08 April 2014

Reading Genesis 1 Roundup

 
In the weeks building up to and after the "debate" between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, my enduring series on John Walton's reading Genesis 1 responsibly has seen an influx of clickers. So, to make navigating it easier, here's a summary of the series, along with an addendum or two.
  1. On translating culture and language
  2. The ancient cosmogony that underlies Genesis 1 is function-oriented.
  3. The word "create" in Genesis 1 primarily concerns assigning functions (not making materials appear).
  4. Days 1–3 of Genesis 1 establish functions, and Days 4–6 install functionaries.
  5. Divine rest occurs in a temple, and the cosmos (particularly the garden of Genesis 1) is a temple.
  6. The seven days of Genesis 1 relate to the cosmic temple inauguration; they decidedly do not concern material origins.
  7. This "functional" reading of Genesis 1 offers the most literal reading; other readings tend to go too far or not far enough, which can be avoided if we pay attention to the fact that the difference between origin accounts in scripture and science is metaphysical in nature.
  8. God as "creator" and "sustainer" means almost the same thing. And Intelligent Design theory is all about purpose; by definition, it isn't science.
  9. Scientific explanations of origins (like, e.g., evolutionary theory) can be viewed in light of purpose, and if so, are unobjectionable.
  10. The theology proper that emerges on this reading of Genesis 1 is stronger, not weaker.
  11. Science education in public can only be neutral regarding the purpose of creation.
  12. Land of the Lost: Nutshell
When compiling this list, I was also reminded of the hubbub that occurred around the time I was reading through Walton's and others' works on this subject: Bruce Waltke taken to task for his comments about how the (evangelical) church will be destined for "cult" status if, in the course of time, all the data points decisively to something akin to the neo-Darwinian synthesis and the church still denies that reality. I followed this up with "Strawmen: A Fundamentalist's Trojan Horse."

24 January 2014

Photography Friday (10)

On this Photography Friday we're traveling from Eisleben to Erfurt. Our Lutheran pilgrims should like this one.

As I mentioned in passing in another photography post, no, I'm not wealthy. In the early 2000s, my wife and I had the privilege of going overseas a few times, mostly to Europe, to work on a history project with Ligonier Ministries. Basically, I served as her grip, while she shot tons of B-roll.

A few items of note I remember from this particular part of the trip:
  • Germany has a very fine selection of local wines from which to choose.
  • We met and were guided by international pilgrimage guide and now author Arthur Pahl on this trip (he went on to guide us on our subsequent three trips). One of the sweetest men you'll meet. "Pine Tree!" (sorry, inside joke.)
  • The High Relief Judensau on the facade of the Wittenberg Town Church, as well as the new monument beneath it.
  • Seeing R.C. Sproul teach on the (supposed) precise spot where Luther himself prayed, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen." For R.C., this was clearly a true spiritual pilgrimage. In both theology and demeanor, R.C. deliberately, if not a little unconsciously, seemed (at least up to that time) to model himself after Luther.
Per the usual, all of these photos were taken on a Canon AE-1 with E100VS (slide film). Click on an image to get a closer look. We're moving from north to south.

Stadtkirche Wittenberg (Town and Parish Church of St. Mary's)
It features a triptych by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

St. Andrews Church, Eisleben
Luther preached the last four sermons of his life in 1546 in this pulpit.

Site of Luther's birth house, Eisleben

Wartburg Castle
The Castle Keep (a bergfried tower)

St. Elizabeth's Boudoir (mosaics done ca. 1900), Wartburg

Augustinian Cloister, Erfurt
After 1505, Luther lived in the monastery and in 1507
he became priest in Erfurt Cathedral.



22 January 2014

On Certainty Mixed with Doubt


A recent rabbit led me to a trail upon which an old, forgotten (by me) book had been assigned by its author for a systematic theology class back in 2002. A portion of it had to do with "cognitive rest," or the coming to a certain position “because of the presence of something very much like a feeling . . . . It is the sense that now one can commit himself to the belief, that he can 'live' with it” (John Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 152–53). Regarding Christian belief, coming to a cognitive rest “is achieving a ‘godly sense of satisfaction’ with the message of Scripture” (153). Cognitive rest means no more struggling against the truth but rather embracing it.

