The Prince of Preachers on Divine Immutability

From a sermon on Malachi 3:6:

Whatever the attributes of God were of old, that they are now; and of each of them we may sing “As it  was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.”  Was he powerful?  Was  he the mighty God when he spake the world out of the womb of non-existence?  Was he the  Omnipotent when he piled the mountains and scooped out the hollow places for the rolling deep?  Yes, he was powerful then, and his arm is unpalsied now; he is the same giant in his might; the sap of  his nourishment is undried, and the strength of his soul stands the same for ever.  Was he wise when he constituted this mighty globe, when he laid the foundations of the universe?  Had he wisdom when he planned the way for our salvation, and when from all eternity he marked out his awful plans?  Yes, and he is wise now; he is not less skilful, he has not less knowledge; his eye which seeth all things is undimmed; his ear which heareth all the cries, sighs, sobs, and groans of his people, is not rendered heavy by the years which he hath heard their prayers.  He is unchanged in his wisdom; he knows as much now as ever, neither more nor less; he has the same consummate skill, and the same infinite forecastings.  He is unchanged, blessed be his name, in his justice.  Just and holy was he in the past; just and holy is he now.  He is unchanged in his truth; he has promised, and he brings it to pass; he hath said it, and it shall be done.  He varies not in his goodness, and generosity, and benevolence of his nature.  He is not become [sic] an Almighty tyrant, whereas he was once an Almighty Father; but his strong love stands like a granite rock, unmoved by the hurricanes of our iniquity.  And blessed be his dear name, he is unchanged in his love.  When he first wrote the covenant, how full his heart was with affection to his people.  He knew that his Son must die to ratify the articles of that agreement.  He knew right well that he must rend his beloved from his bowels, and send him down to earth to bleed and die.  He did not hesitate to sign that mighty covenant; nor did he shun its fulfilment.  He loves as much now as he did then; and when suns cease to shine, and moons to show their feeble light, he still shall love on for ever and for ever.  Take any one attribute of God, and I will write semper idem on it” (C. H. Spurgeon, “The Immutability of God,” in New Park Street Pulpit, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007], pp. 2-3).

An Ever-Increasing Attribute

For too long I’ve not posted on the theology of my favorite thinker, Herman Bavinck.  His bibliology is  among the most impressive features of the Reformed Dogmatics and it remains instructive for any of us  today who hold that theology is ultimately a matter of reflecting on and elaborating the divine teaching of  Holy Scripture.  Here I’ll sketch briefly his understanding of the necessity of Scripture in hopes of  generating some discussion.

In line with classic Protestant thinking about the Bible, Bavinck contends for its necessity over against  Roman Catholicism, mysticism, and rationalism.  Rome, says Bavinck, has abandoned the notion that  Scripture funds the being of the church and has propped up the church with its teaching office as autopistos (trustworthy in and of itself) and sufficient for norming doctrine and praxis.  Mysticism also disregards the necessity of Scripture but by undervaluing the external word and overemphasizing the importance of the internal word delivered to the heart of the individual believer in communion with God and by the Holy Spirit.  Rationalism too undermines the necessity of Scripture by identifying that internal teaching of the Spirit with the natural light of reason and suggesting that the latter provides all the furnishings for the content of faith.

However, on supposition of God’s decision to address his people in the canonical writ, we’re obliged to affirm the necessity of Scripture.  For Bavinck, the Bible itself is an instance of God’s self-revelation and, therefore, the church cannot be its author.  The church “may be older than the written word, but it is definitely younger than the spoken word” (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:470).  In other words, absolutely, the word creates and governs the church, even if subsequently God organically (not mechanically) employs human agents to inscripturate the word for future generations.  With the passing of the first century, “the time-distance from the apostles grew greater, their writings became more important, and the necessity of these writings gradually intensified.  The necessity of Scripture, in fact, is not a stable but an ever-increasing attribute” (ibid.).  The Bible, then, is a divine gift for the transmission, preservation, and propagation of the word of God: “The sound of a voice passes away, but the written letter remains” (ibid., 1:471).

Intriguingly, the historical amplification of this attribute concerns not just the death of the apostles but also the phenomena of modern life:

To the degree that humankind becomes larger, life becomes shorter, the memory weaker, science more extensive, error more serious, and deception more brazen, the necessity of Holy Scripture increases.  Print and the press are gaining in significance in every area of life.  The invention of printing was a giant step to heaven and to hell….It is true that religious literature remains for many people the primary nourishment for their spiritual life.  Still, this proves nothing against the necessity of Holy Scripture.  Since directly or indirectly, all Christian truth is drawn from it.  The diverted stream also gets its water from the source (ibid., 1:472).

