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!”

Barth, the Protestant Scholastics, and a critical appropriation

Last year I was very vocal on the importance of recovering the Protestant Scholastics for today.  Recently, however, many of my posts and much of my reading has seemed slightly pro-Barth.  Does this mean I have rejected the Scholastics and become a Barthian?  Of course not.  One should never reject a foundation (and correspondingly, it is doubtful Barth could provide one).  I remained convinced as ever that the lack of knowledge in Protestant scholasticism represents a gaping wound in Reformed discourse today (not least of all Reformed publishing).

Here is the problem: we live in a post-Kantian, post-Hegelian, post-Heideggerian world.  We have to meet people (epistemologically) where they are.  Barth can do this.  Barth’s strength lies in a philosophical awareness of where modernity was heading.  Barth can guide us in a philosophical critique while while we can simultaneously avoid his theology.   Even N.T. Wright admits that little of Barth’s exegesis has stood the test of time, so we have nothing to fear from that front.

Therefore, for those who can take it, Barth can guide us into a philosophical critique. What I mean by that is Barth does a very good job in clarifying challenges from and to modernity.  This does not mean we should endorse his theology, but neither does it mean we should hysterically over-react.  We live in an age where we can not simply chant platitudes.  This is most evident in my recent conversations on Orthodox Bridge. I try to get behind the discourse of “We have apostolic succession and the church fathers agree with us” and focus on actual logical arguments.  In fact, when I bring up Turretin and Muller, they get very annoyed.  They won’t touch these guys with a ten foot pole.

God, Creation, & Providence in Jacob Arminius

In this volume Richard Muller attempts to fill in a lacuna in the histories of Arminius and early Arminianism. Rather than focus on the debates of predestination, Muller notes that “[I]t must still be explained why Arminius’ doctrine developed along certain technical lines and with attention to such questions as the internal logic of the divine will, the character of human beings in their original created state, the relationship of the divine will, in its providential concurrence, to the acts of human beings, and the nature of the divine foreknowledge of future contingents (Muller, 10). Similar to Muller’s larger project (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics), he attempts to set Arminius in a larger historical context, one that explores the connections between late medieval scholasticism and a burgeoning Reformed orthodoxy (or lack thereof).

Despite what many saw as his later theological errors, Arminius correctly placed his theological roots “in the presuppositional structure and foundational principles of [the Protestant scholastic] system, which is to say, in the definition of theology and in the doctrine of God, the so-called principium essendi of theological system” (Muller, 25).

The Method of Arminius’ Theology

Arminius follows the general outline of both Catholic and Protestant scholastics. He is perhaps a bit more metaphysical in his doctrine of God. Muller notes, “Arminius appears far more willing than Protestants of previous generations to draw ratinal metaphysics into the service of theology: (59). One should be careful, however, in inferring that this is or is not the cause of his theological downfall, so to speak. Arminius’s use of the scholastic method, particularly his emphasis on God as the principium essendi, stands in line with Reformed scholasticism. However, Arminius did phrase his method in such a way to deemphasize final causality, and hence to lessen a decretal theology (68).

After identifying the being of God as the ground of theology, Arminius makes the relationship between God and the world the “fundamental datum…rather than, as in the case of his Reformed contemporaries, a secondary issue predicated on the doctrine of God” (75). Perhaps this does condition Arminius’ later theology; Muller notes, “the conditions established by God in the act of creation become determinative of all subsequent discussions concerning God and the world.” Arminius has made the world a “subordinate principium essendi.” (Cf. pp. 100-101; 171 ff.). As Muller notes elsewhere,

“Whereas the theology of Arminius’ Reformed contemporaries tended to place the work of grace prior to the work of creation and, therefore, to understand creation increasingly as a means to God’s higher salvific end, , Arminius’s theology tends to conjoin nature and grace, to understand creation as manifesting the ultimate goodness of God, and therefore, to conceive of the divine act of creation as standing prior to all other divine acts ad extra and as establishing both the context and limitations within which those acts must occur” (233).

