Mere Fidelity: What is the Relationship Between Biblical Exegesis and Systematics?

Mere FiOver the last year or so, I’ve had to give some greater thought to the question of the relationship between biblical exegesis and the discipline of systematic theology. Questions about which discipline stands closer to the text. Or whether there is a relationship of logical priority or necessity. Which one needs the other and so forth.

Well, on this episode we take up the question and basically Alastair and I fight about it for a while, Matt asks very reasonable questions, and we all come to an agreement that I’m right. Or something like that.

Also, we have theme music now!

If you enjoyed the show, leave us a review at iTunes. If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better. Or we’ll ignore you, and you’ll feel better for having vented your feelings. We are here to help, either way. And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

If you’re interested in supporting the show (you know, with money), you can check out our Patreon here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Justification by Faith and the Theologian in History

barthFor all the revolutionary claims made about his program, Karl Barth was a historically-minded dogmatician. In section after section of small print paragraphs, Barth will frequently canvas sources from a broad swathe of church history, from the Fathers, through the Medievals, Reformers, down on into the present of his contemporary interlocutors. What’s more, while he makes no bones about disagreeing (strongly) with them when he sees fit, he’s generally quite respectful, quite careful, quite measured in his judgments about his historical forebears.

Some of the working theology behind that approach can be found in another of the small print paragraphs in his discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity (CD 1/1 &9, 377-378). I thought reviewing it in chunks might be helpful for those of us doing theological work today.

First, Barth notes the importance of recognizing the Church has always done its theology as a human institution, that is to say, in the middle of the muddle of sinful history, including the history of the trinitarian controversies:

In the dogmatic and theological history of every age, not excluding that of Protestantism, secular factors have played a part which tends to cover over all else. For all the gloating with which it was done, it was a good thing that the work of Pietism and the Enlightenment in Church History established so incontrovertibly the fact that even in such periods of supreme decision as that which the dogma of the Trinity arose the history of the Church was anything but a history of heroes and saints.

Often-times, we don’t do ourselves any favors when we tell church history. All too often it has been a story of white hats and black hats, with the white hats always managing to defend the Orthodoxy we know and love, never fighting dirty to get there. The danger in this is that we set ourselves up to base our attitude toward the tradition on its utter purity.

In other words, Barth says that it’s good for us to understand that Athanasius’ disputes with the anti-Nicenes weren’t simple theological debates carried on with only the cleanest, lily-white gloves. He may not be the brawler and bully more recent, cynical skeptics would like to portray, but there was plenty of political struggle, maneuvering, and wrangling involved.

Indeed, he says that for us to be dismayed and thereby write him off for that reason wouldn’t be very Protestant:

Yet in this case we should be just and perceptive and allow that not only the Church of Byzantium but also that of Wittenberg and Geneva, and finally the purest Church of any of the quiet in the land, have always and everywhere been, when examined at close range, centres of frailties and scandals of every king, and that on the basis of the Reformation doctrine of justification at all events it is neither fitting nor worth while to play off the worldliness of the Church against the seriousness of the insights it has perhaps gained in spite of an in this worldliness.

Here Barth deploys the doctrine of justification by faith against what we might call a perfectionist, over-realized eschatology.

There’s a very common tendency nowadays that when we start to find out that our theological heroes in the faith were human–dreadfully human, at times–we write them off in toto as possible sources of instruction in the faith. Or, the flip-side of this attitude, of course, is to deny that what these people did was really, truly sinful.

Yes, we’ll admit that all are sinners saved by grace, and so every theologian is necessarily a sinner, but really, if there were politics involved, or theologian X really was a mean cuss, or a sexist, or a racist, or ended up an adulterer, or…then, no, we can’t really expect them to have insight into the Scriptures, or the faith.

Barth’s invocation of the doctrine of justification by faith, though, is a reminder that salvation in union with Christ is a dynamic reality encompassing the now and not-yet of the Kingdom of God. Every theologian and every age of theology is simul iustus et peccator–the object of God’s saving work in Christ and indwelt by the Spirit, but at the same time subject to the corruption of the flesh and indwelling sin.