In the end, cognitive rest, wrought by the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, is not new revelation but rather “the Spirit’s work [that] illumines and confirms the revelation already given” (156).1 Professor Frame concludes this brief discussion with the recognition that it does concede “some truth to the subjectivist position: I cannot regard any belief as justified unless it accords with my subjective inclinations . . . . Thus the godly sense of satisfaction may be defined in terms of Scripture. What satisfies me is what I believe Scripture warrants. Or it may be defined situationally as a feeling that I have understood the facts. The three perspectives are one!” (161–62).

This last sentence is of course an example of the main reason why many disagree with tri-perspectivalism: all the perspectives are said to collapse into the existential.

But maybe the good professor feels the weight of the inevitable relativity inherent in any human society, and thus tri-perspectivalism is an attempt to (re)construct an institution worth handing down, namely, a foundation for thinking and acting in this modern world? I'd suggest tentatively that those who kick hard against these goads are those who see the radical contingency of this present world and yet refuse to think that they are affected by it, that their deductive dogma renders them untouchable. Maybe the tri-perspectivalist has gone through an epistemological crisis—which crisis actually enabled tri-perspectivalism to begin with? What crisis would that be?

In a word, it is pluralism. Pluralism brings along with it the imperative of many choices, and along with that comes—necessarily—uncertainty. How do we face the notion that everything we do and believe is historically located, that the institution of religion itself is socially constructed and therefore unable to be known with any epistemological certitude? While this modern world seems to actually create the necessity of a presuppositionalism or fideism, I have yet to see the correlation between tri-perspectivalism and a presuppositionalism of the more dogmatic sort. In other words, tri-perspectivalism does not allow for the mere dogmatic (and axiomatic) assertion (of Christianity) for which many presuppositionalists are known.

Still, the question remains: with respect to the Christian faith, can anything be known without even a hint of doubt? Most Christians would say yes. Some might say the Word of God is certain (a certainty wrought by the internal testimony of the Spirit, no doubt). When it tells us something clearly, that something we are to hold with certainty. Also, it does appear that doubt is castigated at some points in Scripture—for example, those instances in Scripture where “unbelief” is found wanting as an excuse on Judgment Day.

Peter Berger (I know, I know) writes in “Protestantism and the Quest for Certainty” that pluralism affects us deeply in relation to how we believe (not what).2 “Pluralism ensures that socialization processes are not uniform and, consequently, that the view of reality is much less firmly held. Put differently, certainty is now much harder to come by." At any rate, Berger argues that the Reformation inadvertently created this situation. How? Because of its principle of individual conscience ("Here I stand . . ."), which carried with it the potential for an ever-expanding variety of Christian groupings. “History is always the arena of unintended consequences." Eventually, every religious tradition had to come to terms with the simple fact that it no longer controlled a captive population of adherents. The modern is faced with a plethora of choices, one of which is leaving a particular tradition only to try on another. Thus, nothing can be taken for granted any longer, which essentially means that all claims to truth are relativized. However, we are not left with a crass open-ended and unchecked relativism, nor are we forced into some variant of “absolutist retrenchment.” There is a middle way, and it expresses itself in “prototypically Protestant . . . language: . . . sola fide.” Berger argues further that once we recognize this situation, attempting to construct taken-for-granted institutions in this modern world would, over time, be difficult to fake. To him, the Protestant principle of sola fide implies a rejection of all absolute claims, “ipso facto of all offers of restored taken-for-granted certainty. It insists that the believer should live by faith alone—and that, by God’s grace, this is actually possible." The reader may see how this substantiates, for example, Esther Meeks’ view of certainty (that it cannot be without doubt), as opposed to Frame's tri-perspectival answer to the certainty question: Some things are to be known without doubt, because the Bible tells us that in some cases doubt is wrong. But consider the following from Berger, which I should “know” to be misguided, yet feel otherwise (I quote him at length):
Conventional Christian language maintains that there is a contradiction between faith and lack of faith, belief and unbelief. The implication is that unbelief is sinful. This has never been very persuasive to me. God has not exactly made it easy for us to believe in him, and, it seems to me, a just God will not hold it against us if we don’t manage the exercise. Be that as it may, it seems more plausible to me to propose a contradiction not between belief and unbelief but between belief and knowledge. If we know something, there is no reason to believe; conversely, if we say that we believe something, we are implying that we don’t know. A world that is taken for granted is one in which people know (more accurately, think they know) what is true; they don’t have to believe. Putting the contradiction in this way, one must then ask: Just what do we know when it comes to religion?
His answer is simply that what we affirm, we must affirm modestly and with no pretense of certitude. We ought to be a people “unsure of [our]selves, groping for a few glimpses of truth to hold onto, even where it seems that the roof is about to fall in.” The reason behind this posture is the paradox between Christ and culture. While Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus and in his glorious return, that glory is obviously not yet. “The triumphant Christ is still coming; we are still in the aeon of the kenotic Jesus." The church therefore pronounces this coming triumph, yet it still bears the marks of Jesus’ kenosis.

