Thursday, August 14, 2014

Calvin on wrath, grace, and eternal love

All those whom God hath predestined unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by  his word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; (WCF: 'Of Effectual Calling').

Since a few remarks that I made on Calvin on Ephesians 2 have aroused interest, I thought I might revisit these and add a comment or two by way of clarification. The original passage is as follows:

So the truth about atonement, about reconciliation to God, has to be represented to us as if it implied a change in God, and so an inconsistency, an apparent contradiction, in his actions towards us. But in fact there is no change in God; he loves us from eternity. There is however, a change in us, a change that occurs as by faith Christ's work is appropriated. The change is not from wrath to grace, but from our belief that we are under wrath to our belief that we are under grace. (John Calvin's Ideas, 395)

So for Calvin when unbelief turns to saving faith there is no change in God, but in the one whose state changes. His his status, that of being  eternally loved by God, a child of grace, does not. This is a good instance of how the eternal decree operates in the case of God's grace. The decree is fixed ‘in heaven’, eternally. The outworking of the decree is in time, as men and women change and are changed, by being brought to penitence and saving faith.for example.

Scott Oliphint asks a question or two about this, and then proceeds, quite understandably, to provide his own answers. But it is not quite as he surmises.

Does Helm mean to say (or does he argue that Calvin says) that when Scripture says that God's people were under wrath prior to their conversion (e.g., Eph. 2:3), that what we're meant to think is only that we believed we were under wrath? And are we then meant to read Scripture so that, at conversion, our belief changed to thinking we are under grace? We are surely not to think, says Helm, that God's disposition toward us has changed from wrath to grace. This "necessary consequence" of God's electing love is no "good consequence" at all. It denies the reality of salvation in history. Does Scripture really enjoin us to think of God's wrath or his grace as having its focus in our beliefs and not in God's covenantal disposition to man? Does Scripture really want us to believe something that is not, in fact, the case?

I make two points in the paragraph, both of them on behalf of Calvin. One – as we have just now seen - is that the movement from wrath to grace involves no change in God but one in human beings. This is consistent with my understanding of Calvin, that the decree of God is eternal and by it everything that is to come to pass does so.

And the second point is this: that until such time as people are changed they have no grounds for thinking that they are in the hands of a gracious God. God knows, 'he knows those that are his’, but they don’t yet believe it. Any belief to this effect is as they presently stand, under wrath,  an ungrounded belief. When ‘as by faith Christ’s work is appropriated’ and a person changes, profoundly so, a person is then entitled to believe that God’s love for him did not start with his conversion, or shortly before this, but that (to his astonishment) he was eternally loved by God. Like Paul he may come to think that God separated him from his mother’s womb, and called him by his grace. One God, one purpose. Thus a person  believes, or may come to believe, that his change is due to eternal election, and what has followed this in time. 

This is entirely consistent with what Calvin says elsewhere. For one other thing that Calvin believes is that ‘Christ is the mirror of our election’, (Inst. III.24.5) and it is as we are ‘in communion with Christ’ that we are entitled to believe that we are elect. So the normal way, Calvin says, is that God provides evidence to a person that they enjoy communion with Christ, and this grounds their conviction that they were eternally loved by God, ‘chosen in Christ before all ages”, and (to go on a bit) this love before all ages took the form of leaving him for a while in his state of sin and misery until God the Holy Spirit  regenerated him.

So the belief that he was eternally loved has the form of an inference, it is not formed in one step that God eternally loved him, nor is regeneration the forming of the belief that God has loved the one regenerated eternally. Rather that he is Christ’s by faith exercised in real time! For just as eternity is timeless, so the application of redemption is timely. As as he comes to recognize that he is in Christ, which may occur in a moment of time, or may take more time, he comes to see that he is eternally loved by God,  child of grace.

I’m not sure what ‘denying him the reality of salvation in history’ means, but I most certainly affirm that Calvin thought that the appropriation of salvation occurs in real time. God being timeless  does not change, but we are always changing. As I say over the page, also on behalf of Calvin, ‘God does not change. But we change when, by the exercise of faith, we experience restoration to the favour of God’. (396)

I hope that this covers Scott’s questions.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Can Lister keep the balance?

