The Secret Things Belong to the Lord (Evil, the Will of God, and the Cross)

GrunewaldWhy should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
 Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases.

(Psalm 115:2-3)

Believers will always have questions about the will of God.

For instance, can God do whatever he wants?

Well, when reading texts like that posted above, it seems quite obvious that he can: “he does all that he pleases.” Other translations say, “he does whatever he wants.”

Beyond a simple proof-text, though, it seems very apparent in Scripture that God is not hedged in or boxed in at all. The Triune Creator freely brought everything into existence out of nothing by his word and maintains it at every moment (Col. 1:15-20; Heb. 1:1-3). He is all-powerful—there are no metaphysical limits to stop him.

And he seems to have the right to dispose of all of his works as he sees fit—I mean, doesn’t a potter have the right to do what he wants with his works? (Isaiah 45; Romans 9) He is the Lord of history who directs the courses of nations, which are but a drop in the bucket compared to him (Isaiah 40-55). Certainly the Author has authority over his creation?

Whatever He Wants? Really?

At the same time, there’s a scary edge there, if you’re paying attention. Some people have worried about this kind of talk. I mean, can God really do whatever he wants? Can he make what we currently call evil good and vice versa? Can he break his promises or violate his word just because he feels like it at a given moment?

In other words, when some hear the phrase, “God can do whatever he wants”, they hear “God is arbitrary and capricious—he might do good and he might do evil. He can do whatever he wants.”

Now, this could truly fall into a dark, arbitrary understanding of God’s “sovereignty.” In some of the grizzlier versions of Calvinism and pop-level preaching, you can unfortunately find that. We can call that a caricature if we want, but sadly the caricatures live in real churches. For that reason, some imagine that’s the only or classic version of what that doctrine teaches.

And I get how things can get that way. Reformed theology has typically followed the great Church Father Augustine in affirming that the will of God is the deepest cause of all that exists, and why it exists. Augustine, assuming he was summarizing Scripture (especially the Apostle Paul), taught that nothing precedes God’s will or even causes God’s will to will what he does.

Of course, the hitch is in what sense have people accepted Augustine’s claim here as true?

A Non-Arbitrary God

John Calvin was very clearly (and to some, notoriously) on Augustine’s side in saying that there is no cause beyond God’s will. Quotes to this effect can be found all over his works. But at the same time, it’s often not noticed he also repeatedly condemns “that absolute will of which the Sophists babble, by an impious and profane distinction separating his justice from his power” (Institutes 1.17.2).

In other words, Calvin was critical of a certain ham-fisted view of God’s will. God’s enacting of his power is never divorced from the rest of who he is: loving, just, wise, holy, merciful, gracious, and so forth. God is one and so traditionally it is taught that God is simple (not made up of different, separable parts). So his act of willing is consistent with all of what he is. God won’t will or want something out of the character he has shown himself to be in history and Scripture, so to speak.

A contemporary of Calvin’s, Wolfgang Musculus, similarly said that while we should accept Augustine’s statement in the sense that “there is nothing prior to or greater than the will of God…if we understand it of those things that are not in God” (cited in R. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 3: The Divine Essence and Attributes, p. 437). In other words, God’s will is not forced by things outside of God (creation, other wills, etc). The things that God causes directly, or permits to happen indirectly, and so forth, happen because God has chosen to act this way or allow these things for his own reasons.

Now, God either permits something willingly or unwillingly. If he permits it unwillingly, then it’s not really permission. It’s coercion. And to say that God can be coerced—that there is a power that is greater than God and can force his hand—is repugnant to Scripture and absurd. This is why Musculus says we ought to agree with that God’s will is ultimate over and against anything outside of him.

What’s more, it should be noted that for the Reformed tradition, creation is a free act of God. The only necessary object of God’s will is his own perfect life—the eternal love and delight of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Triune God’s perfect aseity or independence means that God is complete within himself. For that reason, God does not need to create, to initiate history as some sort of self-completion project.

As Dutch theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel puts it, “God is all-sufficient in himself, having had no need to create any of his creatures. The creature can neither add glory nor felicity to him” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1, 193-194).

But none of this means that God’s will is absolutely arbitrary in the sense that God wills things for no good reason at all or that his will could wander in any direction regardless of God’s character. As Bavinck says, “God’s will is one with his being, his wisdom, his goodness, and all his other perfections” (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2: God and Creation,  240).  God’s will is what it is—good—because he is eternally and un-changingly good.

So God can do whatever he wants, but what he wants is not arbitrary.

At this point we run up against a number of issues when we think about things like God’s will for history, his will for humans, his will for good, and the problem of evil.

Are Sinners “Doing” the Will of God?

Let’s get at the question another way. When we look at someone who is committing a sin, can we say that they are fulfilling the will of God in any sense?

When it comes to God’s will for history, Scripture points in some complicated directions worth exploring first.

