Divine Will and Human Freedom by Richard Muller (A Review)


Richard A. Muller is (rightly) one of the dominant names in the field of Reformation and Post-Reformation scholarship. His studies on Calvin as well as the broader Reformed tradition—especially his magisterial, 4-volume, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (PRRD)have irrevocably changed the contemporary conversations surrounding these figures.

One of the aims of his studies is to resituate figures like Calvin and the later generations of Reformed Scholastic theologians in their contemporary and historical context, in order to correct anachronistic judgments surrounding their thought. Calvin is no longer simply a remarkable, lone genius, but one of a company of 2nd Generation Reformers who learned from and in conversation with others (even if his genius was still prodigious). The Reformed Scholastics who followed weren’t simply arid logicians, taking Calvin’s biblical Spirit and locking it up in the chains of Aristotelian syllogisms and Greek metaphysics. They were scholars, teachers, and preachers in their own right, who exhibit both continuity and discontinuity with Calvin, while codifying and nuancing their Reformation inheritance in conversation with the Patristic and Medieval traditions that came before it. And so on.

That same aim animates his most recent offering Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought. As the subtitle indicates, Muller is taking up the perennially thorny issue of divine sovereignty and human freedom in light of the issues of possibility, contingency and necessity. More specifically, he has an eye on the issue in the theology of the 17th Century Reformed Scholastics who formed the focus of the PRRD. 

(For those interested, I’ll just be blunt and say this can be some tough sledding. I’ve read the four volumes of Muller’s PRRD cover to cover and I found this to be more difficult than any of them. I think that’s largely a feature of the difficulty of the subject material, not Muller’s writing, but I thought it worth mentioning.)

Correcting the Historical Narrative

To clarify the issues involved, Muller has to keep more than a few conversations straight. In the first place, he wants to make it clear that when we talk about the issue of necessity, contingency, and freedom in the Reformed Scholastics, their categories and positions don’t just map neatly onto contemporary arguments surrounding libertarianism or compatibilism in post-Kantian or even contemporary analytic philosophy and theology. You can’t just say “Francis Turretin was a compatibilist” and have it mean the same thing as “Daniel Dennett is a compatibilist” or even “Jonathan Edwards was a compatibilist” (on which, below).

Second—and this takes up a much larger and central portion of the book—Muller aims to engage with a couple of recent historical interpretations of both the Scholastics and their relationship to the tradition that preceded them. The first comes from the scholars such as Arvin Vos, Martin Bac, Roelf Te Velde, and others associated with the volume Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Modern Thought (a helpful volume of the translated primary sources definitely worth consulting). To give a very bad summary, they have put forward a narrative that goes something like this:

Ever since Aristotle, the Western tradition has struggled with a latent determinism in its view of human freedom. This was passed on in the Christian tradition as exemplified by Aquinas. But it’s only with the arguments of Duns Scotus that we get the revolutionary breakthrough in logic and ontology connected to the associated with the idea of “synchronic contingency”, which allows for a more robust sense of creaturely freedom, ontological indeterminacy, and so forth. Unfortunately, Calvin managed to get stuck in a more Thomistic determinism again. After him, though, the later Post-Reformation Scholastics took a more Scotist turn and recovered some of the Scotus revolution regarding contingency and freedom. We need to understand this if we’re to grasp the way their view of dependent freedom doesn’t fit the libertarian/compatibilist binary of modern thought.

This construct has been subject to important criticism by Paul Helm from more than a few angles. Helm is unconvinced there really is a large structural difference between Calvin and the later Calvinists, that the concept of “synchronic contingency” does what the RTF group thinks it does, or that it really solves any of the dilemmas around contemporary notions of compatibilism and libertarianism.

Muller wants to triangulate a position somewhere between the two of them, but that takes making an argument in three stages which comprises the three sections of the book.

First, he spends about 60 pages giving you the nuanced version of the “state of the question” in contemporary historiography that I just gave you two paragraphs on.

In the second section, about 90 pages, Muller jumps back to the early sources and tackles the question of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Scotus. Essentially, he argues (and I think shows) that reading Aristotle as a hard determinist is a mistake. Second, in any case, the Christian tradition after him didn’t read him that way, especially Aquinas. In which case, unsurprisingly, Muller finds Aquinas isn’t the metaphysical determinist the RTF group reads him to be. Third, Scotus did introduce some changes in understanding the relationship between the will and the intellect, God’s relationship to time, and the language of “synchronic contingency”, which are significant to the question. That said, the daylight between Scotus and Aquinas on this question isn’t as radical as all that. Nor does synchronic contingency get you as much by way of a different ontology of possibility as you might think. In fact, we need to understand it less as a different ontology, and more as a specific set of logical distinctions which help us think through whatever ontology we’re already working with.

Finally, he turns to the period of the Reformed Scholastics themselves (Twisse, Rutherford, Turretin, Voetius, Gomarus, etc.) in order to analyse their thought. Roughly, he shows that while there is an increased nuance and sophistication terminologically between Calvin and the Scholastics, it’s not as radical a difference between them as all that. What’s more, the Scholastics shouldn’t primarily be thought of as Scotistic in theological orientation on this issue (or others such as the univocity of being, etc.). Instead, while the Reformed had a fairly consistent and coherent picture of dependent freedom, their philosophical orientation was eclectic. They could use some of the distinctions of the Scotists even while many maintained something close to a Thomistic orientation. (Also, go look up his excellent article, “Not Scotist.”)

