Author Archive

Packer on Our Moral Ill-Desert

This comes from chapter 13 of J. I. Packer’s classic book Knowing God, there he talks about God’s grace. This is a very lucid, insightful, and damning description of modern man:

1.  The moral ill-desert of man. 

Modern men and women, conscious of their tremendous scientific achievements in recent years, naturally incline to a high opinion of themselves.  They view material wealth as in any case more important than moral character, and in the moral realm they are resolutely kind to themselves, treating small virtues as compensating for great vices and refusing to take seriously the idea that, morally speaking, there is anything much wrong with them. They tend to dismiss a bad conscience, in themselves as in others, as an unhealthy psychological freak, a sign of disease, and mental aberration rather than an index of moral reality. For modern men and women are convinced that, despite all their little peccadilloes – drinking, gambling, reckless driving, sexual laxity, black and white lies, sharp practice in trading, dirty reading, and what have you – they are a heart thoroughly good folks.  Then, as pagans do (and modern man’s heart is pagan  – make no mistake about that), they imagine God as a magnified image of themselves and assume that God shares his own complacency about himself.  The thought of themselves as creatures fallen from God’s image, rebels against God’s rule, guilty and unclean in God’s sight, fit only for God’s condemnation, never enters their heads.

J. I. Packer, Knowing God, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2005), 146-147.

Carol Ann Duffy’s Poem for Richard III

Today is the reinterment of King Richard III (1452-1485) at Leicester Cathedral. I wish I could have been there, how many opportunities do you have to witness the burial of an ancient king? Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s poet laureate, wrote these words for the occasion:

Richard

My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,

a human braille.  My skull, scarred by a crown,

emptied of history.  Describe my soul

as incense, votive, vanishing; your own

the same.  Grant me the carving of my name.

 

These relics, bless.  Imagine you re-tie

a broken string and on it thread a cross,

the symbol severed from me when I died.

The end of time – an unknown, unfelt loss –

unless the Resurrection of the Dead…

 

or I once dreamed of this, your future breath

in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;

or sensed you from the backstage of my death,

as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.

 

For more, see here.

 

Calvinism and Choice

Note: I inadvertently posted this in unfinished form when I intended merely to save an edit. Please take the updated version below as the final. Forgive me if this causes any confusion! 

The philosophy department at Tyndale University College has a blog called Every Thought Captive that is worth having on your Feedly (or whatever blog reader you use). I have had the privilege of meeting Dr. Paul Franks, one of the members of the department, a number of times, and brief though those times were, I enjoyed our conversation. I have not met Dr. Rich Davis yet, but his reputation among students of his whom I know is high. I am thankful that they teach at my local Christian university and are having an impact for the gospel in my locale and abroad.

Drs. Franks and Davis have done of a number of good series on their blog. I’ve particularly appreciated the detailed critique that they have provided of Brian McLaren’s work called “The McLaren Files.” I look forward to reading their critique of Dave Fitch in “The Fitch Files.” They are also writing a series of posts critiquing Calvinism, their most recent is what I would like to offer some thoughts on.

In “The ‘C’ in Calvinism,” Dr. Davis shares his concerns with the notion of choice and whether it is a real option given Calvinism. He asks whether choice and “determinism” are compatible. The Calvinist of choice (pardon the pun) who functions as the foil for this essay is R. C. Sproul of Ligionier Ministries, a well-known popular expositor of Reformed theology. At hand is Sproul’s notion of “Edwards’ Law of Choice” (ELC) that was outlined in his influential book Chosen By God. ELC is so-named due to its earlier articulation by the New England theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) in his work Freedom of the Will.

