined. Our iniquities, like a cloud intervening between him and us, having utterly alienated us from the kingdom of heaven, none but a person reaching to him could the medium of restoring peace. But who could thus reach to him? Could any of the sons of Adam? All of them, with their parents, shuddered at the sight of God. Could any of the angels? They had need of a head, by connection with which they might adhere to their God entirely and inseparably. What then? The case was certainly desperate. If the Godhead itself did not descend to us, it being impossible for us to ascend. Thus the Son of God behooved to become our Immanuel, i.e. God with us, and in such a way, that by mutual union his divinity and our nature might be combined; otherwise, neither was the proximity near enough, nor the affinity strong enough, to  give us hope that God would dwell with us, so great was the repugnance between our pollution and the spotless purity of God.

What preoccupied Calvin was both God’s freedom in making the act of incarnation, and how it is necessary for human redemption. The statement with which Calvin begins his chapter, where he states that the incarnation was not what is commonly termed‘simple or absolute’, is an unusual yet significant phrase. God is eternal and infinite, absolute in himself. Here using it, Calvin  might be contrasting the incarnation of Jesus Christ with the eternal generation of the Son. That was certainly simple and absolute, being an essential element of the  mystery of the Trinity. So for Calvin the action was not simple or absolute. But was the outcome of such a free decree necessary.

God decreed, and the incarnation followed, as we can follow it, say in the early chapters of Luke, and John 1. But it was not necessitated by the divine essence, as the Son was eternally begotten of the Father’s essence, according to the Nicene formula. The Son was incarnate,  John’s  statement of the Logos, that ‘he became flesh’ In John 1, verse…,  is not a statement about God in himself, like ‘God is wise’. Nor is it like ‘the bulb became a red flower’, a natural necessity.

Calvin’s view of the atonement was that it was the outcome of the mercy and love of God for sinners. He goes on to say this….But there are places in which he sketches another possibility. For example in his sermons on Isaiah 53, the suffering servant, he says ‘If God pardoned us without Jesus Christ interceding for us and being made pledge, we should think nothing of it. We should all shrug our shoulders and make it an opportunity  for giving ourselves greater license, But when we see that did not spare His only Son….’ There are a number of other places when he entertains this possibility, his commentary of John 15.13, in a sermon on Matthew 26. 37-9, and one on Galatians 1. 3-5. (These are reproduced in Calvin at the Centre, 172.) And no doubt more.

So Calvin affirms quite a few times the idea that God could have incarnated his Son without himself  yielding to death for us, but God did not have done so because that would have been inferior to what in fact occurred. God would be free to, but this course would have been an impossible way to acheive our redemption.

Calvin’s successor at Geneva, Francis Turretin adds  (in his rather fuller account, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ii.301.)

It was not only suitable, but necessary (sin and the decree of God concerning the redemption of men concerning the redemption of men being supposed) that the Son of God should be incarnate in order to accomplish this work. (1) The question does not concern a simple and absolute necessity on the part of God for God could (if he had wished) leave man no less than the Devil in his destruction. Rather the question concerns a hypothesis – whether the will to save men being posited, the incarnation was necessary, or whether it could have been brought about  by some other means. (2) Again, the question does not concern the necessity of the decree for no one denies that on the supposition of God’s having  decreed this, it ought necessarily to have been done. Rather the question concerns the necessity of nature  - whether the decree being set aside and antecedently to it) it was necessary for the Son of God to become incarnate to redeem us. (3) The question does not concern the necessity of fitness because all confess that was in the highest decree fitting to the divine majesty – that his precepts might not be said to have been violated with impurity. Rather the question concerns the necessity of justice - that in no other way could the justice of God have been satisfied and our deliverance brought about (which we assert).

 ‘The question’ which Turretin reflects on more than once is, I think, The question at the head of the question in which this passage occurs: ‘Was it necessary for the Son of God to be incarnate? We affirm. (Institutes, 2. 299)  In this passage, Turretin, like Calvin,  that that the Incarnation was not necessary but free. But it was necessary justice had to be satisfied.  Between Calvin's day and Turretin's the Socinians had become numerous. That’s why Turretin (and also John Owen) tightened the reins.

Some contend that the Reformers were  'necessitarian', but Calvin's attitude to the Incarnation is firmly non-necessitarian.