One further historiographical wrinkle to which I alluded before. For Muller, all of this goes to showing the fact that there has been a break, not only in modern thought on free will, but within the Reformed tradition itself. He has elsewhere argued that the sort of dependent freedom of the Reformed Scholastics is structurally different than the “compatiblism” of Jonathan Edwards, whom he takes to have altered the Reformed consensus in his translation of Reformed theology into a different, Idealist metaphysics. (On which, you can read his debate with Paul Helm here.) This “parting of the ways” in the 18th Century is fairly important given how many American Calvinists essentially read the tradition—especially on this issue—through the lens of Edwards’ works.

I hope you can sense that I’m condensing a very complex, careful argument that’s caught up in parsing a number of very fine distinctions. Now, without noting all the variations between individual Scholastic thinkers, I’ll try to lay out a slim outline of a composite “Reformed Scholastic” approach.

Clarifying the Reformed View

Muller’s view, insofar as I have it, is that when it comes to the Reformed Orthodox view of human freedom we have to speak of something like a “dependent freedom.” But we can only do this once we set it in light of basic theological convictions regarding God’s sovereignty, concurrence, causality, and relation to the temporal order he has made. For the Reformed there are various layers of necessity and contingency that you have to keep clear.

There is the first layer where we speak of the power of God. Here we speak of the distinction between absolute and ordained power. God’s absolute power is his infinite potency to do whatever is logically possible (ie. anything besides making a married bachelor, etc.). His ordained power is a way of talking about the power he has decided to exercise in doing whatever he has chosen to do. Note, though, God’s ordained power does not exhaust the limits of what he could do according to his absolute, or infinite power, if he so chose.

Connected to this is the freedom of God to either create or not create (freedom of contradiction, or the freedom to do or not do something), and once he’s decided to create, the matter of what he creates (freedom of contrariety, or the freedom to choose between options). God is free in both regards and so there is an initial layer of contingency, non-necessity involved in the whole order since God could have done otherwise. Nothing except God must be what it is. The world order is radically contingent in that sense.

Second, and this is where the idea of synchronic contingency at the divine level comes in, even having chosen to create this particular world, God remains the sort of being who could choose (or could have chosen) otherwise. He still has that potency or power. Now, once God decides to create Jones as a 5’2″ Norwegian, Jones will be a 5’2″ Norwegian. But Jones could have been and in a (non-temporal) sense still could be otherwise, when we consider God’s current potency or power.

Next, we drop this down to the human level, or the level of secondary causality, and the Reformed want to affirm a few things. First, humans have a faculty of choice involving the deliberation of the intellect and the will’s acceptance of that judgment. Different Reformed are more or less Thomist at this point, but freedom involves a rational choice, even an element of spontaneity. Human choices don’t simply follow from previous events like natural causes (rocks falling according to gravity, etc.). There is no physicalist, mechanical, fatalistic determinism at the level of the world-system you find in the later modern period or down on into today’s genetic determinism. Rational freedom, then, is a unique sort of cause within the contingent order God has made.

Second, at the level of secondary causality, humans also have both the freedom of contradiction and contrariety–they have the power to do or not do, as well as choose between options. Jones can choose to eat ice cream, and choose between Rocky Road or Cookies & Cream. And once he has chosen Rocky Road he still has the unrealized potency to choose Cookies & Cream. This is not to say he could choose them both at the same time, or somehow metaphysically switch his choice. It’s to say something closer to the idea that if you put Jones in the exact same situation, bracketing the divine decree and just looking at the human level, he might choose Cookies & Cream. It’s not that for any choice, if you drop him into it and squeeze him, so to speak, there’s a mathematically guaranteed outcome.

Now, that said, when we connect the two levels we need to keep in mind a couple of things. First, God created all things ex nihilo and sustains them in being at each moment. The world and the humans in it have their own reality, but not in such a way that God creates the world, sets it spinning and it runs on its own steam. In which case, for there to be such a thing as human freedom, it is created, sustained, and in at least that sense, dependent freedom. God must exercise his freedom at all moments to enable, approved, and “concur” with our freedom. This is why the idea of some absolutely independent indifference makes no sense on a Reformed understanding. It is also a key part of the metaphysical machinery we need to consider when putting divine choice and human choice together.

This brings us to the distinction often invoked between the “composite” sense or the “divided sense” of a statement to clarify the levels of contingency, necessity, and freedom attributed to it. Take Jones choosing Rocky Road. In the “divided” sense, (ie. bracketing out the divine decree), we can see it is a free, contingent choice at the level of human potency. But when you add the fact that God decreed that Jones choose Rocky Road (hence “composite”), and upholds his will at every moment, then we have to say that Jones choosing Rocky Road is also necessary. It’s not absolutely divinely necessary. But it is now necessary since it is also an act that God has chosen it.