The Existence and Nature of God

On the surface level Arminius begins with the standard scholastic prolegomena, archetypal and ectypal theology, but as he expands it when begin to see his departure from Reformed theology. Arminus notes that existence (esse) and life (vita) must be the two fundamental categories for the essence of God (114). Arminius’s key point is in identifying these two terms as the “two moments” of God. His language is a bit confusing, for he isn’t using the word “moments” in the conventional use of the term. What does he mean by this? A sympathetic reading could simply gloss these terms as the traditional terms actus purus and actus secondus. It appears for Arminius that “there is no first moment of being in God without the second moment, life” (116).

As it stands this is not all that striking. He is not saying anything different from other scholastic theologians, whether Protestant or Romanist. The problem arises when Arminius applies this distinction to God’s will. As Muller notes, “If God is utterly simple, then the fact of God having a will and the divine willing must be identical” (117). Arminius’s distinction of “two moments” will posit a gap between what God intends to will and what he actually wills.

The Divine Knowledge and Will

Arminius does make a unique move concerning God’s knowledge: he refers knowing entirely to the intellect and misses an established Reformed point on the knowledge of God: God’s sapientia (144). Given that sapientia is a knowledge of purposes and goals, and that Arminus omits it, one must wonder if this will play out in his understanding of divine foreknowledge. Arminius further departs from Aquinas by taking the Boethian model that God knows future things because they are future (Muller1991, 152-153; contrast with Aquinas, Summa, Ia, q. 14, art. 8, ad obj. 1). As Muller notes, “[T]his provides a less than total conjunction between the divine will and the divine intellect” (153).

This novelty leads directly into Arminius’s use of the scientia media. After a lengthy discussion of how Aquinas and those following him dealt with “middle knowledge” (e.g., the idea that this knowledge of contingencies stands prior to any free act of God’s will), this means that for Arminius “God will, therefore, be able to ordain the means of salvation on the basis of a hypothetical or consequent knowledge of the creature’s free choice in a context of grace” (161).

The Object of God’s will 

Arminius posited the divine goodness as the object of the divine will; this means that God could not have permitted evil, only permitting the free function of the created human will to evil. This raises one problem that Arminius easily solved: if the divine will is the simple essence, how can we speak of a multitude of objects? Arminius does so by noting that God wills the plenitude of his divine goodness. This raises another problem which he doesn’t solve as well, notes Muller: how do we then speak of “experience[s] of freedom, contingency, and, indeed, of evil running counter to the will of God, in the finite order” (175)?

Arminius makes another subtle move. Muller gives a brief but succinct summary of the ways in which Arminius discussed God’s will. At first glance it is no different from the typical Reformed and medieval scholastic discussions, except for one point. Muller notes, “Arminius emphasizes the way in which the divine opus alienum is a response to the willing of contingent beings—over against the opus proprium as an absolute will of God” (185). In short, and in contradistinction to his Reformed contemporaries, Arminius places God’s will (both antecedent and consequent) as standing in relation to and as a response to the creature’s willing (187). Interestingly, Arminius switches terms. Scholastics had tradtionally spoken of God’s will as voluntas, the facutly that exercises volition, which for God is always perfect and complete. Arminius changed it to velleitas, an inchoate and imperfect will, because incomplete (188).

Creation 

This section is admittedly difficult. Muller gives a fine overview of the scholastic glosses on creatio ex nihilo, noting that the phrase ex nihilo does not mean “deriving its origin from the principle of nothing-ness,” but rather “an indication of the ontological and temporal limit and order of the creative process: first there was nothing and, then, after the creative act, there was something (216). The following, however, is not clear as to what Arminius and his contemporaries were aiming at, but given Arminius’s earlier contention of a connection between God and the world, seeing both in a reacting towards the other (75, 100-101; 171), it appears that one can reconstruct Arminius’s view. It seems that the concept of the nihil, rather than functioning as a “limit,” now functions as a material substratum, a realm of possible being existing independently of the realm of actual being (219).

Conclusion:

Muller effectively rebuts the common charge that Arminius rejected the scholastic method of his Reformed colleagues and chose rather a purer biblicism that rejected supralapsarian predestination. Arminius followed the method of numerous divines and gave careful attention to complex theological problems (26). In light of current intra-Reformed controversies today over the nature of election and the covenant—and this is my point, not necessarily Muller’s—we can see those who argue for a fresher, more biblical theology in contrast to stodgy Protestant Scholasticism, not only come to the same conclusions as later Arminianism, but they lack all of Arminius’ own theological strengths; they get all of his errors and none of this benefits.

