Ensuring a proper understanding of Reformed prolegomena

I get many Anchorites annoyed when I tell them that some generic essay against mainstream Baptist culture does not count as a “Refutation of Reformed Theology.”   I then tell them to read Turretin and Muller.  They get really annoyed.  I then told them that Bradley Nassif recommended Muller (LOL).  I got the hint to leave.   I decided, not only for their sakes but also for anyone else who is interested.  Here is a brief collection of talks (and later essays) by men who are world-renowned authorities on Reformed scholasticism.   Most of these talks are reasonably short (fewer than 45 minutes, which is a lot better than my slugging through an hour and a half Carlton lecture on the energies with bad sound recording) and Muller is a very gifted speaker.

Recovering the Past.

Was Calvin a Calvinist?  (Please listen to this first and stop with silly terms like “Calvinism.”   Calvin was actually a younger Reformer and deferred to Bucer and Vermigli.  Is it fair, or even rational, to call the latter two “Calvinists?”)

Calvin on Assurance.

Jonathan Edward’s Break with the Reformed Tradition.  This helps you understand the difference between the types of necessity and how facile it is to say “Reformed don’t believe in free will!”

The Offensive God

Taking my cue from Robert Jenson’s “The Offense of God’s Actuality,” America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards. (I am not actually summarizing Jenson’s points, just taking my cue from him)

The debate on predestination versus my efficient causing of my salvation (synergism) needs to be looked at in a different light.  It seems mean that God would create people having never given them a chance for salvation, which it seems the Reformed position is saying. It is a hard draught.  However, granting that point and even considering the semi-Pelagian alternative, is it really any better?  We get to choose to save ourselves now.  Fair enough.  Is it likely that everybody will exercise his free will to save himself?  Not likely.  And even granting free will, we still have the problem of the MauMau and Hottentot who is worshiping jungle idols.  While he has the chance to exercise his free will, the likelihood of his doing that unto salvation is remote.

So what’s the problem?  Even on the Arminian gloss, we still have a god creating a universe in which most people, while having the option of saving themselves, probably will never get around to it (they never hear the gospel, or whatever).  To make it even worse, God knowingly created a world where the majority goes to hell.  How exactly is this preferable to the Calvinist option?  It’s worse, actually.  The Calvinist god might be mean, but this one is derelict at duty.

But let’s leave all that aside.  It is too metaphysical a speculation.    Let’s get down to the point: the “offense” of God is that he chose to act without our permission.

He was met with much of the Spirit of God

That line was originally from Maurice Grant’s biography of Richard Cameron.   I was reminded of it when reading Murray’s bio of Lloyd-Jones.  It was the summer of 1949 and Murray describes MLJ as going through “a complete agony of soul” (208).  MLJ even went so far to say he “was deeply conscious of the devil’s presence in his room” and felt “a sense of evil in the room.”

Then God ministered to him upon his seeing a page of [A.W.] Pink and the word “glory–instandly, ‘like a blaze of light,’ he felt the very glory of God surround him…The love of God was ‘shed abroad in his heart.’ The nearness of heaven and his own title to it became overwhelming certainties and, at once, he was brought into a state of ecstasy and joy which remained with him several days

MLJ goes on to describe similar experiences of the Puritans:

William Guthrie:  It is a thing better felt than spoke of. It is no audible voice, but it is a ray of glory filling the soul with God.”

Thomas Goodwin:  “There is light that cometh and over-powereth a man’s soul and assureth him that God is his, and he is God’s.”

Robert Bruce: “No sooner had a leapt upon my horse but the gates of heaven were cast open to me.”

Similar experiences are recorded by John Flavel and Christmas Evans.   Jack Deere asserts, though he admits he could not find documentation, that Lloyd-Jones’ The Puritans documents how Sarah Edwards was “transported across the room.”  I am currently looking for that documentation.  If it exists, it would be in Edwards’ works on revival.  It is  documented, however, that Sarah “lay prostrate for 19 days.”  The problem with the “transportation” claim is that sceptics like Perry Miller would have had a field day with it, and yet I don’t recall Miller making much of it (but then again, Edwards historiography has come a long way since Miller).

Jonathan Edwards and the Metaphysics of sin

Crisp advances Edwardsian discussion and clarifies a number of key points that are often overlooked by some pietistic or literary readings of Edwards.  He argues that Edwards (hereafter JE) doctrine of sin is internally coherent but sometimes externally inconsistent with some venues of Reformed theology.  This isn’t anything new since Dabney and Hodge said the same thing about JE.

Concerning the divine decrees Crisp argues that JE was a supralapsarian w/regard to the elect, but infralap w/regard to the reprobate.   Crisp says this formulation won’t do given Edwards use of ultimate and last ends.

Further complicating Edwards’ doctrine of sin is his commitment to philosophical occasionalism, the view that God is the sole causal agent of creation at each moment (even leading to the extreme implication that God re-creates at each instant).  While this helps JE on the imputation of Adam’s sin, it does make God the direct author of evil.  Older Reformed theology wisely made the distinction between proximate and ultimate causes, assigning to God the latter.  W/regard to Edwards there is no distinction since they are one and the same.