Dr. Davis’ piece is, as to be expected, from a philosophical point of view. I have a keen interest in philosophy, but I would like to reply to this theologically. Not because I think that free will and sovereignty are questions that only theologians can answer, but because theology is the discipline whose methods I am most familiar with. I do not think this keeps us (that is, the philosopher and the theologian) from coming to shared conclusions because the question posed by Dr. Davis, and indeed Calvinism (whatever that is), is relevant to both the philosopher and the theologian. I also think that some of the problems in the essay are theological, and need to be addressed as such. I come at this as someone sympathetic to Reformed theology, and so my thoughts are largely critical.

First, when I read the essay it struck me that it was a sophisticated way of asking a simple question, one that most Calvinists and non-Calvinists who have reflected on the question of choice have asked: Is there such thing as free choice if God is sovereign? This is something we have all wrestled with, I know that I certainly have. The essay takes this a step further by evaluating the Edwardsean answer, the so-called ELC. But it is important to remember that this is not a new question and that there are plenty of resources available giving various answers to the problem.

Second, I am not totally sure why Dr. Davis has decided to take on this particular answer (ELC) to the question of free choice. My suspicion is, due to some of his comments at the beginning of his essay about the Young, Restless, Reformed (YRR), that he might see in Sproul, and by extension Edwards, a key element and that a criticism of him/them is a de facto criticism of the broader movement. If this is the case, I do not value this kind of argument as it tends to make a movement like YRR seem monolithic, which it is not. Nor is Reformed theology, historically or at present. Arguments such as this can unfairly paint a disparate group of people with one brush. But it may not be the case that Dr. Davis has taken this approach.

Third, ELC is not the only answer given in the history of Christian theology to the problem of choice and sovereignty. In fact, it is not one that all Reformed people buy into. Even those Reformed theologians who do, also buy into other arguments. Popular conceptions of Calvinism may not make this apparent, but there is an at-times sharp distinction between Edwardseans and traditional Reformed theology. The former is generally viewed as “deterministic,” due to the influence of thinkers like Hobbes and Locke on his thought. As we will see, Reformed theology should not be tarred with determinism. Whether Edwards can be viewed this way is up for debate, but it’s significant that this distinction be made. If Dr. Davis is aware of this, I wish that it had been stated, because it can run the risk of making unsuspecting readers think that to knock down ELC is to knock down Calvinism (whatever that is) as a whole.

Fourth, what is Calvinism? Is the Edwardsean version of Calvinism the only one? Is it the true one? Is Dr. Sproul’s version? Is Calvinism even a legitimate term to use? There are a host of assumptions in Dr. Davis’ essay that make readers such as myself wish that the sophistication of the philosophical language had given way to a more sophisticated understanding of the theological issues. This is not meant as an insult, Dr. Davis is much smarter than I am, and I have the fullest confidence that he has the chops to do more.

The term Calvinism is fraught with historical and theological problems. It assumes that Calvin is the sole progenitor of this brand of theology. Historians of the Reformation have put this misunderstanding to rest, and is why many of us do not particularly like the appellant “Calvinist.” We get stuck using it because of its general, popular use, but it is a term that would be better left behind. This might sound like a mere semantic quibble, but it poses serious definitional problems. How does one define Calvinism? Is it Edwards’ version? There is a lack of evidence in Edwards’ corpus that Calvin was a significant influence. The Reformer’s writings do not even appear in the catalogue we have of Edwards’ library. I would argue that the best place to go for such answers about the nature of Reformed theology—a more satisfying term—is the confessional documents of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. We also need to take into account the broader range of Reformed writers who contributed to the development of Reformed theology such as Bullinger, Musculus, Junius, Ames, Ussher, Owen, Turretin, and a host of others. There are a goodly number of theologians today who have done this, why not interact with them to get a truer picture? Or at least acknowledge that this is the case so that readers are not given the idea that Calvin is it for “Calvinism.”

Fifth, why use a secondary source to tell us about so-called “ELC”? Dr. Sproul’s ministry has been of incredible use to the church in popularizing Reformed theology, making some of the tough language easy for the lay-person to understand. Indeed, when I wrestled with these issues over a dozen years ago, it was Chosen By God that was a key book that helped me come to grips with the doctrine of election. My comments here are not meant to disparage Dr. Sproul at all. I am only making an historians’ point that when telling us about Edwards’ views it would be better to use Edwards’ own work. In the case of Edwards, this is particularly easy to do because Freedom of the Will, where ELC comes from, is readily available online at Yale’s site dedicated to Edwards’ Works (here). This is not say that Dr. Sproul misinterprets Edwards’ view of choice. It is to say that Edwards’ treatise is much longer with more detailed argumentation and defenses than Chosen By God because they were written for entirely different purposes.

Sixth, Dr. Davis, in his discussion of the power of contrary choice, seems to assume libertarian free will (LFW). This is not surprising, as most contemporary evangelical philosophers hold to this view (think Plantinga). This assumption contrasts LFW with Reformed theology. But is this necessarily the case? The answer to this depends on the view one takes of Reformed theology. While I do not personally espouse this, Oliver Crisp has recently argued that libertarianism can be consistent with the theology outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). At the very least, we can say that WCF statements on these matters allow for either a necessitarian or non-necessitarian view (see here). It would have been good for Dr. Davis to acknowledge this to see how it may have augmented some of his conclusions.

Seventh, Dr. Davis at a number of points refers to the Reformed view as “determinism.” This is an unfortunate use of terms and does not accurately reflect the way the Reformed tradition views itself on these matters. This is so because the term was not known in the early-modern period; opponents of Reformed theology referred to it as “Stoic fate.” Ironically, this puts more clearly the misconceptions that critics of Reformed theology have. However, to use that language would be as bad as me calling Dr. Davis a “Pelagian,” as the Reformed sadly would refer to their opponents. Such terms are unfortunate, and I hope that moving forward Dr. Davis (and others) would refrain from the term determinism when describing Reformed theology generally, because it does not accurately reflect our self-understanding and the nature of our argument.

Eighth, Dr. Davis  suggests that Calvinism (I’ll use this term as it’s the one he uses) makes no sense of Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37. Erasmus made this argument as well in his debate with Luther. Dr. Davis says, “If the reason for Jerusalem’s being unwilling is God’s not having given them I[rresistable] G[race], why chastise these people for their unwillingness? … Here the people are simply acting in accord with those desires.” Some thoughts: First, this does not take into account that this is Jesus in his human nature speaking. It says nothing of the divine will. Second, were it to speak of the divine will, Dr. Davis does not take into account the notion, as argued by John Piper, that God has two wills. This is well-reflected in Luther’s distinction between the hidden and revealed will of God. Third, it is exegetically misguided to think that this text has any bearing on the question at hand. Jesus has outlined in a series of parables and confrontations the hypocrisy of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. In Matthew 23 he pronounces a series of prophetic woes against the hypocrites. It is not a text like Romans 9, which would be a much thornier text for Dr. Davis to deal with, that has direct bearing on this question. Specifically, it answers the “control problem” that he points up later. A helpful rejoinder to the Arminian understanding of Matthew 23 is given over at Triablogue that I would suggest readers consult.

Ninth, Dr. Davis takes up the Old Testament figure of Gideon as an example of the power of contrary choice. Gideon was given a command to knock down his father’s idols in Judges 6:25, 27, but only did so at night out of fear. Dr. Davis argues that Gideon’s most powerful impulse was fear, but he acted contrary to this impulse in obedience to God’s command. “Why, otherwise, did he do it at night? Still, he obeyed the Lord—contrary to his most powerful impulse.” It strikes me that Dr. Davis has misunderstood ELC in his illustration of Gideon of what we might call Gideon’s Powerful Impulse (GPI). Is it the case that GPI is fear? If Gideon knocked down the idols, irregardless of doing so at night to mitigate his fear, he still acted on the the command to knock the idols down. Is it not the case the GPI is always manifested in the action? Dr. Davis is aware of this answer, but accuses it of question-begging. This is not question-begging, it is simply the relationship between one’s desire and action. GPI overrode his fear and enabled him to follow the command. His will was governed by his desire. It seems as though GPI affirms ELC.

