Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bavinck on the Unknowability of God's Decrees

In Bavinck’s article on supralapsarian and infralapsarian predestination (link), he disagrees with supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism about 90% of the time, so we get very few glimpses of what he actually believes. I went through the article and pulled out all the positive statements by Bavinck about predestination. I came out with 10 statements. Upon examining the statements, I noted that the majority of them are either in tension with each other or leave a major term undefined.

Statements in tension with each other (i.e. that seem to move in opposite directions - although they don’t formally contradict each other, no reconciliation is provided):
  • (statement) On the one hand, both election and reprobation presuppose sin, and are deeds of mercy and of justice, Rom. 9:15; Eph. 1:4;
  • (counter) on the other hand both [election and reprobation] are also deeds of divine right and sovereignty, Rom. 9:11, 17, 21.
  • (statement) At times Scripture expresses itself so strongly that reprobation and election are coordinated, and God is represented as having purposed eternal perdition as well as eternal salvation, Luke 2:34; John 3:19-21; I Pet. 2:7, 8; Rom. 9:17, 18, 22, etc.;
  • (counter) but in other passages eternal death is entirely absent in the description of the future; the victorious consummation of the kingdom of God, the new heaven and earth, the new Jerusalem in which God will be all and in all is pictured to us as the end of all things, I Cor. 15; Rev. 21, 22; the universe is represented as existing for the church, and the church for Christ, I Cor. 3:21-23; and reprobation is completely subordinated to election.
  • (statements) The true element in supralapsarianism is: that it emphasizes the unity of the divine decree and the fact that God had one final aim in view, that sin's entrance into the universe was not something unexpected and unlooked for by God but that he willed sin in a certain sense, and that the work of creation was immediately adapted to God's redemptive activity so that even before the fall, i.e., in the creation of Adam, Christ's coming was definitely fixed.
  • (counters) And the true element in infralapsarianism is: that the decrees manifest not only a unity but also a diversity (with a view to their several objects), that these decrees reveal not only a teleological but also a causal order, that creation and fall cannot merely be regarded as means to an end, and that sin should be regarded not as an element of progress but rather as an element of disturbance in the universe so that in and by itself it cannot have been willed by God.

These seem to be opposing pairs, and without additional explanation it’s hard to say what Bavinck thinks on these topics.

Statements with a major term that is undefined:

  • To be sure, sin should not be referred to “bare foreknowledge and permission”; in a certain sense, the fall, sin, and eternal punishment are included in God's decree and willed by him. But this is true in a certain sense only, and not in the same sense as grace and salvation.
  • In the third place, there is still another ground for the assertion that those err who coordinate “predestination unto eternal death” with “predestination unto eternal life,” and view the former as a goal in the same sense as the latter; while it is true that certain individuals constitute the object of reprobation, the human race under a new Head, namely Christ, is the object of election; hence, by grace not only certain individuals are saved, but the human race itself together with the entire cosmos is saved.

The last statement sounds like universalism, but I doubt that’s what Bavinck had in mind. The first statement warns of potential equivocation, but doesn’t define the terms.

Statements I can understand:

  • And when he punishes the wicked, he does not take delight in their sufferings as such, but in this punishment he celebrates, the triumph of his virtues, Deut. 28:63; Ps. 2:4; Prov. 1:26; Lam. 3:33.
  • For by reason of its very nature, every goal is the very best something, the perfection of an object; damnation, however, is the extreme evil and the greatest imperfection; hence the expression `God has predestinated some men unto damnation' is incorrect.”

I agree with what Bavinck is saying, but he isn’t saying much. Why isn’t Bavinck taking a stand on predestination? He ascribes it to the “limited character of our reasoning powers”. Bavinck states:

Because of the limited character of our reasoning powers we must needs proceed from the one or from the other viewpoint; hence, the advocates of a causal world
and life-view and the defenders of a teleological philosophy are engaged in continual warfare. But this disharmony does not exist in the mind of God. He sees the whole, and surveys all things in their relations. All things are eternally present in his consciousness.

