Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Freedom, Liberty and the Westminster Confession

In his recent book Deviant Calvinism (Fortress Press, 2014) Oliver Crisp considers the idea that there are two philosophical theories of human agency jostling side by side in the Westminster Confession. He couples this with the fact that there have been Calvinists who have been libertarians. He mentions John L Girardeau, the Southern Presbyterian theologian. If this idea is plausible, then it in turn suggests that in the hey-day of Puritanism, in the middle of the 17th century, there were two competing views that were tolerated in their ranks, a libertarian and a compatibilist view, and that subscribers to the Confession are free to take one or the other view, one view on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the other view on the other days of the week. Nor are there two views in the sense that some expressions are definitely and clearly libertarian, others definitely and clearly compatibilist.

Not two views but one

Here I am not going to take sides on the question of which view of freedom is the preferred one, compatibilism or libertarianism, but to try to show that whichever it is the Confession is consistent on the question. There are not two views, but one. William Cunningham had the opinion that subscribers to the Confession could understand its statements on human agency either in a necessitarian way, or in a non-necessitarian way, in good faith. (See ‘Calvinism and the Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity’ in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation.) He meant, I think, that the Confession’s statements were not explicit on the question, but in effect they mumbled when this topic came up, or obfuscated, and so can be taken either way.

But this is rather different from saying that the Confession teaches two incompatible views. (We should also bear in mind that the Confession does not use the terms ‘compatibilist’, ‘libertarian’ or even ‘necessitarian’. Though it does refer to what God ‘determines’, though sparingly. Not with anything like the enthusiasm of those who these days blithely talk of ‘theological determinism’. So caution is needed in this area.) It is certainly true that the Confession does not develop one view or the other in explicit terms. Crisp makes that point.

Crisp cites some remarks of Jerry Walls. He (Walls) appears to hold that the statements of the Confession in one place commits it to:

(1) Because a person is determined to do an action by God making him will to do this, the person is able to do the thing.

This is taken, I assume by Jerry Walls (I haven’t seen his book), to imply libertarianism and not compatibilism.

The chapter on effectual calling (Chapter 10) is cited as evidence. Perhaps these words from that chapter:

This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from any thing at all foreseen in man; who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and so embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it. (S. II)

And perhaps by other statements found in the Confession. Walls asserts that the Confesssion is also committed to

(2) A person is enabled to do that thing by God, but it is up to the person whether he does that action.

and this is taken by Walls to be consistent with libertarianism. (Though that these words clearly only libertarianism is in my view a bit of a stretch.)

Perhaps it is thought that this passage from Chapter 10 commits the Confession to (2):

…renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ, yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.(S. I)

If so, the divines are envisaged as committing themselves in section (I) of Chapter X in the space of a few lines, not only to two distinct theories of human freedom, but also both to Augustinianism and to semi-Pelagianism,. (Perhaps they did not notice the fact, or perhaps it was a  matter of policy.) Maybe. But do you think that was likely?

But apart from the implausibility of one of the interpretations of part of Chapter X, there is another reason why all this is not likely. To see this, we must make a more thorough induction of the language of the Confession. We find that the choice of words to describe human agency is quite interesting. Here (I think) are all the relevant references:

The Confession on human liberty and freedom

An attempt will be made to show not that there are two rival metaphysical views of human freedom side by side in the confession, but that language about freedom and about liberty is in fact doing two distinct jobs. First let us look at ‘liberty’ then at ‘freedom’.


Decree III.1 ‘neither is the liberty or contingency of secondary causes…’

Creation IV.2 ‘being left to the liberty of their own will’

Of Free Will, IX.1 ‘God hath endued the will of man with that natural  liberty….’


Of Free Will, IX.2, ‘man in his state of innocency, had freedom and power to will and to do that which is good….

IX.4 ‘….he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good…’

IX.5 ‘The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only’

Effectual Calling, X.1 ‘….yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace’.

This survey excludes the wordings in Chapter XX, ‘Of Christian liberty, and Liberty of Conscience’. But here ‘liberty’ is being used in a political or social sense as it is in ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’, for example, and is not relevant to our discussion.


