Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A brief comment on culture

I have encountered (throughout my undergraduate career, up through my graduate studies, and seeming to continue without abatement) a consistent appeal among rhetorically savvy covenant-breakers as well as covenant-conscious theologians and pastors to the need, the necessity, of communicating a message in a way that "the culture" can understand, digest, and ultimately find persuasive.

The banality of such a claim is made interesting by the vast range of interpretations for what it means to communicate in a culturally relevant manner. For some it means capitulating wholeheartedly to the desires of the particular audience. For others it means addressing a timeless truth to the particular aspect of an audience's culture than needs to be cultivated accordingly. In other words, the spectrum on one side of communicating to culture seeks to make a message identical to that culture's affections, whereas the other side of the spectrum seeks to change a culture's affections by means of communication.

Most attempts fall somewhere in between the two poles, but what such mingling entails is syncretism, or the combination of culturally accepted claims and counter-cultural claims.

First of all, anyone who wants to speak to a culture has to have some idea of what the culture is in fact. In other words, the speaker is interpreting culture according to some principles combined with some empirical study (even if it is as minimal as his own personal experience). Acknowledging as much simply means that there is a worldview behind the speaker's assessment of whatever culture he is addressing. Insofar as the speaker's worldview is significantly different from the audience he addresses, he is already on the road toward the cultural change end of the spectrum.

Why is this so? It is so because no speaker will consciously speak against what he believes to be right, and insofar as what the speaker believes to be right runs counter to the culture of his audience, he will make claims that push the culture toward his own viewpoint. The extent to which the speaker is self-conscious of his own viewpoint in relation to the audience is the extent to which he is able to push the envelope, if he so chooses.

Second of all, what determines the speaker's aim to synthesize his message to the culture's affections or to press the need to change their affections stems directly from the speaker's willingness to have his message accepted or rejected by the audience. A speaker whose aim is primarily persuasion will find himself commiserating with the culture's affections.

Why is this so? It is so because persuasion seeks identification with the audience in their own terms, and identification with the audience seeks commonalities recognized by the audience as such. In other words, purely persuasive motives will seek to gain the audience's acceptance on grounds they accept, in order to try and pull them toward grounds that they might find objectionable.

The speaker whose aim is primarily proclamation of his own principle (whether self-derived, or derived from an outside authority such as Scripture) will still retain the desire to persuade the audience, but it will be secondary to the aim of portraying the principle in a way that is both accurate and significant to the affections of the audience where they are out of step with the principle.

Why is this so? It is so because the speaker believes that the principle's significance outweighs the desire to have it accepted as true by the audience. The speaker will still attempt to portray the principle in its best possible light, but that aim is governed by the principle itself, and not by its perception amongst the audience.

Recall that the audience's affections may or may not conform to what the principle, which the speaker wishes to convey to them. When seeking to persuade the audience in their own terms, the speaker will allow the principle to be molded in the image of the audience's affections, which is also the impetus for the present culture. Insofar as the speaker does this, the principle is altered to a greater or lesser degree, if not altogether altered. But the speaker who conditions his speech after the principle's self-attesting value and implications will command the audience to abandon their prior affections in favor of the principle's requirements.

In the foregoing, highly generalized discussion, I have treated culture in the context of the speaker's address to an audience. The point has been to highlight that culture is not the aspect which determines beliefs, but the aspect that is determined by beliefs. Cultures can and are changed as the beliefs of individuals within a culture change. My question is this: if cultures reflect belief, rather than determine it, why should the speaker ever self-consciously alter his own belief to conform with culture if he thinks it wrong?

Put differently, why would any preacher of the Gospel EVER wish to be culturally relevant in a culture that has almost entirely abandoned Biblical principles of belief and conduct, faith and practice? Such a preacher may gain the masses, but risks losing his soul.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Great Debate

For Christian apologists, which is really to say for all faithful Christians, there is no better example of intellectual apologetics than Greg Bahnsen. Not only does Bahnsen behave in a pious manner, but he demolishes the intellectual fallacies of atheism, agnosticism, and opposing religions. Below is a debate between Greg Bahnsen and Gordon Stein concerning the existence of God. Enjoy it, study it, gain confidence from it, and incorporate its principles into your thinking and speaking about the hope that is within you.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Christianity and Culture

The following are excerpts from J. Gresham Machen's address, "The Scientific Preparation of the Minister," which was delivered September 20, 1912, at the opening of the one hundred and first session of Princeton Theological Seminary. It has been reproduced in several places and may be found online in several as well. I'm excerpting the text from this website.

Modern culture is a tremendous force. It affects all classes of society. It affects the ignorant as well as the learned. What is to be done about it? In the first place, the Church may simply withdraw from the conflict. She may simply allow the mighty stream of modern thought to flow by unheeded and do her work merely in the back-eddies of the current. There are still some men in the world who have been unaffected by modern culture. They may still be won for Christ without intellectual labour. And they must be won. It is useful, it is necessary work. If the Church is satisfied with that alone, let her give up the scientific education of her ministry. Let her assume the truth of her message and learn simply how it may be applied in detail to modern industrial and social conditions. Let her give up the laborious study of Greek and Hebrew. Let her abandon the scientific study of history to the men of the world. In a day of increased scientific interest, let the Church go on becoming less scientific. In a day of increased specialization, of renewed interest in philology and in history, of more rigourous scientific method, let the Church go on abandoning her Bible to her enemies. They will study it scientifically, rest assured, if the Church does not. Let her substitute sociology altogether for Hebrew, practical expertness for the proof of her gospel. Let her shorten the preparation of her ministry, let her permit it to be interrupted yet more and more by premature practical activity. By doing so she will win a straggler here and there. But her winnings will be but temporary. The great current of modern culture will sooner or later engulf her puny eddy. God will save her somehow--out of the depths. But the labour of centuries will have been swept away. God grant that the Church may not resign herself to that. God grant she may face her problem squarely and bravely. That problem is not easy. It involves the very basis of her faith. Christianity is the proclamation of an historical fact--that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Modern thought has no place for that proclamation. It prevents men even from listening to the message. Yet the culture of today cannot simply be rejected as a whole. It is not like the pagan culture of the first century. It is not wholly non-Christian. Much of it has been derived directly from the Bible. There are significant movements in it, going to waste, which might well be used for the defence of the gospel. The situation is complex. Easy wholesale measures are not in place. Discrimination, investigation is necessary. Some of modern thought must be refuted. The rest must be made subservient. But nothing in it can be ignored. He that is not with us is against us. Modern culture is a mighty force. It is either subservient to the gospel or else it is the deadliest enemy of the gospel. For making it subservient, religious emotion is not enough, intellectual labour is also necessary. And that labour is being neglected. The Church has turned to easier tasks. And now she is reaping the fruits of her indolence. Now she must battle for her life.

Culture is an unavoidable category. Every individual works to inculturate. Every individual is worked upon by inculturation. Inculturation is a product of beliefs, which are in turn a product of ideas to which individuals have assented to and subsequently act upon. Machen is here recognizing that while modern culture expends great intellectual rigor in its efforts, it does so largely devoid of a knolwedge of the Gospel. What elements it does gather from the Gospel it does so unwittingly of its intellectual dependency. The response of Christianity to this onslaught of intellectual paganism in Machen's day was, in large part, to retreat from intellectual endeavors in order to focus upon individual and even corporate piety that emphasized inward experience and conversion to a limited set of propositions touching on matters left unrelated to the larger forces of inculturation. What Machen advocates is for Christians to do the serious intellectual work of distinguishing the elements of modern culture that must be refuted and consecrating those elements of modern culture that have stripped away the God-honoring motivation of legitimate endeavors. If the Church does not commit to this intellectual work she will languish and be overrun, not to destruction, but certainly to her shame and until God removes the slothful and replaces them with the diligent.

The situation is desperate. It might discourage us. But not if we are truly Christians. Not if we are living in vital communion with the risen Lord. If we are really convinced of the truth of our message, then we can proclaim it before a world of enemies, then the very difficulty of our task, the very scarcity of our allies becomes an inspiration, then we can even rejoice that God did not place us in an easy age, but in a time of doubt and perplexity and battle. Then, too, we shall not be afraid to call forth other soldiers into the conflict. Instead of making our theological seminaries merely centres of religious emotion, we shall make them battlegrounds of the faith, where, helped a little by the experience of Christian teachers, men are taught to fight their own battle, where they come to appreciate the real strength of the adversary and in the hard school of intellectual struggle learn to substitute for the unthinking faith of childhood the profound convictions of full-grown men. Let us not fear in this a loss of spiritual power. The Church is perishing today through the lack of thinking, not through an excess of it. She is winning victories in the sphere of material betterment. Such victories are glorious. God save us from the heartless crime of disparaging them. They are relieving the misery of men. But if they stand alone, I fear they are but temporary. The things which are seen are temporal; the things which are not seen are eternal. What will become of philanthropy if God be lost? Beneath the surface of life lies a world of spirit. Philosophers have attempted to explore it. Christianity has revealed its wonders to the simple soul. There lie the springs of the Church's power. But that spiritual realm cannot be entered without controversy. And now the Church is shrinking from the conflict. Driven from the spiritual realm by the current of modern thought, she is consoling herself with things about which there is no dispute. If she favours better housing for the poor, she need fear no contradiction. She will need all her courage, she will have enemies enough, God knows. But they will not fight her with argument. The twentieth century, in theory, is agreed on social betterment. But sin, and death, and salvation, and life, and God--about these things there is debate. You can avoid the debate if you choose. You need only drift with the current. Preach every Sunday during your Seminary course, devote the far ends of your time to study and to thought, study about as you studied in college--and these questions will probably never trouble you. The great questions may easily be avoided. Many preachers are avoiding them. And many preachers are preaching to the air. The Church is waiting for men of another type. Men to fight her battles and solve her problems. The hope of finding them is the one great inspiration of a Seminary's life. They need not all be men of conspicuous attainments. But they must all be men of thought. They must fight hard against spiritual and intellectual indolence. Their thinking may be confined to narrow limits. But it must be their own. To them theology must be something more than a task. It must be a matter of inquiry. It must lead not to successful memorizing, but to genuine convictions.