From a different angle, it’s the difference between the necessity of the consequent and the necessity of the consequence. Necessarily, if God decrees something, it’s going to happen. But not everything that God decrees is thereby absolutely necessary. And for the Reformed, this is true in some sense at both the divine and human level. The claim is that God’s decree does not erase the nature of Jones choice as the result of a rational deliberation at the level of secondary causality, even if it will necessarily occur.

Someone like Turretin could say that God can freely choose for Jones to freely choose Rocky Road on Tuesday. And so, it is a contingently necessary free choice. It is contingent in that God could will otherwise–there is nothing necessary about God’s choice that Jones choose Rocky road. Also, insofar as God chooses that Jones freely choose Rocky Road, God does not remove Jones’ rational faculties or his internal power or potency to choose Cookies & Cream. He chooses for the event to proceed as a free one.

As long as this section is, I could keep going as I’m trimming a lot of nuance here. Still, I think you start to get the picture.

Wrapping Up

At this point I’ll just offer a few evaluative comments and wrap it up.

First, on the historical portrait, I’ll be curious to see responses, but given the documentation and the argument, I think it will be hard to dispute the historical clarification he’s given to the issue in responding to the RTF group (as well as Helm). Muller’s command of the primary and secondary literature for the classical, Medieval, and modern periods is on full display.

Second, I will say that the only point I really have critical questions about is how much he has actually distinguished the Reformed Orthodox materially from contemporary articulations of compatibilism and libertarianism. I’m not actually saying he’s wrong. I’m sure he’s probably right. But insofar as his engagement with contemporary, analytic philosophers is materially slim, I was left curious how these distinctions would be set in dialogue with the discussion of necessity, freedom, and so forth in a contemporary text like Alvin Plantinga’s The Nature of Necessity, or Kevin Timpe’s recent, widely-lauded text on Free Will.

Also, though he has written the previous articles (linked above) on Edwards’ divergence, a small section on Edwards might have been helpful to illustrate the difference as well. (Also, a small corrective note here: the one material error I saw was in his engagement with Oliver Crisp in Deviant Calvinism. Whatever you make of Crisp’s proposal on libertarian Calvinism, while Crisp does call Turretin a compatibilist he never dubs either Turretin or Edwards [77] a hard determinist as Muller asserts.)

Finally, if you’re curious about the issue of the divine will and human freedom and you want to take a deep, historical dive, this is a book for you. If you’re interested specifically in the discussion surrounding these issues in the Early Modern period, well, you’re probably an academic or a nerd, so this is a no-brainer. When Muller writes, you buy Muller. This work is no different.

As you can probably tell, this isn’t necessarily going to square the circle of reconciling divine foreknowledge or the decree with human freedom. Nor would I expect it to. The causal joint between the two layers, divine and created, is one of those places I am comfortable admitting mystery. Still, I found it immensely helpful for situating myself in the historical discussion, as well as gaining a better grasp of the issues in the Reformed tradition.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Easy “Wisdom” of Cynicism

I have been thinking about cynicism the last couple of weeks. (I have piece coming out in a couple of months on cynicism for CT, so I won’t repeat that bit.) The thing that struck me this morning, and I tweeted about, was its appeal.

I think, teach, and write for a living. I’m supposed to know some things. To have insight into either Scripture, or God, or the world. Wisdom, of sorts.

The thing about cynicism is that it offers an easy shortcut to the appearance of wisdom.

“Seeing through” the stated reasons and motives of others is a particularly prized form of insight in our context. (We’re all Nietzscheans, squinting to get at what’s really going on.)

And so if I’m in a dispute with someone, it’s pretty easy for me to come up with a fairly plausible rationale for why someone believes, says, or does something other than the one they’ve stated.

“Sure, you say it’s because of Scripture, but also isn’t your job riding on you believing that?”

“Sure, you say it’s because you’ve honestly changed your mind, but also isn’t it convenient that most cultural winds blow that way today?”

“Sure, you say you’re now X because of intellectual reasons, but aren’t you also mostly just believing what’s gonna frustrate your dad?”

“Sure, you say you’re totally committed to the cause, but also RTs?”

I can come up with longer, more sophisticated versions of these sorts of readings on the fly now, and build ’em out to make them seem pretty plausible. At least to the people who already agree with me.

But are they true? Maybe. Or maybe they’re just stories I tell myself to flatter my own beliefs and look smart because, you know, I’m not getting suckered.

All this to say that default cynicism isn’t the same thing as biblical discernment. Discernment seeks out truth and falsehood. It sees as much as it sees through. Ironically enough, being too cynical can make you undiscerning, rendering false judgments, leaving you open being deceived, not positively, but negatively.

In other words, being “wise as a serpent”,  is a lot harder than thinking everybody’s a liar all the time.

Soli Deo Gloria



“They Do Not Deserve You”; Wonder Woman and Soteriology

wonder woman(Spoiler Alert: The following notes assume big plot twists and a knowledge of the film.)

My wife and I saw Wonder Woman last night, and thank God, it was a good flick. I was worried the hype was just, well, hype, but it turned out it was a really solid superhero film and will be seen by most as the best of the DC franchise. It probably is, but I actually enjoyed Man of Steel and did-not-hate-kinda-liked most of Batman v. Superman (the extended edition, which actually makes way more sense).