Bavinck holds to epistemological limitations that prohibit people from understanding God’s revelation. It’s not just the mind of God that we cannot understand; the limitation also applies to what God is revealing to us.

His decree is a unity: it is a single conception. And in that decree all the different elements assume the same relation which a posteriori we even now observe between the facts of history, and which will become fully disclosed in the future. This relation is so involved and complicated that neither the adjective “supralapsarian” nor “infralapsarian” nor any other term is able to express it. It is both causal and teleological: that which precedes exerts its influence upon that which follows, and that which is still future already determines the past and the present.

Note that Bavinck applies the limitation not only to God’s one decree but also to the relationship of all the different elements. In other words, not only can we not understand the true nature of God’s one, infinite, eternal, decree, but we cannot understand the relationship of the various aspects of the outworking of the decree.

This stands in contrast to the typical way theologians (both Arminian and Calvinist) have explained the issue. It's true God’s decree is one, eternal, and unknowable. We cannot know the mind of God. But God’s one decree arranges a multitude of events, and those events are interrelated. Thus the scripture speaks of multiple decrees and we can understand the relationship between the events and therefore the relationship of the multiple impacts of God’s decree.

Calvinist Charles Hodge explains:

As, however, this one purpose includes an indefinite number of events, and as those events are mutually related, we therefore speak of the decrees of God as many, and as having a certain order. The Scriptures consequently speak of the judgments, counsels or purposes of God, in the plural number, and also of his determining one event because of another. When we look at an extensive building, or a complicated machine, we perceive at once the multiplicity of their parts, and their mutual relations. Our conception of the building or of the machine is one, and yet it comprehends many distinct perceptions, and the apprehension of their relations. So also in the mind of the architect or mechanist, the whole is one idea, though he intends many things, and one in reference to another. We can, therefore, in a measure, understand how the vast scheme of creation, providence, and redemption, lies in the divine mind as one simple purpose, although including an infinite multiplicity of causes and effects.

Thus, Bavinck departs from Hodge, by denying we can understand the relationship between the scripturally revealed purposes of God.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Index to Daniel Whitby on Grace

Daniel Whitby's Discourses on the 5 Points was, during its day, the definitive Arminian work against Calvinism. Whitby had a commanding knowledge of the scriptures, and his book is a detailed and unrelenting examination of Calvinism. It drew responses from famous Calvinists Jonathan Edwards, Inquiry into the Will and John Gill, the Cause of God and Truth.
Below is an index to Whitby's discourse on Grace. Archaic spellings and words have been updated, sentences broken down into shorter sentences and links to scripture references inserted.

Chapter 2: Arguments against Irresistible Grace

Chapter 3: Refuting Arguments for Irresistible Grace

Bavinck on God's Sovereignty

Sovereignty typically means authority or right. Both Calvinists and Arminians agree that God is sovereign in all He does, so He has the authority to do what He does. Period. The End.

But wait!!! In Bavinck’s article on supralapsarian and infralapsarian predestination (link), he states:

In all his “outgoing works” God always has in view his own glory; but that he seeks to establish this glory in this and in no other way is to be ascribed to his sovereignty and to nothing else.
Bavinck uses the term “sovereignty” as either God’s actions or the reason for His actions, not just His authority to act. He is saying “God is doing X”, but rather than explaining why God is doing X, He simply says God has the right to do X and claims God’s right to do X is the explanation. Here are some examples.
  • Reprobation cannot be explained as an act of God's justice, for the first sinful deed at any rate was permitted by God's sovereignty.
  • On the one hand, both election and reprobation presuppose sin, and are deeds of mercy and of justice, Rom. 9:15; Eph. 1:4; on the other hand both are also deeds of divine right and sovereignty, Rom. 9:11, 17, 21.
  • Both infra- and supralapsarianism deny the freedom of the will, reject the idea that faith is the cause of election and that sin is the cause of reprobation, and thus oppose Pelagianism; both in the final analysis pay homage to God's sovereignty.