Otherwise than in the Chapter on Liberty of Conscience, I suggest that in the Confession, ‘freely’ has invariably to do with spiritual ability, the enjoyment of the effects of divine grace. So in heaven the saints have perfect and immutable freedom to do good, and those who are effectually called are such as they come to Christ most freely, being made willing by his grace; not metaphysically willing in some respect, but morally willing. And so on. The opposite of such freedom is not a metaphysical state, because in the Confession ‘freedom’ does not denote a metaphysical view, but a moral and spiritual state,  often referred to as freedom (to some degree) from the ‘bondage’ of the will.

So while at first sight we might suppose that  ‘freely’ in the occurrence of ‘yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace’ refers  either to compatibilist or libertarian freedom, I suggest that the use of ‘free’ and ‘freely’ here has its source not in metaphysical debates about the will, but in the operations of divine grace, and in the usage of the New Testament. For example, ‘So If the Son shall sets your free, you will be free indeed.’ (Jn.836. See also v.21) , and ‘where the spirit of the Lord is there is freedom’, (2 Cor. 3.17) and ‘the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Rom.8.21). Freedom is linked to certain graciously-given states of the people of God

What about ‘liberty’ in the Confession? When this word is used by the divines, its use is much more general. The context of its use has to do with the capacities of human beings in general. `The liberty of second causes’ has to with those individuals endowed with intelligence and will, by comparison with the behaviour of animals, insects and vegetation, other kinds of secondary. This is the liberty which God has endowed us, as men and women. In addition the Confession states that without divine assistance to keep them on the straight and narrow, the pair in the Garden were ‘left to the liberty of their own will’, whatever the character of that willing may have been. It is not that the pair had freedom to choose good or evil, but they were created good, and therefore biased toward the good; yet not immutably so, and being left to the liberty of their own wills, that is, without receiving divine enabling, they lapsed, succumbing to devilish temptation, and ‘brought death into the world and all our woe’. But in the glory to come, the Confession states, ‘the will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only.’ Notice again the connection between freedom and a state of grace.


So what is being suggested is that the choice of words in the Confession follows a  deliberate policy and that that policy is consistent and intelligible. If this suggestion is plausible, there is no need to resort to the debate between libertarians and compatibilists, important though that debate is, or to indulge in to what Oliver Crisp calls ‘a subtle sleight of hand’ (80), to make out this intelligibility.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Sanctification in a State Church

The lure of the state

The Westminster Divines saw themselves as giving support to the state (in the form of Parliament) in its hoped-for establishment of the Reformed religion in England. Church and state were to join hands as two ‘ministers’ of the land, the church ministering true religion, and the state granting to the church privileges, by outlawing or discriminating against deviant religious groups, and quelling any expressions of lawlessness or civil unrest vented against the church, should there be any. On this view the external peace of the church is the responsibility of Parliament, in its role as the promoter of the King’s peace, of ‘law and order’. It must be remembered that the Westminster Assembly was not an assembly of any visible church, like a general assembly of a presbyterian church that was summoned annually, but was called and facilitated by the Parliament for this purpose, for getting it off the ground. It was a political creation, doing the bidding of Parliament, as the central spine of this pact, which was to be embodied in the Solemn League and Covenant, testifies. 
For its part the church by law established was to teach its hearers the standards that the Bible expected of them in their behaviour. Interest, including scholarly interest in this period, is currently stressing that all of a sudden the Puritans became bothered about antinomianism (See for example the discussion in Bob Letham, The Westminster Assembly, 295f. and especially footnote 10.), leaving Arminianism to take second place, as the Synod of Dort had faded. Why was this? My hunch is that this targeting of antinomianism has less to do with the Divines’ concern to protect the nature and efficacy of justification and sanctification, their distinctness yet inseparability, than with showing to their new partners, the House of Commons, that they were ready to play their part in upholding public ‘order’, while in turn being happy to see the Commons legislate for such order.

So anything that seemed that it might upset the peace, like the teaching of the antinomians, was controverted with gusto, though it would seem, at least with the benefit of hindsight, that trouble would come, if it came,  from the radical sects than from a group of fairly harmless-looking ‘antinomians’ such as Crisp and Eaton. It would be difficult to distil an avowal of licentiousness or incitement to vice from their writings. Nowadays the threat of antinomianism is considered in the context of the Gospel Coalition, then from the context of the civil peace of England. There is a difference. But it makes the current stress by some on the place of the law in sanctification rather incongruous. That, at least, is what I'm arguing. 

The law and the catechisms

In the last post we noted the three-fold uses of the law according to the Reformed – as a means of conviction of sin, as a means for promoting civil peace, and as a rule of life for Christians. What we find as we turn the numerous pages of the Larger and Shorter Catechisms that are devoted to the expositions of the Ten Commandments is a blurring of these three uses. To start with, in the exposition of the law, matters to do with ‘public order’ are intertwined with the law as a rule of life for Christians, and the whole exposition of the law, its place in the Catechism, is prior to and preparatory to, the exposition of the gospel. So in the Larger Catechism the exposition of the Decalogue is followed by questions 152 and 153.

Q,152, What does every sin deserve at the hands of God? A. Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty, goodness and holiness of God, and against his righteous law, deserveth his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come, and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ.
Q.153, What does God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us by reason of the transgression of the law?  That we may escape the wrath and curse of God due to us by reason of the transgression of the law, he requireth of us repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and the diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation.

First the law, and then the gospel. The entire section on the law is held to be preparatory to the gospel, the first use of the law. Then follows an exposition of the means of grace. In the case of the Shorter Catechism, the link questions are 82-85. But the section has material on the other two uses, intermingled in its exposition of the law, but without explicitly distinguishing one use from any other, as far as I can see.

A theological mess

So the entire project of promulgating ‘law and order’ in the church through its catechisms, and therefore in a large part of the realm of England, is a theological mess. The ‘uses’ of the law were conflated, and expressed in the language that consciously borrowed  from the OT judicial law on the one hand, and Christ and the apostolic teaching on the 'inwardness' of the law on the other. The Westminster Standards became law in Scotland, though as we know not in England and Wales. So the people in the Scottish pews were taught inter alia that removing ancient landmarks deserved the wrath and curse of Almighty God.  Presumably under these circumstances few laid a finger on ancient signs, at least until the 19th century when the Highlands were cleared in the interests of the sheep, and not only landmarks, but entire communities were ‘removed’. But that’s another story. 

The legacy

In England those who one day were crafting the moral standards of a would-be presbyterian state Church found themselves the next day forming uneasily-tolerated minority groups, though the presbyterians mostly became unitarians. As far as I can see the Westminster standards, if they were used among these dissenting groups, remained untouched . No one seems to have seen the incongruity of sects using the Westminster Standards which avow the sentiments of an established church, especially in the Catechisms of those Standards. My hunch is that  the Catechisms  were forgotten. Are there any records of them being taught and learned, vehicles of Presbyterian and Independent education, at the end of the 17th century? Were they ever reprinted in England in the eighteenth century?

Nevertheless, when presbyterianism was exported through such as the emigration of  the dispossessed from the Highlands of Scotland and others, to what became the US, the sectarian ethos of this branch of evangelical Protestantism remained even in the nineteenth century.  The church recognised the separation of church and state, but the catechisms were meant for consumption in a state church. No one ever seems to have thought this state of affairs was odd. The Westminster standards were a job lot, largely untouched and untouchable, apart from the business of the state and church which affected the Confession. In the 19th century, when efforts to revise the Westminster Confession in churches in the US made conservatives less and less inclined to contemplate action that would rock the ark. And so – to come rapidly to the present - in 2014 we witness solemn discussions on the place of the law in sanctification, very much a state-church view of sanctification, but by now involving not only the children of 17th presbyterians and independents, but of baptists too.The newly-established Evangelical Presbyterian Church  in England  advertises itself as adhering without qualification to the Westminster Standards, as far as I can see.( But maybe the catechisms are ignored by this denomination, continuing the practice, or lack of practice, of  their dissenting forbears in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The significant point is that because of the dominance of the state church mentality the legacy expresses itself  regarding Christian living as chiefly the keeping of the moral law by the promotion of a sense of duty, not by the implantation and inculcation of virtues which are the fruit of new spiritual life.