After reminding the Christian of his proper hope--the objective power and infallible purpose of Christ to subject all creation to His rule--and his proper calling--to fight the unbelief of all with the truth revealed by God in His Word--Machen further emphasizes the objective of religious education: All intellectual study is apologetic in nature. The Christian is either destroying the errors in his own thinking or he is destroying the error in those around him, and the proper tool for such destruction is the truth, and the propoer method is the intellectual study of Scripture with an eye both to the inculturation it proclaims and to the inculturation it condemns. There is no third way. There is no neutral sphere. There is no benign thought. There can be but one Master of our minds, wills, and actions. The consequences of our thinking are pervasive, and so the fight begins with the mind--our own and with the minds of others. The so-called secular humanist understands this principle well, for he expends a great amount of energy seeking to educate others--and especialy the young and impressionable--to accept what he believes to be the best course of life, the proper set of beliefs and necessary conseqeunces. Thus, the Christian must gain understanding, love wisdom, and get knowledge in order that he may stand firm against the principalities and powers that lie behind the material world we observe with our physical senses.

The Church is puzzled by the world's indifference. She is trying to overcome it by adapting her message to the fashions of the day. But if, instead, before the conflict, she would descend into the secret place of meditation, if by the clear light of the gospel she would seek an answer not merely to the question of the hour but, first of all, to the eternal problems of the spiritual world, then perhaps, by God's grace, through His good Spirit, in His good time, she might issue forth once more with power, and an age of doubt might be followed by the dawn of an era of faith.

Machen's historical situation is some years removed from our own, but the spiritual situation appears to us as though we held up a mirror to our own. The Christian must trade the apologies for the perspicuity of Scripture that condemn our culure for the apologetic that will speak with knowledge and boldness. Ignorance has no trouble shouting, but true changes in belief are most often preceded by the meticulous removal of false thinking. Only the wise possess the ability to discern truth from error and demonstrate the futility of the latter. One does not become wise by hasty quotations of Scripture, nor by parroting great thinkers. One must discern the system that Scripture reveals, one must press his world through this system in order that the system of thought in Scripure would be the system of thought by which experience is interpreted, by which the meaning of experience is set forth. One must become a thinker himself. Does not the Lord promise to give aid to those who seek Him, that is, who seek to know Him and the power of His resurrection? First things must precede secondary things if one is to reach any goal properly, rather than floundering in one's efforts. No measure of pragmatism, no sophisticated predictions, no lofty prayers for miracles will substitute for the first principle of Christian obedience and evangelical proclamation: Get wisdom, get discernment, get knowledge. The worst that will happen is that your faith in will grow larger in Godly devotion in an age growing larger in godless desertion.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

By This Standard

The title of this post is only partially related to what content will follow. One of the books I completed this month was Greg Bahnsen's By This Standard. The book is a pared down version of Bahnsen's much larger and more scholarly book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (which I have yet to read).

I highly recommend the shorter version to every Christian, and to anyone who has an interest in Biblical Law and its contemporary validity. The book is a smashing defense of the validity of all of God's Law, including the ceremonial laws. If the last sentence appears controversial, it is not, for what is valid may not be enforced in the same manner. For example, the stipulations of the ceremonial law have been fulfilled in the work of Christ, so that we adhere to the ceremonial law by way of worshiping Christ as our propitiation for all of our sins, even unknown sins, instead of relying upon the priest to release the scapegoat, to use one example.

The moral law, and even more particularly civil laws, are more controversial because they remain in force today in ways different from believing in the work of Christ for our behalf. It is a hard word for the peoples of modernity and postmodernity, and even for Christians among these peoples, when fed the argument that the death penalty is still the valid punishment for homosexuality, adultery, and fornication, to use a pointed set of sins.

It is one thing to recognize that certain stipulations in Ancient Israel and in our modern society adhere to the same principles of law while differing in their manifestation: for example, fences upon rooftops and fences around pools represent laws for protecting life by providing safe environments. It is another thing to recognize that, given the proper level of heinousness and the required evidence to convict, a son or daughter should die for disobeying their parents.

But divorced from the all-too-easy emotional reactions to particular hypotheticals, Bahnsen's major point is rather elementary. If we do not place our faith in God's divinely given laws, what will be the alternative, except autonomous human subjective law? Are we willing to trust in the Sovereign Lord rather than in are own understanding, or can we affirm with Scripture, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding"???

When one grasps the necessity of trusting God's revealed law instead of some fictitious natural law derived from human observation, or some subjective consensus of autonomous individuals, the acceptance of the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws follows by necessary implication. Of course, the issue then becomes the proper identification of the principles implicit in the applications, and the proper translation of those principles into contemporary applications. What a better situation it would be if we fought over such issues as opposed to fighting over whether or not God's law should even be considered!

I do have one quibble with Bahnsen's book, or rather, a quibble with one of his propositions, at least in the way it is phrased. Bahnsen, like so many other fine theologians, described the whole law of God as a reflection of God's character. Now such a phrase sounds honorable, properly meek, and even poetically pleasing. But it also contains a troublesome ambiguity.

What does it mean that the Law of God is a reflection of His character? In one sense, we might say that Creation itself is a reflection of God character, if by saying so we mean that its orderliness reflects God's orderly thinking. In a similar way we can say that God's laws given to men to follow reflect God's Sovereignty as the Lawgiver, meaning that God, being eternally omniscience and omnipotent, as the right and pleasure of commanding His created creatures howsoever He wants. By interpreting the phrase this way we do no harm and elucidate a rather important aspect of God's Sovereignty.

However, another possible interpretation is that, as a reflection of God's character, God Himself is bound to keep the law, that is, God is by nature incapable of transgressing the laws he has given men to obey, for they reveal the limits of His own moral bounds. I am not willing to argue that such an interpretation is what Bahnsen is meaning, but only to point out that such an interpretation can be drawn from the ambiguous term "reflection."

The implications of this second interpretation are severely damaging to an understanding of the nature of God. First, if God were subject to the Law He has given men, it would mean that He could not take the life of men for the reason of His own pleasure. If God is subject to His Laws given to men, it would be wrong for God to have enticed Pharaoh to sin, it would be wrong for God to have commanded an evil spirit to lie to the prophets under Ahab's command, and it would be wrong for God to choose some men to be vessels of wrath and others to be vessels of honor.

To show the complete absurdity of such a view, one needs only consider the summary of the Law: to love God with all one's heart and to love one's neighbor as oneself. God certain fulfills the first, but does God love His neighbor as Himself? Indeed, can God love anyone other than Himself as He loves Himself and still be self-sufficient? What about the command to love one's enemy? Can all the passages of Scripture that indicate God righteous wrath upon His enemies be reconciled with the command to love one's enemies? Does not God hate whomever He will hate and love whomever He will love?

It is foolishness, then, to argue that God is in some way, in any way, subject to the Law, which He has given unto men to obey. God's complete determination of all things stands in utter contradiction to many of the stipulations commanded in the Law. Consider: God desired that Christ, the only innocent man and His only Son, should not only die, but bear His wrath. Certainly there is no provision in the Law that gives anyone the right to command an innocent person to die on behalf of another. Yet this is precisely what God decreed from eternity.

God is not subject to the Law, and if the Law reflects anyone about God's character, it reflects His Sovereignty as the Lawgiver who is free to command His creatures in whatever way He sees fit, for His own glory. I think Bahnsen would agree with that, and I think he would see the absurdity of the alternative. Still, I wonder why in particular he chose to use the ambiguous phrase?

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Incarnation

Yesterday I received in the mail and subsequently read Gordon Clark's last published work, left slightly unfinished (two ending paragraphs are supplied by his student John Robbins).

Clark gives partial vindication to Nestorius (though not his followers), while coming down rather firmly on the framers of the Chalcedonian Creed, as well as nearly every single theologian (there are fewer than you might think) to have subsequently discoursed on the relation between Christ's divinity and His humanity. Perhaps only Charles Hodge escapes with a modicum of approval in this area, but only because he attempt to define his terms where everyone else has merely accepted the language without articulating its meaning.

The basic argument of Clark is as follows: granted that Christ possesses both full deity and full humanity. Why then is he not both the Divine person or Logos and the human person called Jesus? If Christ's human nature (a term conflated with substance, which Clark shows to be an undefined and therefore meaningless word) possess an intellect, will, and all the other qualities of humanity, why not also is it a person (a term that Clark does wish to define)?

Amid Clark's frequent expressions of dissatisfaction with those who have come before and have lacked his genius (note that he doesn't claim to be a genius), there is much of great interest and import in his little book of seventy-eight pages.

1. He drops the term substance, preferring to define essence (ousia) as the definition of a thing, as he did in his treatise on the Trinity.

2. He defines person as the complex of propositions which an individual thinks concerning him/herself, which is also seen in his treatise on the Trinity.

3. He spends a few pages refuting the use of the term "infinite," because it is not a Biblical term and it does not accurately define God. He proves that dropping the term in no way denies God's omniscience or his omnipotence.

4. He gives another delightful quote on the doctrine of divine simplicity: "It is an honorable view that all the attributes are identical in God, and sometimes visibly so in history; for when God demolished the walls of Jericho, the single action was both an instance of grace and an instance of wrath. In greater generality, knowledge is power, omnipresence is omniscience, mercy and truth are met together, and righteousness and peace have kissed each other."

5. He admits the difficulty resulting from the two-person view with regard to distinguishing what actions or statements of Christ can be properly accomplished by his divine person or by his human person. Certain actions are easily distinguished: when Jesus says, "I thirst" it must be his human person, for the Logos is impassible and incorporeal and has no thirst. Also, certain statements could only be said truly by the divine Logos, "I and the Father are One." But many other statements and actions (such as miracles) are indistinguishable.

6. One of the more interesting discussions, in my opinion, is the relation of the body to the soul. He does not develop the topic in detail, but he does refer to Augustine, affirming his view that the body is the instrument of the soul, which is the higher being, and therefore the body does not act upon the soul, but the soul upon the body. Thus, the theory of sensation, or indeed any theory of knowledge that lends itself to sensation, is false: the body does not provide information to the soul, but the soul uses information to operate the body. This view is perhaps the most controversial in our day and age, since we tend to give great importance to emotion, the physical world, and are skeptical of immaterial reality.

7. Another interesting and brief discussion concerns the nature of Truth. What is truth? Hegel and Kant made concepts the definition of truth. But how can "cat," "God," or "philbert" provide knowledge as bare terms? Propositions, which are the meanings of declarative sentences, are the definition of truth. "Cat" is neither true nor false, but "The cat is calico" can be evaluated as to truth. "God" is a term that has perhaps been defined in more ways than any other important concept, yet its truth as a concept depends upon the propositions attached to it. An important foundational point, often overlooked by even the brightest of persons, is the proper use of the verb "to be." Considered as a substantive verb, or a verbal noun, "being," the term conveys no meaning, for anything that may be stated or thought can be said to exist or have being: my dream "exists" as a dream; the grubblysnort "exists" as a thought in my mind. Rather, the only meaningful use of "to be" verbs are as a copula, designed for the use of predication, that is, the distinguishing of the various aspects that define a thing: "God is Truth," "The sun is hot."

I am continually amazed at the breadth of Clark's understanding. Moreso than any other person I have read, he demonstrates the ability to comprehend the various disciplines of knowledge into a coherent whole. He demonstrates this in his application of mathematics and physics to the problems of the term "infinite" and the necessity of immaterial existence. But the real marvel is his ability to commit himself to a knowledge grounded in Scripture and to grasp the implications Scripture has upon the whole of knowledge. Many times in this short work he demonstrates the incompatibility of certain conclusions based upon their contradiction of a Scriptural proposition. Whatever else one may disagree with or appreciate in Clark's conclusions, everyone--really, everyone--should seek to imitate his commitment to a Biblically grounded knowledge: not only in word, but in practice; evaluating every conclusion by the light of God's revealed Truth.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Trinity

I have continued to read, despite the lack of evidence by way of reviews posted here. The following is but a brief summary, but I hope a helpful one.

I have been recently reading several Gordon Clark books (The Trinity, The Doctrine of Man, Faith and Saving Faith) and in two of those books he addresses an issue of terminology that he finds to be confusing and unclear.

With regard to the Trinity it is the issue of the use of the terms "ousia" and "hypostasis," which came to represent different meanings in the Western and Eastern Church.

Clark in several places recommends a better term to denote the "essence" (the singular aspect) and "personhood" (the triune aspect) of the Trinity. In his analysis of Augustine he recommends he term "definition" to replace Augustine's "substance" or "essence." Thus, the definition of God is singular, whereas his personhood is triune. He makes the same recommendation in responding to Berkhof, noting that the attributes predicated of God constitute the definition of God--i.e. the attributes are identical in the Being named by the term God. To quote: "If now the attributes are identical in God, and if that unity may be designated by the name sovereignty or omnipotence, and if therefore the terms love, justice, grace, and whatever, are used to designate the various effects God produces in the world, the whole confused discussion of the classification of attributes may be dropped."

What of Personhood then? Taken as attributes of God (or distinctions within the definition) the persons of God (Father, Son, Spirit) are not co-extensive: the attribute of Fatherhood does not extend to the Son or Spirit, nor the attribute of Sonship extend to the Spirit or Father, and so forth. The particular predicates attached to one cannot be attached to the other, yet certain predicates belong to all three (e.g. omnipotence). For defining Personhood, Clark mentions three possible choices regarding individuation and discards two because they are inimical to the other conclusions concerning the Trinity. The one open to him is the Platonic/Leibnitzian theory of individuation, which states in brief that man is a collection of his thoughts concerning himself. So too the Trinity is the collection of God's thoughts concerning Himself, with each person thinking particular thoughts of himself that are not coextensive with the other persons (Clark's example is when Christ thinks "I or my thoughts will assume or have assumed a human nature,"). Because God's thoughts are eternal, the collection of propositions that define His persons are immutable and remain unconfused (however much our thoughts concerning Him languish in confusion).

Thus, Clark's emendations to the doctrine of the Trinity are to remove the term substance and replace it with the term "definition," which is more easily recognized in its immaterial unity; and to define the individual persons according to the qualitative theory of individuation, which considers an individual as the collection of thoughts one predicates of oneself. Thus, God is defined by his attributes, with each of the Persons retaining certain predicates coextensively as well as retaining certain predicates individually that cannot be appended to the other persons.

To those who would reject a theory that "reduced" God or any other person to a system of propositions, the task is open to provide a more coherent and understandable theory to which we may assent.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

On Being Presbyterian

Sean Michael Lucas is a professor of Church History at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. A few months ago my pastor gifted me with a copy of his book, which bears the same name as the title of this post. The aim of the book, as I read it, is to present to a contemporary audience of Christians who are unfamiliar with historic Presbyterianism an overview of said historic Presbyterianism. He organizes this endeavor into three parts: beliefs (orthodoxy), practices (orthopraxy), and stories (church history).

The most enlightening section, and the most enjoyable for me, was the third section on the history of Presbyterianism. As a modern church historian, Lucas is more comprehensive in his treatment of 19th and 20th century presbyterianism, and this was also good for me as I've been recently interested in figures like Charles Hodge, Warfield, Dabney, Machen, Clark, Van Til, and others. I was genuinely enlightened as I read these "stories," and have little ground for critical examination of Lucas's conclusions.

In the beliefs section, however, I found a few things a bit more fuzzy in his presentation. Granted that Lucas is going for a "mainline" position, and granted that the audience Lucas aims at is largely ignorant of the minor details of Reformed theology. Even granting these intentions, I would have preferred to see more nuance, or at least less casual language in treating several issues. Let me explain. . .

The doctrinal heads that Lucas identifies with Presbyterianism are these:
1. God's Sovereignty
2. The Priority of Grace
3. Covenant Theology
4. The Nature of the Church
5. The Sacraments

The first topic Lucas handles very well, using Scripture, the confession, and a selection of appropriate hymns to bring the conclusion into focus.

The second topic follows in like fashion with the first, again worthy of admiration.

The third topic is more difficult than the first two in contemporary Presbyterianism, but Lucas does a good job of not going beyond what the Confession states (especially with regard to the Covenant of Works). However, it is in this chapter where I think Lucas stretches his focus a bit beyond what his audience needs, as well as beyond what is just in regard to what he attempts.

The problem arises when Lucas attempts to contrast Covenant Theology with Dispensationalism. He rightly shows that the former emphasizes the continuity of the covenants and testaments, whereas the latter emphasizes discontinuity. However, instead of leaving it at this conclusion (which would have been enough for his audience to chew on), he extends himself, saying:

Sometimes, though, Presbyterians may overstress continuity. There are those who argue, for example, that the civil laws of ancient Israel should be applied to governments today, or that the representation of children in the Passover meal means that small children should come to the Lord's Supper without a prior profession of faith. The Presbyterian tradition has tended to see these claims as overextensions of continuity. After all, there are basic differences between the old and new covenants, wrought by Jesus' death and resurrection. As one theologian wryly noted, we know there are basic differences between the old and new covenants because, for one thing, we don't sacrifice bulls and goats anymore. Still, the one thing to remember here is that God is telling one story in Scripture, the story of his redeeming activity for the sake of his people.

Here are my problems with the above passage:

1. Lucas introduces two controversial topics and dismisses them without discussion. The examples do not further elucidate his distinction between Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism, but may in fact compound any confusion in the ignorant reader.

2. On the matter of the application of the civil laws to contemporary governments, Lucas overstates consensus, or at least fails to properly distinguish the issue. That the Law of God, including the moral AND civil law, continues to bind the conscience of men is openly affirmed by the Confession. Scripture is the sole source of knowledge for matters of faith and practice, including the practice of law by civil governments. With regard to the civil laws given to Israel, the Confession says:

To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require. (WCF 19.4)

Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience. It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof:s although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works. So as, a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and, not under grace. (WCF 19.6)

The civil laws are recognized as valid according to their "general equity," not restricted to believers only ("of great use to them"), but to all men ("as well as to others"). If Luca is trying to point toward theonomy in general (or Christian Reconstruction in particular) then he does not present his statement well. The consensus of the Presbyterian tradition has affirmed the validity of the civil law in its general equity, while having its intramural debates concerning what exactly is implied by that term (i.e. "general equity).

3. As for paedocommunion, Lucas may be correct in presenting the consensus of the tradition, but it is confusing to bring this point up when trying to stress Presbyterian "continuity." The "backing" for his "warrant" is that Christ's death and resurrection are the ground for the basic differences. Apart from being nondescript, the same argument is precisely what Reformed Baptists would say to the Presbyterian practice of paedobaptism (more precisely, oikobaptism). The ignorant will hardly quibble with Lucas, but those reading from an informed baptist position will no doubt smirk at the "apparent" contradiction in his treatment.

As you can see, aside from the problem of precision, the major problem I find is that Lucas is introducing more than is helpful to the ignorant reader, and less than is helpful for the informed reader. If he is attempting to strike a middle ground, I suggest he has done so: landing right between a rock and a hard place.

My only other quibble with this chapter is that Lucas could have spent more time on the implications of Covenant Theology upon culture. Although he touches on the necessary outworking of spiritual renewal and transformation in the material life of the Church, he limits his view to individuals and the Church, leaving a deafening silence as to the larger culture, in which the Church, with Christ as Head, is to be the primary cultivator. He could have postponed this elements of Covenant Theology to his discussion of the Church in the next chapter, but it doesn't appear there either.

The chapter on the Sacraments is ok, but brings out more evidently the troubles inherent in rejecting the continuity of the sacrament of communion with the passover meal. If the sacraments are "signs of God's promises" and "seals of God's promises," which "put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church and the rest of the world" (WCF 27.1), indeed, "mark[ing] believers as different from unbelievers, as being on a different team, if you will," then what does it signify to the world and to our children when we refuse them a place at Christ's table?

Lucas makes the important distinction between validity and efficacy with regard to baptism (the sign is objectively valid, though it may prove ineffectual in the life of the person upon whom it is conveyed), he does not extend this logic to communion, which is no less external or objective in what it conveys. Children who are considered holy under one believing parent are baptized on the basis of faith exhibited by their federal head (i.e. children of believers are considered part of the Body of Christ, the Church), but they are yet unworthy to partake of any spiritual union with Christ until the session has considered them as having made a competent confession of faith. The instruction of children flows from the faith of the parents, but is inadequate as a foundation for inclusion of these same children into the Covenant meal, although Jesus welcomes children to himself, testifying that the type of trust that children exhibit is worthy of the Kingdom--indeed, without this type of trust the Kingdom is beyond anyone's ability to enter!

But I digress.

The chapters on Presbyterian practices are good, although I am more ignorant of these than I am of the doctrines. As I said above, the history is by far my most favorite portion of Lucas's book. If my criticisms appear to be a straining at gnats and swallowing of camels know that I would recommend the book to all of my family, friends, loved ones, and enemies. Praise is due notwithstanding my acute criticism.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

D.A. Carson and Compatibilism

I was not hoping for another chance to respond to Carson in the hope that he would put aside things he was having trouble understanding and stick to things he knew well. Unfortunately, in the following chapter he continues in unhelpful confusion.

The chapter is entitle, "The Mystery of Providence."

Carson frames the chapter with a quote by Richard Veith about the risks of trying to reconcile God's complete Sovereignty with the existence of evil, and the moral responsibility of humanity. Carson then introduces a definition of Compatibilism:

The Bible as a whole, and sometimes in specific texts, presupposes or teaches that both of the following propositions are true:

1. God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility is curtailed, minimized, or mitigated.
2. Human beings are morally responsible creatures--they significantly chose, rebel, obey, believe, defy, make decisions, and so forth, and they are rightly held accountable for such actions; but this characteristic never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent.

So far so good. Carson is then careful to articulate that this definition is derived from a thorough examination of Scripture rather than haphazardly imposed upon it, and he provides a good summary of verses that demonstrate both propositions. It is truly here that Carson is in his element of strength. He finishes with the most important place in Scripture, which is the sacrificial death of Christ and draws out the very important point that Christ's atoning work only makes sense when both propositions are confirmed true.

Confusions occur when Carson attempts to explain how the propositions are compatible. Let's see what he says.

1. Most people who call themselves compatibilists are not so brash as to claim that they can tell you exactly how the two propositions I set forth in the last section fit together. All they claim is that, if the terms are defined carefully enough, it is possible to show that there is no necessary contradiction between them. In other words, it is possible to outline some of the "unknowns" that are involved, and show that these "unknowns" allow for both propositions to be true. But precisely because there are large "unknowns" at stake, we cannot show how the two propositions cohere.

Carson is certainly right that a great many Christian believe both propositions without possessing the ability to demonstrate their validity. One is not required to be able to demonstrate how something is true in order to believe in its truth, although the truth is more clear when it has been demonstrated. If Carson would have left it at that, there would be no reason to quibble. Yet he goes on:

I think this analysis is correct. But what it means is that I am still going to be left with mysteries when I am finished. All that I hope to achieve is to locate those mysteries more precisely, and to show that they are big enough to allow me to claim that when the Bible assumes compatibilism it is not adopting nonsensical positions.

It isn't altogether clear how Carson is using the term "mystery" here, or throughout the chapter, but it is certain that he is not using it in the sense in which Paul does: a truth that had been kept hidden, but is now revealed. For Carson, this mystery remains mysterious. Yet he also claims that his efforts will show that the mysteries are "big enough" to resolve us from contradiction when we assert both propositions. This is a strange claim to make. It would seem that Carson had before argued that we are "allowed" to state both because the Bible assumed both--and this would be enough for us to believe. In convincing others, however, one must do more than present something mysterious, for what is mysterious may be dismissed as easily as it is embraced. If one is to defend Scripture against claims that it is contradictory, one must demonstrate how they propositions resolve logically, not mysteriously--for the claim is against the logic of Scripture. In other words, when the logic of Scripture is impugned, a logical response is required. If it were argued that Scripture reveals that God is fully comprehended, then we may respond that there is yet mystery in our ignorance of God's being. A proper reply to any argument is addressed on the grounds where it is made. So while Carson's appeal to mystery is inadequate, perhaps he will yet say something logical in response to the dilemma.

Here is what he offers next:

2. If compatibilism is true and if God is good--all of which the Bible affirms--then it must be the case that God stands behind good and evil in somewhat different ways; that is, he stands behind good and evil asymmetrically. To put it bluntly, God stands behind evil in such a way that not even evil takes place outside the bounds of his sovereignty, yt the evil is not morally chargeable to him: it is always chargeable to secondary agents, to secondary causes. On the other hand, God stands behind good in such a way that it not only takes place within the bounds of his sovereignty, but it is always chargeable to him, and only derivatively to secondary agents.
In other words, if I sin, I cannot possibly do so outside of the bounds of God's sovereignty (or the many texts already cited have no meaning), but I alone am responsible for that sin--or perhaps I and those who tempted me, led me astray, and the like. God is not to be blamed. But if I do good, it is God working in me both to will and to act according to his good pleasure. God's grace has been manifest in my case, and he is to be praised.
If this sounds just a bit too convenient for God, my initial response (though there is more to be said) is that according to the Bible this is the only God there is. There is no other.

Here is an argument that can be made useful. What Carson is saying in gentle language can be said in a more acute way: God is the ultimate as well as the indirect cause of evil; God is also the ultimate as well as direct cause of good. What Carson has done here is state in a term (asymmetrical) what the verses he has given have stated. God is the cause of evil and good ultimately--there is symmetry in God's Sovereignty because nothing happens apart from His will. God is not the cause of evil directly, but God is the cause of good directly--when evil occurs, God is not the primary actor willing it so, but He is the ultimate actor who directs evil according to His own good ends. God is both the primary and ultimate actor for good because of the sinful nature of humanity resulting from the Fall. Adam was innocent, but sinned, thereby plunging his posterity into evil--defined as rebellion against God. Because by nature we are rebellious, any good (defined as works done by faith in God, as opposed to rebellion against Him) must come first from God toward us. Here is the asymmetry. The answer for why God has chosen to accomplish things in this way is likewise simply stated, however easily rejected: His manifested glory demands it. This is to say that teleology reveals God's purpose because it is God's final purpose. When we begin to think teleologically with the Word of God as our guide, we begin to think God's thoughts after him. What Carson has indicated in seed, we have now grown to something fuller.

From this point Carson enters into a discussion of human moral responsibility and freedom. He does a nice job of disposing of the definition of freedom as libertarian freedom, or "absolute power to the contrary" as he calls it. He does less well in defining freedom as voluntarism: "that is, we do what we want to do, and that is why we are held accountable for what we do." The missing element is the notion of strongest desire, which elucidates the point that our choices are determined by our strongest desire, and not simply according to bare desires or wants. For the common response to voluntarism as Carson defines it is, "well I could want something else, indeed I often want separate things at the same time." Yet with competing wants, it is always the strongest desire that is accomplished, and for which we are held accountable.

Carson rightly introduces the Fall of humanity and gives the positive statement that "real freedom is freedom to obey God without restraint or reserve." Although this sounds eloquent, it might have been better to say that real freedom is being constrained by the desires of God rather than the desires of our flesh. For we are always constrained (one cannot serve two masters, but one must serve a master).

Carson then introduces the personhood of God as the important factor in understanding human responsibility. Because God is a person who has dictated a manner of proper relationship, we are inevitably bound to this relationship in such a way that we remain faithful or break fellowship with infidelity to the expectations God has set. Carson seems to wish avoiding the fallacious assumption that Sovereignty implies some sort of deistic god who controls all things at a distance, impersonally. Of course, much Biblical evidence supports God's immanence as well as His transcendence. Carson is even more concerned about the tendency to understand God's being in the finite categories of space and time. He again uses the poor term "sequence" to describe time. But at any rate Carson arrives at the two "poles" of God's relationship to humanity: He is transcendent (Carson's, "sovereign") and immanent (Carson's, "personal").

It is unfortunate that Carson would use the term personal to describe God's immanence, since God's personhood is not strictly confined to his relationship to humanity, but exists as part of His Being within the Godhead. Indeed, God's immanence can be understood as a necessary implication of His divine nature: because it is God's nature to commune with Himself, it is also in His nature to commune with His creatures. Recognizing the construction in this way dissolves the tendency to assume that personhood is a specifically human trait, but shows that our nature as persons in relationship is predicated upon God's nature as a Person in relationship. Thus our attention is turned to understand God's person in order to understand ourselves, rather than looking to ourselves to understand God's person.

And here is where I think Carson misses the point, for it is here that he reintroduces his rejection of impassibility. Here is what he says:

The problem of compatibilism, then, is tied to the fact that the God who discloses himself in the Bible and supremely in the person of his Son is himself both transcendent and personal, and not less than both. We have pursued the lines of thought that suggest themselves from the Bible's straightforward adoption of compatibilism, and find they lead to the nature of God.
It should now be a little clearer why, in chapter 10 of this book, I was unwilling to endorse the doctrine of the so-called impassibility of God--at least as it is usually taught. That doctrine is too tied to just one side of the biblical evidence. But that does not mean that the other side--that stresses God's suffering, his love, his responding--is any more reliable if it is abstracted from the complementary pole of God's transcendence.

God's personhood and His transcendence are not properly opposites. God disposes himself to himself in love, joy, peace, accord, etc. Aspects of suffering, "response" and the like occur in God's immanence with His creation. But these attributes are predicated of God's simple Being, and not upon what we experience as physical creatures. Carson's earlier confusion in the term "emotion," shows that he is considering God's Being according to a finite category rather than an infinite and spiritual one, i.e. affections. Emotions are "feelings" and feelings arise from the sensations we experience in our physical bodies and in relation to the external and physical world. God has not a body and nothing exists external to Him in such a way as to change His state of Being. Our state of being is changed according to our bodies and our environment. We may feel depressed as a result of deficiencies in the hormones that regulate our bodies. We may feel anxious when our bodies are threatened with harm. God does not experience such emotions. Affections, on the other hand, are dispositions that are related to knowledge and will. God knows all and wills all, therefore He disposes Himself in love to those He knows according to His willing favor. He disposes Himself in displeasure toward sinful behavior, and this displeasure is disposed in correcting love for His children and condemning wrath for those God has willingly disfavored. Such dispositions are predicated upon God's Being and His Willing, and not upon a response to stimuli, to human behavior, or to acts in space and time.

Carson reveals his ignorance on such matters of systematic theology:

It appears, then, that the problems involved in holding to the truth of both of the propositions that constitute compatibilism are profoundly tied to the very nature of God himself. Ironically, this provides us with a way forward. We are reasonably well placed to isolate some of the things we do not know about God; that is, we see that the Bible describes God as both transcendent and personal, and in part we justify this strange pairing because we can identify some of the things we do not know about him. But some of these things that we do not know about God turn out to be facets of ignorance that make it reasonable to hold that both propositions of compatibilism are also true, even though we do not see how they can be true.
Examples may help. The God of the Bible created all things; he lives above or outside time and space as we know them. He is transcendent. But that means I do not really understand his relationship to time and space. I see that he has revealed himself to human being in time and space, but I don't have a clue how he manages it, or how it looks to him. I cannot be certain, for instance, whether he experiences sequence. If he does, it cannot be exactly the way I do, for my notion of sequence is bound by the categories of space and time.

And he continues a bit further with such ignorant examples. How is it that ignorance can constitute a reasonable ground for belief? Certainly Carson misses the blunder of this sort of argument. The Christian who accepts the propositions of compatibilism, as well as the examples of God's relationship to time and space while not being constrained by time and space does not accept them on the basis of the ignorance in the ability to demonstrate their truth. Rather, the Christian accepts the propositions as true based upon the prior acceptance of the proposition that what Scripture says is true. The acceptance is not, therefore, grounded in ignorance, but in a prior trust in God's Word, despite the ignorance of how to demonstrate the relationship of subsequent propositions. Let it never be said that our acceptance of any doctrine be based in ignorance. To construct belief on the basis of what we do not know about God is pure folly. To admit that such a process is reasonable is no less so.

Carson concludes the section with two rather telling admissions, "I see that he presents himself as personal, but I have no idea how a personal God can also be transcendent," and "So I am driven to see not only that compatibilism is itself taught in the Bible, but that it is tied to the very nature of God; and on the other hand, I am driven to see that my ignorance about many aspects of God's nature is precisely the same ignorance that instructs me not to follow the whims of many contemporary philosophers and deny that compatibilism is possible." Would that Carson would concede his ignorance and affirm his trust in Scripture without affirming his trust in his ignorance. Ignorance, if it instructs us at all, instructs us to trust simply in God's Word and be silent or to strive to turn ignorance into knowledge by prayerful submission to God's illumination and a more careful examination of the propositions--perhaps even consulting many fine Christian theologians who have systematically dealt with the issue already!

The next section deals with three objections to compatibilism: libertarian free will, mutual annihilation of the propositions, and the imposition of alternative philosophical grids. He does a good job again of defeating libertarian free will.

He very briefly states that Howard Marshall and Grant Osborne annihilate both propositions by simply juxtaposed without presupposing compatibilism. There is no demonstration of why such a simple juxtaposition is unwarranted since Carson himself is begging the question that the Biblical writers are affirming compatibilism rather than simply juxtaposing different propositions about God. I'm not saying we should not presuppose compatibilism, but only that doing so requires more argument than he provides here against those who simply juxtapose the propositions. Carson's own inductive analysis can as easily prove juxtaposition rather than compatibilism upon separate presuppositions. The difference is that Carson will not abandon logic for irrationality as those who simply juxtapose the passages do. Carson is not to be faulted for preferring logic to irrationality, but he is to be faulted for not pointing out the necessity of logic for the presupposition of compatibilism and the refutation of irrational juxtaposition. Carson is correct in his conclusions, but inadequate in his defense.

The last objection is the hasty imposition of alternative "grids" to explain the problem. Carson is an exegetical man, so he prefers an inductive approach to Scripture as his starting point. Well and good. But He must recognize that an inductive approach to reconciling determinism and responsibility does not enter without presuppositions. Even apart from these prior considerations, how is it that he will define when enough induction has been done to arrive at the proper account? Without sensitivity to these matters, Carson is in deeper waters than he may suspect. As it is, Carson's critiques to this objection firmly rely upon his presupposing compatibilism, which his inductive study elucidates according to this premise, but does not prove apart from it. It is not long before Carson begins to descend from the comfortable surface of garnering Biblical passages to discussion matters of philosophical importance:

In fact, biblical theologians have long noted that when the Bible says God will something or wants something, the language is used in different ways. God sometimes wills something in a sense no different from decree, from efficient accomplishment. The texts previously cited provide many examples: what God wills in heaven and on earth takes place, and he works everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. On the other hand, the Bible can speak of what God wills (1 Thess. 4:3), but it does not take many powers of observation to note that this cannot be a reference to God's efficient decretal will. Still other passages speak of God's permission, as, for instance, when God grants Satan permission to afflict Job. Similarly, God gives sinners over to their evil ways (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28); in this sense God doe not willingly afflict his people (Lam. 3:33): that is, he permits it, but it is not his desire.. [emphasis mine]

Can God will one thing and at the same time, in the same manner, will its opposite? Surely this is a contradiction. Yet this is what Carson affirms. God's decretal will assures that whatever comes to pass, comes to pass according to God's decree. Yet, when God's decree is that His people are afflicted (Lam. 3:33), it is not truly what God wills. He wills it to occur (decree), but He also does not will it to occur (permit). Now how is it that what God "permits" is contrary to what God "wills"? Rather than resolving the contradiction (which results from an equivocation in the term "will"), Carson appeals to the mystery of God's transcendence and personhood:

At the risk of simplification, it appears that when the Bible speaks of God's will in an efficient or decretal fashion, that use of language belongs to the assumption that God is transcendent and sovereign; when the Bible speaks of God's will as his desire, quite possibly unfulfilled desire[!!!], that use of language belongs to the assumption that God is a person who interacts with other persons. To appeal to such usage to deny that God is sovereign is as irresponsible as it is to appeal to the first usage to deny that God is personal.

How is it that a Sovereign God, whose will cannot be thwarted, has his will thwarted (unfulfilled desire) then? Carson's ignorance cannot instruct him in a reasonable manner to answer this very real dilemma. He can only chastise those who would try to resolve the contradiction by appealing to one proposition over the other. Surely we do not wish to be reductive, but neither should we wish to accuse God of contradiction, which is precisely what we do when we affirm that God decrees (e.g. sin) what He does not will (e.g. sin). The equivocation in the term "will" is what must be addressed, but Carson misses this necessity entirely. Rather, he tries to resort to his earlier distinction of asymmetry:

Similarly, when the Bible speaks of God's permission of evil, there is still no escape from his sovereignty. A sovereign and omniscient God who knows that, if he permits such and such an evil to occur it will surely occur, and then goes ahead and grants the permission, is surely decreeing the evil. But the language of permission is retained because it is part of the biblical pattern of insisting that God stands behind good and evil asymmetrically (in the sense already defined). He can never be credited with evil; he is always to be credited with good. He permits evil to occur; the biblical writers would not similarly say that he simply permits good to occur! So even though permission in the hands of a transcendent and omniscient God can scarcely be different from decree, the use of such language is part and parcel of the insistence that God is not merely transcendent, but that he is also personal and entirely good. That God's permission of evil does not in any way allow evil to escape the outermost bounds of God's sovereignty is presupposed when we are told, for instance, that the Lord persuades the false prophet what to say (Ezek. 14:9), or that his wrath incites David to sin by taking a census (2 Sam. 24:1). When the Chronicler describes the same incident and ascribes the effective temptation to Satan (1 Chron. 21:1), this is not in contradiction of the passage in 2 Samuel (for biblical writers, including the Chronicler, are far too committed to compatibilism to allow such a view), but in complementary explanation. One can say that God sends the strong delusion, or one can say that Satan is the great deceiver: it depends on whether the sovereign transcendence of God is in view, or his use of secondary agents.