This is not abnormal Calvinist behavior. For example, popular Calvinist author and preacher John MacArthur claims:

  • Paul anticipated the argument against divine sovereignty: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’” (v. 19). In other words, doesn’t God’s sovereignty cancel out human responsibility?
  • Scripture affirms both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. We must accept both sides of the truth, though we may not understand how they correspond to one another. People are responsible for what they do with the gospel—or with whatever light they have (Rom. 2:19-20), so that punishment is just if they reject the light. And those who reject do so voluntarily….In John 6, our Lord combined both divine sovereignty and human responsibility when He said, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (v. 37)… How both of these two realities can be true simultaneously cannot be understood by the human mind—only by God. (link)

In other words, they substitute the right to act in place of an explanation for the act, implicitly denying the act can be explained. Now some Calvinists (like Hodge, Edwards and Turretin) have taken a shot at explaining the act, and it looks a lot like causal predeterminism. But many Calvinists like Bavinck don’t explain things, they just leave it at God is sovereign. This reminds me of a Seinfeld episode where they would “yada, yada, yada” over the best part.

Friday Files: Leonard's Review of Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities

James Leonard provided a nice summary of Roger Olson’s book: Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Olson’s book is quickly becoming an Arminian classic. One of Leonard’ key points is “Arminians are not driven to their position because they want to cling to free will, as if it were absolutely precious and the one non-negotiable of the debate. The real issue for Arminians is the character of God. Arminians are driven to their position because they see that Calvinism leads to making God the author and the effecting power of sin, and denying God's goodness.” (link)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Corporate and Individual Election

Corporate election is the idea that election is primarily about a group and secondarily about individuals. It’s most clearly seen in the OT concept of Israel and the NT concept of the church. Philip Limborch addressed the objection that corporate election rules out individual election:

In the first place it is objected that the predestination we have defined, is not that of persons, but of faith; since faith is thereby predestined as a condition of salvation. Answer. He who elected faith as a condition to be performed by men if they would attain eternal life, has truly elected men under that condition, and in His decree has an immediate regard to people. Therefore these two things, viz., the person and his qualification, are never to be separated, but are always to be joined together. (Philip Limborch, A Complete System or Body of Divinity, both Practical and Speculative. P 344-345)

Scripture paints a manifold view of election:

  1. God chooses Christ as the foundation of salvation (1 Peter 1:20)
  2. God chooses faith as the instrument of salvation (Romans 4:16)
  3. God chooses to save believers (1 Corinthians 1:21, John 3:16)
  4. God chooses the defined group (i.e. the list of individuals) from eternity through foreknowledge (1 Peter 1:2, Romans 8:29, 1 Thessalonians 2:13) and in time as individuals enter the covenant community (Romans 10:5-13, 11:17-24)

The objection Limborch answers above is essentially that #3 is indistinct from #2 and #4. The idea is that either the list of people is defined (via foreknowledge) and so #3 is really #4,or God is only choosing a condition (i.e. faith, not works) and not a group.

Admittedly, the difference between choosing to save through faith and choosing to save believers is slight (i.e. #3 vs #4). The former is a choice of faith itself and latter is whoever has faith. The difference between #3 and #4 is shaper. “Whosoever believes” in John 3:16 isn’t a statement about God’s foreknowledge of the list of people through history who will believe, but rather a statement that regardless of who the person is, if they believe they fall into this category.