We see his occasionalism again in his doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin.  Far from being a legal fiction, on JE’s account imputation is very real:  Adam and his posterity share the exact same identity since they both constitute the same identity in the mind of God (I think Crisp calls this view “Perdurantism.”  Perry Miller actually gives a better reading of Edwards on this point, but they both come to the same conclusion).  Unfortunately for JE, he can’t call this imputation.  There is no “other” to whom one can impute.

Crisp is not dismissive of JE’s attempts, though. He notes how JE sought to work through the most difficult aspects of Reformed theology with the best philosophical tools available.  While not always successful, he never opted for the easy, cliche answer (something all to common in institutions today).

My problem with the book, besides its sinfully hideous price (curse thee, University System), is that Crisp never seems to really deal with the rhetorical tu quoque force of JE’s counter-claim.  True, that’s technically a fallacy, but if the other side–Arminianism, or more specifically non-Calvinism–can’t offer an argument to get out of the same boat, or even worse, sinks the ship, then who are they to accuse JE?  Unless one is going to opt for an open theism route, it appears the critic of JE must explain that God created a world in which the majority will go to hell and there ain’t a thing God can do about it.  Not even vindicating God from the theodicy at hand, such a view ends up with an even weaker god!  As Samuel Rutherford jested, such a god can “only dance as free will pipeth.”  The negation of JE’s god, therefore, must explain why he limited his sovereignty in such a way that the majority of humanity suffers evil then rots in hell.  Crisp hints at such a rebuttal, but it takes him 30 pages to suggest it.

Jonathan Edwards on “Necessity”

Robin Phillips had posted some problems on Edwards’ view of necessity and evil.  It made a lot of people at Orthodox Bridge excited.  Phillips, contra what some may think, wasn’t actually attacking Edwards.  He was showing, on his gloss, that Edwards’ reasoning was headed in a dangerous place.  Fair enough, but I don’t think it was.  I think the questions Edwards raised were already there.

I understand Phillips (and the more knowledgeable Anchorite apologists) want to avoid placing God under “necessity,” since that seems to move closer to Origenism.  But what if necessity is being used in a slightly different sense?  What if the urge to avoid necessity leads one to accidentally posit an agnosticism in the knowledge and being of God (this is precisely what “Prometheus” challenged these guys with.  I don’t think anybody caught on to it.  Everyone replied to him along the lines of cut-and-paste quotations from Palamas that answered nothing).  I will try to expand upon these two points:

1. Necessity:  The pleasant pagan P. Miller explains, “Edwards, we must remember, did not take cause in the positivistic sense of that which determines the effect, but rather as that which is necessarily and aesthetically antecedent” (Miller 257).  More could be said, but I think I have demonstrated that Edwards cannot be pinned as a necessitarian in either the Origenist or mechanistic sense

2.  Necessity anyway:  regardless of how uncomfortable it makes us, any Christian who refuses to embrace open theism has to face the problem: sin has happened.  Did God know that?  Is God’s knowledge of future contingencies real?  If not, you need to abandon omniscience (and probably omnipotence).  If yes, then we have another question:  if God knew it was going to happen, then that means it was going to happen.

Sidenote:  most of the NT talk of the second person of the Trinity rarely deals with the high Christology like Logos asarkos.  Rather, it speaks of the Son who was always-destined-for-Incarnation.

On why Perry Miller wanted Jonathan Edwards to be John Locke

Regarding Miller’s landmark study on John Locke Jonathan Edwards…

Miller, Perry.  Jonathan Edwards.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1949 [2005].

The late John Gerstner described this book as one of the most important books written on Jonathan Edwards.  And when he said this in the 1960s, he was correct.  Edwards studies has exploded since then.  One must be careful of being too critical of Miller’s work.  When he wrote this few academics took the Puritans or Jonathan Edwards seriously.   Now we have almost a glut of material.   For all of Miller’s faults, he did the the project started.

Miller offers two keys to interpreting Edwards’ life and thought:  the philosophy of John Locke and the internecine politics of New England.   To phrase it more precisely:  Jonathan Edwards’ use of John Locke was a focused and indirect attack on the soon-to-be-labeled “Old Lights” in New England (pp. 3-35).  This is (allegedly) seen in Edwards’ early sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” from which we understand that the senses in themselves do not deceive (45, emphasis added).  This is very important for Miller’s reading of Edwards’ reading of Lock, for this is how Miller will interpret Edwards’ work The Religious Affections.  In short, Miller reads Edwards as saying “God does not impart religious truth outside sensory experience” (55).

No doubt Edwards was enthralled with John Locke early on.  Further, Miller does cogently argue that Edwards’ use of Locke allowed him to formulate his ideas the way he did.  However, few of Edwards’ modern interpreters have placed the same level of importance on Locke as Miller did.  George Marsden suggests, pace Miller, that Edwards, like any respectable New England thinker of his day, tried to keep apace of modern intellectual currents and this meant reading men like John Locke (Marsden, 60ff).

