A simple definition of the Federal Vision

I just received Richard A. Muller’s God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius today.   I read several of Muller’s articles on Arminius earlier this spring and I couldn’t help noticing parallels between Arminius and the Federal Vision.  I’ve just realized what the Federal Vision is in a nutshell:   It is Arminianism minus all of the former’s strengths in scholastic theology.  This brings to mind Barth’s famous (and true, if not always lived out) dictum, “The fear of scholasticism is the mark of a false prophet.”   When you read the Federal Vision and Biblical Horizon guys, you will get the impression (if usually not stated so openly) that they are not chained by old Reformed categories and just do the bible (I actually remember hearing James B. Jordan preach a sermon to that effect at Auburn Avenue.  Don’t ask me what I was doing there). 

In other words, on their gloss scholasticism is a bad thing.   It is simply another version of the neo-Orthodox Calvin vs. the Calvinists narrative.  One finds this particularly among post-van tillians (though Van Til was too smart to say this.  He had read the earlier Berkhof on these points).

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Freedom and concurrence

Concourse and concurrence:  When God and man’s will overlap. The question is how may we best explain man having liberty while being under the control of God’s providence.

Aquinas: second causes are predetermined by God; When the free will moves itself, this does not exclude its being moved by another, from whom it receives the very power to move itself (ST, 1, Q. 83, Art. 1)

  1. God gives second causes the strength and faculty to act
  2. God keeps and sustains them in being and vigor.
  3. He excites and applies second causes to acting
  4. He determines them to acting
  5. he rules them to accomplish the ends.

The Protestant Orthodox is particularly the last of these (Turretin, I: 502).  God does not compel rational creatures to act by a physical necessity, he only effects this–that they act both consistently with themselves and with their own natures (508).  This necessity is one of consequence–it secures the action and result of a cause.   It is necessary according to the eternal premotion of God, but it is spontaneous according to the mode of acting (509).  The premotion does not take away the mode proper to the nature of things.  For example, the harp player is the cause of music, but not of the dissonance plucked from the strings.  Quoting Alvarez, “It does not follow that God is the cause of sin because he determines to the act; because the deformity follows the act, not as in the genus of nature, but as it is in the genus of morals and as it is caused by the free will (510).

Relating the concourse of God and the free will of man

  1. The concourse of providence and the human will is not of collateral and equal causes, but of unequal and subordinate (512).   This follows on anyone’s gloss since God is by definition the First Cause.
  2. God moves secondary causes according to their nature and mode.  Thus, it is necessary according to the source (as coming from the First Cause), but free as to the mode.
  3. Absolute liberty belongs to God; dependent liberty belongs to the creature.

The hypocrisy of religion in non-establishment commonwealths

It’s easy to point out the failures of state-churches (see Anglican England or Lutheran Germany), but does the non-establishment of religion necessarily lead to healthier religious communities within a commonwealth?  It does not necessarily follow that it does.  If you go to the average Baptist church, how many Masonic insignia will you see in the parking lot?   How truly “reformed” (and I use that in the broadest and not theological sense) are the people?  Is the church really that healthy?  Forget the numbers for the moment.  How many truly know the rudiments of Christian doctrine?  It’s easy to make fun of nominal churchgoers in state church England for ignorance in the faith, but is it really that different in voluntarist Baptist America?

The only good argument for a non-established religion is that without government funding, it must use all of its skill and stewardship to survive.   I don’t like Libertarianism, but this is one of the strongest arguments for the Market:  government money, at least in America, is kryptonite.  It kills everything it touches.

But that raises another problem:  the Word of Faith church down the street is not government-funded, is booming, and is apparently a good steward of resources. Yet we know that it is not a true church (and I don’t mean that in a mean way.  I am taking the Belgic Confession’s definition of a true church–pure preaching of gospel, right administration of sacraments, and church discipline).  So the stewardship line is not sufficient.

I acknowledge that the Reformed have always taught that the civil magistrate protects the true religion, and if the Reformed reasoning on the Ten Commandments is correct (meaning, positive injunctions along with negative prohibitions), then the civil magistrate must take a positive role to maintaining the true church.  Of course, this means that any Reformed view of natural law is necessarily theocratic.  It is inconsistent for people to hold to natural law, and understand it as binding on all men, and understanding that the magistrate must rule by natural law (as follows from the previous point), along with the Reformed understanding that natural law is the ten commandments, yet to deny that the magistrate can enforce all of the ten commandments.   Further, if the positive injunctions follow, as seems reasonable, then this gives the magistrate a positive duty.

