Thursday, February 01, 2018

The Westminster Standard - III

John Davenant

In the last of our ventures into the theological terminology of the Westminster Confession we shall have a look at its usage of the phrase ‘the author of sin’


 There are two of these occurrences - 

Decree III.I ‘neither is God the author of sin’

Providence V. IV. ‘…..yet so as the sinfulness thereof proceeds only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.’

Both texts deny that God is the author of sin by (in the case of his decree) affirming that God freely and unchangeably ordains whatever comes to pass, including in this ‘whatever’ evil acts take place. And so by denial of the mistaken inference that God in this business of ordaining evil acts  is  the author of sin, He is nevertheless the source (perhaps by permission)  of that evil of the evil actions he decree.  In the case of the phrase as it occurs in the chapter ‘Of Providence’ the inference is not enthymemetic, the wording being fuller. For the author of sin to apply to God, he would have had to have been the one from whom the sinfulness of an action proceeds. But this is impossible because God ‘is most holy and righteous’  so that he can be neither the author or approver of sin. This harks back to what is stated in III.I. that God orders  evil actions  to fall out in such a way that neither is ‘the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away’, and so they act  ‘according to the nature of second causes’, so for example wicked men produce wicked acts.

The charge that ‘God is the author of sin’ is routinely levelled at Calvinists. But the universal decree is preserved, as is universal and particular divine providence. The decree is important if we are to respect the creator-creature distinction. The Lord ‘respects’ the natures of his creatures, so that it is me who  ties my tie, not the Lord. He decrees me tying my tie.

The Scripture has a variety of expressions to convey this. The chapter on Providence underlines this by the variety of verbs that it uses to cover God’s various providential relations. So the Lord (Providence V.1), ‘doth uphold, dispose and govern’ and  ‘by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently’. Writing of the ‘first fall’ the divines refer to this ’not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful  bounding and otherwise ordering and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his holy ends’ (V.IV); to wicked men he ‘doth blind and harden’, ‘and witholdeth’ and  ‘exposeth’ and ‘gives them over’. (V.VI)


The theologians of the era of the Westminster Confession also had another  way of treating the idea that God cannot be the author of sin, than those that the Confession used. This is based on a further distinction, that between the material constitution of an evil act, and its formal nature. As Theophilus. Gale (1628- 78) (who is fond of this distinction) expresses it. ‘For all sin being, as to its formal nature, but a moral privation or relation, it necessarily requires some natural good as its substrate mater or subject.’  The distinction between form and matter is a fundamental one in the scholastic medieval outlook and its Aristotelian sources., which were largely taken over by those who these days are called the ‘Reformed Orthodox’. It corresponds to two different kinds of cause. A formal cause of something is the essence of that thing, what the thing is or is to be. The formal cause of creating a donkey is different from the formal cause of creating a cat, say. The form is the realization of set of properties  which is donkiness, or catness. The material cause is that ‘stuff’ out of which the efficient cause produces the form of the thing. But in the case of human actions, we are concerned first and foremost with the activity of the soul. Besides. Theophilus Gale,   the learned author of The Court of the Gentiles, here are two more examples.

Andreas Rivet (1572-1651), a Huguenot who became Professor of Theology at Leiden, also takes a similar way in his work on providence in the Leiden Synopsis, characterizing the privative nature of evil.

And so it is rightly said that He exercises providence regarding them [sins], since He disposes to do well regarding them. [To bring good out of their evil.] But if one considers only that which is real and sin and ‘positive’, as they say, what others call the ‘matter’ of sin, namely as an entity or as an action, in this sense sins can be said even to be provided by God, but only in a relative sense and not in itself. That is because the formal structure of sin exists in the absence of being and of good, in a certain deformity and disorderliness, which does not come from God and so cannot have been provided for by Him.

If we think of an action, then God upholds it, but if it is evil, it is privative. Considered as a state of affairs, it is defective.  God does not conserve such deficiencies, but only what is positive in them, and in the case of privative actions, this is the ‘substrate’ of the action.