So, in this short series on current modified theism, we come full circle, returning to Rob Lister’s work on divine passion. Lister’s book may be said to be more ambitious that either Oliphint’s covenantalism, involving covenantal properties, and Frame’s idea of a God who changes while he remains unchanged. For his distinction between divine impassibility and his impassionedness is of general theological importance, not least because he endeavours to show that this is the dominant position in the main spine of a Christian dogmatic history. I very much doubt that this is the case, for to show it Lister would have also to show that the idea of God at first eternal and then temporal, or that God is both eternal and temporal (depending on which alternative of those mentioned in fn. 25  of page  222 Lister takes) played a significant place in earlier Christian dogmatics, and there is little sign that it does. The historic tradition is almost uniformly atemporalist in its understanding of God.

Looked at another way, Lister’s dogmatic proposals have a conservative purpose; his innovations are meant to clarify the tradition in a way that those who contributed to it did not do for themselves, though they might have done so, and also in a way that neither Oliphint nor Frame are attempting. But since this series of posts is not concerned with historical theology I shall leave this matter to one side.

The dogmatic proposal

In elucidating the dogmatic side of things, providing us with a ‘model’ of God, we come to section headings such as ‘Transcendence and Immanence Rightly Related’ (222) and ‘Timeless and Temporal’ (226). These elucidate the language of a divine ‘duality’ and of a godhead which is ‘two-pronged’, and we find ourselves in familiar territory (that is, if we are habitu├ęs of modern evangelical theology). Efforts to make it habitable (so far unsuccessful) have been made by Bruce Ware, (Rob Lister’s dissertation supervisor) as well as by Scott Oliphint and John Frame, and I dare say by others. 

We need to note the steps in the argument. 

There is first of all the deployment of the Creator-creature distinction. Lister notes that the distinction involves both an ontological and an ethical distinction or ‘distance’, and that we cannot therefore understand what it is like for the eternal Creator to possess emotional states (this expression is meant to be concessive but not so concessive as to beg any questions) of an immaculate kind. Secondly God ‘nevertheless opens up a pathway of relationship to us in covenantal condescension'. 

Then comes a significant move, clothed in quoted words from Michael Horton. ‘God, it is true, is other than the world. But unless we affirm just as emphatically that God has fully involved himself, and not only an appearance of himself in our world of time and space the most important features of the Christian proclamation must be either surrendered or at least said tongue-in-cheek’. (From Lord and Servant. The italics are Horton’s)

The 'balance'

Well, we might affirm just as emphatically both that God is other than the world and that he has fully involved himself in our world of time and space, but we would be unwise to give these two claims the same kind of sense; that God is other than the world and in our world in the same sense. After all God is other than world even if there was no world.  Suppose, reversing the expressions, we say that God is involved in what is other than our world and is in our world. Would that do as well? It would not. God is involved in our world though not being in our world which is after all a place of time and space, and God is not in time and space but transcends the space-time cosmos. Balancing the requirements of the Creator-creature distinction has to do justice to its asymmetry.  God is involved in the creation, the world of time and space that he has made. How can he be involved? By creating the world, and sustaining it, by loving the world, delighting in it, by appearing in it through spoken words, through his servants the prophets, by visions and theophanies, by miraculous actions, and by becoming incarnate in his second person. Have men and women truly related to God through such ways down the centuries? Yes they have. This is God in relation to his creation, unchanging even as his creation changes.  There is a ‘balance’ to use Lister’s word (223) to be achieved in our thinking of God’s immanence and his transcendence, but it is not a 50-50 affair, as if one leg of God is transcendent and the other immanent in his creation.

We can also use the words ‘voluntary condescension’ to characterise God’s immanence, which is not ‘needy’. (224) And also say that the sinful condition of his creation ‘draws forth God’s ire’. (225) But we surely go too far if we speak of God ‘inhabiting the creatures’ time and space’. In this discussion Lister rightly affirms that God exists eternally and enters into relationship with his creation contingently, at least in the sense that the creation and all that it contains is dependent on God. But where can we find that in Scripture, that having created, God then occupies time and space? As Lister develops his theological ‘model’, an unfortunate word, in any case, it is a strange mixture.