One of the best recent accounts of the relation between corporate election and the individual is Brian Abasciano’s Corporate Election in Romans 9: A Reply to Thomas Schreiner. (link)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Bavinck on supra/infra-lapsarian predestination

I recently read Herman Bavinck on supralapsarian and infralapsarian predestination. (link) Bavinck’s approach is intriguing. He argues that both the supralapsarian and infralapsarian systems have their strengths and weaknesses, so he cherry-picks the strengths and discards the weaknesses as he presents his own unsystematized views on the subject of predestination. To be clear, he is not saying that he is unable to systematize predestination, but rather that the topic cannot be systematized.

This approach has its drawbacks. Without a logical order, the topic can’t really be explained, nor can Bavinck be sure his system is free from contradiction. Advocates of Bavinck's approach claim greater freedom to interpret scripture, but if your interpretation of one passage is in tension with another passage, you can never be sure your interpretation is correct. Systematic theology is a lot of hard work. You have to keep many pieces in view simultaneously to ensure you don't run into contradiction. Defining terms, uncovering implications, deriving deductions and organizing explanations help ensure your system is free from contradiction. But you can never take the shortcut of forcing your system on a passage of scripture; again systematic theology is hard work.
Bavinck accepts conclusions from the supra and sublapsarian positions that are derived from contradictory premises. To avoid contradiction, Bavinck simply avoids the premises, but then where did the conclusion come from? To me, that’s like admiring the roof of a house while laying dynamite to the foundation in the hope that the roof will just float. More to the point, scripture states a house divided against itself cannot stand and that a double minded man is unstable in all his ways.

Perhaps Bavinck’s approach is “the new Calvinism”. This post on Pen & Parchment explains why Calvinism is the least rational option. This style is quite different than the Calvinism I am used to. Successful or not, Hodge, Edwards and Turretin seem insistent on attempting to reconciling apparent discrepancies. So on the one hand, it's tempting to simply dismiss Bavinck as "not the reformed view", but on the other hand his views are perhaps represent many Calvinists.

Since Bavinck doesn’t have a system, God willing, I will to respond to his points individually rather than as a whole.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

God's Foreknowledge - Peter, Judas and Christ

I recently read Greg Boyd’s explanation of Christ’s foretelling Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial. The basic issue is that in open theism, a free choice cannot be foreknown. Boyd’s states that at the time of their sins, Judas and Peter were not free (i.e. they couldn’t choose remain faithful to Christ). But since their prior free choices had formed their character, they were still responsible even if not free at that specific moment. (Boyd on Peter, Boyd on Judas)

While I suspect this explanation is unsound for multiple reasons, let’s for the moment grant that it’s true. What about cases were the future is foretold, yet counterfactual ability is asserted?

Matthew 26:52-54: But Jesus said to him, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels? How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen thus?”

Christ claims the ability to do otherwise and that what He was going to do. Even if Judas and Peter didn’t have the ability to do otherwise, Christ did. So scripture asserts future free acts can be foreknown.

How does this singular example impact all of open theism? Scripture teaches God’s knowledge is infinite:

Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite. (Psalm 147:5)

So if future free choices are knowable, God knows them. Open theism relies on future free acts, as a category, being unknowable. One counterexample impacts the whole system.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

No New Ideas from Princeton

In Boettner’s introduction to the Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (RDP), he claims he isn’t teaching anything new:

The purpose of this book is not to set forth a new system of theological thought, but to give a re-statement to that great system which is known as the Reformed Faith or Calvinism, and to show that this is beyond all doubt the teaching of the Bible and of reason. (link)

A.A. Hodge makes a similar claim regarding Charles Hodge:

On the day of his semi-centennial celebration, he turned with a beautiful simplicity to his brethren and said that "Princeton had never been charged with originating a new idea." To his mind this was a high distinction. It is mind that has made Princeton a synonym for greatness, but it was mind that feared God and never dared to originate what He had not taught. (link)

This is basically a claim that Calvinism is taught in the bible. Calvinism becomes not just a system of reconciling scripture, but the very system itself is taught in scripture. That’s a high standard.