Let’s start with a modest case. God tells Abraham in Genesis 15:12-16 that his descendants would be taken as slaves in a foreign land for hundreds of years before they inherit the promised lands he will give them. Surely we see that he knows the evil that’s going to happen–the hundreds of years full of generations born into cruel slavery, violence, oppression, and death–and he just as surely could stop it. I mean, given the Exodus, the mighty signs and wonders he works there to set them free, and the dozens of miracles, providential turns that he works later in Scripture, he very obviously could have stopped it. But he very clearly doesn’t. Here we reach at least one sense where the evil that occurs happens only because God willingly allows it. And if he willingly allows it, then there is a clear sense in which it happens “according to his will”—at least in the sense that he doesn’t step in to stop what he could. He wills not to interfere.

Later in Genesis we encounter a far bolder sense of God’s will in relation to evil, when we read of Joseph being sold into slavery by the wickedness, jealousy, evil, and malice of his brothers. Yet when talks to them years later, he doesn’t excuse them or say they didn’t really do evil, but he also says that they did these things according to God’s will. Indeed, he goes further and said that there is a way that God was working good through their evil. Given his position in the kingdom of Egypt, he can say, “you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5), and “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20). God did not only work good after the fact–after the brothers did what he couldn’t prevent–no, God sent Joseph ahead.

Now, we could examine any number of similar Old Testament narratives, but this isn’t only an Old Testament thing.

Indeed, we see the same thing in the preaching of the apostles about the death of Jesus. Peter preached that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” to be “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). Or again, in his prayer after being released from being beaten, he states that “in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28).

On this apostles’ read, the free actions of the evil-doers who crucified Jesus were decreed and predestined by God to take place so that the world might be saved.

In this, the disciples didn’t depart from their master. When he sent them out, Jesus told them “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matt. 10:29). Jesus’ comfort to his disciples is not merely that God sees sparrows fall. The point is that even sparrows are under God’s providence. No evil can befall them without his permission, so they should take heart in God since they are worth more than mere sparrows.

More importantly, in his hour of fear, it was to that same Father that the Beloved Son prayed in the Garden of Gethesemane “not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42)—right before he was led away by the hands of sinful men to be crucified so that Scripture might be fulfilled. Indeed, it was precisely for that hour that he had come (John 12:27). It is quite clear that Christ understands the events to follow—the perversity, rebellion, and blasphemy of the High Priest and Pilate—as in some sense conforming to the will of his Father. Otherwise, “you would have no power over me” (John 19:11).

The Secret Things Belong To the LORD

And with these kinds of testimonies in mind, we come to some helpful dead guy distinctions.

Even though they said that God had only one will (in the sense of “faculty of willing”), and ultimately one will for everything, texts like these pushed the older theologians to distinguish between aspects or dimensions of God’s will. While Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and others carved things up a little differently, the Reformed most typically spoke of God’s “prescriptive will” and God’s “decretal will”, or God’s “revealed will” and his “will of good pleasure.”

The first is God’s revealed “will” consisting in his commands for us and our good like the 10 commandments, the promises we’re supposed to believe, specific commands given to historical figures, and so forth. There is the will of command which we can obey or disobey which verses like Psalm 143:10 talk about (“teach me to do your will”). It is moral will for our conduct that conforms to our nature as his dependent, obedient creatures.

The second is God’s ultimate will for what he will either do or permit to be done “according to his good pleasure” (Eph. 1:5; 5:10; cf. Matt. 11:26; Romans 9:19; Phil. 2:13), as we have been examining in the preceding passages. It is this God’s will of decree which is sure, constant, and unchanging like we read in other verses like Romans 9:19 (“For who has resisted his will?”), or Ephesians 1:11 which speaks of God working out his predestined purposes according to his “eternal counsel” to work out all things.

So then, there are two senses (at least) in which we can talk about humans relating to God’s will.

Many theologians have pointed out that Moses sums this dynamic up well in the covenant renewal ceremony at Sinai. After warning the Israelites of the (likely) judgments they would suffer for their (likely) disobedience, he says, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). It’s almost as if to say, “The future is in God’s hands, though—for now your only concern is to be obedient to what he has openly commanded us.”

Of course, these sorts of distinctions are not without tensions, but I think you can see that none of this is speculative. It’s not about coming up with some perfect idea of God and then shoving it onto the Scriptures to make the verses fit. These are the kinds of distinctions that arise when you try read the narrative of Scripture, the Gospels, the epistles, and especially the story of Jesus as one grand, singular drama with the Lord of Heaven and Earth as the prime (though not sole) Author and character.

So what’s the answer to our question? How are creatures who are sinning relating to the will of God?

Well, in the sense of God’s will of command, they’re obviously being disobedient. What’s more, there is a clear sense in which God hates and is opposed to those things he forbids us. And yet, it’s also clear (in at least those cases listed above) that they’re conforming to God’s will of decree. God could at any time stop, hinder, influence, etc. any of them to do otherwise and yet he does not, so at least in the minimal sense of permission, they are sinning “according to his will.”

It’s important to note that these “wills” are not ultimately at odds, since in God they are angles on one ultimate act of willing. Nor is it inconsistent for God to forbid the human sins God know he will end up incorporating his ultimate plan for all things. This is where the Creator/creature distinction plays a role in reminding us, as Bavinck puts it, that a father may forbid his child to use a sharp knife, though he himself may use it without any harm.