In any case, as is my tendency, I had theological thoughts about the film as I was watching.  I mean, I am a Systematic theology student.

Still, superhero flicks lend themselves to this sort of analysis, since they’re explicitly concerned with quasi-divine figures rescuing humanity from destruction. They, therefore, typically contain an implicit soteriology (view of salvation), and therefore a corresponding anthropology (view of humanity) and hamartiology (view of sin, or what’s wrong with the world). I know it’s the ultimate cliche to find “Christ-figures” all over the films, but with Superhero flicks, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

Wonder Woman is no different. Indeed, it’s quite explicit about these things. One of the main plot tropes is Diana’s encounter with the world of men off the Island of Themascira. It’s what generates much of the humor (confused outsider a la Splash), as well as the moral energy. Yes, Diana is on a mission to defeat Ares, god of war, whom she believes is behind the carnage of World War I. But she is also on a moral journey; she is a goddess learning what it means to be a savior in the world of men.

One thing she has to learn is an alternative anthropology. In her myths about the creation of men, she learned that they are basically good, but they have been perverted and twisted towards violence by the powerful sway of Ares. She thinks, “If I can just kill Ares, men will be released to be good.” In other words, her hamartiology is reduced to a demonology: “the devil made them do it.”

And so whenever she encounters duplicitousness in the world of men–the lies and cowardice of even the “good guys”—she declares, “You too have been corrupted by Ares. You’re under his influence as well.”

A key movement of her moral journey involves recognizing the problem is much deeper. She comes to realize that humanity itself, apart from Ares, has evil within it. Humanity wars against itself, regardless of Ares, and in this war there are no pure figures. At the key hinge dialogue in the film, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) struggles to make clear to her, “Maybe we’re all to blame.” In other words, it’s the flesh, not just the devil at work in human evil.

Actually, this is where the demonology of the film gets interesting. Ares, as it turns out, is not the obvious devil figure you’re led to expect through the film. Ares turns out to be a moral misanthrope. And it is in his role as an Accuser of men that he makes his case to Diana against saving them. He hates men because he sees their weakness, their evil, their inherent proclivity towards hate. He tells her he has never had to control them–he has only had to suggest, to whisper, to stoke ember of evil that were already there in order. He has only fomented the war in order that men might destroy themselves–receiving in themselves the due penalty for their corruption, as it were.

It’s here that the goddess must learn the lesson of grace. Before she goes off the Island to fight, her mother Hippolyta tells her, “They do not deserve you.” She’s pure. She’s good. She doesn’t lie. As soon as she sees the good, she is immediately moved to pursue it.

And it is precisely for this reason, she must learn the lesson of grace. She has to learn why she’s a hero, why she ought to struggle to save humanity.  Before she thought it was because they’re basically good, deserving victims of Ares’s oppression. And while that latter statement is true, they are victims of Ares’s machinations, they are also victimizers. “They do not deserve you.”

And so in that same climactic scene, as the weight of human evil strikes Diana, Steve must play the role of advocate of sorts arguing, “It’s not about what they deserve–it’s about what you believe.” If humanity is going to be saved, it can’t be a matter of merit. They have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of Diana, in that regard. In which case, it must be a matter of mercy and grace. It has to be a decision Diana makes beyond desert.

Now, here the statement “it’s about what you believe” is a little limp. Pressing deeper, reflecting on Steve’s character, his valiant sacrifice, and the other men she has become friends with, she recognizes there is more to humanity than the evil within. There is love and goodness as well. The image of Zeus, if you will. And so she decides that is worth fighting for, even if humanity doesn’t deserve her.

This is one of those places where, coming from a Christian theological perspective, I thought they could have pressed deeper. Because, narratively, it’s not merely a matter of what she believes about humanity, but who she is for humanity. She was created in order to save humanity from Ares, from war, from the hell they make, apart from consideration of their merit. In that sense, it is about Diana’s purpose and the consistency of character as good, merciful, and just; it’s about the obligations that she has to be herself in the face of evil. Diana saves men, because Diana was created to be a savior.

Of course, Diana is not Jesus. And obviously, this wasn’t a “Christian” movie–for all sorts of reasons. All the same, for a being a comic flick about a hero rooted in a Greco-Roman, pagan mythology, there was a lot of theological good sense that makes me curious how it will be received by our friends and neighbors.

Well, that’s about it for now.


On “Listening” to Millennials (and What Does that Even Mean)

(Yes, I’m sorry, this is a piece about Millennials.)

listeningHonestly, I feel bad for churches and older leaders trying to get a handle on reaching Millennials. One of the biggest things the recent literature tells churches to do is “listen” to Millennials. But that can be fairly confusing.

For instance, one very clear message we’ve heard for years from both experts and Millennial spokespersons is that the Church has gotten “too political.” By marrying the Church to political causes and parties, we’ve turned off younger Christians to the gospel who see it as just another ideology. Okay. Check. “Chill on the political stuff, and stick to the gospel.”

Then the 2016 election cycle happens. And now, it’s also suddenly very clear “political silence is complicity.” Those very same experts (voices of a generation), assure us Millennials will not be satisfied with churches that stay on the sidelines and remain quiet in the face of injustice. So which is it? Be political or not?

