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 how “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

 

The Uncontrolling Love of God, Part Deux (Causality, “Reformed Theology”, etc)

Uncontrolling loveI’ve already given something of a full review of Thomas Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God over at Christianity Today. Oord has very charitably responded to it and I’ve responded briefly in the comments. I wanted to follow that up, though, because there were a number of important points that I couldn’t make given reasonable space and genre constraints at CT. I want to be clear, though, that this is not about ill-will or picking on Oord’s work. He seems like a fine man and who can fault his pastoral instinct? But the work of theology is often carried out through critical engagement–indeed, Oord himself is quite sharp in his critique of many theological traditions in order to forward his significant revision of the doctrine of God. It seems necessary and appropriate, then, to engage it in this fashion. In the rest of this, I’ll assume knowledge of my prior review and the thesis of the book. Also, this will be far more of a ramble.

Experience and Compatibilism

First, a small point. Oord makes great hay about the intuitive nature of our possession of a certain form of libertarian or “genuine” free will against determinism. He notes that free will is key to our general self-understanding as responsible agents able to choose right and wrong, and so forth (55-56, 60). We experience ourselves as free and make many judgments in the moral life on that basis, so why doubt it on the basis of faulty brain science and so forth?

All of this is fine as far as it goes. Actually, much of it is quite helpful. What I’d simply like to point out is that the arguments in these sections might work well as a defense of genuine freedom against physicalist conceptions of determinism, where biology, physics, and so forth, are in the metaphysical driver’s seat. That said, they’re not much in the way of evidence against a theologically compatibilistic understanding of genuine freedom. On that view, God’s foreordination of all that passes isn’t dependent on physicalist determinants.

Actually, if you really think through a compatibilist view of freedom, our experience of reality would feel pretty much the same. God’s sovereignty isn’t thought to be experienced as some outside compelling force, “pushing on us”, so to speak. So, the “powerful” argument from experience or the phenomenology of freedom doesn’t tell that strongly against theological determinism.

Mistaking Physics and Metaphysics

On that note, I’d also like to register a complaint about Oord’s fairly constant quick movement from physics to metaphysics. Though he affirms the distinction between the two disciplines, things can get slippery in the midst of the argument. For instance, after reviewing a number of lines of evidence for randomness and chance in the physical universe from chaos theory, etc. as a way of refuting the idea that it’s a closed, causal system (34-41), he says, “If dominant views in science and philosophy are correct in their affirmation of randomness and chance, theologians such as Augustine, Calvin, and Sproul are wrong. God does not control all things; randomness is real.”

At that point, I just scratch my head and think, “You do realize that none of these classical theologians ever based their theological determinism on whether the universe was a closed, causal (in the physicalist sense) system, right?” That may have been the case with certain philosophers or theologians in the Modern period when Enlightenment rationalism began to creep in, but read any classic Augustinian theologian of the Medieval, Reformation, Post-Reformation Scholastic period, and down into the contemporary period, and you’ll see that most are quick to deny any kind of physicalist necessity or Stoic fate. Providence has never been something you can put under a microscope or measure using computer models.

Oord’s description of most of these theologians, then, is guilty of a category mistake, treating God’s activity as if it were one cause among others, on par with natural causes, only bigger, and invisible. But on their view, God’s causality is not just one cause among the others. God’s causality is in its own category, non-competitive with ours. God is the logically and metaphysically prior, creating, maintaining, and sustaining cause of all of our activity. In other words, God isn’t on the same, metaphysical playing field with us. Many of those theologians would affirm randomness as a physicalist level, all the while denying it with respect to God’s decree. Failing to appreciate the way that the Creator/creature distinction informs the relationship between God’s activity and natural and human causality is like imagining Shakespeare’s pen-strokes and Hamlet’s sword-thrusts are occurring on the same plane of activity.

Bavinck, Turretin, and the “Reformed” Omnicausal View

Which brings me to a point about Oord’s explanation of the “Reformed” view of providence. He labels it “omnicausality” and says this is the view where: “Although humans may seem to act freely and other creaturely causes exist in the universe, in some unfathomable way, God totally causes every event” (84). Now, admittedly, the term “omnicausality” has been used, but Oord’s description is simply not the traditional Reformed view. Most classic Reformed theologians operate with a notion of primary and secondary causality, or concursus, which means that while God is a necessary sustaining cause of all acts, he is not the only necessary cause for all things. He does not, then, “totally cause” everything in every way. That would be to think of monocausality or sola causa. God exercises his causality through secondary causes like human free choices, natural laws, and so forth.