Tenth, Dr. Davis quotes Dr. Sproul as defining ELC as: “The will always chooses according to its strongest inclination (desire) at the moment.” The corollary of this, that appears contradictory but is not (according to Dr. Sproul), that every choice is both free and determined. This appears incompatible, but it is is not because coercion is not involved. Dr. Davis does not agree. He argues that due to the coercive nature of “irresistable grace,” choice is not really free. There is a lot here to unpack, so for the sake of space in an already long post, I would like to offer some brief thoughts. First, if a person is dead in trespasses and sins as Ephesians 2 tells us, how is that person made alive? Is it the spiritually dead person who does it? If not, who? It must be God because Jesus tells us in John 3 that we are born from above (or again) by the Spirit. Was I born according to my own will when I was physically born? No, I had no choice in the matter. Likewise, I do not have the choice in this matter, because of my spiritual deadness, I need to be made alive by force outside of myself (extra nos). Second, coercion here is a change of nature, not a forcing upon me of something against my will. This is called grace for a reason. God, in regeneration, changes my nature so that I can freely choose what before, due to my sin, I could not. I have been released by shackles of sin so that I can now choose the good. In my deadened state, I made free choices, but they were always in conformity with my sinful nature. This is a good thing. Why take it as something bad? Even if it does in fact violate or vitiate my free will, I am glad it does! Third, I am not sure that Dr. Davis has proved the point that coercion (in the sense of regeneration, which is really what we are talking about) violates freedom. The philosophical idea of “compatibilism” gives us the categories to articulate how two seemingly opposed propositions are both true. See the helpful essay by philosopher James Anderson on Reformed views of determinism and compatibilism here for more. Fourth, and related to the third, is that a more helpful way to express this language is that of J. I. Packer in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God where he spoke of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility as an “antinomy.” In this case, both seemingly opposed views are held in common because both are clearly revealed in scripture. We see this in the story of Joseph’s description of God and man’s role in his captivity (Genesis 50:20), or in Peter’s description of God and man’s role in the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:23).

I conclude with a book recommendation. A helpful book on the subject of Reformed theology and the freedom of the will is that edited by William J. van Asselt, J. Martin Bac, and Roelf T. te Velde entitled Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Modern Reformed Theology. In it we learn that the Reformed orthodox were very concerned to maintain human freedom, yet they did not want to do so at the expense of God’s freedom as their opponents did. The editors’ introduction opens with a quote by Francis Turretin (1623-1687) that illustrates this: “We establish free choice far more truly than our opponents.” After the (excellent) introduction, there are chapters devoted to freedom in the thought of Zanchi, Junius (my favourite), Gomarus, Voetius, Turretin, and de Moor. The book is a primary source reader for each. It is helpful because it ranges over the stages of orthodoxy and thus addresses variously situated theological and philosophical problems. Despite the different figures involved and the contexts they were addressing, the conclusion the editors come to is that Reformed theology self-consciously upholds the freedom of the human will and does so better than its opponents. This should not be surprising as they are part of the broader anti-Pelagian tradition rooted in Augustine (354-430), who very clearly affirmed libero arbitrio (see especially his “On Grace and Free Choice”).

I hope that this post is taken by all as a friendly rejoinder offered by one brother to another. I am thankful for the chance to rethink my own position due to the challenge that Dr. Davis poses. May my thoughts shared above go some small way towards giving greater understanding between two Christian positions as we work out our theology together in the kingdom of God. Soli Deo Gloria.

Cut-Throat Christ

There’s a Christ for a whore and a Christ for a punk,
There’s a Christ for a pickpocket and a drunk,
There’s a Christ for every sinner, but there’s one thing there ain’t,
There ain’t no Christ for any cut-price saint.