Or maybe Millennials are just now figuring out what they really wanted was a different politics, but politics nonetheless?

It’s tempting to think of Jesus’ quip about the fickleness of his own generation, “They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’” (Luke 7:32) When John came preaching, they called him prude, but now they call Jesus a party animal. So which is it?

Now that’s probably not the fairest read of the situation. Maybe there was an underlying principle all along. Maybe the problem wasn’t politics, but partisanship. Maybe the situation has changed dramatically. (I think there’s probably a good case for that.) But apparent turnarounds like this raise some of the questions involved in “listening” to Millennials.

For one thing, which Millennials are we listening to? New York Magazine just had a piece highlighting the differences between older and younger Millennials. Another recent study of Canada’s youth split my generation up into six types like “New Traditionalists”, “Critical Counter-culturalists”, or “Bros and Brittanys”, who all have seriously varied moral, social, and economic orientations. It seems listening to these diverse, often conflicting segments of a large generation would yield wildly different results.

Even more importantly, what does “listening” even mean?

Learning might be part of it. No generation has an exclusive premium on truth, or an unbiased read of the spiritual landscape. Not even Boomers or Traditionalists, who can plausibly claim the wisdom of experience, should be closed off from learning from younger generations.

Indeed, that seems to be a lot of the conventional wisdom on the subject. Millennials are creative, adaptive, digital natives and so are a great resource for forging new paths to tackle the problems of the Church. More than that, they’re not interested in going to Churches that don’t take that seriously.

While I think there’s something to this, it’s important for Churches not to confuse an invitation to listen to Millennials for a demand to cater, or even worse obey them. (“Listen or we’ll leave” seems to be implied threat sometimes).

The fact of the matter is we’re young and we really could be wrong about a lot. We’re still learning and growing. We often don’t even know what we want, much less what we need. To resolve to “listen” in that sense, quickly acquiescing and accommodating every impatient demand, would be a recipe for folly–the naïve leading the blackmailed.

What’s more, while we might be its future, we’re not the whole of the Church, nor will we ever be. Joel prophesied that in the last days, when the Spirit is poured out, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams” (2:28). Both groups will be doing this at one and the same time—the young and the old are empowered by the same Spirit to serve.

I want to suggest, though, that much listening to Millennials (at least by older generations) involves an element of spiritual parenting. Paul commands parents not to “exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

This begins to get at an important dynamic of the listening process. There’s nothing more exasperating as a child than feeling like nobody’s listening to you. Even if you don’t get your way, simply being taken seriously as a member of the family goes a long way. I do think that Millennials need to be taken seriously—not condescended to—but treated as real, contributing members in any church community. (At least the ones who commit to actually being members.) They’re not only the future of the Church, they are a powerful part of its present.

Secondly, churches need to take Paul’s admonition to train and instruct the next generation in the Lord. If you don’t know where Millennials are, what concerns they have, what they commonly struggle with, you probably won’t be very adept at instructing them in the way of the Lord. And you should be instructing them—to walk with the Lord, read Scripture, pray, evangelize, serve the poor, work their jobs, etc. That’s just the task of discipleship.

Listening also allows you to know when to hand over responsibility at the right time and in the right ways. I suppose we can file this under “training”, but older leaders need to see it as part of their task to prepare Millennials to teach and preach, to lead studies, to work alongside deacons to bless the congregation, and so forth. This involves actually inviting them to do some of these things. (I mean, this shouldn’t be that crazy as some of us are already planting and leading churches anyways.)

Still, in established congregations that involves risk. But all parenting does. Which is why all of this listening needs to be shot through with prayer, trusting we will hear and be guided by the Father who wants to see his all of his children “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

Soli Deo Gloria

A Note on Euphemisms for Sin: You’re Not Just “Broken”

sinChristians have become pretty good at thinking of euphemisms for sin (our acts and our condition). It’s fairly common to hear from pulpits and in worship tunes about Jesus dealing with our brokenness, weakness, failures, mistakes, and so on, often in a therapeutic and medical mode. And I think, so far as it goes, that’s not all that bad.

People lament it, but terms like those can be helpful in a number of ways. For one thing, they speak an initially non-threatening or relatable language to people for whom the term “sin” has lost its sense. As Francis Spufford points out, for many, the word ‘sin’ connotes nothing more than chocolates you shouldn’t eat and lingerie.

Second, they can help broaden our conception of sin as both acts that we do and a condition that we’re in. Many have no idea what it is to be a sinner, but surveying their lives, their choices, the chaos without and within, they do know something is radically broken.

Also, I think they can help us understand that element of sin that makes us pitiable and “miserable.” Not all sin is experienced as this conscious, active rebellion. It feels like something we fall into, no matter how hard we run away or would like to avoid it. There’s something about the human condition in sin which makes it sorry and deserving of compassion. Sin is misery and wretchedness (Rom. 7:24). There is something broken about us.