I have little hesitation in saying limited atonement is unbiblical; same for irresistible grace. But I am far less confident in saying unconditional election is unbiblical. Many of my views on election and predestination are deducted from other scriptural truths [rather than direct scriptural statements]. But because I can see myself in there interpreting the scriptures, I must admit I could be wrong. I don’t want to elevate my interpretation of scripture to the level of scripture. So, for now, I will only say it’s more likely than not that election is conditional.

My assessment of Calvinism, based on my study of scripture so far, is that it’s an interpretation of scripture, rather than a teaching of scripture. As I move into RDP, through God’s grace, I will 1) lay aside my own preconceptions, and 2) hold Calvinism to the highest possible standard [i.e. not just that Calvinism can be reconciled with the word of God, but that it’s expressly taught by the word of God].

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Prereformation Church History & the Calvinist/Arminian Debate

Calivinists have a rich heritage; one they can be proud of. It's unquestionable that Augustine, many of the Reformers and Puritans held Calvinist ideas. But after reading Boettner's introduction of the Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, one might get the impression that Calvinism dominates church history and substantially every major theologian accepted Calvinisic predestination. Boettner claims:

The great majority of the creeds of historic Christendom have set forth the doctrines of Election, Predestination, and final Perseverance, as will readily be seen by any one who will make even a cursory study of the subject. On the other hand Arminianism existed for centuries only as a heresy on the outskirts of true religion, and in fact it was not championed by an organized Christian church until the year 1784, at which time it was incorporated into the system of doctrine of the Methodist Church in England. (link)

Boettner equivocates predestination with Calvinistic predestination. The historic creeds do indeed teach predestination, but not Calvinistic predestination. Many simply stick to the language of scripture. Since Calvinists and Arminians disagree on the interpretation of scripture, likely they disagree on the interpretation of creeds as well. For example, scripture says we are elected, which Calvinists take to mean we are unconditionally elected, yet Arminians take as conditionally elected. So if a creed says we are elected, Calvinists and Arminians are likely to disagree on what the creed means. This is why Arminius states:

This doctrine [supra-lapsarian Calvinism] was never admitted, decreed, or approved in any Council, either general or particular, for the first six hundred years after Christ…. [The Arminian explanation of predestination] agrees with that harmony of all confessions, which has been published by the protestant Churches. (link)

Arminius goes on to explain how Augustine’s explanation of predestination both falls short of supra-lapsarian Calvinism and that it was not universally received by the church. Further, he explains his view aligns with the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, and supra-lapsarian Calvinism does not.

So if creeds are open to interpretation, does that mean we can't tell anything from them and church history regarding the Calvinist/Arminian debate? No, but one must be careful. When reading history, one must avoid the temptation of reading their views back into history. Further, it's difficult to conclude what historic authors thought about a subject (like Calvinism), unless they specifically address that subject. This is why it's difficult to say exactly were the church stood on the topics addressed in the Calvinist/Arminian debate. But some Calvinistic ideas (specifically reprobation and limited atonement) did come up at times before the reformation, and I wanted to highlight two important episodes to demonstrate that Calvinism was not universally accepted.

No ecumenical councils established Arminianism and anathematized Calvinism, but some regional ones did. In the aftermath of the Pelagian heresy, two fallout errors were condemned by two councils. The more well known of the two as the Council of Orange in 529, which condemned semi-Pelagianism. But prior to Orange, the Council of Arles condemned the errors of Lucian the predestinarian. Lucian began teaching a more severe version of predestination than Augustine; which apparently included reprobation and limited atonement. The Council of Arles (around 472) threatened to excommunicate Lucian if he held these six errors:

1. That man was born without sin, and by his own effort alone could be saved, and could free himself from sinful ways without the grace of God. 2. That a man who, with sincere faith, had received the grace of baptism and had professed the Christian life, and afterwards through temptation had fallen away, perished in the original sin of Adam. 3. That a man through God's foreknowledge might be destined to death. 4. That a man who perished had not received of grace that he might be in the way of salvation. 5. That man made as a vessel unto dishonour can never arise to become a vessel unto honour. 6. That Christ did not die for all, and does not will that all should be saved.