I find this hard to deny. We gaze upon the conquered Promised Land, yet we wander in the wilderness, exiled, and in great need of repentance. Nonetheless, contra Berger, is there not even one object in which we can place our confidence that nudges up against something like certitude? Is it not this message of coming triumph? Whatever one’s views about inerrancy, are not the promises of God through Jesus the singular item that mysteriously comes to be believed with little doubt precisely because of God’s gracious call? Maybe everything else contained in the annals of historic, Christian orthodoxy should be under “permanent reflection,” but the coming triumph? So what if, for example, the kingdom of Solomon was greatly exaggerated, that doesn’t mark the difference between sheep and goats. What makes one a Christian, apparently, is personal trust, flowing from Word and sacrament, in he who is “able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted” (2 Tim. 1:12). In short, it is he who trusts and obeys God's Christ by the power of his Spirit. Anything resembling certainty with little or no doubt must be found there—yes, through (not in) the institution of the church, the religious experiences she gives, and the authority of the sacred text she proclaims.

To be sure, we still must exercise faith through such institutions (for such is the means by which beliefs and values are transmitted from generation to generation3), but taking them for granted is untenable is this modern world. All of them have been weakened: the certainty of church institutions by historical scholarship and the social sciences; the certainty of inner experience by psychology and the sociology of knowledge; the certainty of the biblical text by the findings of biblical criticism. Tri-perspectivalism perhaps attempts to prepare us for this very feeling of vertigo that comes when we are faced with the weakening of our beloved taken-for-granted institutions. Berger’s theory of the social construction of reality does much the same thing, though perhaps more consistently. Could the two be close cousins? Both, after all, are able to relativize the relativizers. Both undermine dogmatic assertions by recognizing the role of self and situation in the gaining of “knowledge.” Both affirm the existence of an absolute (i.e., the truth) that is knowable only through (to use a once-familiar phrase in Frame's classes) the participation of the other perspectives. Both force us to take a stand in the face of pluralism and place our trust in Providence, even while we approach most things as milquetoast “uncertainty-wallahs.”4

Our faith, then, is that God is really and truly present in the world, whether we receive him or not (much like the the proclamation of his Word and the administration of the sacraments). The same can be said for the other institutions mentioned above (the church, the experience, the text). The hope is held but cautiously. As a community of imperfectly glorified people, can we do much better? Maybe in the end sola fide does stand as the only non-Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox answer to this peculiarly modern situation. But while Saint Paul had much to distrust, underlying this contingency was a trustworthy God: “I know in whom I have believed.” I think we can say this too, while at the same time recognizing that our tradition is not immune to criticism, or put another way, to the relativity intrinsic to any social construction. To pretend that it can be immune, is nothing more than entering the world of self-delusion. This is not the Emersonian disdain for any and all institutions; rather, this is a simple affirmation that God, and God alone, is sure. All else is subject to change.

What other option is there in this time between the times?




1 Similarly, Kierkegaard wrote that there is “only one proof for the truth of Christianity—the inward proof, argumentum spiritus sancti.” He then cited 1 John 5:9–10 to substantiate this.

2 From The Christian Century, 115.23 (Aug 26, 1998).

3 In case the reader is wondering, so Berger: “Yes, such institutions . . . can survive—and sometimes they show a surprising vitality." All this means is that our choices must be deliberate. No longer can we unthinkingly ‘go with the flow.’

4 This idiosyncratic phrase is Berger’s way to describe himself and others who by free choice belong to “weak” religious institutions, that is, those institutions that are not founded upon taken-for-granted verities, and which are entered and left voluntarily. See also my description above about Christ being in paradox with culture.


13 December 2013

The Covenantal Contours of Limborch's Compleat System

 
The efforts of self-identified Arminian (or Wesleyan) theologians in recent decades who debate over the heart of “Arminianism” have mostly aimed to undermine the mischaracterizations prevalent among those with whom they disagree on important soteriological issues but who nevertheless share with them in the communion of saints (read: Young, Restless & Reformed).1 The church at large ought to be grateful for this work to that end, for it has ably shown that Arminius is rightly to be distinguished (but perhaps not separated) from, say, Philip van Limborch (1633–1712), the subject of this brief descriptive summary. While no discernible difference exists, for example, in the way Limborch lays out the order of God’s eternal decrees as compared to Arminius,2 there are a few when it comes to other matters related to the accomplishment and application of God’s redemption in time. Any comparisons on this score, however, are beyond the scope of this post.3

In what follows, I will quickly cover the historical-covenantal contours of Limborch’s theology as they appear in the Compleat System, Book 3, starting with his discussion of the relationship between Adam and his Creator in the garden, then moving on to the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, and ending with the new covenant of Christ Jesus. It is worth mentioning at the outset that as a Dutch theologian, Limborch, by the time of his appointment in 1668 as professor of theology at the Remonstrant seminary in Amsterdam, had inherited a robust, if not one-sided, federal-covenantal theological tradition (whether scholastic or narratival), one in which he could find many examples that were to his mind worth challenging (e.g., Gomarus, Trelcatius, Cloppenburg, or Cocceius).

Before the specific chapters that deal with the history of redemption, Limborch remarks in passing during his discussion on providence that God’s first act of governance is “legislation, or making a law, whereby God prescribes bounds to the will of man” (157), without which humans would will unrestrained to their detriment. There is a history to this legislation, as Limborch notes (158):
This law was prescribed to man at the very creation: And tho afterwards the more especial revelations of the divine will were made to Abraham and his posterity, and a particular law enacted upon promises and threatnings was given to the Jews by the hands of Moses; yet still the rest of mankind had the law of nature written in their hearts, to inform them of the difference between good and evil. But the most perfect law which God prescribed to mankind, was that which he made by his Son Jesus Christ.
Here we see a glimpse of Limborch’s entire system as it relates to the unfurling covenantal narrative of Scripture: humanity was (and is) endowed with a law of nature, and then along came the more revealing covenants of Abraham and Moses, all of which culminate in “the most perfect law” of the new covenant.4 For Limborch, there is no entertaining the idea that a covenant can be unilateral or unconditional; it is, by definition, a pact—what God promises to another party if she carries out the conditions of that covenant (bilateral and contractual). With respect to prelapsarian man, God did not make a covenant in any federal sense with Adam (e.g., 187, 197–98). Rather, he was endowed with natural law, an innate knowledge of his creator’s will, and on that basis was given one positive command, with only a threat attached to it (and thus no covenant).

As a result of Adam’s fall, humanity lost this actual knowledge of the divine will, being born with a tabula rasa (144); nevertheless, God still left them the “light of right reason, whereby to discern betwixt good and evil” (210). Even those who exist outside of God’s later covenants are still potentially included in the prospect of eternal life because of this residual law of nature (219).5

Upon the arrival of Abraham on the scene, we begin to see God engaging humanity in terms of covenant, clearer than natural law in its precepts, promises, and curses. The Mosaic covenant (though temporary and for Israel alone) was simply a greater and sharper revelation than the Abrahamic. Both were conditional, and both promised blessing and threatened condemnation (temporal and spiritual) based squarely on obedience or disobedience. As with natural law, so too were those living under the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, for the sake of Christ (whose future sacrifice permits a less demanding application of the law to humanity), justified on the condition of sincere obedience to the precepts under (not by) which they lived (214–15, 229–30). But in the end, natural religion and the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants show themselves to be ineffectual in restoring humanity and delivering them from sin and death (e.g., 230–31). Only the new covenant mediated by Jesus Christ accomplishes this.