What’s more, much that falls in this overall category of “sinful” behavior, thoughts, etc. which we speak of in euphemism, does have a non-culpable, psychological and medical component which should be dealt with as such. This should impact the way we pastor, counsel, and evaluate others in the Church. Some do struggle against heavier burdens. Telling someone to repent themselves out of a behavior linked to a chemical imbalance or childhood trauma is a recipe for pastoral malpractice. These things do need treatment, healing (human and divine).

But these euphemisms have their limits and so cannot replace or dominate our vocabulary for sin. This is so for at least a couple of reasons.

First, in Scripture, sin is defined theologically. Sin is sin because it is committed ultimately against and before God. This is the point of David’s bit of hyperbole when he says, “against you and you only have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). Taken flatly, it’s false. He stole Uriah’s wife and then had him killed; he sinned against him. Jesus himself speaks of us sinning against our neighbors (Matt. 18:15; Luke 17:4). All the same, David has cut to heart of it: primarily and ultimately, sin involves acts and a mindset hostile to God’s loving rule and his good law (1 John 3:4).

Recent euphemisms don’t quite capture this active sense of opposition, pride, hostility, and violation against God, his creatures, and his world.

Which leads to the second problem: most of these euphemisms (if used exclusively) downplay the agency and responsibility of persons. In general, they tend to move everything into the categories of the therapeutic and the medical, instead of the moral. But our condition cannot be reduced to these categories.

No, Scripture gives us a wide variety of terms like “transgression”, “iniquity”, “rebellion”, “idolatry”, “wickedness”, and, yes, “sin” straight-out. And there is something necessary about using these words to describe the myriad forms of human viciousness: hate, racism, adultery, slander, gossip, theft, cheating the poor, fornication, dishonoring our parents, lack of charity, insult, and so on.

We have collectively, and individually, ruined ourselves in setting ourselves in opposition to God’s goodness in these ways. In Adam, the moral break and rebellion preceded any other kind of brokenness which followed as a result.

What’s more, we actively make choices to set ourselves first before God and our neighbors daily. We choose what is easy or profitable or beneficial over what is right. And we rationalize it with just about any sort of defense that’s at hand–including the therapeutic.

And so we need to be able to name that and own it.

Indeed, there’s something healthy and morally empowering in hearing your sin named as sin. If you exclusively think of yourself in the realm of the therapeutic and medical, it’s hard for many to imagine repentance. You can’t repent of “brokenness” in the same way as you can of wickedness.

It can be bracing to hear someone say, “That is sin. You must turn to Christ and repent of it.” Of course, even to repent, we need the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, but the way we relate to these things changes. I am an active, moral agent, making real choices one way or the other. And that matters.

This is not even close to a comprehensive statement on these things. If I had time and space, it would be good to discuss differences between acts and conditions, corruption, etc. It would be also fruitful to explore the dimension of sin that Scripture names as bondage and enslavement. God has an enemy who tempts, enslaves, and binds people to sin. And I think that forms something of a third category between the therapeutic and the moral dimensions.

At the end of the day, though, I’m simply saying we should not be reductionists about sin. It is a multi-faceted reality and we should speak as diversely and complexly about it as Scripture does.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. Cornelius Plantinga’s discussion in Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be is a good place to start thinking about this stuff.

Scripture Says More Than You Think: Edwards’s Exegesis of Mutual Love

If you scan the literature, there’s been a recent boom in scholarship on Jonathan Edwards’ doctrine of the Trinity. If there’s something everyone agrees on nowadays is that whatever else Edwards is, he’s a trinitarian. One other takeaway, though, is that his trinitarianism is at once traditional and innovative.

In his context, pressured by Deists, Subordinationists, and other varieties of anti-trinitarian theologians, he sought to defend and deliver the doctrine of the Trinity to his people. He aimed to show both that it was fitting with the best speculative, idealistic philosophy of the day, but more importantly that it was the plain teaching of Scripture. (Though, it’s good to note Edwards’ readiness to blend the two is somewhat unique since most Reformed Scholastics shied away from the speculative moves developed by some of the Fathers and the Medievals, preferring to focus on exegetical defenses of the doctrine.)

This comes out clearly in his originally unpublished Discourse on the Trinity. While a good chunk of it is dedicated to parsing theological and philosophical analysis of persons, ideas, and so forth, the bulk is concerned with demonstrating the Scriptural foundations of his view. Edwards opines, “I think the Scripture reveals a great deal more about it than is ordinarily taken notice of.”

One place this comes out is in his treatment of the Holy Spirit. Edwards could be considered a broadly Augustinian theologian of the Trinity here. Augustine famously developed a number of psychological triads in De Trinitate. Taking his cue from man being made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), he takes the rational soul as the closest (dark) mirror of the Godhead in the world (7:12; 12.6-7). Augustine then proposes three mental triads on the basis of God being love (1 John 4:8). First, he posits that love needs a lover, beloved, and love itself (8:12-14). Second, in the activities of the mind remembering, understanding, and loving itself (10:17-18). Third, and this was his favored analogy, the mind’s ascent in wisdom to remembering, understanding, and loving God (14:15, 25).

Edwards’ formulation most closely resembles the triad of Book 9, but with modifications due to his different metaphysics and context. The thing to note, though, is that in both Augustine and Edwards, the Holy Spirit is identified with the love of God, especially as its understood as the mutual love of the Father and the Son. In their work The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards (106), Steven Studebaker and Robert Caldwell identify key components of the model:

Five elements tend to characterize the Augustinian mutual love tradition in its various historical expressions. These characteristics form a fivefold gestalt. These are: 1.) the use of mental triads or the operations of the rational soul to illustrate the Trinity, 2.) the Father as the unbegotten, 3.) the generation of the Son as the Word, 4.) the procession of the Holy Spirit as the mutual love of the Father and the Son, and 5.) the reciprocity between the economic missions and the immanent processions of the divine persons.

Here’s Edwards stating the doctrine positively:

The Godhead being thus begotten by God’s having an idea of himself and standing forth in a distinct subsistence or person in that idea, there proceeds a most pure act, and infinitely holy and sweet energy arises between the Father and the Son: for their love and joy is mutual, in mutually loving and delighting in each other. Prov. 8:30, “I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before [him].” This is the eternal and most perfect and essential act of the divine nature, wherein the Godhead acts to an infinite degree and in the most perfect manner possible. The Deity becomes all act; the divine essence itself flows out and is as it were breathed forth in love and joy. So that the Godhead therein stands forth in yet another manner of subsistence, and there proceeds the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, viz. the Deity in act: for there is no other act by the act of the will.

Now, we can’t get into all the details about how Edwards’ idealism has inflected the whole account, but you see the basic elements in play here: the psychological analogy, the Father unbegotten, the generation of the Word, the Spirit as mutual love of Father and Son, and so forth.

Whether consciously or not, Edwards also follows some of Augustine’s key, exegetical moves, including his focus on 1 John 4. (On which, see Matthew Levering, “The Holy Spirit in the Trinitarian Communion: ‘Love’ and ‘Gift’?” IJST Volume 16 Number 2 April 2014, 126-142.) Edwards suggests the “Godhead or the divine nature and essence does subsist in love” is confirmed in the statement of 1 John 4:8, “God is love.”

But he argues that verses 12-13 in the same chapter “plainly” suggest to us that love is the Holy Spirit, since they read, “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. Hereby we know that we dwell in him, because he hath given us the Spirit.” For Edwards, it is clear that the apostle John has identified the love of God in us as God’s dwelling with us, which happens by the Spirit’s dwelling within us. This “confirms not only that the divine nature subsists in love, but also that this love is the Spirit; for it is the Spirit of God by which God dwells in his saints.”

Edwards finds this logic confirmed in dozens of texts (Rom. 5:5; Phil 2:1; 2 Cor. 6:6; Col. 1:8), the name of the Spirit, the work of the Spirit in sanctification, types of the Spirit (oil), symbols of the Spirit (dove), metaphors and similitudes (water, fire, breath, wind, a spring, a river, etc), and so on.

Returning to the Spirit’s work in sanctification, Edwards says that communion with God is to participate in the Holy Spirit:

Communion is a common partaking of good, either of excellency or happiness, so that when it is said the saints have communion or fellowship with the Father and with the Son, the meaning of it is that they partake with the Father and the Son of their good, which is either their excellency and glory, (2 Pet. 1:4, “ye are made partakers of the divine nature;” Heb. 12:10, “that we might be partakers of his holiness;” John 17:22–23, “and the glory which thou hast given me I have given them that they may be one even as we are one I in them and thou in me”); or of their joy and happiness: John 17:13, “that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” But the Holy Ghost, being the love and joy of God, is his beauty and happiness, and it is in our partaking of the same Holy Spirit that our communion with God consists…

Here Edwards moves on to make a very interesting observation that demonstrates how attentive he is to Scripture in these matters. He supposes that this notion that the Spirit is the mutual love of the Father and the Son which is given to believers is the only good account for the fact that Paul (13x!) wishes grace and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, without ever mentioning the Holy Spirit by name. This only makes sense if, “the Holy Ghost is himself love and grace of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Or again, in places like John 14:21 and 23, Christ mentions the love of Father and Son for believers, “but no mention is made of the Holy Ghost” or “never any mention of the Holy Ghost’s love.”

Even more strikingly, Edwards notes how Scripture seems to be silent about the love of the Spirit within the Godhead itself:

I suppose to be the reason why we have never any account of the Holy Ghost’s loving either the Father or the Son, or of the Son’s or the Father’s loving the Holy Ghost, or of the Holy Ghost’s loving the saints, though these things are so often predicated of both the other persons.

The only account Edwards can give for Scripture’s silence regarding the Spirit’s mutual love for Father and Son is rooted in the abundance Scripture’s witness regarding the Spirit mutual love of Father and Son.

This isn’t even close to a full account of either Edwards’s exegesis, pneumatology, or his trinitarian theology.  What’s more recent works by Kyle Strobel, Oliver Crisp, and others have pointed out, Edwards’s account of the Trinity has some very serious, conceptual oddities. Still, even if one does not follow Edwards in all of his theological maneuvers, it’s clear articulation serves as a model for theologians who believe careful, committed exegesis need not be pitted against speculative, metaphysical reasoning in theology.