Arminius can be seen as a theologian who took some elements of Thomism and modifed them for his own use. As it stands that is not too remarkable. Most every early Reformed orthodox thinker did that. It is the specific modifications Arminius made that set him apart: the use of scientia media and creation as a temporal limit upon God’s power.

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).

Causation as a theological tool

The scholastics, both Protestants and Catholics, picked up Aristotle’s Four-fold causation, though the Protestants would make one key adaptation.  The example being used is that of wood and a tree.

  1. Material cause:  matter itself is a cause of change.  The wood itself is involved in the cause.
  2. formal cause:  The table is “imprinted” on the wood, so that the form is a cause of change of the matter.
  3. Final Cause:  The goal of the wood.  Potency thus becomes actuality (The Reformed would qualify this, though, for we note that not all potencies are actualized.  )
  4. The efficient cause:  the furniture maker.

The Reformed would add one more category:  the instrumental cause.  Van Asselt describes this as a subordinate efficient cause (40).  God is the efficient cause of all that takes place in reality, and in particular The Holy Scriptures (cf. Muller, PRRD II).  Yet humans are not merely passive in salvation (thus rebutting the monothelite charge), and thus human action is the causa instrumentalis of salvation. This distinction is of utmost importance.   If humans were the efficient cause, then they are causing their own salvation; thus the Reformed do not go beyond the causa instrumentalis.

This is seen in debates over Paul/James and Faith Alone.   I will say more of this when I deal with Maccovius’ use of categoremata and syncategoremata.  Suffice to say, if someone asks the Reformed Scholastic, “Do you believe in faith alone, contra James 2?” the answer is, “It depends on how the terms are being used.”   Do I believe in works-salvation?   If one is referring to final causality, then yes!  Ephesians 2:10 says we are created for (final cause) good works.   If one is referring to causa instrumentalis, then the answer is no.

Theonomy Files, no. 5: The After-Calvin Source Failure

One of the reasons theonomy failed as a movement, and this reason perhaps dovetails with why theonomy went Federal Vision and also failed to work out a coherent alternative, is that theonomists generally did not read the Protestant Scholastic sources carefully, to the degree they read them at all.  This is not entirely theonomy’s fault.  Reformed publishers have tone a woefully terrible job at making these (life-and-death important) sources available (yes, Baker Academic, I am talking about you!).

Nevertheless, some sources are available and Theonomists should have availed themselves of that.   That raises another problem:  reading these sources required reading these sources on the sources’ terms.  Theonomists usually viewed anyone who disagreed with them as a “natural law adherent,” defining natural law as a mix of Locke, Newton, and Aquinas.  Here is an experiment for you:  pick up a theonomic text and find a fair definition of natural law on Reformed terms.  Bahnsen avoids it in TiCE (though to be fair to Bahnsen, he never really opposed natural law).   Gary North slams it but never really defines (or explains how modern Reformed accept natural law).   The real villain, I think, is Kuyperianism (though, ironically, Kuyper himself was a pluralist).   The result was the no-neutrality concept was applied to areas which really didn’t make sense in a practical way (yes, we should do math and plumbing to the glory of God, but there really isn’t a Christian praxis to Christian plumbing).

If you read Reformed natural law sources carefully, you will note that 1) they don’t necessarily contradict Moses [many advocated using the Mosaic judicials because of the wisdom found therein; as to what kind of theory they employed for which judicials were to be used is anybody’s guess], 2) they aren’t using the term “nature” to mean butterflies and puppies [which is how I had usually glossed it], and modern advocates of natural law theory even concede that theonomists were correct to raise a lot of these issues.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, reading the Protestant Scholastic sources on their own terms will also bring the reader face-to-face with their teachings on covenant and justification, areas which modern theonomists are painfully weak.  For all of my previous criticisms of van Drunen and RS Clark, which I have now retracted, it is interesting to note that these guys adamantly insisted on the Protestant Scholastic teaching on natural law as thoroughly as said teaching on covenant theology.   The two seemed to go together (I don’t think there is a 1:1 correlation, but a lot of people have speculated on the Federal implications of both Covenant Theology and federal politics ala Althusius).