What is at work here becomes clearer in Lister’s remarks on God and time.(226) He thinks that God’s voluntary condescension means that God in in se atemporal, that is timelessly eternal, and also that he is at all the times of his creatures as the universe unfolds in time, omnitemporal in re as he expresses it, a ‘biblical duality’. There is the same emphasis in John Frame, as we have seen, which makes it necessary for God to be timeless and in time, both spaceless and in space, and to distinguish this duality from the bi-polarism of Process theism. And like Ware, and like Frame, (and like Millard Erickson?) Lister introduces discussion of God and space at this point as well. And so the idea is, that God is both timeless and in time, and both spaceless and in space. (227) God’s intrinsic spacelessness is compatible with his acting in space – obviously so. Why would anyone think that given God’s spacelessness he is locked out of his creation? His decree has spatial and temporal effects for those who are in time and space. But God himself cannot be in time and space, for obvious reasons.  Most certainly he cannot be in time and space while being eternal and spaceless. Transcendence and immanence are not in this kind of balance.

As  already mentioned, in a footnote on 266-7 Lister refers to various views of God and time, especially William Lane Craig’s and John Frame’s, and traditional eternalism, commenting that they are especially helpful, compelling, and more accessible to a wider readership than other views. They are different, but their common point is that given the creation God is in time. In Frame’s case, God is both. In Craig’s case God is timelessly eternal ‘until’ the creation, thereupon ceasing to be eternal and coming to be in time.

So what is Lister’s motivation for a modified theism? It is to do justice,  to the needed (as he sees it) 'balance' between divine transcendence and immanence


It occurs to me that in this convergence of views in the direction of what is called ‘modified classical theism’ there is the makings of a theology for the ‘big tent’ of evangelicalism, a formula for providing space for the various disparate theological elements that go to make up modern evangelicalism, - de-confessionalized Reformed congregations, Wesleyan, Pentecostalist, and so on. Here is a theology that says that God is other than his creation but he is equally - in a parallel way - in the creation, There is little or no need to resort to metaphor, simile and accommodation to interpret biblical language about God – literalism will suffice. It can be treated not as ‘pretty packaging’ of revealed truth but as the literal truth about God in time and space. Is that fanciful?  But is not such a theology troubled by incoherence? No more that the various ecclesiastical elements jostling under the  Big Top present consistencies to the watching world (if, that is, the world is watching.) I do not mean that any, and certainly not all, the contributors to this series on neoclassical-theism intends their theologising in this way.  But then human history. including church history, is filled with unintended consequences.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Gospel and duty

I think it would be worthwhile to return to the question of whether in sanctification, believers have a duty to obey the law.  This came up in an earlier post concerned with the place of the law in sanctification, the third use of the law as it is sometimes called. The question arises also in connection with the free offer of the gospel as defended by Andrew Fuller in The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation.

Andrew Fuller

There is no question that Andrew Fuller advocated an account of faith and of preaching that returned it to Reformation principles; a general, free, indiscriminate offer of the Gospel, and justification by faith as reliance upon the Christ preached.  But fresh controversies lead to new emphases.  As Heraclitus said, it is impossible to step into the same river twice. 

Fuller placed a good deal of emphasis on faith as a duty, and his views came to be known as ‘duty faith’ and ‘Fullerism’, terms suggesting something distinctive. In the book he returns to the matter several times.   Most interesting is his discussion in his Concluding Reflections.   Here he seems to qualify his earlier emphasis.  He recognizes here that faith cannot be a duty straightforwardly, since the invitations of grace are not founded merely on divine authority, or on God’s goodness, but in particular on God’s mercy and grace. He here emphasizes the important qualification, that ‘Though believing in Christ is a compliance with a duty, yet it is not as a duty, or by way of reward for a virtuous act, that we are said to be justified by it….we must stand accepted in the Beloved’.   Yet even with this vital qualification, we may ask, is faith as a compliance with a duty a dominant note in the New Testament? Sinners may have a duty to repent but do they, in the same sense, have a duty to believe?

Perhaps Fuller was at his most nervous here, at the very heart of his position, as is shown by the fact that he discusses this matter first at proposition III of Part II,   then in his Answers to Objections, and finally in his Concluding Reflections.   Fuller says that though the Gospel is a message of pure grace it ‘virtually requires’ obedience. But if something virtually requires obedience then it requires obedience. I think that by virtual obedience Fuller means that, like the law, the invitations of the gospel call for our compliance, yet they are not as the law is, divine commands, but the gospel invitations. That's my guess.