John Davenant (1572-1641)  was one of the English Delegates to the Synod of Dordt, and later on the Bishop of Salisbury. In his Animadversions, Davenant makes the same general point as Gale on the question of God’s relation to morally evil actions.   The crucial point in his argument is that God’s attitude to the formal differs from his attitude to the material aspects of a sinful act. The material element is the soul and the particular powers of the soul, the formal is the motive or intention of the agent in doing this act or avoiding that act.  ‘This distinction is a sound and necessary distinction, and approved by all judicious divines, whether Papists or Protestants’.

Davenant grants ‘God to be the cause of the materiall part, as it denieth him to be any cause at all of the formal, which is the repugnancy or disconformity which the will of the Agent hath with the law or will of God’. He does not hesitate to refer to these as two ‘parts’ of the soul, even though as with most of his contemporaries, at the same time he upholds the simplicity of the soul, that it  is ‘without parts’. Yet a distinction between the formal and the material cause is a clear and sharp general distinction for him, and critical to his argument that there is a significant distinction between causes, since God has a causal relationship to the one which it is impossible for him to have to the other.
God is the primary cause of all that occurs in his creation, the activity of secondary causes. The formal part of an action (its having the particular form that it has) is, in the case of sin, due to human disobedience of the divine law, his falling short of the divine glory. But the soul is the creature of God and as such is good and upheld by him. So, like Gale, Davenant used the term ‘material’ to refer both to the basis of intentions and volitions, which lie in the soul, and the movements of the body which have their basis in the body. These, the bodily movements, the material part of the act, are also caused by God as the primary cause, as the upholder of the creation. The way of willing these various spiritual and bodily parts and functions, what Davenant calls the modus appetendi, is the way that sinful desiring and believing work against [attacks] the revealed will or law of God in this instance, the form or the formal part of the act
God brings about all the material side of things, but not the ‘disorderly Manner of desiring and eating contrary to the law of God'. This he upholds and governs, but does not cause, ‘being a defect’ as Davenant puts it.

So there is a basic outlook that Davenant and the others we have mentioned have in common, though there were differences of detail. In answer to the objection, Davenant refers to God as the primary cause, but stresses the privative nature of sin less than Gale, who is more overtly Augustinian at this point. 

Why does the Confession not take this tack? It is not clear, but I guess it had to do with the Divines' regard for it as a public. Confessional document. Though in places there is evidence of scholastic influences in its wording, they may have judged that this ‘nice distinction’ which requires some explanation before it is understood, was not fitting for general consumption.


Monday, January 01, 2018

The Westminster Standard - II

Last time we looked at the wording of the Westminster Confession on effectual calling, more specifically on regeneration. The passivity of the soul in regeneration cuts off any role for the independent human will to ‘accept’ regeneration. The will must first be brought to life by the direct operation of the Spirit.

In this blog we look at the wording of the Confession on middle knowledge. The two themes of the passivity of the self in regeneration and that of middle knowledge, are connected. The Molinist says that God is guided  by his knowledge of what humans would freely choose were they to be placed in certain circumstances. So guided by that knowledge, God creates those people and their wills and circumstances that best fits his wise providence.

The Confession is against this idea. There are at least two passages that particularly caution against it. The first is in the chapter ‘Of God, and of the Holy Trinity’. Consider this statement on God’s knowledge.

II…….[God] is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom, are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them. To do by them, for them, or upon the, whatsoever he himself pleaseth. In his sight all things are open and manifest;  His knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to Him contingent, or uncertain, ……

God as the Creator is the fount of all being and their actions, and his decree is such that it is unqualifiedly ‘independent upon the creature’, that is, not contingent upon what God first foresees what the creature is going to do, or might do, and then decides to do such and such on the basis of what he discovers. Much less is God like a creature among creatures, in time. So the decree as understood by Westminster is eternal, and has no contingent results, but it unfailingly necessitates what is decreed. 

This is amplified in the next chapter, ‘Of God’s eternal decree’. The second paragraph reads:

II. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed
conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.

God’s knowledge of all things is ‘independent of the creature’. That is, God’s knowledge is not derived from the creature, but from God’s own counsel.  His decree is absolute. He does not know as we do, by first learning, and then by inspecting our fellow - creature and what he might do, as states of affairs in his own mind, but every creature that comes to exist, and all their actions, are decreed as God sees fit.  From untold possibilities in his mind he selects a set of states of affairs, down to the last dot. The hairs of our head are all numbered.