But does this mean a state denomination?  Here is where the line gets tricky.  In earlier generations the answer was yes, but even then the idea of denominations was not fully developed.  I for one see no practical difference between the URC and the OPC, with perhaps some exceptions on instruments in worship.   Would it not be better to say the magistrate enforces the Reformed religion, as opposed to a Reformed denomination?

It seems to reason, therefore, at the least, that the magistrate must take a positive role in religion, if the natural law view of the ten commandments is correct.

Towards a definite atonement theology

From a friend of mine on goodreads

 

  • Connection between High Priest’s role and Day of Atonement
  • Sacrifices were made for covenant members
  • Sacrifices were always made with intercession.
  • Jesus specifically said he wasn’t interceding for all.
  • If Jesus died for you, he is your high priest.

The problem with simply reading Calvin…

Most do not realize that John Calvin’s Institutes, while a fine read, were originally meant for beginners in the ministry.  It is merely a guidebook for young pastors navigating through Scripture.  Yes, Calvin made important breakthroughs in epistemology and political theory, but even as incisive and advanced as they are, they are still elementary and surface-level.  This raises a problem with those who “convert” out of the Reformed faith to some other tradition.  Does simply reading Calvin make you an expert on the pros and cons of Reformed theology (this assumes that the interlocutor has even read through the Institutes; I know for a fact that this is rarely the case)?

One might reply, “Surely you can’t expect everyone to read everything before making a life-changing, heaven-and-hell decision?”   True, I don’t expect Aunt Lula May to read through all of Reformed scholasticism before evaluating whether the Reformed faith is true.   But admittedly, Aunt Lula May doesn’t consider herself an apologist and theologian. She doesn’t spend all day on the internet picking fights on blogs (and I rarely comment on other blogs myself).  She is held to a different standard.  For the convertskii who begins to attack Reformed theology, I do hold him to a different standard. It’s only fair.  If someone wants to “convert” out of Reformed theology because he finds inner peace or whatever in another system, I have no comment. That’s between him and God.  Every man stands or falls before his own master.  But if someone posits that the Reformed faith is categorically wrong and begins to offer what he thinks are systemic reasons, then I expect him to have read the best Reformed faith has to offer.  Let’s begin:

  1. If Protestantism is simply nominalism ala Gabriel Biel, then how come Biel’s system of salvation is virtually identical with the congruent merit schemes of Rome?
  2. If Protestantism is simply nominalism, then how do we account for the fact that Vermigli and Bucer were Thomistic realists?
  3. Are you familiar with Muller’s thesis? Which Muller works have you read? 1/3 of these articles can be found online; another five can be found on EBSCO. This is an important point, for once I started reading Muller, I realized my entire narrative about Reformation theology was wrong.
  4. Have you read Turretin?   Turretin’s genius is in precisely identifying the question at stake.  I wager few people have read Turretin (part of the blame lies with the seminary system).  You don’t even have to read all three volumes. Just read volume 1.
  5. Briefly discuss Aristotle’s causality scheme and how the Reformed modified and utilized it on the question of justification.  Explain why that is important.
  6. What do the Reformed mean by principium essendi and principium cognoscendi?
  7. What is the distinction between necessity of consequence and the necessity of the consequent thing?
  8. (Advanced) If the Scotist view of synchronic contingency was used by the Reformed, which essentially admits a free will (of sorts), then how can the charge of mono-energism stick?

Essence/Energy distinction rebutted

An alternative reading of the so-called Western doctrine of God is the essence/energies distinction made famous by Gregory Palamas.  It posits that we cannot know God in his simple essence, but we can know him by his energies (or operations).  Hints of this doctrine are found in the Cappadocians and Maximos (though I deny they are saying exactly the same thing as Gregory).  The doctrine has an initial appeal.   Admittedly in our prayer lives, we do not pray to “essence itself,” but to the persons of the Trinity.   It also appears that we do know God by his actions towards us, and not by transcending to the essence.  So this means the distinction is correct, right?  If this is the only alternative to the Thomistic doctrine of absolute divine simplicity (e.g., person = relation =essence; person = essence!), then how can we avoid not assenting to it?

Some form of the doctrine might in fact be correct, but even when I was gung-ho for anchoretism, a number of questions kept coming up.

  1. Is it true that the Thomistic model of divine simplicity is the only choice for Western doctrines of God?  I simply deny this to be the case.  I think it is disputed that even Augustine held to a form of this.
  2. While it’s true that we know God by his actions toward us, can the “energies” model really account for all biblical data?   Even Orthodox theologians note this difficulty.   Vladimir Moss, in rebuttal to Fr John Romanides writes, “Do the Scriptures speak of our having an energetic relationship with God or a personal relationship with God?”
  3. It is true that God relates to us by our actions, but as Gunton notes (Act & Being), when Scripture uses these concepts it does so around terms like providence, Incarnation, and covenant.  When the fathers use these terms they usually mean the peri ton theon (things around the godhead) or the divine logoi (think eternal forms).