Of course, there is a to be a link-up between life and doctrine, standards for teachers within the Church, and so forth. But Barth’s realism sounds a salutary note for us to pump the brakes on our perfectionism that would prevent us from recognizing the gracious work of illumination even in the lives of God’s flawed saints (and seasons within the Church). If sinners couldn’t learn or mediate truth from the Scriptures, theology would be dead.

Barth then turns a corner and expands the point further with respect to the way we evaluate previous Church interaction with the intellectual and philosophical culture surrounding it. Prior to this section, Barth was engaging the sort of objection to Trinitarian doctrine that makes great hay out of the fact that the Fathers used terminology, concepts, etc. from drawn Plotinian or Aristotelian sources. The “Greek charge“, if you will.

The same may be said about the indisputable connexion of the dogma with the philosophy of the age. By proving philosophical involvement we can reject the confessions and theology of any age and school, and we can do this the more effectively the less we see the beam in our own eye. For lingustically theologians have always depended on some philosophy and linguistically they always will. But instead of getting Pharisaically indignant about this and consigning whole periods to the limbo of a philosophy that is supposed to deny the Gospel–simply because our own philosophy is different–it is better to stick strictly to the one question what the theologians of earlier periods were really trying to say in the vocabulary of their philosophy.

Barth exhibits a humble wisdom here. His point is very simple. Yes, you can probably find a connection between the theology of any period and the philosophy of its time. People have to speak using the language of their time, the intellectual milieu, and so forth.

But this is true of every period–including Barth’s own (and our own). In which case, simply noting that the Fathers or the Medievals used the language and concepts of Aristotle to exposit the faith, doesn’t thereby disqualify them. Nobody can simply carry out a pure, biblical dogmatics, simply sticking to Scriptural conceptualities and language unless they’re simply repeating the text of Scripture (in the original languages, mind you).

In fact, our ability to spot the non-Biblical “philosophy” poking out in the works of earlier ages is likely the result of our own philosophical tendencies drawn (consciously or unconsciously) from our own milieu. We can spot the Aristotelianism so glaringly likely because of our post-Kantian, post-Hegelian, etc. lenses. (And for the record, I have never understood why I am supposed to prefer Hegel over Aristotle).

Instead, we should take these ages and thinkers seriously on their own terms,  figure out as best we can what Biblical issues they were grappling with, and accord them the same respect and care we would hope others would take with our own age and thought. And then critique them on the merits, if we must. But we ought not simply assume that just because a certain philosophical conceptuality is used, the Spirit could not be at work to illumine the work of the Church to stumble onto an essential dogmatic truth. Must we not consider the simul iustus et peccator here as well?

A final caution in this section.

Caution is especially demanded when we insist the differences in the so-called piety of different periods and therefore claim that the piety out of which the dogma of the Trinity arose was completely different from our own piety with its sober focus, as they said some years ago, on “worldview and morality.” What right have we to regard our own piety, even if its agreement with the Reformation and the New Testament seem ever so impeccable, as the only piety that is possible in the Church, and therefore to exalt it as a standard by which to measure the insights of past ages? Let us be sure of our own cause as far as we can. But the antithetical rigidity especially in evaluating the subjective religion of others is something against which we can only issue a warning.

Here Barth is clearly speaking to the temptations of theologians in his own day, who were tempted to moralize doctrine and therefore have little time for “metaphysical” doctrines like the Trinity. But the material caution is relevant.

There is a dangerous tendency to separate our age, our values, our spirituality, our theological concerns and contexts out from the rest of history as the standard of relevance to which all other ages must be held up and measured. As if our age’s questions were the most important, as if our emphases are the right emphases, as if in our day we have reached a sort of eschatological moment that has decisive influence for the way all theology afterwards must be pursued.