I should say more here, but God’s infinity needs to play a greater role in our thinking in these areas. Far too much theology operates under the assumption that God is simply a much larger version of ourselves. That God must related to creatures and the creation in the same way that we do. We forget that God’s relationship to creation is sui generis, utterly unique.

Evil, Complex Goods, and God’s Will

All the same, it’s not a wild question to ask how could God will to allow evil? Or even ordain and intend it in the case of Joseph at the hand of his brothers, or Christ at the hand of persecutors?

Well, C.S. Lewis has a very helpful passage here in his classic The Problem of Pain where he delineates varieties of goods and evils. In the first place, there are simple goods, unproblematically considered in themselves to be good (ice cream, love, sunsets). Second, there are simple evils (paper cuts, murder, 3rd degree burns). Third, there are “complex goods”, which are packages of events, states of affairs, etc. that contain “simple evils” within them, but which God uses to produce more complex, redemptive goods. The cross and resurrection of Jesus is the prime example of this, but Joseph’s story is as well. And this seems amply demonstrated in Scripture beyond these two.

Now, we must say a few things here.

First, simple evils can be part of complex goods doesn’t mean that—considered in themselves—they don’t remain evil. Cancer, in itself, is evil. Murder, in itself, is evil. Divorce, in itself, is evil. But what these distinctions remind us is that these simple evils take place within a nexus of a broader context that as a total state of affairs cannot be considered unremittingly evil.

Second, the older Reformed theologians were careful to point out that God’s “willing” of simple evils, sins, is not on the same plane, or in the same way as he willed positive goods. Yes, evil only comes about by God’s permission or ordination, but God does not have a “flat” will, so to speak. He only “wills” to permit evil events in a derivative way, as a necessary constituent of complex goods which are the proper object of his good will.

This, incidentally, is why I think it’s a mistake (both theological and pastoral) to speak so straightforwardly or bluntly about God “ordaining” this or that specific instance of evil. Yes, it does have its place somewhere in God’s broader providence because it happened. But very often (indeed, most often) we have absolutely no idea where it fits or why it was included. As such, it is misleading to suggest that God wanted x-event to happen for its own sake. It is wise to remember that “the secret things belong to the Lord.” In any case, we have a great many other doctrines with which to comfort the grieving, so it’s not always pastorally necessary or wise to immediately pull out or doctrine of providence in any given situation. (Though, see Heidelberg Catechism Q& A 26).

Third, some of you may be wondering about my jumping back and forth between the language of “ordination” and “permission.” For many this might seem like impermissible fudging. It might be. But without going into all the distinctions that I probably should, I will simply note that despite Calvin’s criticisms of abuses of the language of “permission”, the majority of the tradition still thought it useful (on this see J. Todd Billings Rejoicing in Lament).  This language of permission helps preserve the different ways that God’s preserving activity and causality are involved in human free acts.

God at every moment preserves and sustains all persons, things, acts in existence. In that sense (at least), he is the primary cause of all secondary causes. He is also the primary, non-competitive cause of free causal agents such as humans and angels. But with this in mind, we also want to say that God is positively involved causally in the good acts of creatures, enabling, encouraging, guiding, and so forth. This is essential (though maybe not exhaustive) for not being a reductionist about human freedom and divine sovereignty–recognizing that divine and human agency operate on different levels of being.

At the same time he is involved only negatively, or by a sort of absence, in not restraining the free, sinful acts of fallen humans who tend towards evil without his sustaining activity. It’s sort of like the difference between the Sun being the “cause” of heat directly (by way of proximity) and indirectly the “cause” of cold (by way of distance or a cloud-cover, etc). As Francis Turretin says, “So although sin necessarily follows the decree, it cannot be said to flow from the decree. The decree does not flow into the thing, nor is it effective of evil, but only permissive and directive” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 4.4.10).

In that sense, we can speak of this permission of evil acts as a form or a part of God’s ordination of history, as long as we think of this as part of the broader work of God in predestining, creating, preserving, and sustaining all things in order that he might sum them up in Christ (Eph. 1:10).

The Horror of Purposeless Evil

Now, admittedly this is not all easy to swallow. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of any number of horrible events and ask, “Are you saying that God ordained this as part of his will? That it’s part of some greater good? What possible good could come from this? No, to say that this was in any way a part of the eternal plan of God is to justify it and make God complicit with evil and this something we cannot do when we look at Christ. God is entirely only opposed to evil and only ever redemptively works after the fact, fixing what we have broken, but not purposing the break which has absolutely no place in God’s eternal purposes.”

I get this line of thought. Honestly, I do. But I think it fails us for a couple of reasons we have already raised.

First, simply consider the absolute horror of what it would mean for God to have no good purposes or reasons whatsoever for allowing all of the evil that he clearly could stop. Every example of every horrible event that you just came up with, would be totally and utterly pointless in every sense, and yet something God is still responsible for because he could have stopped it.