More could be said, but any thoughts on Bavinck’s theological moves or the implications for the proliferation of both skeptical and religious literature that we currently see?

Whose Community? Which Interpretation? by Merold Westphal (Part II)

Having taken the award for most time betwixt two portions of a book review, I’ll round out the summary of  Westphal’s book Whose Community?  Which Interpretation? and conclude with some critical reflections.  With  chapter six Westphal commences his presentation of Gadamer’s view of interpretation, underscoring Gadamer’s  notion of tradition:

We belong to tradition by virtue of our thrownness into it, our immersion in it, and our formation by it.  This is an ontological claim about our being and an epistemological claim about our understanding of ourselves and our world (70).

Westphal notes three features of the role of tradition: 1) it enables the enterprise of human thought by giving us  a place from which we can explore and attempt to understand the world; 2) each of us is shaped by multiple  traditions; 3) tradition cultivates prejudice, or pre-judgment, rendering every interpretation of a text “relative to  the traditions that have formed the perspectives and presuppositions that guide it,” though this doesn’t entail  “anything goes” relativism as some interpretations remain more illuminating than others (71).  Westphal also  unfolds three theses that are corollaries of Gadamer’s take on tradition: 1) the alterity thesis (texts are voices  with an otherness from which we must be willing to learn); 2) the authority thesis (the traditions that shape us  deserve a measure of respect and deference); 3) the fallibility thesis (the traditions that shape us are subject to error and may be critiqued and revised over time).

The seventh chapter centers on the inescapability of the relativity of the reader.  Authors, say Gadamer and Westphal, cannot free readers from their relativity for two reasons: 1) authors are unable to deliver determinate textual meaning because they lack the wherewithal to discern fully what it is they’ve actually written; 2) authors can’t deliver determinate textual meaning because the power of tradition is ever unconsciously operative in the author’s labors, which reinforces the author’s limitations indicated under reason one.  Similarly, while method remains important, it too cannot rescue readers from their relativity for several reasons: 1) the emphasis on deploying a scientific method itself arises under the contingency of a particular tradition; 2) rigorous application of method can lead us to honor only our own conclusions and thus blind us to the findings of others; 3) total distanciation is impossible for us since we remain situated within our traditions.

In chapter eight, Westphal highlights Gadamer’s appeal to the humanist tradition.  Probably the most significant item here lies in the proposition that the being of a thing reaches its full flowering only when it is understood by human knowers.  The presentation of something “does not stand like a copy next to the real world, but is that world in the heightened truth of its being” (95).  Indeed, “[t]o be is to be shown, manifested, revealed” (96).  For texts in particular, this means that interpretation belongs to the very nature of the text.

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Perspicuity and Postmodernity

I’m in between two parts of a review of Merold Westphal’s introduction to philosophical hermeneutics and have been reflecting on the importance of approaching Scripture according to its peculiar nature and subject matter, whatever may be gleaned from a general theory of texts and textual interpretation.  In keeping with those musings, I came across this comment from Irish Puritan James Ussher (1581-1656) in his defense of the clarity of Scripture:

Scripture is our Father’s Letter unto us, and his last Will to show us what Inheritance he leaveth us.  But Friends write Letters, and Fathers their wills, plain (A Body of Divinity [Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007], p. 18).

Ussher gestures toward something that we would do well to remember in a time when we are keen to avoid the appearance of epistemic arrogance or crudeness, namely, that the Bible is a covenantal book originated and commandeered by someone who actually wants us to understand it and, indeed, as our Creator and Lord, is eminently capable of accomodating his speech to the human intellect.  The subject matter, the divine authorship, and the redemptive, covenantal telos of Scripture compel an admission of its perspicuity, even in an era rather skeptical of human noetic prowess.  To vie for the  possibility of real textual understanding vis-a-vis the biblical texts is not to sink into “modernism” but to think theologically about Scripture and to keep in step with the emphases of classic Protestant bibliology.

Any thoughts?

Whose Community? Which Interpretation? by Merold Westphal (Part I)

This volume is Westphal’s contribution to Baker’s The Church and Postmodern Culture series,  edited by James  K. A. Smith.  For those interested, the series’ namesake blog can be  found here.  Westphal announces in the  preface his hope that the book will prove beneficial to  academic theologians, pastors, and lay persons, whose  labors in biblical interpretation tend,  respectively, to be written (i.e., published), oral (i.e., preached), and silent  (i.e., developed in  private Bible study).  The subtitle, Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church, is indicative of   the author’s aim to explore potential contributions of philosophical reflection on interpretation  in service to the  ecclesial task of attending to Scripture.  Westphal defends his foray into the  realm of philosophical theory by  suggesting that, when theology resists acquaintance with  philosophy, it is then most susceptible to being unwittingly ensnared by a particular  philosophical tradition.  Moreover, he says, philosophical hermeneutics may well possess  positive resources for the project of biblical interpretation.  As one of Westphal’s purposes is to  familiarize readers with the influence of presuppositions in interpretation without sliding into  relativism, the preface also anticipates charting a course between “hermeneutical despair  (‘anything goes’)” and “hermeneutical arrogance (we have ‘the’ interpretation).”