In short, Limborch argues that the gospel of the new covenant in Christ Jesus is a new law—but of faith not works (298–99). Like the previous covenants, the new covenant also promises salvation depending on one’s meeting the covenantal stipulations; but now, however, the demands are easier to meet because of the appeasement of the Son (via perfect obedience) to his Father (195). God has decided in his mercy and because of the Messiah’s work to accept imperfect faithful obedience for righteousness rather than perfect law-keeping. To be sure, such faithful obedience finds acceptance through grace, but the legal principle remains, albeit less strict and applied with less rigor (270–71; see also 5.74.7). The new covenant, in other words, is little more than a relaxed old covenant, a little less law and a lot more grace.




1 There’s a similar battle among the Reformed, couched in terms of “Calvin vs. the Calvinists,” that has raged for a few centuries. With the publication of R.T. Kendall’s Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (OUP, 1979) and Paul Helm’s response, Calvin & the Calvinists (Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), the debate received renewed popular attention, and has shown little signs of going away (even if with finality debunked through the ongoing work of Richard Muller, the sentiment is nevertheless sticking around).

2 See Compleat System 4.1, pp. 343–44. Earlier in the treatise, Limborch takes umbrage with the ordo decretorum as delineated by theologians who most raise his ire—all forms of unconditional election that tell us “God by one, single act of his will has at once decreed all things, and that there is no prius or posterius in the divine decrees.” But they are also those who posit—in response to Limborch’s doctrine of conditional predestination—that God has necessarily decreed salvation “prior to his foreseeing their faith and obedience” (118). Instead of belaboring the problems he sees with such thinking at this point, he decides to move on from this “nice subject” (119). Note that nice in its seventeenth-century context could have meant “foolish, stupid, or senseless” just as much as “precise, careful, or agreeable.”

All quotations are taken from Philip Limborch, A Compleat System, or, Body of Divinity, both Speculative and Practical, founded on Scripture and Reason (London: William Jones, 1702). Subsequent citations will be noted in parentheses in the text.

3 A good place to start on some of those differences is with Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (IVP Academic, 2006). A more exhaustive (but perhaps overstated) treatment can be found in John Mark Hicks, “The Theology of Grace in the Thought of Jacobus Arminius and Philip van Limborch: A Study in the Development of Seventeenth Century Dutch Arminianism,” PhD diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1985.

4 This could be little more than what the pre-Reformation church had taught for some time with respect to the history of redemption: the triplex model of natural law, old law, new law. See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiœ I–II.91.2, 5. At the very least, it is in opposition to the “decretal” and bi-covenantal perspective of the federal theologians.

5 The imago Dei, however, remains intact, because for Limborch, that image only consists in the “power and dominion which God has given to man over all the works of his hands” (2.7.6, p. 142). Traditionally (at the time, at least), the image of God was defined in terms of faculties and nature of the soul (reason, emotions, etc).


18 October 2013

When Teleology Trumps Soteriology

I delivered this rant a few weeks ago in a doctoral seminar I'm taking from Tom McCall (co-author of Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace). It's basically a riff on Newbigin's doctrine of election and how it completely subverts the ordo decretorum (logical order of God's decrees) debates of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries between supras, infras, conditional infras, etc., etc. Due to the required length of the paper, I had to leave a whole lot of thoughts on the floor, so it definitely runs the risk of presenting a lopsided view of the matter. I also focus criticisms on Arminian arguments because, well, it's a seminar on that very subject.
 

The Logical Order of Things About Which We Know Next to Nothing

Mercutio: I am hurt.                             
A plague a’ both your houses! I am sped.
Romeo and Juliet, 3.1.86–871

The church has been hurt, indeed, “sped” throughout the years whenever she finds herself caught in the crossfire of battles over the logical order of things about which we know next to nothing. This is not to suggest that one view with respect to the ordo decretorum is as good as any other; some truly do, however inadvertently, commit blasphemy: some “logical” orders make God the author of sin, while others make man the author of himself.