Yes, history happens, and so there is a sense in which we cannot simply reverse the flow of history to an earlier period in order to completely ignore questions that have been raised since that time. But we should not cultivate the sense that the Enlightenment (or postmodernity, etc.) is some Rubicon beyond after which the “old answers” simply won’t or can’t do the job anymore. Or more positively, that “after theologian X” (maybe even Barth himself?), if we are truly aware of their epochal significance, we must recognize that we live in an absolutely new theological age. Barth cautions us against this myopia.

Though we strive for fidelity to God in the particular challenges of the contemporary age–its spirituality, its dialogue partners–the contemporary theologian, just as that of every other age of the church, is simul iustus et peccator, is still justified by faith.

Soli Deo Gloria

On Theological Novelty and Cultivating Catholicity (Or, A Bit On Leithart)

Delivered from the elements coverPeter Leithart has just posted an interesting response to a critical review of his book Delivered From the Elements of the World by Brad Littlejohn. It’s worthwhile interaction, especially since it occurs between a renowned mentor and worthy student.

The nub of it revolves around the issue of theological novelty. Littlejohn has accused Leithart of indulging in too much of a passion for newness for newness’ sake (even in those moments where he tends to be appealing to a more primitive past), whereas Leithart says redeploying the past for the sake of the present is at the heart of good theology.

I don’t want to do too much summarizing because you can (and should) read the posts for yourself. I do think there’s been something lost in transmission here.

As I see it, the question is not about using the past for the present or theological retrieval. On this, I think it’s obvious that Littlejohn and Leithart agree (Leithart making a great case for it in his response).

Nor is the question is not whether we should be open to new exegetical possibilities in light of new research, textual sources, and so forth. Obviously we can, we have, and we should.

Nor is the question of whether doctrinal development (or at least correction within the tradition) is possible. We’re Protestants who hold up the Word as our final authority over the dogmatic tradition. It is certainly possible in principle.

The question (and, I take it as Littlejohn’s main critique) regards the way we present and pursue newness and continuity within the theological tradition (in this case, especially our own Protestant tradition).

When presenting a theological proposal of the sort that Leithart has in his work on atonement, there are a couple of ways of understanding his “new” interpretive or doctrinal moves. One is to simply take it as a real novum. That can and does happen. But another way of looking at it is to see him as actually saying something quite old in a new way. This is what I think Littlejohn sees happening much of the time in Leithart’s work.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying old things in new ways. The problem comes when this “new” proposal sets itself up by claiming the older tradition was saying something different than it actually was. Or again, when the “newness” is played up by using different terminology than the tradition has for what amounts to the same move. In either case, the difference with what comes before is emphasized over the continuity at the expense of the past formulations of the older, theological tradition.

(In Leithart’s work, usually the culprit is some deviation within the Orthodox Protestant tradition, which unfortunately capitulated somewhere to some foreign metaphysic or ontological blind alley.)

I think this relationship, this privileging of the new at the expense of the old, of novelty over continuity, is the actual issue at stake. We might call it “The N.T. Wright Problem.”

And here, with some trepidation, I think I have to register my sympathy with Littlejohn. I have said again and again that I have great appreciation for Leithart’s work, especially as a biblical scholar and creative, theological polymath. His ability to synthetically bring together diverse disciplines into sophisticated formulations, especially when illuminating readings of Biblical texts, is rather unique. So please don’t take this as a personal critique, especially since this is a move that is by no means unique to Leithart.

That said, I see the tendency to drape those gifts in this rhetoric of newness presents us with three dangers.

First, I see it possibly encouraging the vice of curiousity (per John Webster) in younger theological students who lack the discipline and judgment of a senior scholar like Leithart. While studiousness ought to mark the theological student, there is an unhealthy corruption of the appetite to learn which”in acute form…becomes a species of intellectual promiscuity, driven by addiction to novelty and a compulsion to repeat the experience of discovery” (Webster). The luster of newness, the thrill of the novel itself is what commends something to us.