James Fenton, Yellow Tulips: Poems 1968-2011 (London: Faber & Faber, 2011).

Jack, Molly and Aslan

I read to my two eldest children, Jack and Molly, before they go to bed at night. This Christmas season we have been reading C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It has been a tremendous joy for me as a father getting to read this with them; especially tonight.

Earlier we had read about Edmund’s conversion and about the pact that Aslan made with the Witch. For a few days Jack was desperate to figure out how it was that Edmund could live, and how the Emperor’s law (that required the death of a traitor, which Edmund was) would be satisfied. My thoughtful son finally determined that it must be Mr. Tumnus, the Faun, who would have to die (not a bad guess!). So, with all this in his mind, the truth of the matter hit him like a tonne of bricks.

As I read about Aslan’s slow ascent to the Stone Table, with Lucy and Susan watching in horrified wonder, Jack lay perfectly still on his top bunk. I read about the awful and ugly jeering of the Witch’s hordes as they abused the passive Lion; the one who could have killed them with one blow had he wished. Then I read about his agonizing, lonely death, and how the two girls who were spying from their hiding places could not watch it. In silence, the chapter concluded and I put the book down. With all of the weight and poignancy of the moment, I said good night to my children and kissed them. When I looked at Jack, I was crestfallen to find that he had fallen asleep. His five-year-old body lay perfectly still under his covers. I thought: “Why, at the perfect moment, is he sleeping?!” As I turned to walk out of the room, I heard him stir. I looked back to find him sitting bolt upright in his bed staring at me. I walked back and in the darkness of the room could detect that his cheeks were flush and his eyes holding back tears. I reached out my arms and asked if he was okay, only to have him lean into me and sob his little heart out.

Not wanting to miss this opportunity, I told them to lay back down and began to read the following chapter about Aslan’s glorious, victorious resurrection. The radiance of his majesty, the joy of Susan and Lucy, the laughter they had at playing with him. We learned about the Deeper Magic from before Time that says if a person who has done no wrong gives up his life for another—as the perfect Aslan did for Edmund—then that sacrificed one can rise again. As we finished this moving chapter, I asked Jack and Molly for the technical term we use when someone has been raised from the dead. Jack replied: “Resurrected.” I asked, “Who does this remind you of?” And he said: “Jesus.”

It truly was amazing.

We prayed, and thanked God for Aslan and his triumph over the evil Witch in his resurrection, and his giving of himself for Edmund. Then I praised God for Jesus, who died for me, for Jack, and for Molly, and how he was raised again, conquering death. And prayed that he would win the final battle.

Jack, definitely, got the impact of the story.

Thank God for C. S. Lewis.

C. S. Lewis on Going Back

As today is the 166th anniversary of C. S. Lewis’ birth, I thought I would post this quote from Mere Christianity on the importance of “going back.” It does my historian’s heart good.

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be and if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when we do arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 28.

For the Healing of the Nations

Our friends at Davenant Trust have just released their first publication edited by W. Bradford Littlejohn and Peter Escalante called For the Healing of the Nations. These are the conference proceedings from a recent Convivium Irenicum. It is great to see that our own Andrew Fulford has an article on Calvin and the theological foundations of resistance. Here is the table of contents:

Introduction
Peter Escalante
1  Abraham Kuyper: A Compact Introduction
Dr. James D. Bratt
1
2  Sphere Sovereignty among Abraham Kuyper’s Other Political Theories
Dr. James D. Bratt
21
3  And Zeus Shall Have No Dominion, or, How, When, Where, and Why to “Plunder the Egyptians”: The Case of Jerome
Dr. E. J. Hutchinson
49
4  “The Kingdom of Christ is Spiritual”: John Calvin’s Concept of the Restoration of the World
Dr. Matthew J. Tuininga
81
5  Participating in Political Providence: The Theological Foundations of Resistance in Calvin
Andrew Fulford
105
6  “Bavinck’s bug” or “Van Tilian” hypochondria?: An analysis of Prof. Oliphint’s assertion that cognitive realism and Reformed theology are incompatible
Laurence O’Donnell
139
7  De-Klining From Chalcedon: Exegetical Roots Of The “R2k” Project
Rev. Benjamin Miller
173
8  Narrating Christian Transformationalism: Rousas J. Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism in Current Histories of American Religion and Politics
Dr. Brian J. Auten
209
9  Nature and Grace, Visible and Invisible: A New Look at the Question of Infant Baptism
Joseph Minich