Because—unless you’re working with a tiny, little mythological Zeus-god—the Triune Creator of heaven and earth could stop each and every act of evil should he desire it; again, either God’s permission is willing or coerced. Assuming it’s not coerced, if he doesn’t stop an act of evil, he either has a good enough reason or purpose for it or not.

On this point even the Arminian and the Calvinist is agreed. It’s only that the Arminian typically appeals to a general good reason or purpose (libertarian free will or libertarian-freely chosen love) and that the Calvinist some more meticulous, specific (though probably unknown) providential purposes. So if you appeal to the mystery of free will which is necessary for love, moral choice, etc. (a venerable move), you’re still saying God had a good enough reason for evil. It’s just happens to be a very, very generic one.

At which point, you have to begin to push further back into and beyond the act of creation. Unless you’re an Open Theist or a Process Theist, you still have to face the fact that God freely created this world with a perfect knowledge of every nook and cranny of sin, evil, and the goods connected to them that would unfold. He willed to create this world and derivatively these evils exist as a part of his providential order. I know there are important distinctions to be made there and I’m glancing over them far too quickly, but the point stands. It’s not only the Reformed Calvinist who must reckon with God’s eternal plan or divine reasons, at this point.

Coming back around, let me just put it this way: many will object that sounds awful, cruel, or crass to tell someone who has suffered the loss of child some pious platitude about “God had a reason”, or “it’s all a part of God’s plan.” And done crassly, it is. But consider that it is equally awful, if not more so, to crassly say, “Thank God that was pointless”, or “Isn’t it a comfort to know that preventable evil and your suffering were allowed to come to pass for no reason whatsoever? That God stood there, doing nothing, for no purpose at all.”

Unless you can say that God had purposes for his permission of evil, you’re just left with a black hole of the collateral damage of either divine apathy or incompetence.

The Comfort of a Purposeful Cross

Secondly, the “hands-off” view fails us more clearly because we have already seen in Scripture that God ordained, according to his plan and foreknowledge, the very great and glorious salvation of the the human race through the damnable evil of Christ’s crucifiers. God handed the Son over to be betrayed into the hands of sinful men in order to raise him up, justify him and thereby justify us in him.

This was no purposeless evil, then. Nor was the resurrection a happy result of God’s clever ability to turn a frown upside down—it was the center of God’s eternal plan for redemptive history.

My focus on the God’s handing over a Christ to suffer, be crucified, and then rise again is purposeful. It is important for us to know that this is not an abstract or distant will. Scripture is clear that God planned beforehand to sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:11), and that he was “foreknown” for this task “from before the foundations of the earth” (1 Peter 1:20).  But this is only the case as he is also the “Lamb that was slain before the foundations of the earth” (Rev. 13:8) in order to ransom his people from their sin.

Yes, it was an hour that made the soul of the Son of Man “greatly troubled”, that tempted him to ask, “Father, save me from this hour”, but about which eventually resolved, “for this purpose I have come to this hour” (John 12:27). In this, the Triune God is not immune from his own sovereignty, so to speak. Rather, we see God’s will to “do whatever he wants” most clearly in his willing to be the Father who sends the Son in the power of the Spirit to become incarnate, live under the conditions of a weakness, suffer brutally, die forsaken, and rise again in glory on our behalf.

At the center of the divine will for the history of the cosmos, then, shines the blinding light of God’s self-giving beauty in the face of Christ.

Post-Script

Of course, there are are probably a dozen or so sub-topics I barely grazed in this discussion and so if you’re far from convinced, especially on the difficult issues of freedom and sovereignty, that’s more than reasonable. This is a limited (if absurdly lengthy) blog post. I think some of the resources I pointed to above are good places to go digging (Herman Bavinck, Richard Muller, and especially Todd Billings).

For instance, some will object that none of this proves his ordination of every matter in history. Yes, but I do think it does show that God has ordained, permitted, or purposed at least some. Therefore he can do so in others. And then from there it’s a matter of seeing whether the categories provided seems to present an overall consistent picture with Scripture.

To cap it off, though, for those who find themselves put off by the whole discussion, or disturbed, I’ll simply point out that Calvin himself warned that the one who tries to pry too deeply into God’s secret counsels “plunges headlong into an immense abyss, involves himself in numberless inextricable snares, and buries himself in the thickest darkness.” (Institutes. III.xxiv.4) Instead, it’s best to simply look to Christ, rest in his grace, trust that “although there were wise and holy reasons” for God’s decrees about history, “nevertheless these reasons, though known to him, are not known to us.”

The secret things belong to the Lord, but Christ crucified and risen is what he has revealed to us.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

None Like Him (By Jen Wilkin)

none like him.jpgI have to admit, I have never aspired to become a “God-fearing woman.” I benefited, nonetheless, while reading Jen Wilkin’s new book None Like Him: 10 Ways God is Different From Us (And Why That’s a Good Thing). In it, she issues a winsome, if bracing call for women to become wise, rock-solid, and whole by knowing what it is to “fear the Lord”—to respect, love, and trust their Creator and Maker. But if women are to become truly God-fearers, they must know just who their God is.