While this might not be as apparent in the less technical, but pastoral Heidelberg Catechism he cites, it’s explicitly articulated in the equally (if not more) prominent Westminster Confession 3.1:

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

One may disagree with this, but not by caricaturing the Reformed view, for it is abundantly clear that the freedom, contingency, and secondary causes are all affirmed. This is not a crass, blatantly illogical “omnicausality” as Oord paints it. Again, you may find it illogical in the end, but I think you at least have to do a lot more work than Oord does to show it.

What’s more surprising about this is that he cites both Herman Bavinck and Francis Turretin as representatives of the “omnicausal” view (84) where other causes and humans only “seem to act freely” and have efficacy, but God really “totally causes” everything. In point of fact, they both clearly operate with careful distinctions of primary and secondary causality, permission, and complex, scholastic distinctions in the will of God and so forth. Bavinck, for one, goes on for pages distinguishing providence from the sort of physicalist, divine determinism taught by some of his liberal, theological contemporaries. Heck, even on the couple of pages Oord does cite, Bavinck is in the process of explicitly affirming secondary causes as “true and essential causes”, not “inanimate automata”, but with their own “nature, vitality, spontaneity, manner of working, and law of their own” (RD, Vol. 2, 614). In which case he’s saying something almost exactly the opposite of what Oord is citing him for. Passages like this could be multiplied ad nauseum in Bavinck, and Turretin does so as well, explicitly delineating the various senses in which contingency in creation and the human will could and should be rightly affirmed.

When Oord somewhat dismissively writes off the Reformed view as “making little if any sense” (85), then,  despite the citations, it appears he made little if any effort to make sense of it.

God of the Gaps 2.0: Just as “Mysterious”, but in a New, Pocket-Size

Continuing in this vein, when Oord does get around to discussing the primary and secondary causality distinction advocates by Barth and Aquinas (his representatives), he eventually writes it off as an elaborate appeal to mystery because, in the end, everybody who deploys it can’t give an adequate account of how God is at work in these causes. In response, I’d note two points of defense: First, some actually have recently tried to give an account of sorts along the communicative dimension. Second, trying to pin down the causal joint has been a problem for most of the theological tradition throughout the whole of church history. Again, at times, I think an appeal to mystery makes sense.

(Oh, and on this point, I’d like to clarify something about my comments on mystery. In his response, Oord has charged that I seem quite certain without an appeal to mystery on a number of things like the Trinity, miracles, etc. and so I am being inconsistent in my criticism of his allergy to mystery. But I have to say I think that largely misses my point. I believe that God has revealed those various truths I reference in Scripture, so I am confident in them–though not ruling out mystery around them. That said, I also think that God has actually revealed that his ways are mysterious in respect to the issue of providence and suffering. In that regard, I think Oord’s allergy to mystery is also a failure to pay attention to revelation. I see not inconsistency there, since both my confidence on some issues and my appeal to mystery on this issue is grounded in revelation. I think that Oord’s drive for one explanation to rule them all, causes him to reject the variety of answers, including some mystery, that the Scriptures give on this issue. )

But even coming back to causality, more positively, I’d point out that I think Oord’s own account of divine agency is just as fuzzy as that of the primary and secondary causality distinction. For instance, in his section on nature miracles, instances of God’s active power in the world, Oord speaks of God being present and introducing creative possibilities, new forms of creation, and so forth, in places where there are instances of quantum randomness, and so forth. Now that might seem promising and even “scientific” at first, but try as I might, searching high and low throughout the text, I couldn’t locate a clear explanation of how God does this introducing or what that even means. Those gestures I did find could easily be co-opted by advocates of a primary-secondary causality distinction. This is no advance over the earlier apophatic distinctions of Barth or Aquinas.

In other words, Oord’s account is just as “mysterious” as any primary and secondary causality account. Indeed, the only advantage it has is of reducing God’s agency so as to squish it into the randomness gaps that interrupt or coexist with the law-like regularities that God dare not cross or interrupt on pain of being labeled an “interventionist” in his own creation. I have to admit, this feels like something of a God of the gaps 2.0. Only here, if you find some cracks in the interstitial spaces of the universe and you just might find some room for God to work.