Second, I would argue that the tendency to robe our theological arguments in the rhetoric of the new, contributes to strife within the church. When we don’t try to connect the dots between us and our forebears, this can cause confusion and unnecessarily raises the hackles of the conservative defenders of the older tradition. Some may tend to take the “newness” rhetoric at face value and gear up to defend orthodoxy against a foe instead of opening up their ears to learn from a brother. (This, incidentally, is the “Wright” point. Lord knows I love his work, but I do think some of the jabs at the tradition don’t do him favors with his conservative critics.)

Third, for those unfamiliar with the tradition (especially the younger theology students), the dichotomizing between this “novel”, revolutionary, etc. option and the “older” theology ends up creating an unnecessarily skeptical ethos towards the tradition that birthed it. It cultivates the attitude that the older writers are there more to be corrected, than learned from. That is, in fact, a failure to encourage a proper theological, dare I say it, “Reformed catholicity” of the sort Herman Bavinck cultivated (not one afraid to correct or buck the tradition when necessary).  And I see this especially as a danger for the younger sort of Protestant scholars who are perpetually tempted towards guilty self-flagellation over the blunders of their blinkered forebears.

Obviously, I’m not accusing Leithart of trying to actively cultivate these dangers. Indeed, given Leithart’s laudable concern for theological catholicity, it’s likely quite the opposite of his intent. That said, these are the sorts of things that, as a younger, theological student, legitimately worry me when I read Littlejohn’s critique.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. As it happens, Littlejohn has posted his own rejoinder to Leithart here.

Why The Church Actually Needs Dogmatics

man-praying-in-churchSay whatever else you may about Karl Barth, the man was a fierce advocate for the indispensability of theology and dogmatics for the Church. For Barth, at the center of the Church’s work and being, it’s chief responsibility as the Church, is the call to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Dogmatics is the derivative discipline of critiquing (analyzing, correcting, maintaining) the proper proclamation of the Church against deviation, weakness, and heresy. In which case, yes, Dogmatics is secondary and derivative of the regular proclamation of the Church, but it is vital nonetheless.

Barth has a smashing bit in one of his small-print paragraphs (CD 1.1, 76-77) where he takes to task the idea that the work of theology and dogmatics can be put to one side as the Church goes about its business doing all the other “important” work it must accomplish:

How disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if, on whatever pretexts, it can dream of being able to undertake and achieve anything serious in what are undoubtedly the important fields of liturgical reform or social work or Christian education or the ordering of its relation to state and society or ecumenical understanding, without at the same time doing what is necessary and possible with reference to the obvious centre of its life, as though it were self-evident, as though we could confidently count on it, that evangelium pure docetur et recte administrantur sacramenta! as though we could confidently leave this to God and in the meantime busy ourselves with the periphery of the Church circle, which has perhaps been rotating for long enough around a false centre! as though we could put ourselves in God’s hands without a care in the world for what happens at this decisive point!

It’s funny to read this paragraph written in 1932 now about eighty-five years later in 2016. Barth may as well have been writing about so much of the contemporary, North American church scene.

Oh yes, there are a great number of bright theological points on the horizon. I’ve had the privilege of spending my time around many of them (both as a member and on staff). All too often, though, we find churches, even whole denominations, who set about doing the “real” work that needs to be done—social programs, youth ministries, evangelistic crusades, political activism, and so forth (all good things!)—all the while simply assuming there is a theology in place to fund it (if even that).

He continues on:

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theology is the business of a few theoreticians who are specially appointed for the purpose, to whom the rest, as hearty practical men, may sometimes listen with half an ear, though for their own part they boast of living “quite un-theologically” for the demands of the day (“love”). As though these practical men were not continually preaching and speaking and writing, and were not genuinely questioned as to the rightness of their activity in this regard! As though there were anything more practical than giving this question its head, which means doing the work of theology and dogmatics!