But how can they love him who they have not trusted? And how can they trust him who they have not known? How can they know him who they have not studied? Not very well.

So with biblical care, narrative, and a sharp, insightful wit, Wilkin begins the first half of a two part project in studying the “attributes of God.”

The Attributes

Traditionally, theologians have recognized that you can understand God according to two aspects. First, you can study his triune glory, recognizing God as Triune: Father, Son, and Spirit, with their distinctive properties, mutual relations, and saving works in history.

Second, you can study the attributes of the one, shared essence of the three persons—the characteristics and properties that we speak of him on the basis of what he has said and done for us—like God’s power, love, beauty, and wisdom.

Well, these attributes are also often split up into two categories: the incommunicable and communicable. The communicable attributes are those that we say that as image-bearers, we can “share” or imitate. Things like his love, grace, mercy, wisdom, and so forth. And second, the incommunicable attributes are those attributes which belong to God alone as the infinite Creator. These are attributes like his limitless power, his infinite knowledge, or his self-existence.

We Are Not Rivals

Wilkin’s driving insight in this work is that the incommunicable attributes give us our measure in light of the measureless God. We were created as finite, contingent creatures, made to enjoy communion with and the blessings of our infinitely good God. Our call as Image-bearers is not to rival God, but to reflect him in the world. But ever since the Fall, we have constantly been striving to somehow overtake, or compete with God’s limitless life. And that’s exactly when the trouble starts for us.

And when we think about it, how many of us can’t recognize the problem in our own lives? How many of us aren’t trying to live as if we were the only self-sustaining being in the universe? Never flagging, never resting, but simply pushing on from commitment to commitment, without regard for our human limits. How much better would our life be if we could rest in the fact that our self-existent God is the one sustaining our lives in existence? If we could “topple the myth” of our self-sufficiency and lean on the one who never slumbers nor sleeps because he is watching us?

In ten chapters, Wilkin goes down the line of God’s incommunicable attributes “toppling the myth” of our omniscience, sovereignty, knowledge, and so forth, in light of the beauty and glory of the infinite God we see in Scripture.

Reasons to Read The Book (For Everyone)

I have to say, I really loved this little book. For one thing, as I already mentioned, Wilkin is a good writer. She can turn a phrase, tell a story, all the while keeping your attention on the matter at hand: God and his greatness.

Oh, and for those who are worried about time—she also knows how to get to the point. The chapters are about 10 or so pages, but if you do want to go deeper, she’s provided extra Scriptural texts and questions to meditate on. Which actually makes it perfect for a Bible study group too.

Second, this is a fantastic example of what good theology and doctrine looks like applied practically. I am a strong believer in the proposition that theology is important, not just for having your heavenly GPA straight when you get there, but for the actual living we have do down on earth. Wilkin takes the truths of Scripture and some of the best insights of systematic theology and shows in practical, tangible ways, how they should impact our day to day life.

In a lot of ways, it’s like the old-school works of someone like Thomas Watson who would preach a very careful sermon on a doctrine, and then list about 10 “uses” for it in everyday life. Wilkin puts these attributes to work in the everyday world of work, parenting, marriage, and everywhere else we do our living.

For myself, I found this to be a personal benefit reading a chapter a day in the morning before having to go in and try to study German. Day by day I have been reminded of my very, very human limits. But day by day I was encouraged as I remembered that God has no limits and it is he who will sustain me in a thousand different ways during my studies.

Third, I love that Wilkin pitched this at women, because I get the sense that much of the devotional and theological literature that is on offer for ladies in our churches is sub-par (that thankfully seems to be changing). But I have to say, I don’t think this is just a book for women. It’s not “women’s theology” focused on (as Hannah Anderson puts it) the “pink passages.” It’s just good theology for everyone because it’s biblical, and it just happens to have women in view in terms of some of its application.

(For that reason, though, I think it may behoove a good many young, male preachers to pick up the book, simply to learn how to think outside your own experience to be able to apply the Word of God to your whole congregation.)

To conclude, Wilkin’s None Like Him is a great book. You should considering buying and reading it. Take the time this year to focus on resting in the beauty of the fact that God is God and we are not. And that’s just okay.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Pursuing God with Joshua Ryan Butler

The Pursuing God.jpgJoshua Ryan Butler is a friend and one of my favorite newer authors. I got to know him after I reviewed his last book The Skeletons in God’s Closet for the Gospel Coalition and ended up loving it.

Well, now he’s back with a follow-up book The Pursuing God: A Reckless, Irrational, Obsessed Love That’s Dying to Bring Us Home.  In this book, he tackles the difficult issues like incarnation, atonement, wrath, and the Trinity in order to show that the God of the Gospel really is good, and the gospel really is good news.