And while we’re on the subject of miracles, I’ll be honest, while a couple of his attempts to reconcile the big nature miracles with his non-interventionist God were helpful, others strain credulity as exegesis. For instance, take Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea. That seems like a fairly big interruption of the natural order of things. An intervention, if you will. Oord will have none that, though. Instead, what he speculates that what possibly happened is that God—because he’s omnipresent and knows the natural flows of wind, waves, and so forth—knew that the sea was going to be parted at that time. Then, he, in a still small voice, whispered for Moses to lead the Israelites to the Red Sea at just the right time when it was naturally splitting open (210). God’s mighty act of deliverance of the Nation of Israel through the waters of Chaos through to the dry ground freedom is reduced to instance of God’s great timing and some quirky wind patterns.

Now, I have no doubt that sometimes God’s providence looks like a still small whisper at the right time, but that is simply not how Exodus 14-15 depict the event, both in prose and song (go ahead and read the account here).

Adventurous Non-Assurance

Finally, I briefly touched on this, but I really want to expand on the eschatological point. Oord touts his view as an “adventure model of providence” that “fits our world”, but this isn’t an assuring doctrine of providence. The God who is unable to fully and finally put his foot down and stop evil, stop rape, stop war, stop tyranny, and all the horrors of this world, cannot fulfill the visions of John the Revelator who promises that God will wipe every tear from our eyes after he has made war on the Beasts who devour the saints. The God who has trouble healing cancer sometimes because our genomes are uncooperative, cannot usher in the New Jerusalem into a world that is as corrupt, non-responsive, and recalcitrant as ours. Biblical eschatology hangs or falls on the God who is the Lord of history, not one of its subjects. A God with enough metaphysical flex to intervene.

To put it another way, Pannenberg criticized certain forms of voluntary kenoticism as threatening our ultimate faith in God alone. What goes for voluntary kenoticism applies a fortiori to involuntary kenoticism. Because the limited God Oord proposes is not the only being or reality on which our hopes must lean. Instead, we have to hope in “God + the right set of cooperative circumstances for him to coordinate.”

Some Better Options

I could keep going, but I’ll just wrap-up by offering a couple of alternatives. First, on the problem of evil, suffering, and providence, I’d commend J. Todd Billings’ book Rejoicing in Lament. Written in the midst of his struggle with cancer, the work is at once more pastoral as well biblically-saturated and theologically-careful. He also has a very helpful discussion of a Reformed view of the doctrine of permission, which, contrary to some reports is compatible with Reformed theology. (Incidentally, I’m always nonplussed when I read criticisms of Reformed doctrines as immediately crumbling in the face of life. It’s as if they’re under the impression no Calvinist in history has ever suffered and been comforted by their doctrines, or even adopted them precisely because of suffering). In any case, I reviewed it here, but I can’t praise it enough.

Second, on the general issues of providence, the doctrine of God, and so forth, Kevin Vanhoozer’s big book Remythologizing Theology is very generous in his engagement with varieties of open theism, panentheism, and process theisms (and now in a cheaper paperback that is totally worth it). Actually, Vanhoozer critiqued related, nearly-identical versions of this sort of involuntary, relational, kenotic theism in the book some five years ago. What’s more, he engages the issue of the nature of love extensively, which I have not done, in a way that addresses some of Oord’s presuppositions and proposals.

I’ll wrap up by saying, even though I really do sympathize with Oord’s instincts and pastoral care, I remain unconvinced that this is a helpful way forward in the doctrine of providence.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Saying God Has a Reason for Something Doesn’t Mean You Know What It Is (And Other Concerns)

JobMost of Christian theology, one way or another, is caught up with the problem of evil–what it is, where it comes from, how will it be defeated, and how do we live with it in this world. God’s providence, though, is one of those doctrines that seems to uniquely impinge on the question of evil. How could a good, all-powerful God allow the amount and kinds of evil we see and experience in the world? Is it possible to speak of his control and sovereignty, his foreknowledge and wisdom, in a way that’s consistent with the world as we know it.

I’ve written on this before, but it bears repeating that one of the key points made in recent, philosophy of religion (especially of the analytic sort) is that if God had a good enough reason, then it’s possible for a good, powerful God to allow evil to exist for a time. One of the key issues distinguishing different forms of Christian theology is which kinds of reasons are deemed to be sufficient to justify the sorts of evil we see in the world. Your overall theology of salvation and providence plays out in your view of the problem of evil.

Arminian and Wesleyan (and open or relational) theologies typically appeal to the good of libertarian free will (the ability to do otherwise in any decision, without being ultimately or finally determined by situation, disposition, or metaphysical constraint) at this point. On their account, it is supposed to be necessary to the nature of love, and the good of freely-chosen love, significant moral choices, etc. Because of that, it’s worth the risk, the possibility, and the actuality of evil in the world. More Reformed theologians typically eschew that account because their view of human freedom sees it as fully compatible with God’s eternal decree for what will come to pass in human history whether by a decision to cause or permit different, human events.

Instead, Reformed theologians have offered a couple of different, interlocking considerations. Some, appealing to Romans 9, say that God’s deepest reason for allowing all that he does is the display of his own glory in human history (through his work of creation, judgment, redemption, etc). If some tragedy befalls, then, we can know that its direct purpose is to somehow glorify God.

Others, more modestly (I think), confess that while in the end all things will redound to the glory of God, we simply don’t know what his reason is for various, specific events or the way they fit into the broader tapestry of the Triune God’s purposes for history. We are finite, small, and too sinful to expect to have that kind of comprehensive knowledge. That said, we view all things in light of God’s work in the tragi-comedy of the cross and resurrection, wherein the Son came in the power of the Spirit at the behest of the Father to give himself up into the hands of sinful men on our behalf, so that one day we might be raised with him. Because of that we know that our good God is loving, powerful, and does have purposes in all of human history, even the darkest and most opaque of our trials. And these are purposes that, if we knew all that God knows, were as good as God is, and saw all that he sees, we would see that he is right to allow all that he has and redeem it in all the ways that he eventually will.

I bring all of this up because of a recent conversation about the problem of evil and what it means to assert that God has a good enough reason to justify and allow the evil that we see in the world.

Some see this sort of defense as a rationalizing system that calls evil good and good evil. Or it’s a cold comfort that alienates the truly broken-hearted with bland pieties about “God’s plan.” Or even more, a possible attempt to act as God’s spokesman, because if you’re the one who can say that God has purposes for all things, then you’re the mediator of God’s purposes. An appeal to God’s sovereignty over all things and inscrutable purposes puts you in danger of becoming one of Job’s friends, offering up proverbs of ashes and unwitting condemnation.

I simply want to make a few points by way of clarification and response here.

First, it should be obvious that to say that God has a purpose for all things is not to say that I have any clue what those specific purposes are from case to case. It’s simply to point out that a God of infinite goodness, wisdom, and love doesn’t simply let evil befall the world for no good reason, or only general ones. It is an affirmation that God is not careless, nor is he asleep at the wheel but is attentive to the plans he has for all of his creatures. If anyone is tempted to claim that kind of specific knowledge, they have missed the point of Job and are probably at the risk of coming under judgment themselves. It’s the difference between saying that you believe the Bible is inerrant and claiming that your own interpretations of it are also inerrant. It is by no means the case that the one follows logically from the others. It’s possible to have a very high view of God’s Word and little confidence of your own ability to work your way through it without making a mess of things.  In the same way, it’s quite possible to have a very high view of God’s wisdom in history and acknowledge your own blindness to what that wisdom is.

Second, to claim that God has specific purposes for what he permits is not to claim that evil isn’t really evil. That’s a very sloppy, unbiblical claim. It is only to say that God means something good to come out of the evil which he still calls evil. As with the situation of Joseph being sold into slavery, God still condemns the hatred and jealousy of his brothers and their sale of Joseph as evil, though God permitted and even decreed it so that one day he could save Jacob’s family and the birth-line of the Messiah through Joseph. Saying that God doesn’t allow the evil of cancer for no good reason, by no means commits me to saying that any case of cancer is a positive good. We have to have a space for the infinite, Creator God to view a single event or activity from a far more expanded, complex, unified perspective than you or I typically do. For more on this, see here.