In the first chapter Westphal chides naïve realism’s “claim to immediacy” in understanding reality in general and textual meaning in particular.  He suggests that no one denies realism’s fundamental acknowledgment of mind-independent reality but invokes Kant to caution against claiming that said reality is pristinely mirrored in the mind of the knowing subject.  For Kant (and, apparently, Westphal), the external world is filtered through the mediating categories of the human mind; the act of “just seeing” belongs to God alone.  Against realism’s intuitive grasp of things in themselves, Westphal avers that, in view of human finitude, “theists…have a sound theological reason for being Kantian antirealists” (19).  Though he sympathizes with the desire to deny the inevitability of interpretation in the name of preserving objectivity in knowledge, Westphal has in mind to curb the “rush to immediacy,” using the story of the elephant and the blind men to underscore that perspectival diversity can signal complementarity rather than relativism.

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Tough Words from Owen

Early on in my summer break I’ve been enjoying the writings of John Owen (a man of impeccable fashion sense).  Chapter XXV of “The Greater Catechism” in volume one of his published works asks, “What is the communion of saints?”  The prescribed response:

An holy conjunction between all God’s people, wrought by their participation in the same Spirit, whereby we are all made members of that one body whereof Christ is the head.

Interestingly, in a footnote attached to “conjunction,” Owen comments, “By virtue of this, we partake in all the good and evil of the people of God throughout the world.”

The statement is, I think, a compelling warning against distancing ourselves from the church in moments when we wish only to criticize it.  For those of us immersed in the study of theology, it implies, among other things, that we’re not free to berate a perceived theological stupor in the church without acknowledging that we ourselves live and move in the sphere of God’s people.  The real question, then, concerns how to help in the pursuit of theological maturity with and among the people to whom we are stubbornly (and blessedly!) linked.

The Two Kingdoms Doctrine

Mention of the two kingdoms schema of the Christ-culture relation often educes among evangelicals two judgments: 1) the two kingdoms doctrine is peculiarly the stuff of Lutheran theology and 2) it is seriously inadequate with respect to understanding the biblical concept of the kingdom of God and prodding Christians properly to discharge their duty to influence society.  In other words, it lacks credentials vis-à-vis catholicity, biblical theology, and theological ethics.  For example, in D. A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited, the section devoted to the two kingdoms doctrine is entitled “Luther and His Heirs” and expresses concern about the doctrine undermining “a unifying approach to knowledge” and either pushing Christians out of the public square or legitimizing a state church (pp. 210-12).  N. T. Wright is more severe in his criticism, musing that traditional interpreters of Paul doubt Wright’s exegesis because Luther’s two kingdoms theology has suppressed the Pauline notion of ecclesial unity as a politically suggestive witness to the powers (Justification, pp. 173-74).  Add to this mix the fact that a younger generation (my generation) of Christians has fiercely taken an interest in the concept and pursuit of “social justice” and we have a seemingly unstoppable impetus against the two kingdoms framework.  “Christ the transformer of culture” is the more attractive option these days.

Regarding the historical theology dimension of the discussion, it is worth noting that Calvin advocates  the two kingdoms doctrine in Institutes (see esp. 3.19 and 4.20).  In other words, Luther is not alone.    In fact, David VanDrunen’s book Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development  of Reformed Social Thought makes the case for a two kingdoms thread persistently running  throughout the Reformed tradition.

Leaving aside for the moment the historical theology question, I would like to venture some comments pertaining to the two kingdoms take on the biblical narrative and cultural and political engagement with the aim of commending its explanatory power and practical import and with the hope of generating some conversation and feedback.  Some of these thoughts will be more controversial than others, so let me know what you think.

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Scooping Out the Moon

It’s difficult to plod through Barth’s Church Dogmatics without being tempted to post something on one of the lines he takes or even simply the adventurous and often moving quality of his prose.  The section in CD handling “the knowability of the Word of God” is a fascinating one and, though I would parse the concept of the word of God differently than Barth does, it is one that I find instructive in several ways for contemporary evangelicals.