I know, I know, anxious souls are by this time asking, Whatever has happened to William Ames? I am coming to him, and to his rather different emphases (so it seems to me) on  the nature of sanctification.  We shall look at Ames next time.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The official Reformed theology

I would not put Augustine’s doctrine of evil into the Church’s creed. I have no right to impose it on others. I think it is an essential. But into the ‘credo’ I do not thrust it. Systematic theology has a wide margin round it, where we must have the probabilia placed; but the creed should have none. A narrow theology, founded on the theologian’s idiosyncrasies, is, after all, no theology at all.

So said John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan. That’s the theme of what follows, as applied to Confessions, and then to this theological hinterland of what Duncan calls  probabilia, probabilities.

The official Reformed theology is a balancing act. In practice that theology pivots on one confession or another, particularly, for Anglophones, on the Westminster Confession.

The system of doctrine.

One of the things that the recently-published volumes on the work of the Westminster Assembly has brought home is the adventitious or accidental aspect of the Confession, the way it was composed, what was put in and what left out. (Chad Van Dixhoorn (ed.) The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, (OUP, 2012)). The finished product was influenced by the pressure of time, the opinion of the majority of divines who on a particular day happened to be attending a committee or sub-committee, parliamentary pressure to get a particular job done, interruptions, and no doubt the mood of the meetings. Together with the clashes of personalities, the hobby-horses, and so forth. Cold print cannot convey this. In such circumstances, in the messiness of human life, the articles that resulted, chapters in the Confession, were a series of compromises, clause by clause in some cases, and we must remember that. As the debate on one matter was brought to an end, and a majority were content with some particular wording, a minority or minorities were not content, or not as content. In the nature of things confessions and creeds are forms of compromise draftings that attract a majority on a particular day.

So confessions and even the more basic creeds of the church are political documents, ‘articles of peace’, what the chaps could agree on that particular occasion. Part of this disagreement was over what topics should be treated in a confession, and what not. Had the divines met a week earlier or later things may have been, or would have been, different. In this process we no doubt see the workings of an inscrutable providence which has regard to the least nuance, the crossing of each t and dotting of the i’s. In this sense the final form of a particular text was ‘infallibly decreed’. But what is divinely decreed is human compromise.

Behind that confessional agreement, and the dissent of the minorities from the majorities, it is clear that there is a vast hinterland of theological opinion, (theologoumena). Private conjectures. Not simply Duncan’s probabilia, but more than the purely speculative. What one thinks is a good and necessary consequence of the teaching of Scripture others may not. What some may think ought to find its way into a Confession others may dissent from. All right, it is all godly opinion, (as we may suppose) but it is what you get when trained people with different opinions are brought together. The Confession may or may not imply any of these opinions, more likely it may permits them. Richard Muller has recently shown what variety of opinion there is regarding the death of Christ. (Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Baker, 2012) If we think of all this mass of different points as a web, there is a central core, the Creed or the Confession, and a vast surrounding area, not holding the centre in place, as in a spider’s web, but a penumbra of opinion, which may have any of several relations to the core. Perhaps the core entails this opinion, or allows it, or make the holding of it reasonable. Or maybe there is stuff in the hinterland that has nothing to do with the core. Either way, there should be about a Confession a catholicity of spirit and expression, reflecting the general Biblical scheme of Creation, Fall and Redemption, and the absence of idiosyncrasy or an individual’s or group’s peculiarities.