Now, I’d typically give you a full review, but I sort of already blurbed it, so I’m just going to share my endorsement and urge you to pick the thing up:

Joshua Ryan Butler is enthralled by the vision of a beautiful God whose goodness goes down deep into his bones and he wants us to share it. Unlike so many today, though, his way of inviting us into that vision is not to paper over the dark stains that mar our popular pictures of God, but to face them head-on. In The Pursuing God, Butler sets out to restore a portrait of the biblical gospel of God’s incarnate, crucified, and risen Son, correcting our worst caricatures of sacrifice and atonement, and revealing the glory of the triune God who has been relentlessly seeking to restore us to himself.

Honestly, this is one of those books I’m sort of bummed I didn’t get to write myself. That said, I’m also glad Josh did. He’s got a way with images and metaphors that flip things on their head and show you that all the stuff in Christianity that we’re tempted to do away with are actually what we need most.

Also, I have to say, I was extremely impressed with the way he was able to take some of the best, recent scholarship on the issue of wrath, judgement, and penal substitution, and present it in a non-academic, life-giving way, without selling you short theologically. This is probably now my favorite, popular-level book on the subject to date, and I think it’s the place to start if you’re either having trouble with these issues, or are looking to preach to those who do.

Buy it. Read it. Get copies for your friends and family and you’ll have birthdays and Christmas covered for the next 6 months.

But in case none of this has sold you, yet, Alastair and I had Josh on the podcast to chat  about the book. I hope this whets your appetite to pick it up.

Soli Deo Gloria

What I Can’t Know If I Don’t Know the Trinity

the trinityI’ve already written of the recent controversy over the Trinity and my hope that solid, theological and spiritual reinvigoration would come from it. All the same, I ran across a fantastic passage in the great divine Herman Witsius’ treatment of the Trinity in his Sacred Dissertations on the Apostle’s Creed (a remarkably careful and pastoral work).

In his comment on the Trinitarian shape of the Apostle’s Creed, he has a short segment arguing for the importance of our knowledge of this chief point of Christian doctrine. It’s not only that a proper understanding of the Trinity is some sort of arid proposition we need to check off a list of “need to know” facts to be “good Christians.” Rather, it’s that without a knowledge of the Trinity, we are simply robbed of all of the chief comforts of Christian faith:

When the Trinity is not known, the necessary consequence is, that the principal foundation of our faith and comfort, are unknown. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ.

In order to explain this, he goes on to expound the importance of recognizing the work of each person individually, beginning with the Father:

I cannot know how God can show mercy to a sinner in a manner worthy of himself, unless I know he has a Son whom he could send to make satisfaction for sin, and a Spirit who can apply to me the merits of the Son.

Right off the bat, you see the Trinitarian shape of the heart of God’s atoning, justifying, and sanctifying work with the Father sending the Son in the economy of redemption and the Spirit’s application. Continuing on:

If I know not that the Father is God, I shall be ignorant that I am a Son of God,–which is the sum of our felicity.

Without a knowledge that God is eternally Father to the Son, we will not understand the marvel of that highest privilege of the gospel: the adoption unto Sonship into which are admitted in union with Christ by which we can cry “Abba, Father!”

But according to Witsius, that Fatherhood is only good news to us if we recognize God the Son:

If I know not that the Son is God, I shall not form a right estimate of the love of God the Father who has given him to me, nor of the grace of the Son, who, though possessing inconceivable majesty, humbled himself so wonderfully for my sake;

It’s fascinating to see how Witsius is at once trying to point out the importance of each of the persons in the work of salvation, but can only do so with reference to the other persons. (Indeed, earlier on, he spends a good deal of space explaining the unified activity of the whole Trinity in every act ad extra, the one will, mind, and operation of the Godhead and so forth.) But here we see that we can only understand the love of God the Father being magnified in the gift of the eternal Son, whom we can only recognize as majestic in his self-humbling in the working of salvation.

But he pushes on to point out further how the Son’s divinity is crucial to our soul’s peace:

 –nor shall I be able to place a firm dependence upon his satisfaction, which could not be sufficient unless it were of infinite value, or to rely securely on his power, which cannot save me unless it be evidently omnipotent;–it will be impossible for me, in short, to regard him as my Saviour and my Chief Good, because none excepting the true God of Israel is Israel’s God and Redeemer.

The Son’s divinity matters because otherwise, any satisfaction he makes would be merely finite, insufficient for the weighty work of a cosmic atonement. Second, we have strong enemies—sin, death, and the devil—how can I have assurance of the Son’s victory if he is not almighty God himself? Only the “the true God of Israel is Israel’s God and redeemer.”

Finally, he turns to the person of the Holy Spirit:

If…I am not sure that the Holy Spirit, to whose direction and government I ought to commit myself, is God, I shall not be able to esteem my subjection to him as true liberty, to maintain a holy acquiescence in his protecting care, or to rely on his testimony respecting my salvation as a most ample security.

If the Spirit is not God, then submitting to him isn’t the true freedom and dignity of serving the highest Lord. Nor is receiving the Holy Spirit as another counselor the great gift that Jesus says it is (John 16). And listening to his internal witness or testimony via Scripture isn’t hearing the voice of God himself assuring me of my salvation.