This tells us something very important about the Westminster divines’ understanding of divine knowledge. You might think that ‘foreknowledge’ is a weaker idea than predestination. But that is not so. Predestination arises from foreknowledge, not the other way round. Divine foreknowledge is of course a biblical concept. So let us consider two or three occasions of its use in Scripture. Here are three instances of the verb ‘to foreknow’ applied to God and his works:

…. ‘this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men’ (Acts 2.25)

 ‘…for those whom he [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son….. (Romans 8. 28)

God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew…(Rom. 11.2)
The first of these, the crucifixion, was according to God’s plan. God had a plan and he brought it to pass according to his foreknowledge of it. The Scripture teaches a number of times. It is a leading motif of Mark’s Gospel that Jesus had foreknowledge of what would befall him in Jerusalem. The source of his foreknowledge was not the disciples, or Pilate, or the Jews, or Judas, but his own mind, part of whose fullness was to have a plan which he foreknew. The second shows that divine foreknowledge is the source of his predestination. It is more basic than predestination. In this second passage ‘foreknowledge’ is virtually synonymous with election. On what he knows, he predestines. The third case shows  that God’s care for his people is grounded in his foreknowledge, his plan for them. It shows how foreknowledge operates, as something that is first in the mind of God and then is made actual in the course of events, as one would expect.

Essential to God’s middle knowledge, is knowledge that is not unconditional but is conditioned upon the creature.   Middle knowledge has the supposition that human beings possess a strong libertarian  will. Suppose he does. The God's foreknowledge would at best a ratification of the choices of the will. This is a sharp difference from Confession’s idea of divine foreknowledge as unconditional, as unfailingly directive of God’s plan, as having its source in God’s mind alone. This view  embodying libertarian choice characterizes modern Calvinist attitudes to middle knowledge – actually Arminian attitudes -  since Alvin Plantinga ‘rediscovered’ Molinism during work on his free will defence.

Foreknowledge is based on God’s ‘middle knowledge’, so-called because it is allegedly in the ‘middle’ between all the possibilities and necessities God knows, called his eternal knowledge, and all that he wills to do, called his free knowledge. The Reformed deny that there is such knowledge.

The teaching of the Confession is not simply that God is omniscient, but that he is independently himself, his knowledge is his own resource. He is not dependent on the creation even in determining matters . 

The Westminster chapter on providence ought also to be consulted.

V.1. God, the great Creator of all things, does uphold,  direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even unto the least, by His most wise and holy providence,  according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.

So his knowledge of the creatures  does not at all proceed from investigating what the creature will do. God already knows that from his necessary knowledge, including what the creature would do if placed in such and such circumstances.
When Reformed theologians such as Samuel Rutherford and William Twisse offered critiques of middle knowledge (in Latin), their basic point was that Molinism overthrows the absoluteness of the divine decree, its unconditionality. They paid less attention to the Molinists’ strong libertarianism, though this view of human freedom was criticised in other places.

Friday, December 01, 2017

The Westminster Standard - I

In a radio discussion some time ago with William Lane Craig (A transcript can be found in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (Spring 2014, pp.62-78)), regarding the   Arminianism espoused by Craig,  and the Reformed faith,  we came to the differences between effectual calling, and the sense of calling defended by Craig. I believe he thought they were incidental. But there are big differences. Craig’s understanding of divine calling is only saving, that is, it only is able to bring new life to the sinner, if it is received by the human free will. As Craig puts it, ‘grace is not irresistible; it becomes efficacious only when it meets with an affirmative response from the human agent’.

He later stated about the Westminster Confession that ‘ I find that when I read the Westminster Confession, I resonate with virtually everything it…..’ These words may suggestive mere stylistic differences, nothing substantial. But  in fact the Confession places an insuperable barrier between Craig’s view of calling, which requires the cooperation for its efficacy of the human free will, and the effectual calling which was first articulated clearly by Augustine, and maintained by the Westminster divines.  The second paragraph of Chapter X of the Confession is as follows.