Thomas Scott Holmes. The Origin & Development of the Christian Church in Gaul During the First Six Centuries of the Christian Era. P 404-405

For variations on the phrasing of the 6 points, see Sabine Baring Gould, The Lives of the Saints. P416 and Alfonso Maria de' Liguori. The History of Heresies and Their Refutation: Or, The Triumph of the Church. P 116-117. Of note, one variant on the third point reads: “the foreknowledge of God violently drives men to death, or that those who perish, perish by the will of God.”

So the Council of Arles seems to condemn both Pelagianism and certain Calvinistic doctrines.

Because the Council of Arles was championed by the semi-Pelagian, Faustus, it’s sometimes called into question, since semi-Pelagianism was condemned by the council of Orange some 60 years later. But it’s wrong to suppose that these two councils are at odds with each other; rather they condemn two opposing extremes. Lucian submitted to the council of Arles rather than question its authority. Further, Arles didn’t contain the semi-Pelagian tenets condemned by Orange, so the two councils didn't disagree. Interestingly, the Synod of Orange included some language similar to Arles when it stated: “According to the catholic faith we also believe that after grace has been received through baptism, all baptized persons have the ability and responsibility, if they desire to labor faithfully, to perform with the aid and cooperation of Christ what is of essential importance in regard to the salvation of their soul. We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.” (link)

A second interesting episode in Church history happened between 848 between 849 when Gottschalk was condemned and imprisoned for teaching limited atonement and double predestination. James Craigie Robertson. History of the Christian Church p307-321.

I bring this up not because I think councils are infallible or because I think Calvinism is heresy. I actually think what happened to Gottschalk was deplorable. Rather, I just wanted to point out that Calvinism hasn't dominated church history.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Index for a Critique of Jonathan Edwards’ Enquire into the Will


Critique of Edwards’ View of the Will
What is Libertarian Free Will?

Edwards Arguments against Freewill
Causeless Cause or Infinite Regression of Causes
Divine foreknowledge

Arguments against the Link between Freewill and Responsibility
Impeccability and Hardening
Commands and Invitations for the Impossible
Desire isn't good enough

Evaluation of Grounds for Freewill
Common and Philosophical Necessity
Necessity of the Divine Will

Wrap Up of Edwards Book Review

Modern Reactions
Free to Choose what we Desire Most?
Debate with Turretinfan on God’s freewill

One of the Reasons I am voting for McCain

During the last two Democratic Presidencies (Carter and Clinton) laws were passed to make ways for people who couldn’t afford housing to purchase houses. Back in the day, people needed to come up with large down payments to be able to afford houses. The sub/prime loan market was created through the instrumentation of quasi-government agencies Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae, enabling people who previously couldn’t afford houses to purchase houses. The market was artificial and would have died of natural causes, but its life was extended by creative loan instruments such as interest only loans, negative amortization loans and self-certification of income loans. The market finally corrected itself this year. The Democrats would have you believe that the Republicans fell asleep at the switch and should have prevented the economy from falling apart under their watch. But such ideas assume the point in question: that the government, not the free markets, should drive the economy. If the government wishes to help the markets, the best thing they can do is laissez faire [let it be].

I am not heartless. The idea of people that can’t afford homes buying homes is a nice thought. But the way to get there has to be the combination increasing their earnings (through education and effort) and decreasing the cost of houses (through technology). But the Democrats plan to increase taxes and regulations for big business, hindering and removing the incentives for technological progress. Further, they plan to socialize basic needs, dissincentivizing education and hard work. The promise of someone fixing your problems for you sounds nice, but it's not always real.

There are many other reasons why I will vote for McCain, some more important than this, but this is one of them.