For Witsius, then, the Trinity isn’t the doctrine that you get to once you’ve built up all the rest of your faith and you sort of add it as the cherry on top. No, it’s foundation upon which everything is built, and if the foundation is weak, everything comes crumbling down:

Christian faith is of so delicate a character, that it can firmly acquiesce in none but the Most High God. It must, then, be of the first importance and necessity for us to know a doctrine, one which the knowledge of so many necessary points depends.

He concludes this point with a historical example:

This argument is confirmed by experience; for, as we see in the Socinians, the same men who deny the Trinity, deny, also, the satisfaction of Christ, the invincible power of the Spirit in our regeneration and conservation, the certainty of salvation, and the full assurance of faith. The mystery of our salvation through Christ is so intimately connected with the mystery of the Trinity, that when the latter is unknown or denied, the former cannot be known or acknowledged.

The Socinian heretics were remarkable in their day for having denied just about every chief point of doctrine from the deity of Christ, to the atonement, assurance of salvation, an everything else. Witsius says that their chief mistake was the loss of the Trinity. To miscontrue the nature of God is to inevitably misconstrue the nature of God’s salvation. When you lose the Trinity, you pull on the thread that unravels the seamless garment of Christian salvation and comfort.

The point is, when you don’t know God as Trinity, there’s not much you can know about the Gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria

On Trinitarian Controversy: Why It’s Not Always Terrible and How to Go About It

Nicea

I think I see Carl Trueman over there in the yellow.

If you’ve been following the theology blogosphere in Reformed circles over the last week or so, you’ll know there’s been a bit of a dust-up over the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Multiple posts from a number of parties, both insiders as well as interested outsiders, have weighed in and things don’t seem to be slowing down.

Things are getting downright 4th Century out there.

Briefly, the controversy is over a piece of teaching that’s been labeled “Eternal Functional Subordinationism.” Essentially, its advocates hold that much as we see the Son submitting to the Father in his historical, incarnate work as the Godman, it is appropriate to speak of the Son submitting, subordinating himself to, or obeying his Father in the eternal being of God. For this, they usually appeal to any number of texts in the Gospels and especially 1 Cor 11:3.

Now, some who advocate this position have done so while simultaneously rejecting the historic doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son. Others (more modestly) see it as a constructive, admissible development of that same doctrine. (As a side-note, I think that distinction is important).

Its critics have charged multiple things: first, it’s not Biblical; second, it’s not consistent with historic, Nicene Orthodoxy; third, it threatens the honor the Son, introducing hierarchy in the Trinity; fourth, it does goofy things to the doctrine of God’s will, the persons, and must slide into a form of social trinitarianism. Obviously, these charges apply more or less to more or less radical versions of the doctrine.

My point here is not to weigh in substantially on the various, complex issues involved. Actual theologians on both sides are doing that forcefully and clearly enough. (Though, for the record, I’m not an EFS guy and I’m very adamant about Eternal Generation. While some advocates are better than others, about the furthest I think I’m comfortable going down these lines currently is to speak of the filiality [sonliness] of the eternally-generated Son involving a proper secondariness, which works itself out in history in his faithful obedience.)

No, what I really want to do is put in a quick, good word for this sort of argument happening publicly around this issue.

On the Good of Trinitiarian Controversy

As this thing has started to kick off, there has been an understandable amount of hand-wringing. For one thing, some of the initial volleys seem to have been made with less than moderate care for language. Second, the doctrine has been taught by well-respected Evangelical theologians for some time, and academic arguments around it have been around for a while, so the outburst online seems to have taken some off-guard.

More generally, though, I’ve seen some confusion as to why all this sort of thing even matters. Isn’t the Trinity an incomprehensible mystery anyways? And isn’t all this so much logic-chopping, trying to fit God in a tight little box, instead of simply worshiping him? What does this sort of thing do for our communion with God, anyways? All it seems to do is stir up and bolster fleshly passion under the guise of questing for spiritual truth.

It’s true that sometimes these theological arguments can turn into so much fleshly posturing. There is such a thing known as “theological odium” that can be stirred up. But I don’t think that needs to be the whole of it.

Instead, I would suggest that these kinds of questions often assume an anti-intellectualist pragmatism that is all-too-common in popular, American Evangelicalism. Second, they also assume a kind of skepticism about God’s self-revelation that initially sounds like a healthy humility before the mysteries of God, but which I would suggest can be hiding a theological laziness that wants to excuse itself from listening carefully and attentively to the divine address of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Scripture. Such intellectual lethargy is directly contrary to the Father’s desire for worshipers who will worship him in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:24).

Roman Catholic theologian Matthew Levering nicely suggests for us why this requires that we delve into the technicalities of Trinitarian theology:

Most Christians contemplate God liturgically and through personal prayer and study, rather than also by developing the intellectual habits proper to speculative theology. Nonetheless, attempts to speak about God (not merely to fellow theologians, but also and perhaps especially to persons in the pews) require some understanding of “technical” issues. Anyone who has ever heard a sermon on the Trinity – Catholics will attest to the painfully awkward experience that is “Trinity Sunday” – will admit that talk about the three Persons quickly becomes horribly thin unless the preacher has some metaphysical understanding (without denying the unfathomable mystery) of how the Persons are perfectly one and yet distinct. Simply put, no one in the pews wishes to hear about three gods. There is an expectation, rooted in Christian faith and the practices of faith, that the mystery must possess some intelligibility, that scriptural and metaphysical modes of reflection cannot ultimately be opposed. There must be some way of distinguishing the three Persons from the multiple gods of polytheism, beyond simply asserting that this is “not polytheism” and that the three are “one God,” whatever that might mean.

Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, pg. 6

In this light, I want to suggest three hoped-for outcomes for this theological dust-up about the Trinity.

1. Theological Study. First, my hope (and one that I think I have already begun to witness), is that—however it began—this sort of controversy would provoke a greater interest in studying reality of our Triune God among the teachers and preachers of the Evangelical Church. I think that’s already been increasing—there are any number of top-flight Trinitarian theologians in the Evangelical academy. Heck, the Trinity is the thematic topic for ETS 2016.

All the same, what is still needed is a sense among the pastorate that Trinitarian theology is not just something you learn in seminary in your Systematics 101 course and then dust off from time to time. It’s the bread and butter of what you do. Pastors, you are not primarily organizers, CEOs, psychologists, or event-coordinators—you are the public theologians of the respective congregations you’ve been called to.

2. Theological Preaching. Second, it’s fine to have pastors who can parse the processions of Son and Spirit with the pros, but it doesn’t do much good if none of this is making it past the pulpit into the pews. What I mean is that theological study becomes intellectual esoterica if doesn’t bleed into our regular proclamation of the Gospel as the good news of the Father sending the Son in the power of the Spirit to reclaim his creation, or, of the sanctifying Spirit who we receive by faith in Christ, who then conforms us to the image of the Son to the glory of God the Father. And so on and so forth.

Basically, when you scan over Romans 8, or Ephesians 1, or the Gospel of John, or pretty much any text in the New Testament (and the Old…), you should regularly be tripping over implications and applications. And our sermons should be reflecting that. In that sense, every Sunday is Trinity Sunday.

3. Focus on the Great Things of the Gospel. Third—and this is something of a corollary of the other two—I hope it turns our attention, at least for a short time, from the regular sorts of trivialities, gimmicks, and ten-second controversies about this or that tweet, towards our God and the great things of the Gospel.

In other words, I hope all this online warfare points us toward deeper reflection that leads to offline worship and wonder at the God who exists marvelously, ineffably, transcendently, and resplendently as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is something centering, something reorienting and sanctifying about having our meditations, our energies and passions, direction towards the ultimate reality at the center of all things.

On the Good Conduct of Trinitarian Controversy

I had intended to wrap things up here, but instead, I thought I’d also offer a few words, not only the good of Trinitarian controversy, but also on the “good conduct” of such controversies. Since I am not always great this myself, I picked up John Webster’s little essay, “Theology and the Peace of the Church” in The Domain of the Word.

Towards the end of the essay, Webster asks:

What, finally, of the conduct of theological controversy in the peaceful kingdom of Christ? Just as the church does not know after the fashion of the world, so the church does not dispute after the fashion of the world from whose eyes are hidden the things that make for peace (Lk. 19.42). Why the difference? Because the church does know what makes for peace.

And so he offers five principles for theological controversy within the church:

1. “First, and most generally, theological controversy must be an exercise within the communio sanctorum .” Essentially, in Christ, we are sanctified and so our speech and motives reflect that reality, especially as we recall that “the end of controversy is the furtherance of communion, not its erosion.” It is not simply to win, to prove wrong, or score points—the goal is the health of Christ’s church.

2. “Second, theological controversy must be undertaken in a way which displays and magnifies the truth of the gospel whose author and content is peace.” More simply, remember that you’re arguing about and towards a reality outside yourselves—the Triune God of peace. This should not become a mere contest of personalities, but should be aimed at right worship.

3. “Third, theological controversy must not allow divergence of opinion to become divergence of will otherwise it will fail as an exercise of charity.” Of course, there are differences so large that sometimes the controversy is no longer within but about the church, but nonetheless, we must keep in mind that we are likely striving over a common object of love and that this love does unite us.

4. “Fourth, theological controversy must have an eye to the catholicity of the object of Christian faith and confession, an object which exceeds any specification of it which we may make.” Essentially, God is infinite. And so while this doesn’t mean that we can’t get specific, and that he doesn’t have a determinate nature, we should still be careful to resist the notion that we can’t continue to learn and grow in our knowledge of him even from our opponents.

5. “Fifth, most of all, theological controversy must be undertaken with tranquil confidence that, with the illuminating power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ will instruct and unify the church through Holy Scripture.” Webster’s not advocating a bare Biblicism here, but warning against the kind of skeptical, naturalistic, pragmatism that leads us to throw our hands up in controversies of this sort. Jesus has taught his church through Scripture by the Spirit and he will continue to do so.

With principles like these in mind, then, I don’t think we should be dismayed if such controversies continue. Instead, let us pray that we grow deeper in our knowledge and love of our God who is blessedly Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria