The Church Has Always Known Theological Controversy (A Bit on the Peterson Thing)

athanasisu“Not again.”

That was my first thought when Eugene Peterson’s comments on gay marriage came out.

Regardless of the retraction, I knew the next few days would be ugly online. Various think-pieces (good and bad) would come, as would the tweets, the aggressive partisans, and the aggrieved bystanders in the middle, wringing their hands.

I don’t have a ton to say about Peterson himself, his comments, or the various reactions. I was frustrated initially, glad for the retraction, and saddened by the whole mess.

What struck me during this round, though, was the sense of fatigue. Maybe life online accelerates and magnifies our sense of controversy, especially since most people aren’t on Twitter. Still, it’s easy to get the feeling that we’re in a particularly stressful or conflicted moment in the church, and that this sort of thing will only become more common.

A friend of mine summed it up, asking, “Has it always felt so embattled to be in the Church?”

To which my response is, “Yes, actually. From the beginning, in fact.” It’s valuable to remember that for a moment.

You can read the rest of this piece over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

“God Is” by Mark Jones (Review)

God isJesus Christ testifies that eternal life is “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). With his latest book, God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God, Mark Jones aims to help you attain a little more of that eternal life now in the present.

I know of no better way to summarize the thrust of the work than Jones’s own preface where he writes:

“The true and living God is too much for us to bear, to handle, to conceive, to adore, to know, to trust, to understand, and to worship. The Incomprehensible One is simply too much for us in every conceivable way.

However, that the Son became flesh makes our human nature appear lovely to God. But he also makes God appear lovely to us. Take away Christ, the God-man, and we are reprehensible to God and he to us. But in Christ, God is well pleased with us and we with him.

We look at God through Christ, who makes the attributes of God more delightful to us.” (11)

Here is the heart of the work. Our greatest good is to know God. But God is beyond us, so he comes to us in Christ and reveals himself to us. God Is, then, is an exposition and introduction to the attributes of God whose signal contribution is keeping them tied squarely to the person and work of Jesus.

In many ways, Jones is following up works like J.I. Packer’s Knowing God and A.W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy, and giving them a Christological twist. But that’s not all. Unlike more recent, academic treatments, in the style of the great Puritan and Orthodox thinkers like Charnock, Watson, and Leigh, Jones has also made it his aim to connect each attribute or “doctrine” to applications or “uses” in our daily lives, loving God and our neighbors.

For instance, when Jones treats the patience of God, he turns to key Old Testament texts which testify to God’s forebearance, his willingness to restrain judgment so that sinners might be saved and his purposes would stand. But then, he turns to point out Christ’s death on the cross is the key to God’s patience. There God enacts his justice against all the sin formerly past over, saving sinners, but maintaining his holy nature. As application, Jones points us to the comfort of knowing God’s patience with us through Jesus, which then points us to the way we ought to be patient with others.

Or again, speaking of God’s glory, Jones points to the essential glory of God, the display and sum of his attributes in all of their beauty, as well as “glory” we ascribe to God in praise. But then, he turns to Christ and speaks to the way he displays the glory of God in human flesh. This, in turn, gives rise to a very careful discussion of the unique glories which Christ has as a composite person, the Godman, as well as his glory as the mediator who accomplishes salvation on our behalf.  By way of application, Jones points to our joy in worship of a great God, the beauty of being able to commune with this glorious God in Jesus, and our hope to experience this glory in person when Jesus returns in unveiled glory.

Jones goes on like this for some 26 chapters, touching on God’s independence, justice, love, holiness, immutability, and so forth, as well some surprising “attributes” like God’s name, his triunity, and his being “anthropomorphic.”

I’ll just be blunt and say it’s a good book that I think most should consider buying and reading. Jones is a friend, but I have worked my way through every page these last couple of weeks as devotional literature and found it very challenging and encouraging. I know I’ll be returning to it regularly whenever I want to think or write on a particular attribute of God. That said, I’ll add a couple more notes.

First, a word about style. The subtitle calls it a “devotional guide”, and I did use it as a sort of devotional, but you should know that’s a bit misleading. Indeed, I suspect Jones didn’t pick that subtitle. What I mean is that while the book is not an academic work, it’s not what passes for much popular, devotional literature, either.

The chapters are short, maybe 5-7 pages, but they are dense with theological instruction, biblical citation, and (fantastic) quotations from theologians like Watson, Charnock, Leigh, Pictet, and occasionally a “modern” like Bavinck. He’ll do little historical dives and let you know about debates regarding the necessity of satisfaction for atonement, or the way the pactum salutis (covenant of redemption) play into our understanding of an attribute. Distinctions like ad extra and ad intra are sprinkled throughout.

Now, I think this is a very good and helpful thing. I really hope more popular theological literature moves in this direction. And if you find yourself intimidated at that thought, I would encourage you to read it anyways and allow yourself to be challenged. Still, I just figured I’d let you know.

Second, if you are a pastor who is struggling to think of ways to connect theology, and especially the nature of God, to your people in the pulpit and in your counsel, I think this is a good model to look at. You don’t have to follow Jones everywhere he goes either in application, or even in particular content points. But what he is doing is modeling a way of tracing the impact of how we think about God into every area of our worship and life.

We were made “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The aim of the gospel is God in Christ. He is our great end and our great joy. Reading God Is, is not a bad place to pursue more of him.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Immutable and Infinite Holiness of God

burning bushStephen Charnock’s treatment of the Holiness of God in The Existence and Attributes of God stands as the high watermark on the subject among Reformed Orthodox theologians of the period. Working my way through it, I’m struck by its comprehensive and seemingly exhaustive definition, defense, and exposition of the attribute. There’s much to dive into, but one particular section on the ontology of God’s holiness struck my attention.

To set it up, briefly, Charnock defines God’s holiness as:

Positively, It is the rectitude or integrity of the Divine nature, or that conformity of it, in affection and action, to the Divine will, as to his eternal law, whereby he works with a becomingness to his own excellency, and whereby he hath a delight and complacency in everything agreeable to his will, and an abhorrency of everything contrary thereunto.

God’s holiness is his utter purity of will, the love of the goodness which he has and is, as well as his opposition to everything opposed to that goodness which he is.

He goes on to clarify that this attribute is not a secondary, or ancillary perfection of God’s life, but one that is “essential and necessary” to his being. God would not be God without God being holy. God has been holy from eternity and will be holy forevermore.

Following this, he clarifies that “God only is absolutely holy: ‘There is none holy as the Lord’ (1 Sam 2:2).” This may strike some of us as odd because many things are spoke of in Scripture as holy besides God. In fact, isn’t holiness one of the communicable attributes which creatures can share with God? What could Charnock mean?

Well, he means that God’s holiness is qualitatively distinct and original to God. It’s not just that God is holy, he is, in fact, holiness itself. He only is originally holy and everything else is made holy as it is related to him (“by derivation”). Things set apart to the Lord become holy precisely because they are the Holy God’s. It’s borrowed holiness, in a sense, sort of like the light of the moon is borrowed from the Sun. And even then, their purity is just a dim reflection of the purity and holiness of God.

Charnock wants to drive home the qualitative difference between our holiness and God’s holiness. He compares God’s holiness with the holiness of the angels whom he has blessed with holiness and says their purity comes up short, causing them to cover their “feet out of shame in themselves” (Cf. Isa. 6). They know that:

…though they love God (which is a principle of holiness) as much as they can, yet, not so much as he deserves; they love him with the intensest degree, according to their power; but not with the intensest degree, according to his own amiableness; for they cannot infinitely love God, unless they were as infinite as God, and had an understanding of his perfections equal with himself, and as immense as his own knowledge. God, having an infinite knowledge of himself, can only have an infinite love to himself, and, consequently, an infinite holiness without any defect; because he loves himself according to the vastness of his own amiableness, which no finite being can.

Since love to God’s own perfection and goodness is the heart of holiness, only the perfection of God can muster it. Only the Triune God has the infinite capacity to love his infinite beauty properly, “according to the vastness of his own amiableness.” (I love that phrase.) And it’s precisely for that reason that his holiness is qualitatively distinct from all finite, creaturely holiness. What an astonishing and marvelous thought!

And it’s here we come to the fascinating passage that struck my eye.

Following off of this insight into the importance of God’s infinity for appreciating the distinctness of God’s holiness, he moves on to consider its immutability by comparison with changeableness of angelic and human nature. It’s a long quote, but worth it:

Holiness is a quality separable from them, but it is inseparable from God. Had they not at first a mutability in their nature, none of them could have sinned, there had been no devils; but because some of them sinned, the rest might have sinned. And though the standing angels shall never be changed, they are still changeable in their own nature, and their standing is due to grace, not to nature; and though they shall be for ever preserved, yet they are not, nor ever can be, immutable by nature, for then they should stand upon the same bottom with God himself; but they are supported by grace against that changeableness of nature which is essential to a creature; the Creator only hath immortality, that is, immutability (1 Tim. 3:16). It is as certain a truth, that no creature can be naturally immutable and impeccable, as that God cannot create any anything actually polluted and imperfect. It is as possible that the highest creature may sin, as it is possible that it may be annihilated; it may become not holy, as it may become not a creature, but nothing.

The holiness of a creature may be reduced into nothing, as well as his substance; but the holiness of the Creator cannot be diminished, dimmed, or overshadowed (James i. 17): “He is the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness or shadow of turning.” It is as impossible his holiness should be blotted, as that his Deity should be extinguished: for whatsoever creature hath essentially such or such qualities, cannot be stripped of them, without being turned out of its essence… The sun is essentially luminous; if it should become dark in its own body, it would cease to be the sun. In regard to this absolute and only holiness of God, it is thrice repeated by the seraphim (Isa. 6:3)…the holiness of God is so absolutely peculiar to him, that it can no more be expressed in creatures, than his omnipotence, whereby they may be able to create a world; or his omniscience, whereby they may be capable of knowing all things, and knowing God as he knows himself.

Humans and angels are changeable (mutable) beings. We came into existence and can wink out of existence. Our natures can shift from good to evil and evil to God.  We have fallen, but thankfully we can be saved and sanctified to God once more (humans, at least). And we only stay holy by the mercy and sustaining perfection of God’s work in us.

And yet in the starkest contrast, God is unchangeable. He is immutable. There is no shadow of turning with him. And this holds true of his holiness as well. There isn’t the slightest chance that God could ever be less than the infinitely pure love of good. It is the distinct, sine qua non of the divine life. It is inseparable from him.

Besides the magnificence of this vision of God’s absolute holiness, what struck me about this was how thickly ontological this discussion was. It’s all too easy and common in some contemporary discussions to make clean distinctions between God’s “ethical” or “moral” attributes emphasized in Scripture and his more “metaphysical” or “ontological” ones derived from philosophical or “Greek” speculation. (Typically, the distinction is pressed by theologians looking to revise the ontological ones.) Charnock doesn’t play that game.

In fact, it is precisely the “metaphysical” or “ontological” qualities of God–his infinity and his immutability–that distinguish and characterize God’s holiness as his own. It is the limitless and unchangeable purity, rectitude, and love of all that is good and according to his own perfect will that makes God’s holiness what it is.

This is good news. For God’s holiness is a crowing attribute among the rest, giving them their distinct character:

As all would be weak, without almightiness to back them, so all would be uncomely without holiness to adorn them…As sincerity is the lustre of every grace in a Christian, so is purity the splendor of every attribute in the Godhead. His justice is a holy justice; his wisdom a holy wisdom; his arm of power a holy arm (Ps. xcviii. 1); his truth or promise a holy promise (Ps. cv. 42). Holy and true go hand in hand (Rev. vi. 10). His name, which signifies all his attributes in conjunction, is holy (Ps. chi. 1); yea, he is “righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works” (Ps. cxlv. 17): it is the rule of all his acts, the source of all his punishments. If every attribute of the Deity were a distinct member, purity would be the form, the soul, the spirit to animate them. Without it, his patience would be an indulgence to sin, his mercy a fondness, his wrath a madness, his power a tyranny, his wisdom an unworthy subtilty. It is this gives a decorum to all.

Praise God, then, that it is this holiness which is unchanging and without end.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Love and Wrath, the Yes and No, of a Simple God (A Quick Response to Vreeland on Atonement)

wrath among the perfections of God's lifeI hate to ever criticize a fellow bearer of the most excellent name of “Derek” (especially if he spells it correctly), but I had a few thoughts on a recent post by Derek Vreeland over at Missio Alliance. Entitled, “Is Penal Substitutionary Atonement Necessary?“, Vreeland attempts to do some parsing around the difference between penal substitutionary atonement and propitiatory satisfactional atonement in the wake of the SBC resolution on the matter.  I won’t summarize the argument, as you should go read the piece and then come back.

Before I raise some complaints, I’ll say two positives. First, it’s a careful piece with an irenic tone. Vreeland goes out of his way to try to avoid caricaturing views he’s critiquing as positing a bloodthirsty, savage god. And, second, praise be to that God, he takes the time to interact with someone like Packer, noting agreements where possible, which is a good sign.

That said, I had some some quibbles, so I’ve sort of hastily written a few out since someone asked me about the piece online.

First, about the proper translation of hilasterion as “propitiation”, “mercy seat”, or “expiation.” I’ll simply note that the “mercy seat” reading, which was supposed to be the advance over propitiation or expiation, doesn’t obviously rule out a propitiatory dimension of the term, especially since that was the most common meaning in the Greek. You have to imagine the LXX writers used it to translate kapporeth for some reason. More importantly, even if the denotation is immediately expiation, that doesn’t necessarily remove the notion of turning away wrath. As Fleming Rutledge recently noted in The Crucifixion (p. 282), you could easily have a “propitiation via expiation” logic at work, since getting rid of sin would presumably turn away God’s wrath by removing the object of God’s wrath. (And while we’re on the subject, Rutledge is fantastic. Here’s my review.)

Second, we come to the status of wrath. I’ll just quote this paragraph:

Anger or wrath is not a literal attribute of God. As used by Paul in Romans, wrath is a metaphor for God’s eschatological judgement. God is not a mixture of love and wrath or love and anger. God is essentially a holy community of persons within whom there is no anger. God is pure love. God judges not from a place of judicial retributive anger, but from a heart of love.

This seems confused to me.

First, classically, God is not a mixture of anything, including his attributes. God is simple, not composed of parts. We might think of his attributes or perfections as simply the One God considered from a particular angle. Hence they are not in conflict with one another but in perfect harmony and, importantly, mutually-defining.

Now, there are all sorts of debates in Church history about how to think of God’s wrath. Whether it’s a primary attribute of God’s eternal nature (love, holiness, etc), or whether it’s something like a secondary attribute derivative of another kind of like mercy. Mercy is God’s goodness in action as it encounters an object of pity and in need of aid. God has always been good, but now in history we encounter his goodness in a new way in our state of need.

In the same way, we might think of God’s wrath as God’s inherent righteousness in the encounter with sin and sinners who violate God’s shalom and set themselves against him and their neighbors. The underlying reality of wrath, then, just is God’s eternal righteousness or justice, which is God himself. For a rich discussion on this point, I’d commend Jeremy Wynne’s monograph Wrath Among the Perfections of God’s Life. 

Connected to this, there is absolutely no reason to set up a false binary between “love” and “judicial retributive anger.” It is entirely possible to love someone and be angry with them. And not just in a petty way, but precisely out of love it is possible to absolutely be furious with someone’s self-destructive choices which hurt themselves and others. (On which, see this article by Tony Lane on the relationship between Wrath and Love.)

What’s more, it’s also entirely possible to love someone with a perfect love and recognize they have violated the law in a way that renders them liable to judgment and be angry at them for precisely that reason. Recall that since God is simple, God’s love is holy, pure, and righteous. In which case, God’s love is not the sort of love which lies about sin, failing to recognize it, name it as what it is, and treat it accordingly (which is precisely what is judicial, retributive anger does).

In which case, it’s manifestly not a matter of finding the right balance of wrath and love, which would indeed be a troubling and silly suggestion.

This brings me to the next point:

The problem Jesus came to address was not the problem of a “holy” God of justifiable wrath punishing a world of sinners. Jesus did not come to die for our sins to remove God’s hostility and turn God’s no towards us into a yes. God’s attitude towards us has always been yes. Jesus came to reveal to us what God is like (John 1:18). When God in Christ encountered sinful people, did he punish them? Did he express God’s no to them? Did he condemn them? Did he exhibit hostility towards them? No! God forgave them, healed them, and restored them. As a God of love, God certainly does not approve of sin. However God’s rejection of sin and evil doesn’t imply that God is personally offended by sin and needs to be “satisfied” in order to forgive.

Again, Vreeland builds on that false binary. God can love someone, have a fundamental stance of “yes” towards them, but still have a moral need and responsibility to say “no” towards their sin (and towards them insofar as they are the authors of their sins). In other words, the infinite God can have something approaching a multilayered volitional stance towards his creatures as created in his Image, but distorted through their sin.

Here’s one thing to keep straight about this: God’s “need” for satisfaction isn’t the “need” of a petty, insecure person. It is the moral “need” of the obligation of God as the perfectly righteous King, the Lord, the Judge and Guarantor of the order of the whole earth to maintain justice within it and keep his word of blessing and cursing according to the Law he has set forth. In which case, to sin against him isn’t just a matter of mere personal insult, but rather a legal violation of the justice and goodness of all creation. And so judgment is a serious condemnation, a “no” against it.

That being said, there would be something perverse about God if we couldn’t affirm that his judicial “no” to sin as the Lord, King, and Judge wasn’t still a very personal one. It’s not a matter of mere disapproval. Recall for a moment a brief catalogue of sin: idolatry, murder, adultery, rape, racism, war, robbery, child abuse, pride, sex trafficking, etc.. If God really is the loving King personally committed to the good of his creation, there is a sense in which he has to be personally offended by such atrocious violations of the shalom he desires. Anything less than a personal wrath, a personal, righteous opposition to sin that must be dealt with, robs us of a God of personal love.

Beyond that, I’d add that this still isn’t a simple matter of turning a “no” of judgment into the “yes” of forgiveness. Instead, it is saying a fundamental “yes” to humanity and forgiving us by executing the “no” against sin through the judgment of the cross. I’ve made this point at length before, but God being God means God forgives in a unique, Godlike way, which means doing away with sin and guilt to which he must stand opposed and treat as it deserves.

I mean, this has been clear (in the Reformed tradition) as far back as Calvin who stated it is precisely the Father’s love which motivates his sending of the Son in order to remove the obstacle of our sin and guilt which intervenes between us (“by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ”). Or to put it differently, God isn’t moved from wrath to love because of Christ’s death. He’s moved by love to satisfy his wrath against us by removing our guilt and enmity through the blood of his cross.

I would go on, but this is already too long, but I think you get the gist of my point. While I appreciate Vreeland’s work, I think it buys into too many false binaries about love and wrath as well as fails to appreciate the sort of need involved in the notion of satisfaction be ultimately helpful for us on this point.

If you’d like more along this line, I’ve got my big post on objections and answers to penal substitution. Also, since Vreeland cited it, I suppose I’ll link my review to Wright’s atonement book, whose exegesis of Romans 5 and 3 (and 8, for that matter) I found confused.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Note on Experienced Pain, Truth, And Developing Doctrine

job and friendsI recently saw a discussion online about hell. In the course of things, one person noted their childhood trauma connected with teaching on this doctrine. Another (or possibly the same) went to suggest they couldn’t possibly see how growing up with a particular view of hell didn’t lead to childhood trauma. The doctrine itself was inherently trauma-causing and the implication was that this in itself counted strongly against its truth. Others chimed in, both for and against, either disagreeing or trying to defend the doctrine in question.

I didn’t have time to jump in at the moment, but I’ve been chewing on the issue for a bit. Not so much the doctrine of hell, but more generally what role considerations about a doctrine’s adverse psychological effects ought to play in doctrinal construction. So I wanted to test out a few tentative thoughts on the issue.

Words Matter. Let me begin by saying I am not doubting the experiences of trauma of those who were claiming it in that conversation. I don’t know some of them and I don’t have reason to doubt the ones I did know.

I will say, I do think there is a general tendency towards carelessness with words on this point, though. A friend of mine who is doing work in the area of trauma and theology has helpfully pointed out that words like “trauma”, “abuse”, “trigger”, and so forth, have specific, technical meanings related to qualitatively different sorts of psychological conditions and events. This is missed when we sloppily overuse them and apply them broadly to any generally unpleasant or disturbing experience (as is sadly common today).

This is unhelpful because it can illegitimately (even if unintentionally) be used to gain unfair and manipulative leverage in conversations by those who are not actually trauma sufferers. What’s more, in so doing, it actually minimizes and waters down the experiences of said, actual trauma sufferers.

Be Careful Not to Universalize Your Particular Experience. On that point, while I wouldn’t for a moment want to ignore or deny their experiences of dread and psychological distress connected to the doctrine, I would also caution we mustn’t deny the experience of those who did not have those same experiences. Because it seems empirically not the case that growing up with this particular view of hell is universally and necessarily traumatic, even if it sadly was so for some.

I’ll dangerously use myself as an example. I grew up being taught some version of that same doctrine from a very early age. It wasn’t something my parents or Sunday School teachers dwelt on obsessively, but they didn’t ignore it. And while I remember a short season in junior high being quite worried about judgment (I had been cursing at school and it haunted me at night), I eventually came to an assurance of the gospel and it passed. It’s not to say I don’t still find the reality of it troubling, or worth wrestling with—much the way I do many other awful realities. But it is not something that has left a lasting, psychic scar on me. And I know a great many of my friends and families and members of various churches who could say the same. What’s more, it’s entirely plausible that a larger survey would reveal the non-universality of this doctrinally-driven trauma far beyond my anecdotal evidence. Indeed, if we expand that survey across the globe and across the history of the Church, that seems manifestly obvious.

I suppose I am making a version of the argument against cultural imperialism in theology. One of the things that’s become clear over the years is that people from other times, cultures, and places read the Bible and experience Christian teaching in different ways than affluent, Post-Enlightenment Westerners. Go back a thousand years in church history. Or maybe a thousand miles across on an ocean. Texts we find shocking, they do not. Texts they find shocking, we do not. And it would be presumptuous to assume that our cultural-driven theological instincts automatically give us more insight. They don’t necessarily give us less insight, either. But considerations like that ought to give us pause.

My point is that we similarly shouldn’t be psychological or experiential imperialists, assuming the texts or doctrines which trouble us particularly, will trouble or shock others in the same way. There is a certain intellectual and empathetic myopia involved there—one which I have found myself guilty of on numerous occasions—which needs to be reckoned with. My experiences, my position, my place, my psychological make-up incline me in a particular direction theologically. But so do others. And it’s not that I need to always assume I’m wrong, but I need to acknowledge that. And this is true not only for positive experiences, but also negative ones and how we related them to our doctrine.

One example that comes to mind is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty over suffering and evil. Some find the idea that God has a purpose (either immediate or mediate) behind allowing their pain and suffering—the loss of a child to early death—to be one of horror and disgust. Others find it absolutely necessary to maintain any sort of faith in God’s goodness in the face of the exact same tragedy. At that point, we have two instances of sufferers reacting to the very same teaching in diametrically opposed fashion. Whose psychological experience with that teaching should be weighted more strongly? Whose comfort is more trustworthy?

Truth Can Be Troubling. Following on this, we must keep in mind that the truth of an idea, may indeed be troubling—even traumatic. Growing up on a mountain, a child may be taught to take care not to shout too loudly in certain areas lest they trigger a rock slide, or an avalanche. They may then come dwell on that idea incessantly and obsessively. This is sad and possibly psychologically traumatic. Now, this may be a good reason to not live on that mountain, but it would not be a reason for rejecting the belief that avalanches are a liability in in their locale. The truth of the reality is fairly independent of whether it is potentially traumatic to believe it.

I would go on to point out, though, that even good truth, inappropriately introduced or dwelt on, could probably cause trauma, or at least have adverse psychological effects. Let’s be a bit Freudian and use sex as an example. That nearly every child has been begotten by an act of sexual love between a mother and a father is a good and beautiful truth. That God created sexual love as a pleasurable experience is as well. Both are good for people to know.

Yet we can all agree that exposure to pornography at a young age (or at all) would be a wrong, distorting, and harmful way to learn about them. Or, turning away from the immoral, it seems quite possibly traumatic to be introduced to these truths at the age of 7 by walking into your parent’s bedroom at the wrong moment, forcing a subsequent explanation. This could easily have adverse effects that, in the right sort of child, lead to sad, unhealthy fixations later on in life. But this being the case by no means counts as an argument against the good truth of the reality of sex. It is an argument for bedroom locks, discretion, and a game-plan for talking to your child about sex in an appropriate fashion.

A Diagnostic, Not a Criterion. But then is there any place someone’s psychological experience of a teaching should play in the way we think about it? I think there is. But we must not confuse what kind. I would suggest that it at least plays the role of a diagnostic light on your dashboard, warning you that something needs to be addressed.

Now, what needs to be addressed is not always immediately clear. Someone might experience great distress—unhealthy pain—at a doctrine for a few reasons. First, yes, the teaching itself is possibly flawed. I’m not saying that’s never a possibility. It definitely is. Second, it could also be that the teaching is not flawed but it is being taught and applied in a harmful and unhelpful fashion which needs to be addressed.

For instance, it’s possible to take doctrines and distort them—even wonderful doctrines about forgiveness, reconciliation and grace can be used abusively. Here the social and moral context of the teaching proves toxic and that toxicity affects how it is being received. Or, it could be that a doctrine is being taught not wrongly, or falsely, or “abusively”, but is being over-emphasized or without being properly set in the context of the rest of Christian truth.

One friend pointed out that doctrines like hell, or the fear of losing your salvation (or that you’ve never had it) can take on an extra psychological pressure in environments where much emphasis is laid on having a visible “conversion” experience, a second blessing, etc. The monastic context in which Luther struggled against the judgement of God might be another. Or one thinks of Kierkegaard’s testimony about the effect his father’s tumultuous personality paired with a pietistic focus on Christ’s sufferings hand on him as a young child. An individual doctrine isn’t doing the work here alone, but rather the way it functions alongside everything else.

All this to say, widespread experience of adverse psychological effects associated with a doctrine can definitely alert us of a problem we need to address. But it’s not immediately clear the solution is doctrinal revision. Often it is a call to greater pastoral discernment about the uses of doctrine, not the doctrines themselves. As the old maxim has it, “improper use does not nullify proper use“, but we can’t be so busy defending good doctrine we never stop to think about how to use it properly.

Avoiding Projection. To sort of round things out, I suppose one worry at the back of my mind is that an instinct to rewrite, or to tweak, Christian teachings in order to make sure it’s always psychologically affirming in some direct way, can turn our theology into a species of projection. Atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said all theology was basically our anthropology magnified to the Nth degree and then projected up onto the screen of heaven. Freud makes a version of the same argument: God as wish-fulfillment. Believing in God is the comfort of having an ideal earthly father, simply projected into eternity.

And the thing is—when it comes to a lot of theology—they have a point. Much modern theology explicitly buys the premise that we’re basically just coming up with revisable metaphors for God that work for us and contributing to “flourishing”—however Late Moderns have come to define the term. In other words, my worry is conceptual idolatry, despite the admirable motive of concerns for those in pain.

All of this comes around to how do theology for the Church. It’s an obvious truism that all theology is done by humans, from particular perspectives, who inevitably have their favored theological paradigms informed by their experiences. But are we at least trying to give priority to God’s self-revelation, his self-testimony in the Gospel and recorded in Scripture? Are we at least attempting to let God’s Word beyond our experiences speak a word of comfort about God into our experiences? Or do we explicitly make our variable, subjective, and relative experiences, cultures, and intuitions function as a normative authority or criterion?

Again, I’m not saying we never rethink doctrine, or how we’re teaching in light of people’s adverse psychological experiences. What I am saying is that we must make sure that these realities drive us to humble ourselves before Christ’s voice in Scripture—to hear what we may have missed, to have him clarify what we have muddled, or to have him reaffirm what we might be tempted to dispense with in our haste and pain. For ultimately it is his words–even those which initially confuse and confound us–which heal our deepest wounds.

Soli Deo Gloria

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

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

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

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

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

Correcting the Historical Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clarifying the Reformed View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrapping Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that’s about it for now.