Third, to say that God has purposes for all things in no way necessitates that God’s providence is the only doctrine we can appeal to in the context of pastoral comfort. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is how little attention we give to the fact that not only is right doctrine a matter of chief importance, so is the proper use of doctrine. Just as having a high view of Scripture won’t save you from a misuse of Scripture, neither will having correct doctrine always mean you’re applying it properly. But this is of chief importance. Being a good doctor is not simply a matter of knowing varieties of good medicines, but the ability to prescribe the right medicine at the right time, because even good medicines misapplied can do harm. There are dozens of other glorious, comforting truths such as the resurrection, God’s atonement, his grace, etc, that you can apply to people in times of suffering and pain beyond the issue of the providence of God.

As always, there’s more to say, but hopefully these considerations offer some clarity as to what we are and are not saying when we claim that our sovereign God has a good reason for all things.

Soli Deo Gloria

Triune Justification, Again (Or, is a Reformed view of Salvation Sub-Trinitarian?)

trinityI’ve noted before the way that Protestant theologies of salvation, especially of the Reformed variety, are occasionally criticized as being sub-trinitarian due to their narrow focus on forensic or legal categories. Whether because of an allegedly blinkered view of the cross, or an “overly-individualistic” transaction model of justification by faith, Reformed theology apparently can’t compare to more Catholic, Orthodox, or some more metaphysically-inclined Anglican proposals flirting with Radical Orthodoxy. (To be honest, the critiques all sort of blur together.)

Triune Justification, Again

Again, while that may be true of some popular Reformed or general ‘Evangelical’ preaching, that’s certainly not the case with classical Reformed theology such as that of Bavinck who lays out a beautifully trinitarian conception of justification. But some may wonder if that’s simply because with Bavinck we are dealing with an exceptional Reformed theologian, a jewel in the tradition who is unrepresentative of the broader whole?

Well, actually no. Once again, I ran across this little gem in Thomas Watson’s commentary on the Westminster Catechism’s treatment of justification. Watson is dealing with the various “causes” of salvation, such as faith which receives it, Christ’s righteous life and death as its ground, and so on. He moves to ask about the “efficient cause” or author of our justification:

What is the efficient cause of our justification?

The whole Trinity. All the persons in the blessed Trinity have a hand in the justification of a sinner: opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa. God the Father is said to justify. ‘It is God that justifieth.’ (Rom 8:83). God the Son is said to justify. ‘By him all that believe are justified.’ (Acts 13:39). God the Holy Ghost is said to justify. ‘But ye are justified by the Spirit of our God.’ (I Cor 6:61). God the Father justifies, as he pronounces us righteous; God the Son justifies, as he imputes his righteousness to us; and God the Holy Ghost justifies, as he clears up our justification, and seals us up to the day of redemption.

There you have it. Drawing on the classical trinitarian logic that all of the Trinity’s ad extra or “outward” works are undivided, Watson traces the triune shape of God’s one justifying action in Christ. There’s absolutely nothing “sub-trinitarian” about even the very clearly forensic or legal dimension to a Reformed account of God’s saving work.

But Even Beyond Justification

It also bears pointing out that much of the confusion comes when we miss the fact that a Reformed view of salvation is not limited to justification by faith. It gladly encompasses it, but free justification and the forgiveness of sins is not the sum total of the gospel, nor of the benefits that make up our salvation. No, arguably, the larger category to keep in view is the doctrine of union with Christ, whereby in faith we are united legally, spiritually, morally, mystically, and vitally with Jesus and all of his benefits, which ends up giving us far more than justification alone. It’s also the broader picture that completely destroys the sub-trinitarian charge.

Instead, union with Christ expands to include things like the effectual calling out of darkness into light which precedes justification. Then also come the gifts of adoption into Father’s family, with all of the spiritual privileges that come with being a child of God such as access in prayer, peace, and the assurance of the Spirit. We are also given the sanctification and growth in holiness which inevitably follows as we received the gift of the Holy Spirit in our union. Finally, we are promised glorification, or the perfection of our salvation when we are resurrected anew by the Spirit and the process of sanctification is complete as we are fully and finally conformed to the Image of the Son, the Resurrected Jesus, in order that we might look upon the face of God in glory.

Theologian Todd Billings had an excellent little article on this recently, articulating all this as an expression of what we might (carefully) call a Reformed doctrine of deification. I’ll quote Billings at length:

Nevertheless, classical Reformed theologians do not hesitate in speaking about the uniting communion that we experience now – and will experience in fullness – in Christ. As Calvin asserts, in our present life of union with Christ by the Spirit – which is nourished through the preached and sacramental Word in community – believers are “participants not only in all his benefits but also in himself.” Indeed, “day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us, until he becomes completely one with us” (Institutes 3.2.24). Moreover, believers are “fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him” (Institutes 2.16.3). Yet this union with Christ is impossible without a participation in the Spirit, who unites the believer to Christ (Institutes 3.1.2). Indeed, through the Spirit “we come to a participation in God (in Dei participationem venimus)” (Institutes 1.13.14). As the “perfection of human happiness is to be united to God,” this union takes place in redemption (Institutes 1.15.6). Yet this union does not make us “consubstantial with God” like a fourth member of the Godhead, but it is in Christ, through “the grace and power of the Spirit” (Institutes 1.15.5).

Calvin also speaks of a coming beatific vision, a “direct vision” of the Godhead, “when as partakers in heavenly glory we shall see God as he is” (Institutes 2.14.3). This final, temporal end is in fact “the end of the gospel,” that is, “to render us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify us” (commentary on 2 Peter 1:4). For Calvin, the present and future scope of God’s work in salvation requires us to go beyond looking at how we receive salvation and what salvation saves us from. All of this takes place for the sake of union and communion with God. Salvation not only restores what is lost by the fall; it incorporates creatures into the glorious life of the Triune God.

I’d recommend going and reading the whole of the article and maybe picking up his book Union with Christor this free article on Calvin’s view of salvation focused on the way union with Christ organizes things along trinitarian, Christocentric, and non-reductive lines, if you’re curious about more along these lines.

At the end of all this, though, it should be enough to dispel the very misguided charge that a Reformed view of salvation is sub-trinitarian due to its legal flavor. Not only does that misconstrue what the Reformed actually say about justification, it misses the much broader trinitarian context of salvation in union with Christ that justification is set within. Honestly, if I wanted to, I could have gone through and shown the trinitarian shape of each of those gifts (calling, sanctification, etc) in detail from the Reformed sources. But this enough to reflect on for now.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Quick Thought On Talking to Young (Or New) Calvinists

letters to a young calvinistFor a number of reasons, lately I’ve been thinking about how to talk to young Reformed types. Well, maybe more how to talk to young Reformed types online. For one thing, I wrote a little piece a few weeks ago on a related subject that attracted interesting attention from some older Reformed types, as well as the questions of eager younger Reformed types looking to learn. I also just read James K.A. Smith’s little book Letters to a Young Calvinist this weekend. And finally, over the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen a number of articles, both positive and negative, talking about the impact, the focus, and the pedigree of the movement. Being under 30, having come to the Reformed tradition only lately, and contributing to the Gospel Coalition fairly regularly, I suppose this puts me, if not in middle of, then at least in a neighborhood adjacent to, the mix.

In the middle of it all, one thing that kind of emerged for me is that some of us need to work on how we talk to each other within the fold. So, for instance, looking at conversations around the New Calvinism, some of the more caustic commentary around it seems to be coming not from Arminians, or Post-Evangelicals, or Wesleyans, but, well, the “Old Calvinism” that you might think would be a little more pleased about things.

Now, though I’m new to the whole thing, I’ll admit I kind of get it. As someone who came in more by way of Vanhoozer, Plantinga, Horton, Billings, and Calvin himself than some of the “New Calvinist” lights, I have to say was a bit nonplussed when I saw the notion of covenant, or a renewed appreciation for Calvin’s sacramental theology, weren’t included in a recent prominent list of theological features of the New Calvinism. Covenant made sense to me long before election did, and is certainly as central to classic Reformed theology as election is. Actually, you might say covenant is a more distinctly Reformed category than election is. What’s more, Calvin’s views of the sacraments were part of what led to me favoring the Reformed tradition over others in my earlier studies, and have certainly played a major role in shaping Reformed piety through the centuries.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that much of the criticism coming from, well, Old (or maybe just older) Calvinists has an air of “Get it right the first time, or just shut-up, son.” Now, maybe I’m just a biased young-un’, but I can’t imagine this is a very helpful approach to take. It’s not that a lot of the younger Reformed, or just Calvinist-leaning types, I know don’t want to learn from other, older, more seasoned voices in the neighborhood. I think they do–I know I certainly do. It’s just that I’ve found critical condescension, nor aggressive boundary-keeping, isn’t as effective of a motivator towards theological reconsideration as some might think.