Nonetheless, there are aspects of John Locke’s thought that did leave a permanent impression on Edwards.  Miller asserts, “Metaphysically, this led to the immense conclusion that the entire universe exists in the divine idea” (Miller, 63).  Indeed, Edwards will further develop this idea in his defense of Original Sin, arguing that in the realm of the mind all of humanity, like an atom, is a single concept (278).  Miller suggests it but doesn’t develop the conclusions:  Edwards had implicitly rejected the older substance-ontologies for an ontology based on mind and atom.

Divine Causality

Edwards understands “cause” to mean “a sequence of phenomena, with the inner connection of cause and effect still mysterious and terrifying” (79).  Cause, for Edwards, is not simply that which determines an effect.  Rather, it is that which is “necessarily antecedent” (257).  The first premise in the argument against free will:  perception is not the import of an object, for the object is without significance, but the object as seen, the manner of view, and the state of mind that views. Miller adds another premise to clinch the argument:  just as the will follows perception’s view of things, rather than the things themselves, so the will lies within the tissue of nature and is caused by something external to it (257).

Against Modernity

Miller sees Edwards as an enlightened critic of modernity, and he places Edwards within a larger anti-modern narrative.   In discussing the implications of a Lockean-Newtonian worldview, Miller notes that the “science” of modernity cannot answer the basic questions upon which it is founded:  if atoms are so hard that they never break, how small is the smallest atom (83)?  Said another way:  if atoms are the fundamentally smallest entity in the world, of which all other entities consist, and that is all reality is, then what holds the atoms together?  Is that which holds atoms together also made up of atoms?  And so the questions could go on.   The important point, though, is that the aforementioned questions represent a fatal weakness in modern Scientism.   Scientism of its day could not answer one basic question:  what holds the atoms together?  Miller has a simple answer:  magic (83).   Unfortunately, Miller does not pursue this.  Many of the Enlightenment thinkers were deeply involved in the occult and Miller could have had a field day exploring this.

Now, I like beating up unbelieving science as much as the next guy, but this picture has largely eclipsed Jonathan Edwards.  Yes, Edwards would have been aware of this discussion.  Further, Edwards would have been a critic of modernity, but as Marsden notes elsewhere, this isn’t the heart of Edwards, and Miller has wasted a lot of time shadow-boxing dead Englishmen.

The Religious Affections

This is the weakest and most frustrating part of Miller’s narrative.  Miller is insistent that Edwards be read according to Locke’s dictum that what we can know, we can know from sense experience.  During the Great Awakening, so the argument goes, many people had “visible signs” of something at work.  Miller, being a pagan, has no understanding of the Holy Spirit, and can only see external effects.   Missing this key fact, virtually everything he says about Edwards from this point on is painfully incorrect.  The reader is encouraged to consult Iain Murray’s biography on this point.

Conclusion: Pros and Cons

Like any work by Perry Miller, the prose is a delight to read.  Unfortunately, that is why the book is misleading.  Much of Miller’s scholarship on Puritanism has since been refuted.  The Puritans didn’t invent the idea of “covenant” to soften a mean God.   To the degree this might have been the case in New England owes more to the structurally flawed nature of Congregationalism and the Half-way covenant than it does to Reformed theology.   And to the extent that Miller captures on key ideas in Edwards, he tends to overplay minor issues and miss major points.   Further complicating things is that none of Miller’s quotations of Edwards point the reader to specific works.  Perhaps accessible editions of Edwards’ corpus weren’t available then (it’s amazing to think of how much good Banner of Truth Trust has done the world on this point).

On the other hand, when it comes to Edwards’ major doctrines Miller summarizes Edwards quite well, and for what it’s worth, cuts off Arminianism at the knees.  Should you read this book?  I suppose.  Any major work on Edwards should consult Marsden first, then Murray, and lastly Miller.

Summary of Edwards on Free Will

This is taken from Perry Miller’s exposition.  I will place letters (a, b…z) throughout the paragraph to better order the argument.  They are not original to Miller.

If the will determines its own act [per Arminianism], there must always be a will before the act.  Each act must be preceded by an act of the will, and that by another, and so on, ad infinitum, until we come to the theoretical first act; if this is determined by a still previous act of the will, we take up the march again, but if we call a halt, (a) and this act is first, we have an act that flows from no volition, which is just simply an act, (b) arbitrarily given, which cannot be the selection of a free will (p. 259).

Edwards’/Miller’s argument is interesting on several levels.  He highlights that a rejection of Calvinism actually brings the denier to the very stereotype of Calvinism that he so strenuously avoided.  If we accept the premise that every act flows from a will, then we are either left with an infinite series, which does us no good because we are not infinite and can never get to the beginning, or (a), which appears to be the stereotype of Calvinism.   However, (a), divorced from a Calvinist system, leads to chaos, given (b).  At this point, man is both chaoticallly free and a robot.   Edwards neatly anticipated existentialism and reduced his opponents to this absurdity.