Munster Bible College

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I am only just recovering from a fabulous trip to Cork, Ireland, last week. I had the real privilege of getting to teach for a second time at Munster Bible College; my first trip in January was to teach apologetics, this trip dealt with biblical spirituality. Munster Bible College (see video) is just a small and awesome part of what is going on among the Baptists in Co. Cork. Started this year the college is run by seven local Baptist churches whose pastors are part of a board of governors (if that is how they put it, not sure). The school now has about 30 students, most of them from the county, but a number from outside in places like Gorey and Thurles. These are students who, though they range in age and location, share one thing: a hunger to learn about scripture and theology. It has been a tremendous blessing to get to know and teach them.

The larger work that is happening is a result of the strong missions mindset among the Baptist Union and particularly Baptist Missions in the Republic. The Cork-Kerry Project is really a thing to behold. One of the highlights of my trip (of which there were many!) was getting to attend the annual joint Lord’s Day service of the key churches in the area. Some thirty years ago there were a handful of churches each with a handful of members. Cork Baptist Church, where MBC meets for classes, and which is one of the oldest Baptist churches in Ireland, began to grow and train pastors to go out and plant churches. These pastors plant churches that have the mindset to plant further churches. So of the seven main churches in places like Bandon, Carrigaline, Midleton, and Youghal, there are bible studies and mission churches all looking to constitute their own independent congregations when the time comes. This is seen in places like Passage West and Kinsale. The Cork-Kerry Project is vigorous in its church planting and it strikes me as not overly concerned with methods. These Christians just go out and do hardcore evangelism, start bible studies, and watch them grow into churches. I know there is more to it than that, but it really does seem that simple.

Now that the churches are multiplying, there is the great need to train new believers, laypeople, and future pastors. Hence why the college is so important. This, coupled with various conferences, is becoming the means whereby the churches are served with in-depth teaching on a large scale. Munster Bible College flies professors such as myself and others from Southern Seminary and Toronto Baptist Seminary (and one native Irishman!) to teach core courses in OT and NT, systematic theology, church history, apologetics, and spirituality. Excluding myself, the group makes up a world-class faculty of leading scholars.

Please pray for Munster Bible College, the Cork-Kerry Project, the growing churches, and for the pastors and Christians who are a part of it all. This movement of God’s Spirit in Ireland is quite breathtaking. They need prayer, they need resources, they need spiritual protection. I am so glad to play even a small part in this if only to witness this great revival—there is no other word for it. Praise God!

Creeds, Confessions, and Compromise

Paul Helm makes an important observation about the need to keep in mind the historical circumstances of the drafting of a creed or confession:

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.

Gavin McInnes and Free Speech

For those who have been following the debate about VICE co-founder Gavin McInnes and his article on transphobia, this piece, “In Defense of Gavin McInnes,” written by Justine Tunney, is a good statement about the importance of free speech:

I just want to say that as a trans woman, I feel very triggered by this whole incident. Not because I found what he wrote to be offensive; I honestly don’t care what he thinks about trans women. The reason why I’m triggered, is because Mister McInnes’ crucifixion at the hands of the bloodthirsty progressive mob, brings back traumatic memories of the times when I received the same treatment. I’m also triggered by the loss of freedom in our society, as the list of people persecuted for thoughtcrime in our society grows longer and longer.