Instead, I would commend Smith’s general approach as a model to Reformed types across the spectrum. Admittedly, Smith himself is known for being…curmudgeonly at times, and even has some shots at the New Calvinism in the book as well. Still, his overall tack is one of gracious invitation. (As a side-note, it’s actually just a great intro Reformed theology, especially of the Dutch variety, for some of us young Reformed types to read.) One of the strengths of the work is demonstrating that decrying deficiencies is less enticing than warmly commending the glories of what you have found to be a richer vein within the broader Christian tradition. Instead of quickly jumping down the throat of the novice (someone with a lot of enthusiasm and plenty to learn) for every early mistake, Smith takes a more fatherly, or even brotherly approach to it.

Kevin DeYoung’s early engagement with Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” video comes to mind as wonderful example of this. In it, you see DeYoung affirming the good he saw in the younger man’s efforts, correcting what he deemed to be errors, and in general inviting Bethke and his fans to a seeing things in a more biblical light. And to Bethke’s credit, and I think, the credit of DeYoung’s approach, he responded to the invitation with humility and grace.

So, all that to say, for older Reformed types talking to younger ones, or Old Calvinists talking to New Calvinists, or “Calvinists” you don’t really think count, honey tends to work better than vinegar.

Soli Deo Gloria

Some Thoughts on Reformed Caricatures and Self-Criticism

Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have exclaimed during a dispute, “I beseech thee, in Christ’s bowels, think it possible you may be mistaken!” ‘Bowels’ is a great word.

Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have exclaimed during a dispute, “I beseech thee, in Christ’s bowels, think it possible you may be mistaken!” ‘Bowels’ is a great word.

I took away a lot of insights from my undergrad in philosophy, but one of the most important for the intellectual life was a distaste for caricature. Professor after professor beat into our heads that in critiquing another viewpoint, you must first present their argument fairly, and in a form they would recognize, before proceeding criticize it.

In fact, you should go about trying to find the best, strongest version of that viewpoint in order to argue against it, otherwise you run the risk of an uncharitable caricature that is unjust and only weakens your own, possibly valid criticism.

Since my time in college, caricature has become a pet peeve of mine, as well as a particular area of struggle. I hate caricatures when I see them, even to the point where I’ve been found arguing with a friend on behalf of a view I don’t hold, simply because I don’t think is being fairly represented.

While I was constantly defending my faith to my non-Christian friends in college, I’d find myself re-articulating their arguments to my Christian friends who might sneer when I was recounting the story. I might be Reformed right now simply because I attended a seminary with a Wesleyan-Holiness background and felt the need to defend the tradition.

At the same time, I must confess I have a love for strong polemics. I’ve mentioned this before. Kierkegaard, Pascal, Calvin, Athanasius, are among my favorite authors precisely because of their forthright polemical engagement. Biblical writers such as Paul himself engaged quite forthrightly in polemics, and like the prophets, he wasn’t always the most careful in his sensitivities towards hurt feelings or the niceties of academic dialogue. I struggle with this because when I’m about to engage in critique, I remember this strain of thought. The critique is just “honest.” But what about my own tradition and positions I hold dear? Do I see similar criticisms as simply “honest?” Am I quick to cry foul and “caricature?” Maybe.

I’m wrestling through this because I recently got involved in a little imbroglio over a post that I felt was linking a caricatured version of Calvinism with abuse or spiritual abuse. Now, newly-excited about the Reformed tradition as I am, I wasn’t particularly pleased with it and called it out as such. The initial post was quite forceful, and since I was sans coffee when I read it, I replied in kind. In the ensuing conversation I started to think about the way I approach criticism of my own tradition.

See, while it’s entirely right to expect a fair, charitable, nuanced criticism that cites the best sources and arguments when engaging in an academic debate about a position, real life presents us with people and situations that aren’t the ideal.

For instance, not every Calvinistic or Reformed pastor reads Kevin Vanhoozer, or preaches like Tim Keller, or articulates doctrine with the care and sensitivity of a Herman Bavinck or Francis Turretin. My own experience of the Reformed world has taken place in the context of a gently conservative Presbyterian church with caring, faithful, and sensitive pastors, but much as I hate to admit it, the reality is that some Reformed bodies are real-life, walking caricatures of the tradition I hold dear. Just as Wesleyan or Baptistic theologies can go off the rails in serious ways, so can churches and theologies with putatively Reformed roots. When that is the only expression of Reformed faith someone encounters, distaste for the whole stream is quite understandable. Sometimes the caricatures have human faces.