There’s a sort of pragmatic mindset that thinks of theology and dogmatics as the work of an educated few, so they don’t want to get caught up in all the fine logic-chopping and pouring over dusty tomes.

No, all too many of us are good Americans who simply want to roll up our sleeves to “get things done”—even if that means not stopping to consider whether the thing possibly should or shouldn’t be done. Or whether it’s being done under a false premise. Whether our attempts to “further the kingdom” rest on a faulty notion of the kingdom (or, Lord forbid, of the King himself). Or whether our attempts to unify the Church rest on an un-biblical notion of unity. Or whether the “tone” we have taken in our proclamation to reach our neighbors has actually falsified the actual content of the Gospel in our rush to be relevant.

Barth says that those who take this attitude are dangerously fooling themselves on this score.

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theological reflection is a matter for quiet situations and periods that suit and invite contemplation, a kind of peace-time luxury for which we are not only permitted but even commanded to find not time should things become really serious and exciting! As though there could be any more urgent task for a Church under assault from without than that of consolidating itself within, which means doing theological work! As though the venture of proclamation did not mean that the Church permanently finds itself in an emergency! As though theology could be done properly without reference to this constant emergency!

What’s interesting here is the way Barth takes the regular rhetoric of urgency and turns it on its head. Regularly you might hear someone contend that we don’t have time to putter around arguing over the finer points of doctrine when the war is on. When there’s a global crisis of terror and refugees and economic disaster. Or when our kids are walking away in droves, disaffected and disillusioned. When there’s racial strife. When our churches and denominations are shrinking year by year.

Who has time for theology when we have to do something?!

But that’s precisely the point: it is precisely in the heart of crisis that the Church needs dogmatics. If proclamation is truly at the heart of the Church’s responsibility, if it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ that funds, fuels, and forms all of our work in all of the great movements that threaten to overwhelm and assail the Church, then it is precisely in the midst of the storm of battle that we need dogmatics most.

How can we do without a proper theology of atonement and reconciliation if we’re to set about the great work of proclaiming and practicing the gospel of peace in nation torn by racial strife? What else do we need but a proper theology of the church if we’re going to set about reordering our worship and Christian education to address the exodus of our youth? Why do we think we can ignore the question of eschatology when we go about our work “for the kingdom” in the broader social order?

Barth closes this paragraph with a sober judgment:

Let there be no mistake. Because of these distorted ideas about theology, and dogmatics in particular, there arises and persists in the life of the Church a lasting and growing deficit for which we cannot expect those particularly active in this function to supply the needed balance. The whole church must seriously want a serious theology if it is to have a serious theology.

If there is to be a corrective in the Church in this area, yes, it will be a matter of the preachers and teachers being more broadly awakened to the need to pay attention (and even participate) in serious (though not necessarily academic) theological spadework. But it will also need to be a matter of churches as a whole—elders, deacons, members—seriously desiring and calling for it.

This will only happen, of course, by the grace of God. And for this we must pray.

Soli Deo Gloria

Trueman on Why Engage Karl Barth Even If You Think He’s Weird

engaging Barth.jpgThis Fall I’ll be taking a semester reading course on the massively influential, 20th Century Swiss theologian Karl Barth. I’ll be focusing on his doctrine of God, with a particular emphasis on his treatment of the divine attributes or “perfections”, to use his terminology. My hope is that it will help me do some preparatory work in thinking through the structure and shape of the doctrine of God for my (hopefully) eventual dissertation on the attribute of God’s holiness.

Also, I’ve been wanting an excuse to take a deep dive into his Church Dogmatics for a while. So there’s that as well.

As a Reformed(ish) Evangelical, mentioning that you’re going to be spending time with Karl Barth may raise some eyebrows, though. Well, not in all circles. (Even here at Trinity, in the house that Carl Henry built, we’re regularly encouraged and expected to be able to read widely beyond traditionally Evangelical authors.)

Still, Barth’s kind of odd and difficult to understand on some key points of doctrine. And when even when you can understand him, he says some things about Scripture, God’s being, etc. that have left people predictably (and not unfairly) uncomfortable. Even (maybe especially) if you’ve never read him, you know to be cautious.

There’s a fear that once you dive in, you might get become disoriented in the haze of all that heavy dialectic and be lost, if not to Orthodoxy, then at least to the regular patterns of English language usage.

So what value is there for someone of fairly traditional theological instincts for spending so much time poring over his mountainous tomes and the mists of difficult secondary that enshroud them? Especially if you suspect you might spend a fair amount of time disagreeing with him?

Carl Trueman actually has one of the better answers for the skeptical.

In the foreword to a collection of essay by Evangelicals interacting with Karl Barth on a host of issues, Trueman sort of sets the scene for why Barth remains such a relevant figure for Evangelical theological interest. Towards the end he lists a few issues like the appeal of his dynamic doctrine of Scripture, some of the cross-appeal with developments in philosophy of language, and the focus on narrative in theology.

At this point he asks, “But is Barth the answer?”

On one level, I would most definitely say no. For myself, I believe Herman Bavinck, the great Dutch theologian, offers a more helpful resource on each of these points; but, on another level, interacting with Barth as a great mind wrestling with serious issues is surely of tremendous value. I often tell my students that great theologians are most helpful at precisely those points where I disagree with them, for it is there I am forced to wrestle most passionately, and there that my own thought is clarified and strengthened.

Engaging With Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiquesed. David Gibson and Daniel Strange (15)

So, first off: Herman Bavinck, y’all. ‘Nuff said.

But more seriously, at the almost purely negative level, then, Trueman says that wrestling with a high-caliber thinker you know you disagree with can help you more fully grasp the logic of your own position, as well as strengthen your theological resolve.

I have seen that time and again, especially in my readings in atonement theology. Some of the most beneficial works I have read were the critiques, precisely because the strength and force of their objections forced me to clarify points at which my thought was too fuzzy. Or in other cases, I had to work to ground my logic even deeper in Scripture, studying passages more deeply in their context and so forth.

Put less negatively, with creative thinkers like Barth, the very “weirdness” of some of the moves they make stretch you and press you deeper into the logic of the issue.

For instance, reading about the way Barth has reordered and coordinated his reading of God’s attributes in distinction to the classical discussion has helped some blocks start to fall into place for me. Instead of treating the more “metaphysical” or incommunicable attributes of “freedom” like independence, omnipresence, and so forth first, as the tradition typically did, Barth flips the order and deals with attributes of “loving” like holiness, patience, and so forth. But why?

To overly-simplify, thought that starting out with the attributes that give you free, independent God tended to leave you with problems when you got around to thinking about that free God setting about actually loving anything outside himself. The metaphysical logic of independence seems to take over undermine our ability to talk about God’s love. In order to counterbalance that problem, Barth starts with the God who definitely loves, and then sets about thinking through how this God is free.

Of course, what’s fascinating is that when you start thinking through developments in 20th Century theology, much of looks like an exercise in making the opposite “mistake” (if you buy Barth’s critique). So much theology starts with an account God’s loving (process, panentheism, etc.) and then has all kinds of trouble talking about God’s freedom or independence. To engage in a bit of clarifying caricature, instead of a cold, self-contained, metaphysical box, you’ve got a warm, co-dependent, metaphysical mess.

In which case, you start begin see some of the appeal of the old logic a bit better in hindsight. But that sort of thing becomes clearer in light of the sort of transitional figure like Barth that doesn’t fit neatly into either of the (over-neat) camps.

And that’s just one example.

Now, given what I have read of Barth in the past, I’m hopeful reason to read Barth for the simple, positive reason that Barth was brilliant. So I’m thinking I’ll profit plenty beyond the weirdness and stretching.

Well, if after all that you’re still worried about me, just know I’m also taking a class on Calvin this Fall, so that ought to even things out.

Soli Deo Gloria 

 

 

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

 

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