Suppose that the Queen, In addition to imposing on me and all her subjects  the duty to keep the laws that bear her signature, invites me to one of her garden parties (as I once was).  You might say that that’s an act of kindness, a matter of grace or of undeserved goodness, not of bare sovereign authority. It follows I have no duty to go to her party. Besides, another duty that I already have might take precedence over the invitation. Nevertheless, I am honoured to receive the invitation and it does not escape me that the one who invites is the one who is the sovereign, my sovereign. So the invitation is the sovereign’s invitation. We might say that the sovereign’s invitation is worth something, in the way that other invitations are worth less, or nothing at all. Even so it is possible to decline the invitation without penalty in the way that it is not possible to flout the law without penalty. So no one invited to the party has an obligation to accept. 

The analogy of the Queen's garden party to the invitations of the gospel is, like any analogy, imperfect. Yet it may bring out - I put it no higher – that invitations differ from laws. Perhaps that was what Christ was stressing in his analogy of the gospel to a marriage feast. Not everything that God says creates in the one addressed an obligation to comply. These analogies helps us to see, perhaps, that gracious invitations are different from commands.


There is a parallel situation in the case of sanctification, much-discussed at present. Is sanctification required? This is one question. But the inseparability of sanctification from justification, and its being required, is (I think) often confused with the question, is sanctification a duty? It is required, but is it a duty? Two different questions. One has to do with a logical requirement, the other with a legal requirement, or a moral requirement, or with both. If someone says that being justified, there is no need for sanctification, they fail to see the requirement of sanctification. And in saying this they have not only misunderstood sanctification but justification too. For each is inseparable from the other, the two-fold gift of Christ to his people. But to say that sanctification consists in keeping commands hasn’t quite struck the note and emphasis of the NT.

If I think that justification is all that is needed, or that Christ is imputed to a sinner for sanctification as he is for justification, what’s the mistake? It is the mistake of thinking that as a justified sinner there is nothing more to do. But the NT is full of imperatives to the people of God. For example, Paul said to the Ephesians, be renewed in the spirit of your minds. (4.23) But this, it seems to me, is a kind of command that can only be obeyed indirectly. It involves putting on the new man, (as Paul says) and as a consequence living in a certain way. This way can often be mapped on to  the commands of God, or the commands on to it, yet such living is not simply a matter of obeying these commands, but first of understanding what it means to profess regeneration. In other words, we leave the world of simply endeavouring to keep the commands of God, and seek to understand  a life that is lived from the inside out. There are various ways the NT has of depicting such a life – living as those who are alive from the dead, living as children of God, walking in love. The emphasis follows on having a new life and a new outlook, and being fruit, growing in grace. Living in disregard of the commands of God is a sign of failure, but it does not follow that keeping the commands of God is a sign of success.

Immanuel Kant contrasted the sense of duty with what he called 'a holy life'. If we do certain acts as duties, dutifully, the requirements in question bear down upon us. We feel pressured to do what a part of us, perhaps the whole of us, does not want to do. We have to do it. Our action is (Kant said) heteronomous. If, somehow, we have internalised the norms we discern in the commands, if we want to do them in the core of our person, then, Kant also said, we possess (in his sense) a holy life. We act autonomously. We no longer have any duties. Or to the extent that we internalise the norms, in this sense we possess a holy life. (I don't think Kant said this bit, on reflection, but he may have.) We do the substance of what are duties but not as duties. ('Whose service is perfect freedom'.)

Paul’s habitual way of teaching us how to behave is to emphasise that Christians are new people – ‘How can we who died to sin still live in it?’ , ‘Put off the old self….be renewed in the spirit of your minds….put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness’….'If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things which are above, where Christ is'….'For we are all children of light, children of the day…so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober….'And he writes of gifts, graces, and Peter of virtues. Lists of them.

If we ask, how should we then live, the answer is, by the norms and values as expressed in the Decalogue, what Calvin called ‘the eternal law’, expressed, he thought, in the Golden Rule. But (ideally) not as duties, even though in our present far-from-perfect state, expressing such norms in living - as distinct from talking about them – may be irksome and difficult. But for new men and women in Christ 'doing our duty' is not quite the best way of expressing this, is it? Yet if all else fails then duty it had better be.