A few thoughts, then:

When someone within your fold goes off the rails, they need to get criticized and corrected by those within first. If not, it will probably be done by those with no sympathies for your tradition as a whole, likely imputing their failures to the broader structure of thought. It’s no harm to gently (or less-gently) call out failures or unhelpful distortions within the tradition. In fact, that’s what traditions are: ongoing conversations centered around various shared convictions as well as disagreements.

When criticizing those outside of your own tradition, especially one for which you feel less intellectual sympathy, it’s important to acknowledge distinctions and add caveats. For instance, I’m not a dispensationalist and I’ve seen the pop-dispensationalism I’ve grown up with go into some pretty unhelpful places when it comes to biases against Arabs. That said, not all dispensationalism is guilty, and the best advocates would avoid this problem.

While Paul didn’t dance around issues, and I don’t think we should either, it’s important for those of us who aren’t authors of Scripture to be careful with our words about traditions with which we disagree. I fail at this all the time, but my conversations with faithful friends, with whom I have some real disagreements, drive me to strive to temper my critical words. In which case, even when you’re going after a real problem, it’s not always simply a matter of “being honest” or “being prophetic”, but also being charitable and just.

For the Reformed, we should be particularly quick to be Reformed and always Reforming under the Word of God. We should know we’re not justified simply by being right, but by being righteous in Christ, so that should give us some space to be quick to admit our faults in the freedom of the Gospel.

I’ll admit, there is some irony in asking the Reformed to engage in self-criticism; it easily one of the most argumentative traditions in Western theology in terms of inter-tradition dispute. I’m not calling for more arguments about infralapsarianism or supralapsarianism, though. Instead, it’s the willingness to acknowledge the way certain strains and tendencies, even when not necessarily a corollary of Reformed theology, have been present and harmful in our churches at times. In other words, just as people have besetting sins, so do traditions.

This isn’t a call to stop engaging real caricatures or defending the faith, etc. By no means! Instead, it’s more of a, “Slow down. Think about it.” This side of the Second Coming it is possible for us to get things wrong or have cause for internal self-correction.

Soli Deo Gloria

7 Tips on “How to Meet Reformed Men”

church_dating

Ah yes, the classic “let me show you a verse” move.

I’ve written enough articles over the last few months that I now get readers coming to my blog off of random Google searches. Sometimes they make sense, others not so much, and a few make me laugh. One particular search caught my eye the other day: “how to meet Reformed men.” Apparently there is at least one single Christian woman out there, looking for a man with a sound grasp of the doctrines of grace. Now, I’m not sure she found what she was looking for here, but in the spirit of brotherly love, I thought I’d list a few helpful, possibly humorous, suggestions from friends and family on “how to meet Reformed men”:

    1. Go to a local Reformed church and look for one. 
    2. If no Reformed church is available, look for the guy in the back of your local non-denominational church, furiously writing notes during the sermon in order to write the pastor an email filled with corrections.
    3. In that same church, mention words like “covenant”, “doctrine”, “election”, or “fatherly hand” in conversations with any single men and look for the twinkle in their eyes. (HT: Sean McLeish)
    4. Frequent local coffee shops with a copy of Calvin’s Institutes lying out on the table. Make sure you’ve read some of it, though, and include sufficient highlights and underlining.
    5. Repeat #4 in local breweries and pubs (unless Baptist).
    6. Move to Louisville, walk around Southern’s campus without a wedding ring on. (Reformed Baptist; HT Lauren Rambo)
    7. For those favoring the online approach, ReformedSingles.com offers to fill the gap. Unlike other dating sites this is a place where: “Our members are prepared for marriage by reading a wide variety of articles on marriage, dating pitfalls, courtship, divorce and remarriage, and more. Our Members’ identities have been verified by their pastor so people you meet really are who they say they are. Finally, our members know that their futures are predestined by our heavenly Father and rest in His kind hands.” (HT: Alan Noble)

Although I’ve limited myself to 7 tips, on biblical grounds, I’m sure our sisters would love some more (appropriate) suggestions from the readership in the comments. Blessings on the search.

Soli Deo Gloria