Barth repeatedly voices his skepticism about the event of the coming of the Word of God to human persons engendering a knowledge of the Word such that the knowability of the Word begins properly to belong to its human addressees.  He mentions the possibility that the event of the Word of God is helped along in its epistemic work by the human addressee’s “potentiality which is brought by man as such, which consists in a disposition native to him as man, in an organ, in a positive or even a negative property that can be reached and discovered by self-reflection.”  However, Barth is quick to add another possibility:

It might be also that this event did not so much presuppose the corresponding possibility on man’s part as bring it with it and confer it on man by being event, so that it is man’s possibility without ceasing (as such) to be wholly and utterly the possibility proper to the Word of God and to it alone.  We might also be dealing with a possibility of knowledge which can be made intelligible as a possibility of man, but in contrast to all others, only in terms of the object of knowledge or the reality of knowledge and not at all in terms of the subject of knowledge, i.e., man as such (CD, I/1, p. 194).

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“His Glance Is Carried from Eternity”: Aquinas on Divine Foreknowledge

The open theism debates may have cooled down a while back, but inquiring about divine foreknowledge still leads us into some weighty issues in the field of theology proper, issues of the perennially significant sort when it comes to the church’s understanding of God and his relationship to the world and its human inhabitants.  In light of this, I thought it might be worth unpacking and discussing Aquinas’ article in the Summa which asks “whether the knowledge of God is of future contingent things” (Ia.14.13).

Under this article there are three potential objections against the claim that God’s  knowledge  includes future contingent things.  Objection one judges that, since 1) the  knowledge of God is  the cause of all things known (see Ia.14.8) and 2) the knowledge of  God is necessary with  respect to things known, the necessary cause (God’s knowledge) must yield a necessary  effect (the thing known), rendering future things not contingent but necessary.  Objection two  declares this proposition to be true: “If God knew that this thing will be, it will be.”  However,  the antecedent here is eternal and signified as past  and, therefore, necessary, meaning that its  consequent (the being of a thing known) also is necessary.  Objection three reasons from the  dynamics of human knowledge to the  dynamics of divine knowledge: “even what we  ourselves  know must necessarily be…and, of course, the knowledge of God is much more  certain than  ours.”  In short, if something is known, it must necessarily be.  The conclusion,  then, is that  God knows no future contingent thing.  This has the feel of an analytic statement:  divine  knowledge by definition cannot have as its object any future contingent thing.  It’s  interesting  to note that the objections seem generally to affirm God’s knowledge of future things but  question their contingency, whereas the open theists seem generally to affirm the  contingency  of future things but question God’s knowledge of these.

What has Aquinas to say in response?  He contradicts the objections by quoting Psalm 32:15 as testimony to God’s knowledge of all the works of human beings.  But, inasmuch as our works are subject to the freedom of our will, they are contingent.  Thus, with the help of a fairly modest inference, Aquinas is able to draw from Old Testament Scripture to maintain that God does indeed have knowledge of future contingent things.  From here Aquinas answers that God’s knowledge includes things actual and possible and, since some of these are future and contingent to us, God enjoys knowledge of future contingent things.

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Moltmann, Calvin, and the Cross

The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is not exactly fashionable these days, so perhaps making its exoneration the topic of one’s first post on a blog is rather inadvisable.  Yet whatever a person’s opinion of the doctrine may be, it’s only reasonable to spend a bit of time wading through some of the caricatures in order to face up to the most robust treatments on offer, at which point a critic may begin properly to criticize and an adherent may begin to draw from such resources for contemporary restatement.

One criticism directed toward penal substitution is that it envisions discord within the Trinity: God the Father opposes God the Son in punishing God the Son on the cross (see, e.g., Joel Green and Mark Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, p. 147).  Interestingly, this concern about a rift within the Trinity brings to mind the language of Moltmann, a theologian, in my experience, not readily associated with the penal substitutionary construal of Christ’s death.  Commenting that in Jesus’ cry of dereliction he calls God simply “God” and not “Father,” Moltmann writes, “If we take the relinquishment of the Father’s name in Jesus’ death cry seriously, then this is even the breakdown of the relationship that constitutes the very life of the Trinity: if the Father forsakes the Son, the Son does not merely lose his sonship.  The Father loses his fatherhood as well.  The love that binds the one to the other is transformed into a dividing curse” (The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 80).  Of course, Moltmann goes on to speak of this as a voluntary separation on the part of the Father and the Son, with the Holy Spirit as the bond between them persisting even during the hour of separation.  The point, though, is that at least formally (materially as well?) a description like Moltmann’s could be implicated in the God-the-Father-versus-God-the-Son objection to penal substitution.

Calvin, the man typically credited with a formative influence on the doctrine of penal substitution, comes at the  trinitarian dynamics of the cross in a different way.  Continue reading