Confessions of a theological hit-man

My friend S. Wedgeworth documented some of his own theological changes.  I’ve done so about myself a few times on here, but I decided to tie some strings together.  I encourage you to read his piece, since that will save me some writing.  His early development mirrors mine in many ways.  Wedgeworth’s piece is thoughtful.  I have a few questions on some of his specifics, but that’s neither here nor there.

One of the difficulties that many of us in seminary faced–difficulties that are concurrent with many of these changes–is the inevitable glut of ideas.  Compounded with that  is that seminaries which are denominationally- or quasi-denominationally affiliated are inadequately prepared to deal with these various theological currents.  If your goal is to churn out “preacher boys,” then many cross-currents of scholarship will drown you.

The Federal Vision controversy was raging when I was in seminary, and I confess I did not always make wise choices.  Federal Visionism itself didn’t really make too much of a connection with me, at least not confessionally and ecclesiologically.  What some FV writers did, however, was weaken the confessional moorings, from which I drifted and began reading outside my tradition.

On one hand that’s healthy.  We shouldn’t seek theological inbreeding.   The problem I faced was that no one was capable of guiding me through these issues.  Once I was jaded enough, combined with a lot of real grievances from said seminary (which I won’t go in here, but they do deal with objective, financial realities), it wasn’t hard to seek out so-called “Christological alternatives to Calvinism.”

Many Eastern Orthodox apologists were saying that we should do all our theology around “Christology.”  Translation: the ancient Christological creeds, if interpreted consistently, will lead one away from Calvinism.    I’ll deal with that claim later.

And so for the next few years I read through–cover to cover–about ten volumes of the Schaff Church Fathers series, as well as most of their leading interpreters.  One of the problems, though, was I was unaware of the high, magisterial Protestant tradition.  Of course I had read Calvin.  Three times, actually.  All the way through, even.  I was not familiar with the second- and third generation Protestant Scholastics, however.

I suspect most of us aren’t familiar with them, and how could we be?  The average Evangelical publisher won’t touch these writers.   Banner of Truth, specifically, won’t deal with the uncomfortable aspects of Rutherford, Gillespie, and the Scottish Covenanters.  And yet, as Drake has clearly shown, it is these guys who can best deal with the Anchoretic challenge.

Taking the Scholastics Seriously

When I was reading through a lot of Orthodox sources, an argument I kept seeing was that all Western traditions hold to the Thomistic doctrine of absolute divine simplicity, which reduces to absurdity; therefore, Protestantism is philosophically absurd.  The problem, though, is that I started to see several things:   a) some fathers held to a similar thesis (Nazianzus, Athanasius), b) some Reformed writers might have held to that thesis, but there wasn’t enough evidence either way to convict them, and c) the Reformed writers who did hold to that thesis had very good reasons for doing so (archetypal/ectypal).  Further, the Essence/energies distinction entailed its own set of problems, and it is not always clear that many early Eastern fathers even held to that distinction.

The doctrine of authority was always looming in the background.   Anchorites have several sharp arguments against sola scriptura.  I bought in to some of those arguments, but I had done so without reading the Protestant Scholastic responses to them.   Once I began to see that a) many Protestant Scholastics could not be seen as breaking with the medieval tradition on the canon, and b) the archetypal/ectypal distinction when applied to epistemology, leading to Scripture as the principum cognoscendi, I was then able to embrace sola scriptura with integrity.

Corollary of the above point:  how many convertskii have read Richard Muller?  Once I read Richard Muller I realized that much of what I had been parroting was wrong.

The Institutional Problem Reasserted

It is my personal belief that Richard Muller’s four-volume Reformed and Post Reformation Dogmatics will go down as one of the game changers in Reformed historiography.  Unfortunately, most remain unaware.  Bakerbooks should issue this set in singular volumes, better allowing seminaries to use volume one as an introduction to Reformed theology course.  First year seminarians, even the better read ones, are woefully unprepared.

Publishers need to seek out translators and get Muller’s sources into English post-haste.   There is no excuse for Rutherford and Gillespie not being mainstreamed in the Reformed world.  I can read and translate Latin, for what it’s worth.  I just don’t have the time and others are better capable.

One of the reasons these works remain untranslated I suspect, is that they also entail certain conclusions about God, salvation, God’s law, and ecclesiology, conclusions which would likely cast judgment on some publishing houses.  I say no more.