Now lest it be said that I have nothing positive to say about Carson, let me affirm where he is worthy. The strain in this passage is primarily the very positive desire of Carson to preserve the absolute nature of God's decree. This is to be commended! Similarly commendable is Carson's strong affirmation that 2 Sam. 24:1 and Chron. 21:1 are looking from separate vantages rather than contradicting each other. He is precisely correct in viewing the former as looking to God's decree and the latter as looking to God's secondary means of accomplishing the decree. The moral responsibility falls upon the proximate actors: Satan who temps and David who succumbs to temptation. Let no man say that God has tempted him when he is moved to sin by his own desires. Where Carson blunders is not in what he tries to defend, but in his accomplishment of the defense.

First of all, the Bible sometimes uses the "language of permission," but it sometimes uses the language of determination, as in the 2 Sam. 24:1 when God "incites" David to take the census. The issue is not with the language, but with its meaning. To draw a distinction between what God decrees and what God permits is confusing rather than helpful. Carson tries to attach it to his "definition" of asymmetry, but this will not do. First of all, Carson's "definition" is better labeled a description, for he does no develop it beyond what he already asserted according to compatibilism: God is not directly (morally) responsible for evil, but He is directly responsible for good. Such is not a definition, but a description of what the Bible declares to be so. If the language of permission speaks to something, it is not speaking to God's personal nature in distinction from his sovereignty. What it may indicate is the truth that God is not directly responsible for evil, but it hardly explains how this is so.

What Carson is missing is the necessary disambiguation in the term "will." God's will is simple and singular: God wills all that comes to pass, and all that comes to pass does so according to His will. Within God's decree He has also given commands, which are binding upon His creatures. Had it been God's decree that His creatures obey His commands, surely they would have, but as it is, God has NOT desired His creatures to obey His commands, in order that their disobedience would result in His glory: His glory by redeeming a people from their sin in Christ, thereby displaying His mercy, grace, and love; and His glory by condemning a people in their sin, thereby displaying His justice, righteousness, and holiness. God's commands do not represent what He wills to occur, but provides a measure against which human action is to be judged. That He gives a standard logically entails but one desire: God desired to give a standard. That God intended to provide this standard does not entail that He desired it to be kept by all, or indeed be kept by any (apart from Christ). The teleology of God's will reveals the intention of the commands. This is why teleological thinking is so vital to understanding what is God's will, for God determines the end from the beginning. This means that in order to understand what God is doing, we must look to the end and understand all that comes to pass accordingly.

Carson concludes the chapter by appealing once again to the necessity of preserving the mystery of compatibilism as revealed by Scripture. But is there really something "mysterious" about God's decree as it relates to His commands when viewed according to His final purpose and the true nature of ultimate and proximate causes? Surely there is a measure of difficult thinking that is required to distinguish how the propositions of Scripture that appear to contradict are in fact reconciled. But difficult thinking is not mysterious, however rare it may be in our present age. On this note I am compelled to label one final criticism against Carson in this chapter, based upon what he says here:

3. The mystery of providence defies our attempt to tame it by reason. I do not mean it is illogical; I mean that we do not know enough to be able to unpack it and domesticate it. Perhaps we may guage how content we areto live with our limitations by assessing whether we are comfortable in joining the biblical writers in utterances that mock our frankly idolatrous devotion to our own capacity to understand. Are we embarrassed, for instance, by the prophetic rebuke to the clay that wants to tell the potter how to set about his work (Isa. 29:16; 45:9)? Is our conception of God big enough to allow us to read "The Lord works out everything to its proper end--even the wicked for a day of disaster" (Prov. 16:4) without secretly wishing the text could be excised from the Bible?

I believe I understand Carson's intention here, which is to chastise those who would try to make the Bible fit into their own autonomous reason. But Carson is overstating the case against reason, for God surely intends for us to understand what He has revealed, and if He has revealed that He decrees all things, including sin, and is not guilty of sin Himself, then we can understand not only that this is not a contradiction, but why it is not a contradiction--that is, we can understand how to demonstrate its logical coherence. Far from bucking against our Creator, the desire to find coherence for what Scripture reveals is a worthy and in many cases necessary endeavor for the believer.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

D.A. Carson and Impassibility

It has been awhile since I've posted, so instead of continuing to review what I haven't been reading (Rushdoony), I'll review something I am reading presently.

I'm now two thirds of the way through Carson's book on the problem of suffering and evil, How Long, O Lord?. So far it has been a very insightful, pastoral, and well stated message.

Unfortunately, the chapter I just read contains a very atrocious denial and God's impassibility. Despite a familiarity with the arguments for impassibility, Carson provides a very sloppy rebuttal, which results not only in a denial of impassibility, but a confusion in language that fails to distinguish affection from emotion. I'll provide his statements and my critique.

The section of the chapter is entitled, "The Cross Reveals the Kind of God We Trust" and it begins with the following definition and outline of the doctrine of impassibility:

[Impassibility] means, in its weaker form, that God cannot suffer; in its stronger from, three aspects of divine passibility were frequently denied to God in the past: "(1) external passibility or the capacity to be acted upon from without, (2) internal passibility or the capacity for changing the emotions from within, and (3) sensational passiblity or the liability to feelings of pleasure and pain caused by the action of another being" [cited from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church]

Carson then provides a list of passages that seem to contradict the doctrine of impassibility. He then gives three arguments offered by proponents of the view to respond to these verses:

First, they insist that these expressions are anthropomorphisms, that is, figures of speech that talk about God as if he were a human being. For example, when the Bible says that God lays bare his arm, it does not mean that God has a literal, physical arm. The expression is an anthropomorphism. It means something like "God rolled up his sleeves and set to work," that is, God displayed his power in some way.
Second, they argue that since God created everything, he stands outside of time. Therefore he must be above time. Since all our notions of change are bound up with changes across time, we must assume that God, in his own timeless eternity, is himself impassible. The reason the Bible speaks to us as if he were passible is that it is trying to reveal what God is like to us who are locked in time, and it must therefore use our categories.
Third, as far as the emotions of Jesus are concerned, these theologians regularly assign them to the human nature of Jesus, but deny that they pertain to his divine nature.

There is problem here. Carson resorts to a metaphor to describe God's relationship to time: God stands "outside" of time or "above" time. This is confusing, nor is it precisely what impassibility implies. Time is an aspect of Creation, therefore time exists within the mind of God as an attribute of the Created world, whether this be part of the natural order or simply part of the creaturely experience of existence. Time is therefore encompassed by God in a way that could be describe as "outside," but would precisely mean "outside the bounds of," or better yet, "not subject to duration." It is correct then to affirm that the Bible expresses God in the language of duration because that is how we experience existence.

However, Carson does not find it adequate to consider anthropomorphisms--God speaking in ways we can readily understand--as explanatory of such passages in support of impassibility. It is here where he makes the significant blunders:

With all due respect to the many fine theologians who uphold this line of reasoning, I sharply disagree. The God who is left seems too much like Buddha (though of course these theologians intend no such similarity): impassibility is seeping over into impassiveness.

This is a poor analogy, based upon a confusion between the will and the emotions. God's will is affective, that is, it distinguishes valuation among His created order. God places His love on one person and places His wrath upon another. God's determinative will not only effects all things, but has determined God's affections for all things--His will not only accomplishes, but distinguishes objects of favor and disfavor. God's care for His own is based in His will, not in "emotions," which Carson is careless to leave undefined here and a bit further along.

He continues:

Moveover, it will not do to hide behind the relationship between time and eternity, for the very good reason that we know almost nothing about it. We scarcely know what time is; we certainly do not know what the relationship between time and eternity is. Is it so very obvious that there is no sequence in eternity? Granted that sequence, if there is such, must look very different to an eternal being than to us, does it follow that there is no such notion? Does it appear to God as if Christ is eternally coming, eternally dying, eternally rising, eternally recurring? Moreover, if the sufferings of Jesus Christ are somehow restricted to his human nature, are we not in danger of constructing (dare I say it?) almost a schizophrenic Christ? I know that one form of conservative theology likes to go through the Gospels and assign this little bit to Jesus' human nature and that little bit to Jesus' divine nature, but I am persuaded that a much more profound christological integration is possible.