Nevertheless, the church suffers every time its leaders and laypersons obsess over the reasons for an individual’s election by probing backwards toward the secret counsel of God instead of pressing forward from one’s election (in both individual and corporate terms) to the purpose of that election.2 This obsession most notably plagued the Reformed churches in the late sixteenth century and well into the seventeenth century. The Arminian and Remonstrant response, unfortunately, faired little better, precisely because they too shared in their compatriot’s assumptions regarding the final destiny of individuals flowing from decrees made in eternity “past.” Despite the appropriate Arminian allergic reaction to certain Reformed articulations of election that lead to churches thinking of themselves as exclusive beneficiaries of God’s saving love, the biblical fact and fundamental truth of election is that it is made according to God’s sovereign and unconditional choice. Keeping the center of the doctrine of election away from any consigning of individuals to either eternal life or death ought to remove the edges with which it is unnecessarily laden. In so doing, we can see the highly speculative and unedifying nature of the ordo decretorum for what it is, a less-than-robust expression of the purpose of election itself—expressions that Arminians and Remonstrants only recapitulated in their protests.

Taking my cue from St. Thomas, as many others often have, election appears to be primarily teleological—it is all about where we are sent, rather than from where we have come. And by invoking destiny, I do not mean so much individual or corporate salvation as individual and corporate purpose, not so much related to the salvific outcome of absolute decrees among the Godhead as to the purpose for which those decrees were made: Like an arrow directed by the archer towards its mark, the movement of predestination “gets its specific character from what it is a motion to, not a motion from.”3 And it is with that motion to in mind that the mission of God in the election of his people becomes most robustly realized. When members of Christ’s church consider their election as a calling to die to self for the salvation of the world, not as God’s way simply to secure for himself an elite group of chosen individuals, or as a pronouncement upon people he foresees who employ grace just enough to work out their salvation to the end of their lives, the pastoral objections (that the Reformed ordo causes despair or presumption) to God’s sovereign choice in election fall away. In other words, properly emphasizing the individual and corporate teleology, rather than the individual soteriology, of election renders both the Reformed and Remonstrant ordo constructions moot.

When looked at in this way, arguments over whether God elects unbelievers and predestines them to become believers or whether he elects foreseen believers and predestines them to become his children are out of place. This is not to deny a cause or basis of God’s election, because, as stated above, it is biblically obvious that election stems from the elector’s good pleasure. Yet this need not make the Arminian interlocutor anxious, as if her argument that the cause of God’s election instead centers on the free will act of an individual fulfilling the conditions of salvation suffers from incoherence. If the purpose of election was primarily the salvific destiny of individuals, then the Arminian rebuttal to the majority of Reformed expressions merits serious attention. That is to say, in the context of early seventeenth-century debates revolving around the ordo decretorum, Arminius’ opposition to deterministic supra- and infralapsarianism was raised for all the right reasons.

Still, relegating predestination merely to a function of divine foreknowledge is less than satisfactory. Whatever else can be said of the differences between Arminius and subsequent generations of seventeenth-century Remonstrants on redemption, there’s no difference among them on the subordination of God’s decree to predestinate and reprobate certain individuals to his foreseeing their completion or rejection of salvation’s conditions. If, again, the ordo decretorum primarily has to do with how an individual comes to be elected rather than the missiological why that individual was elected, then the Arminian construction finds itself rightly critiqued for reviving something akin to late medieval works-righteousness—perhaps worse, depending on how anemic its ecclesiology is.4