Technical critiques of the doctrine:

Orthodox philosopher David Bradshaw writes, ““Somehow by energeia Gregory and Basil would appear to understand both that which God is, and that which God performs. … Basil and Gregory in their turn revise Plotinus by rejecting the distinction of hypostasis between Intellect and the One.  For them the relevant distinction is rather that between God as he exists within himself and is known only to himself, and God as he manifests himself to others.  The former is the divine ousia, the latter the divine energies.  It is important to note that both are God, but differently conceived:  God as unknowable and as knowable, as wholly beyond us and as within our reach.”

In other words, God’s energies are ad extra, outside the Godhead.  They relate to creation.   This raises a troubling point, as Olivianus has noted, “if there were no creation would God’s nature be the same? On the Eastern view, no. On said view, in order for God to have the nature he does he must create. Thus creation is a necessity of nature.”  Remember, in some sense the “energies” are part of who God is.  All Christian traditions believe that God’s essence is stable and unchanging.  God would be God regardless of creation.  However, God’s energies only relate to creation (God’s manifesting himself to others).  So here we have a disjunction between God ad intra and God ad extra.  The only way out of his is to posit a necessary creation, which few traditional theologians are willing to do.

Addendum: Vladimir Moss’s extended critique:

Moss is one of the outlaw theologians of the Orthodox Church.  He is a Western convert to a catacomb branch of the Russian Orthodox Church.  (When the Moscow Patriarchate surrendered to the Bolsheviks, a number of Orthodox believers rightly resisted and went underground, forming denominations–I know they hate that word–like ROCOR and ROCA.  Most of these denominations have since rejoined the MP.  Moss’s has not).   Moss’s theological project is odd, but in many ways it is quite helpful.   He does not have rose-colored Tsarist-Holy Serbia glasses.  He honestly points out problems in current Orthodox theology, historiography, and practice.  His comments on topics like substitutionary atonement, theosis, and original sin are very helpful, surprisingly.

Fr John Romanides in some ways resurrected the theological project of Gregory Palamas. In his works one will note a strong antipathy towards anything Western:  substitution, original sin, AUGUSTINE, etc.  While Romanides has a clear manner of writing, it appears that he often overshoots his target.  While he makes many good points, his method precludes a number of valuable insights in Christian theology.  Moss realizes this and responds accordingly.  In its starkest form, the essence-energies distinction, most starkly represented by Romanides, adopts the Dionysian hyper-ousia (God is beyond being) of which we cannot know, but he reveals himself in his energies, which we can know.  The following are Moss’s glosses:

Romanides:  “ The relationship between God and man is not a personal relationship and it is also not a subject-object relationship. So when we speak about a personal relationship between God and man, we are making a mistake. That kind of relationship between God and human beings does not exist…The relations between God and man are not like the relations between fellow human beings. Why? Because we are not on the same level or in the same business with God.”

Moss: But God came down to our level in the Incarnation (this is precisely the same point Gunton makes against Dionysius).  What reason could Romanides have for denying that God is a Person(s) and that our relationship with Him is personal? The present writer can only speculate here, but the answer may lie in Romanides’ obsession with the distinction between the Essence and the Energies of God, according to which God is unknowable in His Essence, but knowable in His Essence. Now this is a valid and very important distinction, but Romanides abuses it as often as he uses it correctly. It would be an abuse, for example, to say that since God can only be known through His Energies, our relationship with Him can only be “energetic”, not personal. For Who is known through His Energies? Is it not the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – that is, the Persons of the Holy Trinity? So our relationship with God is both “energetic” and personal: we know the Persons of God through His Energies. For, as St. Paul says, God has “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God [His Energies] in the face of Jesus Christ [His Person]” (II Corinthians 4.6).

Romanides:  “No similarity whatsoever exists between the uncreated and the created, or between God and creation. This also means that no analogy, correlation, or comparison can be made between them. This implies that we cannot use created things as a means for knowing the uncreated God or His energy.”

Moss: But this immediately raises the objection: if there is no similarity whatsoever between God and His creation, why, when He created man, did He create Him in His “image and likeness”? And again: is not this likeness between God and man precisely the basis which makes possible the union between God and man, and man’s deification?

Bayou Huguenot:  This touches on the analogia entis, which most Protestants reject in its Romanist form.  I had never realized Moss’s point before. I offer a hearty amen.