There are multiple problems in this paragraph. First, Carson says we know so little about time and its relation to eternity that it is foolish to assert that eternity has no sequence. There are two errors here. One, Carson's ignorance of time and its relation to eternity does not mean it cannot be adequately explained. Second, the doctrine of impassibility does not deny sequence in eternity. Carson is therefore committing two fallacies: the first is an argument from ignorance, and the second is a straw man. The sequence of eternity is logical sequence. In the same way that two and three follow one in an eternal sequence of numbers, so too the thoughts of God proceed in an unending sequence that has no duration. It is not true that impassibility denies sequence. I have already stated how time relates to eternity in that time is an aspect of Creation that defines the experience of existence by its creatures. The sequences we experience are durative because we have a beginning. God's eternal Being as no duration for there was no time at which He began to Be. Since He has always been as He is, how can He change in His Being (internal impassibility), which is what would be necessary if God had emotions (which are defined according to a change in mood, mind, or state of being)? As to Carson's rhetorical questions, he does not appear to have any better understanding of eternity than he does of time. Clearly the thoughts of Christ's coming, dying, rising, and returning are eternal in the mind of God. But Christ's actions in His human nature are durative, and therefore occur terminally rather than eternally. Christ died once for all, which is one temporal act that is in God's mind eternally and determinately. Finally, Carson applies a guilt-by-association unwittingly by comparing the doctrine of impassibility to the attempts of some to identify specific events of Christ's ministry that are described in terms of his divine or human nature. But Carson, like every other theologian, has to answer such questions unrelated to the question of impassibility. How is it that Christ retained all of His divine nature and could yet say that He Himself did not know the hour at which the Son of Man would return? (Matt. 24:36, Mark 13:32). The distinctions between time and eternity and between Christ's divine and human nature are not empty arguments behind which theologians "hide," but are substantive explanations that reconcile God's Being with His Creation and Purposes in History.

Let's continue to examine Carson's claims, for he continues:

The methodological problem with the argument for divine impassibility is that it selects certain text of Scripture, namely those that insist on God's sovereignty and changelessness, constructs a theological grid on the basis of those selected texts, and then uses this grid to filter out all other texts, in particular those that speak of God's emotions. These latter texts, nicely filtered out, are then labeled "anthropomorphisms" and are written off. But if they are anthropomorphisms, why were they selected? They are figures of speech, but figures of speech that refer to something. To what? Why were they selected? Granted that neither God's emotions nor his sovereignty looks exactly like what we mean by emotions and sovereignty, nevertheless biblical writers chose terms to make us think of God as not only absolutely sovereign, but also as a personal, emotional, responding, interacting God.

It is strange that Carson would find problems in the method employed by theologians who arrive at impassibility. It is the same method employed by all systematic theologians who attempt to arrive at logical precision and to reconcile passages of Scripture that appear to contradict upon superficial reading. Carson appears to be using his own presupposition about God's emotions to criticize the fact that others have arrived at opposing conclusions in their analysis of the textual evidence. But Carson faces the same dilemma, for he must reconcile the passages concerning God's changelessness and sovereignty with the passages that speak of his emotions. He does not offer any argument supporting the problems faced by his own view. In fact, in the following paragraph he refutes those who have taken his position to its logical conclusion and argued for a finite, ever-changing God. Carson no doubt opts for a middle ground, and proposes to deal with the arguments in the next chapter, so I'll reserve some criticism on this point. However, the issue is not one of methodology, but of logical precision.

The bigger problem is that Carson acts as if theologians assume that nothing exists behind the use of anthropomorphisms. But an explanation has been given: they speak of God's determinate will in ways that resemble how human experience existence. Theologians who support impassibility also recognize that God is relationally mutable in regard to His creatures because they are mutable. The Biblical language reflects God's various relations to His creatures without attributing any change to God's Being or Nature. Carson's ignorance as to these distinctions makes his arguments quite silly when they are brought to bear. Carson simply does not understand the doctrine of impassibility well enough to refute it, and resorts to attacking a poorly constructed straw man.

In the end, Carson tries to preserve what is necessary to preserve from the doctrine of impassibility (God's Sovereignty and unchanging nature), while retaining his belief that God has emotions. This contradiction rests upon a confusion between emotions and affections that Carson does not appear to be aware of:

My sole point at the moment is simple. The biblical evidence, in both Testaments, pictures God as a being who can suffer. Doubtless God's suffering is not exactly like ours; doubtless metaphors litter the descriptions. But they are not metaphors that refer to nothing, that are suggestive of nothing. They are metaphors that refer to God and are suggestive of his profound emotional life and his distinctly personal relationships with his people. If the term "impassible" is to be preserved--and I think it can be--then one must use it to affirm that God is never controlled or overturned by his emotions. We human beings speak of "falling in love" and "exploding in anger" or simply "losing it." God never "loses it." What he does--whether in righteous wrath or in tender love--he does out of the constancy of all his perfections. In that sense, I think, we may usefully speak of God being "impassible." But never should we succumb to the view that God is exclusively cerebral, utterly without emotions.

It is odd that Carson assumes that impassibility offers nothing by way of explanation for passages referring to anthropomorphisms and yet fails to realize that his construction offers what is so vague as to be as good as nothing. God feels, but not like us. God suffers, but not like us. Metaphors are necessary, but they refer to God's emotions (whatever they may really be like) and God relationship to his people (even though it is much different from our relationships to one another). If Carson has trouble explaining God's eternity and relation to time, what hope does he have of explaining God's emotion in relation to ours, which are so vastly different?

Secondly, and important for the criticism offered here is that Carson's "reconciliation" of impassibility is nothing but a vague and confused appeal to the relational mutability that theologians of impassibility recognize. God's relation to His creatures changes according to their change: when they sin, His anger is upon them; when they obey, His pleasure is upon them. God's nature changes not at all in such human change. Rather, God's affections, which are set according to His divine nature and Being, are manifest in His relationships to us as we live and act in history. Because God has determined the beginning from the end He does not change in His Being when His anger or pleasure is manifest in Creation to His creatures. Rather, we experience the logical implication of God's eternal relationship to sin and obedience. The language of Scripture communicates God's relationship in metaphors of mutable attributions because we are thereby concerned to change ourselves in relation to God's pleasure or displeasure. But to assume that God's Being is altered, which is what emotions are by definition--alterations in one's state of being--then we contradict those passages that speak of God's unchangeable being.

Carson's problems with impassibility would be solved if he considered them more fully and more carefully. His glosses on time and eternity and Christ's divine and human nature are only compounded by his inability to distinguish emotions from affections.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Romans 4.14-25

Verse 14
Here Paul contrasts the implications of righteousness by means of the Law with righteousness that is by faith. If the heirs of God’s promise were heirs by their own obedience, that is, by the Law, then faith is made null and void and the promise according to faith is therefore null and void. Faith and works cannot equally stand as the instrument of receiving God’s declaration of righteousness. If we receive it by works, it is our works that have become something God must reward, and trusting in God to give graciously has become trusting in God to give us what we are due. But this cannot be so, for God is the just and the justifier, not according to anything in us, but according to His free and Sovereign choice. This is why we must receive the promise by faith, for faith apprehends what God has wrought, whereas works cannot.

Verse 15
Besides, as Paul has shown, no one is able to fulfill the Law, but all have sinned before God. And sin before God according to the Law brings the wrath of God to bear upon sin. But where there is no law, that is, where the promise is not founded upon law, but upon faith, there can be no violation. Why? For the promise rests upon God Himself, who cannot vitiate His own will, nor can He violate His purposes. Therefore where we apprehend God’s promise by faith we are heirs according to the promise apart from the Law effecting it, and apart from the violations of the Law, which our sinful state have brought to bear upon us.

Verse 16
Now Paul lays out a more complete summary of the equation. Faith is the instrument by which we receive God’s grace. Those who possessed the Law, the Jews, were no less heirs by faith than those who are not Jews who trust in the righteousness of God by faith in Christ, according to the example of Abraham. Abraham, by virtue of his faith, has become the father of all who believe by way of example, so that no one would have cause to boast in the Law (Jews) or in ignorance (Gentiles), but that all would boast in Christ (Christians, both Jews and Gentiles).

Verse 17
Paul here parenthetically quotes the verse from Genesis 17 where God make His promise to Abraham as evidence for Abraham’s fatherhood before proceeding to in his summary. Abraham’s fatherhood of all who enter by faith was witnessed before God Himself, for Abraham believed God’s promise was sure. Paul closes this verse with a transition into the kind of faith that Abraham exhibited. Abraham’s faith was not a faith in faith, as if such a thing were possible. For faith must have its object in which it believes, and the object of Abraham’s faith was God, “who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.” Was it not because Abraham believed in God that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac? For he knew, as Paul states here, Abraham believed in the God who raises to life the dead (cf. also Heb. 11:17-19).

Verse 18
What a treasure of expression is found in this verse! In hope against hope Abraham believed. The phrasing is only contradictory to those who are so scrupulous for the literal word that they obscure intention. For Paul is not saying the Abraham hoped without hope, nor is Abraham hoping without an object or wishfully. Abraham hoped with a hope in God against all earthly hope. For in his natural years, and in hers, Abraham and Sarah were past the normal age of conceiving children. But because Abraham hoped in God, he hoped against these natural considerations and believed that God would give him what He promised: that Abraham would become the father of many nations, and have descendents innumerable.

Verse 19
If this were not clear enough Paul makes it plain here when he speaks of Abraham’s consideration of his natural state. Without wavering in trust, Abraham believed in God although his body was old and Sarah’s ability to conceive had passed away along with her youth. Against these natural hopes did Abraham hope.

Verse 20
So Abraham held fast to the promise of God, unwavering and even growing stronger in his belief, thereby giving glory to God. Christian, if Abraham is our father, why do we not, like him, cling fast to the promises of God against all earthly hopes? Surely this is what Paul wishes us to see, that the promise of God is so certain, and that Abraham’s faith was fixed on this certainty, and that we as children of faith should fix our trust on the certainty of God’s promises to His people. The same certainty is exhibited in the words of Jesus who tells us to worry not over the cares of life, but to seek God’s Kingdom, for there all promises are yea and amen.