The hinterland

If the production of the Confession has ragged edges, how much more is it the case in the matter of theological opinion, what I call the hinterland. To illustrate this,  let us take an example from an illuminating  recent piece by Mark Jones which raises the question of the nature and place of grace in the original Adam’s life, among the Puritans. In particular whether this grace was a gift of the Holy Spirit, and in what sense. (We must bear in mind that the concept of a covenant of works, though a central motif of the Confession, is itself a theological construct the elements of which are not clearly present on the surface of things in the Genesis account, and the Holy Spirit never once mentioned in the relevant passages of Genesis). And that in turn raises questions about Adam’s responsibility, and the nature and place of merit in the covenant of works. Two motifs should control the answer, that Adam’s original state was ‘mutable’ and that it resulted in what is sometimes called the loss of the image ‘in the narrow sense’. (Here we take these positions for granted, as being generally held, but they themselves are capable of fine tuning). And there is the abiding difficulty of understanding in what sense or senses 'nature' and natural' are used in discussion of these matters. The scene is therefore set for many possibilia. So, given all these caveats and qualifications, what are we to think about this matter of the Holy Spirit and Adam? How are we to proceed?

What (it seems) the divines mentioned by Mark do is take different instances of the work of the Spirit from elsewhere in Scripture and discuss the status of unfallen Adam in the light of them. Here are four such instances. There is the work of the Spirit in calling and regeneration; then the periodic and spasmodic operations of the Spirit on evil men, such as King Saul; then the Spirit’s work in giving to people unusual gifts which do not seem to have to do with regeneration, like those craftsmen engaged in the building of Solomon’s Temple; and finally there is the reprobate’s tasting of the Spirit, as in Hebrews 6.4.  No doubt we can find more cases. For example, there is the work of the Spirit in the ministry of Jesus Christ (John 3.34).

Was unfallen Adam’s life a life of faith?  Did he trust the promise of God given in the Garden? Yes, and no.  His condition was unique, proceeding ‘very good’ from the hand of his Creator but ‘mutably’ so. He has grace, and if we think of that grace as being the gift of the Spirit, the Spirit is resistible and was repudiated, It was not that grace that ensured his perseverance in the original position, even though such gracious influence, persevering grace, could have been give to Adam, as it is given to the fallen elect. Neither was ‘deserved’ by its recipient, but one was preserving grace (as we might call it) suspended on the continued innocence of Adam, the other was regenerating effectual grace, designed to bring its recipient to glory.

So was Adam’s faith ‘temporary’ faith, the faith of a mere professor?   Well (again!) Yes and no. Adam’s original innocence was certainly temporary, as what befell him makes clear.  But it was not , presumably, the temporary faith mentioned in Jesus’s Parable of the Sower. What of the temporary ‘gifting’ of the Spirit that may grant special gifts to a person, say the gift of designing things, for a period of his life, but such giving and withholding acts in the realm of what some call ‘common grace;’ appear to be actions of pure sovereignty, where questions of fittingness and unfittingness do not arise, much less desert or merit.

What all this meandering shows is that we are trawling presently through the hinterland. where not only good and necessary consequences operate, (what are these?) but a good deal of conjecture and even speculation may also be at work in the thinking of the ‘godly’. (Nothing wrong with this, provided it is recognized for what it is). Whether the divines recognized this, their opinions of the Fall and the place of the Spirit in it, (to take one example being currently discussed) were just that: opinions. If they sought to make these opinions a part of the meaning of the Confession they ought to be resisted. The Confession is what it is and not another thing.

One of the factors that makes a theologian is the exercise of judgment, particularly judgment about himself and then, naturally enough, judgment of others. Particularly a judgment between a central plank of the doctrine of the gospel, and a personal quirk. There are big issues and small issues. A Confession is not infallible, of course, but it is a good guide to the overall shape of things, providing a ‘system of doctrine’.  What falls outside that Confession may be illuminating, suggestive, profitable to some theologian and his friends, or to some Seminary and its curriculum, but it ought not to be raised to the status of the Confession itself and the ‘system of doctrine’ that it propounds.

Sometimes one has the impression that one motivation that some have for engaging in Reformed theology in the way that they do is in order to extend the boundaries of the  official Reformed theology.   I hope I'm mistaken. Despite the all-too-human character of the Confession,  as a result of its adoption by certain churches, for many it delimits the shape of Reformed doctrine, and for others who do not subscribe to it is has a great deal of prestige. We are free to dissent from it, in whole or in part. In matters beyond the Confession we are free to think and to let others think. That’s how it was in Puritanism, as Mark Jones ably shows. And that’s how it should be with any adherent to the Confession nowadays.