More importantly, on the material question of the Spirit as the mutual bond of love, he shows the plausibility and seriousness that should be given it on Scriptural grounds. Recognizing the Spirit as the, “infinitely holy and sweet energy [which] arises between the Father and the Son” need not be a matter of philosophical fancy after all, but rather of God’s own Self-Witness in his Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Note on Biography, Theology, and Ad Hominem


Nietzsche was the master of the ad hominem.

I’ve been thinking about arguments again, but this time with respect to the turn to first-person narratives in the broader internet landscape, and within the online, Evangelical world. One of the persistent features of these sorts of essays is the move from “personal story to general point.” You tell your harrowing, or odd, or funny story, etc. and then move to what you learned from it (and maybe what we can all learn). In church circles, we often make theological points this way, especially if we can tie it to a major change of mind on some issue.

It’s an engaging way of making a point and so it has come to dominate much Internet publication culture. But more than any other style, it also tends to tie people to their positions in a way other modes of writing (a persuasive essay, inductive argument, etc.) do not. That’s true in the broader cultural phenomenon as well as theological writing in Church circles.

Now, I don’t have space for a full-on analysis of this style, its benefits, its grounding, or how much it actually connects to Biblical narrative, or even Evangelical testimonials. I just want to make two or three points about what it seems to do to our ability to talk to one another in a dispute.

Reactive Reading. If you have been trained, either by reading or writing this way, to sort of insert yourself into the argument all the time, this tends to make people reactive readers. In other words, you may be prone towards assuming you’re the intended audience, or target of a piece, when you couldn’t be further from the author’s mind.

This matters because it may cause you to misread the piece. For instance, you may fill in bits of the argument from your own (assumed) analogous experience, and thereby change the shape of what an author is saying. I have seen this happen and have had it happen to my own arguments more than once. (This is actually why I am prone to excessive caveating.)

In any case, this bogs down communication and understanding horribly.

Argument confused with Ad HominemConnected to this is the tendency to confuse arguments with ad hominems. If your story is your argument for X (Calvinism, Gay Marriage, a Trump Vote, vaccines, etc.), then if I argue against X, it’s very easy for you to feel hurt, be offended by the “tone”, or to take it as a personal assault or insult to you. And this could be the case even if I very studiously avoid commenting on your story at all.

And this hinders discussion in at least two ways: it injects an extra note of personal hostility where none may exist. Second. it confuses the nature of the argument immediately. So instead of dealing with the various premises put forward by one person, we’re now focused on managing the feelings of the second, and none of the issues are actually clarified.

Argument replaced with Ad Hominem as Conversation-stopper. Finally, this tendency encourages us to actually replace arguments with ad hominems. The more theology is reduced to biography without remainder, the quicker we are to reach for ad hominems in the middle of an argument. “Well, you would say that since you’re X…”

There is, of course, a point to noting nobody is an identity-less thinker. I’m a married, 30-year-old, bilingual, tri-cultural, Arab, Hispanic male who lives in the States, grew up in SoCal, and is in grad school for theology. There’s a story there and it impacts my perspective on the world and even my theological development and positions. Perspective does matter. Hear me say that.

But simply noting these facts about perspective logically cannot (and morally should not) stop an argument dead in its tracks. Especially when it is used to leap-frog over arguments entirely.

This move has the effect, first, of reducing persons to key identity-markers and not recognizing them as individual, Image-bearers in any conversation. Second, it is unsatisfying and likely to backfire in the long-run, because the quicker you shut down the conversation this way, the more likely it is that you have left the argument (and the arguer) unanswered. And so they (and onlookers) may be cowed into silence for now, but the issue is still there festering.

Or, again, it encourages us to rely heavily on the argument from inconsistency or hypocrisy, “How can you say Y, when you have done X?” Now, there may indeed be an inconsistency in a person’s position or life, but that doesn’t immediately invalidate an argument. It just means the person is a hypocrite, or a sinner (ie. human), or maybe you’re just being massively unfair.

In any case, this happens all the time in online debates, and I suspect it is connected to this tendency to first-personalize every issue. Arguments about issues are not arguments about truth, but power-grabs and defensive moves. We tend towards the “what this really means” defense.

(And let me note from the examples I mentioned above, this tendency isn’t just about theological conversations in Evangelicalism. It is everywhere. Watch how quickly someone on the political Right spits out the word “elitist” at someone when the argument isn’t going their way.)

Golden Rule Reading (and Arguing)

I have passed over too many details and nuances too quickly. Still, I think these brief considerations ought to give us pause. I’m not saying we ought to ban first-person narratives, nor think about the relation to biography to theology, nor am I even rejecting the appropriateness of an ad hominem from time to time. I am simply encouraging us to take notice of these tendencies and be careful of them.

Do I tend to insert myself into articles or arguments too quickly? Am I prone towards narcissistic reading?

Do I tend to feel insulted by arguments all the time? Are people constantly needing to explain their meaning to me all the time to clarify their lack of ill-intent?

Do I tend to reach for biographical or ad hominem arguments quickly? Do I tend to do so before I actually engage the argument under consideration?

Again, it comes down to an application of the Golden Rule in our reading and our arguing: Read as you’d like to be read.

Soli Deo Gloria