Thus, the Remonstrant critique could be seen as a recapitulation of the covenantal nomism that Saint Paul challenged so long ago. Arminius’ confession that he “ascribes to God’s grace the origin, the continuance, and the fulfillment of all good”5 may excuse him from the sharpest points of this criticism, but it may also be that his remonstration lead to the unintended consequence of making too much of human performance as a condition of God’s mercy. E. P. Sanders’ summary of second-temple Judaism as “getting in by grace, staying in by obedience”6 parallels in significant ways the Remonstrant view that any move toward God is by (prevenient) grace alone while increase in grace and final justification depends ultimately on human cooperation. Not even the most strident Remonstrant has argued that one can be saved by works alone, as human works are not seen to be meritorious in and of themselves (and thus always insufficient to gain God's forgiveness). Yet according to the Remonstrants in particular, in God’s new covenant in Christ Jesus, he promises to accept as righteousness the believer’s obedience of faith. The implication is that the law we humans have always transgressed has been softened to the point that people who make good use of grace can now do it and live, provided they continue to perform.7 What is this if not the principle of “getting in by grace, and staying in by obedience”? But this is the very principle that the apostle opposed when he wrote, “You began by God’s Spirit; do you now want to finish by your own power?” (Gal 3:3). If indeed the gospel is a new law, then Augustine’s prayer to a sovereignly electing God to “grant what you command, and command what you will” becomes ever the more necessary.8

In short, the debates revolving around the ordo decretorum simply miss the point. What God commands, and what he grants to that end, is encapsulated most succinctly in the motion to of the Great Commission. Herein lies the purpose of election, the telos of which the church forgets at her peril. Lesslie Newbigin summed it up best:
And we can also see that wherever the missionary character of the doctrine of election is forgotten; wherever it is forgotten that we are chosen in order to be sent; . . . wherever men think that the purpose of election is their own salvation rather than the salvation of the world; then God’s people have betrayed their trust.9
The salvation of the world with which the elect of God have been entrusted, the called-out ones commissioned to enact God’s kingdom will on earth as it is in heaven, must leave this old debate in the old books where it belongs if it will ever get down to doing its “best to make [the day of God] come soon . . . where righteousness will be at home” (2 Peter 3:12–13).



1 From The Yale Shakespeare (Barnes & Noble Books, 1993), 918.
2 St. Augustine’s warning comes to mind: “Wherefore he draws this one and not that one, seek not to decide if you wish not to err.” From Tractates on the Gospel of John, 26.2 (NPNF1 7).
3 Thomas Aquinas, ST, I, Q. 23, Art. 1, Reply Obj. 3. Quoted from Summa Theologica, “God’s Will and Providence” (1a. 19–26), eds. Thomas Gilby and T. C. O’Brien, Blackfriars, vol. 5 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), 111. See also Thomas’ ordo in Art. 4: particular love→election→predestination. “Therefore all the predestined are picked loved ones” (121). God creates the lovely through his electing love; it’s in no way based on the created’s loveliness (cf. Art. 5).
4 It's beyond the scope of this post to defend this here, but suffice to say that where baptism and the Eucharist are largely removed from the equation of election, the theologian is left to over-emphasize—and thus truncate—the means ordained in Scripture by God to actualize his elect.
5 W. Stephen Gunter, Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary (Baylor University Press, 2012), 141.
6 E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 93, 178, 371.
7 See, e.g., John Mark Hicks, “The Theology of Grace in the Thought of Jacobus Arminius and Philip van Limborch: A Study in the Development of Seventeenth Century Dutch Arminianism” (PhD diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1985), 103–11, esp. at 110. See also Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (OUP, 2013), 167–68.
8 Saint Augustine, Confessions, X.xxix (40), trans. Henry Chadwick (OUP, 1998), 202. It may be that the historic triplex model of natural law→old law→new law best encapsulates the covenantal framework of God’s redemptive plan, but I do not concede that the necessary grace required to fulfill that new law has been imparted indiscriminately. Even the Remonstrant Limborch confessed as much when he wrote that while God’s general decree of salvation and damnation is not unclear, the other special decree regarding the means thereunto is mysterious, “upon the account of that disproportion wherein God is pleas’d to communicate the means of salvation to men. For he does not bestow an equal share of grace every where at all times and upon all men.” This depends “on the mere good pleasure of God,” and is unsearchable. Quoted from A Compleat System, or, Body of Divinity, both Speculative and Practical, Founded on Scripture and Reason (London: William Jones, 1702), 347.
9 Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God (Wipf & Stock, 2008), 55.



 
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