16 February 2011

God, the Master of Puppets?

I became comfortable with the moniker "Reformed" when I read this article by Robert Rayburn. That was back in 1997. Now, 13 years later, if one were to admit this publically, not a few Reformed folk would look at that person askance, thinking, Blasted Federal Visionist!

But the point to notice here is that it was not—emphatically—the idea of God's sovereign election that got me there. Anybody can adhere to the idea that sovereign grace envelops salvation, that is, procures it from beginning to end (as many did prior to Calvin's incarn—er, birth). For example, I came to the conclusion that God was indeed utterly sovereign with respect to salvation back in college ('92–'97). Admittedly, I also had serious issues with the notion that God withheld that grace from some people. So I was contented to think, like James Relly and John Murray (no, not that one; see also the Trinitarian universalists), that God, in his sovereignty, would indeed draw all men to himself through and because of Christ alone, by the power of his Spirit.

I'm not contented to think that any longer, of course, save to hope that all would (not must!) be saved (รก la Balthasar). At any rate, it was baptism, specifically infant baptism and its relationship to God's covenant promises, that finally convinced me being called a Calvinist was okay. Since my journey, it seems, was not representative of a great many who consider themselves Calvinists (most often cite the so-called Five Points as the impetus for their "conversion"), this may explain why one particular aspect of that great Calvinist confession, Westminster, has always stuck in my craw. It's found in the very first sentence of chapter 3, section 1, "Of God's Eternal Decree":
God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.
It's important to note from the outset that what I mean by "stuck in my craw" is not "I don't believe it" flat out; it's more like "I think this is sketchy," and that's probably due to my own lack of understanding. I had always thought (when I was working through these things over fifteen years ago) that when we're talking about God's sovereignty we were talking about his work of salvation among the mass of perdition (i.e., the world). I came to find out, however, especially among converts to Calvinism, that it also had to do with "whatsoever came to pass." There are a few points worth considering, however, that come to light when looking at this clause more closely.

Out of the scripture proofs offered by the Westminster Assembly after this sentence, all of which, incidentallly, were written when the authors were discussing election, only Ephesians 1:11 speaks to the idea articulated in the above quote. You'll see in this passage that God is he who "works all things according to the counsel of his will." But even here the "all things" the apostle is thinking of has to do specifically with the plan revolving around his people (even more specifically, the first Christians, i.e., the Jews, in this context) and the goal to which he has guided their history: to live for the praise of his glory (v. 12). Yes, eternally. But, again, it has to do with the elect being claimed by God as his portion, not "whatsoever comes to pass," not whether my dog will live to see tomorrow, or my last batch of brew will produce a rich, creamy head.

And, in contradistinction to the Confession on this point, the emphasis is hardly on everything being ordained "from all eternity" but on God's salvific purposes in time (no doubt anchored in his eternal election, the sum total of his design)—the purposes of a personal God active in this world, working out his will in wisdom and grace. This has little to do with the idea that God's purposes are a kind of blueprint of history that automatically take place as the years and centuries pass by. Such a notion would reduce God to a puppetmaster. Absolutely, God's unconditional freedom is highlighted here; whatever he has planned and decided to do will certainly come to pass. But that's a little different than stating God has "ordained whatsoever comes to pass."

Robert Letham unpacks WCF 3.1 thus (and I paraphrase): In short, if something happens, it happens because God ordained that it happen. In the case of humans, the thing that happens is of their own choosing. In the case of natural events, the thing that happens is in accordance with the laws of nature. "In other words, God has so created the universe as to maintain its own contingent freedom within the scope of his unchangeable purpose" (p. 184). I find this most aggreable, and if that's all the Confession was intending to say when using the word ordained on this point, then simply forget this post.

No other Reformed confession, or Reformed consensus document, that I have found articulates the equivalent of WCF 3.1, sentence 1 (The Canons of Dordt, First Point, Article 6 comes closest, but, like number 1 above, it doesn't stand alone as an abstract doctrine unhinged from election). For those of you who say you have a high ecclesiology (i.e., are confessionalists), this ought to carry significant weight. Why did Westminster go the extra mile in this matter? What did they gain by it? What did they lose?

In the end, how this active ordaining on God's part totally clears him from the charges that the Westiminster divines were eager to clear him of, I'm not so sure. Immediately after the clause quoted above, they wrote:
. . . yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
These are exactly the things that are called into question when we suggest that God (actively) ordains whatsoever comes to pass; merely saying it doesn't is of little comfort. I know that for the majority of Reformed folks, God is no master of puppets, and for that I am grateful. I can, along with Westminster, freely confess Romans 11:33, but, contrary to Westminster, only in the context of St. Paul's discussion of God's sovereign election of the unjust to life in him.


Kevin Davis said...

I've been pondering these matters as of late. At Aberdeen, Professor John Webster sparked my interest in the topic, by teaching that the human will is entirely circumscribed by the divine will but in a non-competitive correlation (not, e.g., 40%/60%, rather 100% God / 100% man). I think Webster was getting this from Barth's discussion of omnicausality, against Arminianism, Molinism, and even causal-determinist Infralapsarianism. This way to articulate divine and human agency ("non-competitive omnicausality") seems to be congruent with the WCF 3.1 which you cite: "nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established."

Bobby Grow said...

I just have a problem with appealing to ideas like "secondary causation."

Chris, thanks for sharing a bit of your route to Calvinism; it's always interesting to hear.

Chris Donato said...

@Kevin—that's a good reminder of how we probably ought to read WCF 3.1. Thanks for that. I've never been one to give much thought to the philosophical dimensions of theology, much to my detriment, I'm sure.

@Bobby, thanks for indulging my diary-like entry here. I too share in your disdain, as it often seems like just a cover up, a sleight of hand. On the other hand, I have found the distinction useful, especially when it comes to discussing the relationship between God's creative activity and how life has developed on this earth . . .

Steve said...

Unlike most who seem to come by way of soteriology, the gateway for my becoming Reformed was ecclesiastical. Soteriology was close on its heels. I think you’re talking about providence (creation), as opposed to election (redemption). What little I know of it in my pre-Calvinist days was based upon a sort of collective caricature, and I understood Calvinism to be some for or other of determinism (i.e. puppet mastery). I, too, got hung up on the caricature until I understood that Calvinism was every bit as much about human responsibility as it was God’s sovereignty. The way I have come to describe it is that these two aspects disappear behind a big, black circle and I’ve no idea what happens behind it. Another comfort of Reformed piety is the contentedness with mystery and not having to explain everything to human satisfaction. Phew.

Being a high church Calvinist, I’m not sure if that answers your question, but there does seem to be as much comfort in the providential statement as there is in the doctrine of election: not a hair falls from my head without his ordination and nothing can pluck me from his hand. So maybe what was gained was creature comfort (the good kind, not the bad kind.) You say you have not found WCF 3.1’s equal; I’ll see your point and raise you HC Q/A1, which puts the matter much more eloquently and pastorally.

Chris Donato said...

Hey, Steve. I am indeed talking about providence here (God's actions in this world—apart from redemption—and how they relate man's, his relationship to time, etc.). I do appreciate the mystery of it all. Not sure Westminster, on this point, left much up to mystery, though.

Re: HC1, I'll concede. It does speak to the matter—and much more eloquently and pastorally too.

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