II. This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything 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 to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.

The italicized words (my emphasis) make a crucial difference between the two views. Men and women who are in need of God’s grace are altogether passive in first receiving that grace,  in being regenerated. That is, they are completely passive. Each power of the soul is similarly dead. Their souls as souls are spiritually dead, with no appetite or force for the terms of the Gospel. The passivity is a death. How can a person receive the grace of God? What they need – is what the WCF calls the quickening – making alive – and renewing by the Holy Spirit. The making alive is the renewing.

These expressions take seriously the various biblical language of regeneration as indicating this spiritual death. So when Christ told Nicodemus that he must be born again, the rebirth is like natural birth, a unilateral action that the one born benefits from but which he or she does not first contribute to. It makes no sense to say that a person could  have contributed, or could contribute,  to  their own birth. The  ‘must’ in ‘you must be born again’ is thus not the ‘must’ of a command that we have the power to comply with, but the ‘must’ of necessity: 2+3 must equal 5, and a molecules of water must contain hydrogen, and a cook must have eggs in order to make an omelette. In the same way, it is required of us, if we are to enjoy the privilege of spiritual life, to undergo  a new birth. The work of the Spirit, as Christ told Nicodemus. Paul adds to the figurative language that in the NT characterises it, by writing of regeneration as a new creation.’  ‘For God, who said, Let light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of  in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (1 Cor. 4.6) And John adds another figure, ‘No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God’. Luke commented on the behavior of Lydia that ‘The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul’. (Acts 16.15) John has a different figure: ‘No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God’. (I Jn. 3.9) And writing to Titus Paul referred to the ‘washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit’. (3.5)) Sacramentalists may move to the baptismal font at that point, but though baptism is a washing, Paul’s washing here signifies a washing that water cannot give, the cleansing and renewal of the Holy Spirit.

Lydia’s experience, as commented on by Luke,  shows that in regeneration there is a conjunction  of word and Spirit. Does this view of the deadness of the soul and the role of the Spirit in regeneration Spirit squeeze out the role of the word of the Gospel? Not at all. The Spirit’s action is the infusion of new appetites, central to which are a desire for the words of the Gospel,  ‘what was said by Paul’, in Lydia’s case. As we shall  see regeneration leads to conversion.

The Puritan Stephen Charnock is best-known for his tome The Existence and Attributes of God, but he also wrote four smaller treatments of regeneration, to be found in volume III of his writings. In The Nature of Regeneration he follows Paul in stressing the soul’s passivity in regeneration, and contrasts it with  conversion.

In regeneration, man is wholly passive ; in conversion, he is active as a child in its first formation in the womb, contributes nothing to the first infusion of life ; but after it hath life, it is active, and its motions natural. The first reviving of us is wholly the act of God, without any concurrence of the creature ; but after we are revived, we do actively and voluntarily live in his sight : Hosea vi. 2, ' He will revive us, he will raise us up, and we shall live in him ; then we shall walk before him, then shall we follow on to know the Lord.'

Charnock goes on

Regeneration is the motion of God in the creature ; conversion is the motion of the creature to God, by virtue of that first principle ; from this principle all the acts of believing, repenting, mortifying, quickening, do spring. In all these a man is active ; in the other merely passive ; all these are the acts of the will, by the assisting grace of God, after the infusion of the first grace. Conversion is a giving ourselves to the Lord, 2 Cor. viii. 5 ; giving our own selves to the Lord is a voluntary act, but the power whereby we are enabled thus to give ourselves, is wholly and purely, in every part of it, from the Lord himself. A renewed man is said to be led by the Spirit, Rom. viii. 14, not dragged, not forced ; the putting a bias and aptitude in the will, is the work of the Spirit quickening it ; but the moving the will to God by the strength of this bias, is voluntary, and the act of the creature. (III 88-9)

Well said. The coming of this new phase, conversion, is what the Confession at this point is referring to when it refers to a person  who is regenerated:  he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it’. Not that God’s part is now at an end. More generally, ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ (Phil.2.13)

Once regenerate, always regenerate. Seeded for ever? Regeneration takes place in the secret of the  heart. Who can know it? Conversion is its chief test.