Verse 21
Abraham had full assurance that God was able to accomplish what God promised to accomplish. Here is the substance of faith and the destruction of works based righteousness according to the Law. If God had said to Abraham, “Do this perfectly, and I shall do for you,” what hope would Abraham have had? His hope would have been placed in himself to keep his end of the bargain. But what does God tell Abraham, “I will do for you all these things, therefore walk blamelessly.” Because God had put His name upon Abraham, He desired Abraham to walk according to His commands. And why did Abraham obey? It was not because Abraham expected his obedience to accomplish what God had promised, but because Abraham expected God to accomplish what God had promised—for God is able to do what humanity cannot.

Verse 22
Paul quotes again from Genesis, concluding his exegesis of the righteousness of God given to Abraham and received by his faith in God to give it according to His Word. Because God has chosen to bring about the promises, it is faith that acknowledges that God is able to accomplish what He had chosen to accomplish. What effort of man is necessary for God to choose? God’s choice is His own, for His mind conceives, without a beginning, all of everything as one without reference to Creation, which has beginning. Therefore it is God’s choice to accomplish, and not our accomplishing efforts, that effect righteousness for those whom God has chosen.

Verse 23
Paul transitions from Abraham to his own present audience, and by implication of the Holy Spirit’s work, to us as well. God’s reckoning righteousness to Abraham is a word that speaks to Abraham, that speaks to the saints in Rome, that speaks to us today, and that speaks to all who shall receive the word as it was first spoken. God’s Word, the same yesterday, today, and forever, speaks eternal truths to all men in all times and places: righteousness comes by faith in God’s grace to give it freely to those who will trust Him.

Verse 24
It is for our sake, says Paul, for the sake of the believers in Rome and for all believers in Christ, because believers in Christ trust that God has raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. It is necessary to pause and consider what it is that Paul fixes first as the object of our hope in God. It is the resurrection of Christ that comes first in his mind. The power of God and his purpose to redeem a people from the curse of death is the word that speaks to all the suffering of this present age. For the common man under sin, what greater fear is there than the cold certainty of death and the uncertainty of its after-effect? We believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, for by His life we are promised life in Him, according to the promise of God, which is our surest hope against hope, for the first death comes to us all according to what is natural.

Verse 25
Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, was delivered up to death on the cross. Why did Jesus have to die? Paul is clear, and especially so in light of all that he has said thus far. Sin condemns us to wrath, the penalty of which is death. Christ therefore took upon himself the sins on our credit, died according to the penalty of sin, bearing the wrath of God that righteously falls on all sin, in order to expiate our account and make us holy and wholly able to come cleanly before the throne of God. What then does it mean that Christ was raised because of our justification? God cannot die, but humanity must die because of sin. Christ who is fully God and fully man, had to conquer the two-fold enemy: sin and death. Christ conquered sin on the cross, and he conquered death in being raised from death to life. Our justification, wrought by God according to His Sovereign Pleasure, required the two-fold victory of Christ for its fulfillment. God has chosen, God has given, and God has accomplished all things necessary for our justification in Christ.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Romans 4.1-13

Chapter 4
Verse 1
Paul continues to address the potential Jewish objections to his claims regarding justification and the law of Moses. The question in this verse introduces a new objection, based upon the suppressed premise that Abraham was justified by his obedience rather than by his faith. Paul also introduces here a term that he will use to separate Abraham’s fatherhood into two distinct categories: flesh and promise. The Jews are children of Abraham according to the flesh, but all those who believe in Christ for their righteousness are children of Abraham according to the promise, and it is the children of the promise who will inherit the Kingdom of God.

Verse 2
The second verse introduces the objection suppressed in the opening verse. Had Abraham’s obedience, his works, been meritorious of justification he would have reason to boast before God. However, Abraham was conscious of his sinfulness and recognized himself to be righteous according to God’s gracious choice and not due to his own merit. For when did Abraham boast of his works before God? If his works were truly meriting God’s favor, why should they be left unadorned with his self-praise? Yet Abraham glorified God in thankfulness.

Verse 3
Paul does not linger upon the hypothetical, but takes us directly to the text of Scripture. Genesis 15:6 tells us that Abraham believed God, and according to his belief was righteousness imputed to Abraham. It would be easy to misunderstand the imputation of righteousness had Paul not laid three chapters of groundwork prior to using Abraham for his example. For it is not Abraham’s belief as belief that is the ground of his justification, but it is God’s grace extended to us in the person and work of Christ that is the ground of our justification—God is just and justifier. What then is belief? Belief is efficacious when it is attached to the appropriate object. It is the object of belief that attains or does not attain justification. Thus, Abraham’s belief in God proves that justification is of God’s grace alone, because He is the object of Abraham’s belief. Had Abraham trusted in, that is, believed in his own works, then his belief would not have resulted in justification, for the object of his belief would have been ineffectual—for no man is justified by keeping the law, for all men are under the condemnation of their willful sinning.

Verse 4
Paul expounds upon the implications of trusting in works vs. trusting in grace in the next few verses. Here he states that the wages of works are not of grace, but of due. If one works and that work is of himself, then one has claim to a reward. A claim is not accomplished by grace, but by merit. So, if we are justified by our works, then we are not justified by God’s grace, and from the arguments laid before we know that God’s grace is our grounds for justification, therefore it cannot be of works.

Verse 5
The opposite side of the equation is as follows. The one who does not work, that is, the one who does not rest upon, trust in, or believe upon his work for justification; but instead believes in God who justifies the ungodly (for indeed all are under the curse of sin)—to this one righteousness is bestowed by God’s grace without reference to, or consideration of the merit or works of that one. If justification is to be of God’s grace, it must be all of God’s grace that accomplishes it, otherwise the work of man (however infinitesimal) would merit consideration, and therefore he should boast of himself apart from God’s grace.

Verse 6
Paul goes once more to the Scriptures by way of another blessed forefather, King David. Just as Abraham believed in God’s gracious justification apart from consideration of his own works, so too does David believe in God’s gracious justification apart from consideration of his own works. Or, it can be said oppositely from an alternative vantage: that Abraham and David believed in God’s gracious justification because they considered their own works and found them entirely lacking before a holy and just God. Therefore there is a two-sided consideration: one side that considers not the merit of our works for our acceptance before God and one side that considers the inadequacy of the merit of our works for attaining God’s favor. The former looks to God by the means of Christ’s and beholds His love, whereas the latter reflects upon oneself in light of having beheld God’s glory.

Verse 7
The quotation of David’s psalm 32:1 acknowledges the blessedness of the one who has been forgiven by God. It is not the one who boasts in his righteousness who is blessed, but the one who boasts in God’s graciousness and mercy to forgive the account of sins committed and goods omitted. Who better than David to speak these words, for it was he who sinned most grievously and was yet forgiven before God. His adultery, murder, and vast bloodshed would have garnered him many deaths according to the Law, but because God desired to use David to exalt the glory of His Name, David was led to recognize the greatness of God’s grace and the blessedness of his own account, which God forgave according to His good pleasure and purposes.

Verse 8
Repeated in briefer language is the same principle of the initial part of the quotation. Blessed indeed is the one to whom God does not credit his sin. Who is Judge if not God? Who is able to blot out transgressions but Him? Indeed, was it not the rage of the religious leaders who spewed forth at Jesus when He offered forgiveness to sinners? They understood well that God alone has the authority to forgive any trespass, and as David confesses in another Psalm, all sin is an offense to God first and only when considering justice. For though we may sin against another, no other has authority over us but by God’s decree, and over all things stands God’s decree, so that every offense to another is chiefly a rebellion against the will and decree of God Himself. How then could we recognize our sin and yet claim to be justified by keeping the law, for but one small sin is enough to have spat in the very face of the Sovereign of the Universe. Therefore God’s grace alone justifies the sinner, who boasts alone in that matchless grace.

Verse 9
Paul transitions in this verse to consider once more the truth that God’s justice is not arbitrary, nor is it founded upon the actions of men. The question he would ask to those who sought to justify themselves in Abraham by exemplifying his works have not considered all the pertinent facts.

Verse 10
How was Abraham reckoned righteous, when in his circumcision or when in his uncircumcision? Indeed faith was reckoned to him as righteousness, because it had an object that was efficacious. So then, to what object could Abraham look to and rest in, trusting for his righteousness before God? It could not be his circumcision, the act or work, and the sign by which he was brought into covenant with God outwardly. For his faith was reckoned as righteousness prior to his circumcision. What a blow of devastation to those Judaizers who sought to bring the Gentiles into conformity with the ceremonial laws of Moses!

Verse 11
Circumcision was received as the sign and seal, which testified to the faith that Abraham had already exhibited in God while he was yet uncircumcised. The sign and seal was a testimony of Abraham’s righteousness before God, although it was not the object upon which that righteousness was fixed. Rather, Abraham’s faith in God was a testimony of God’s free grace bestowed upon those who will believe upon Him in Christ, so that by his example Abraham would become the father of all who believe without being circumcised. That is, Abraham is a father of the faithful by virtue of his faith in God, which is the example of God’s promise revealed to those who are not born of Abraham according to the flesh.

Verse 12
And to those who are spiritually circumcised, as Moses states in the Law that circumcision is to be of the heart, to these Abraham is the father—both to those who have been circumcised in the flesh as well as those whose flesh has not been circumcised, yet both alike circumcised in their hearts by faith and according to the grace of God in Christ. For what steps did Abraham take in which we are to follow? Abraham believed in God’s gracious promise, and it was imputed to his account: righteousness.

Verse 13
If it were unclear what specifically Abraham believed in God concerning, Paul makes it clear in this verse. The promise of God to Abraham and to his descendents was that he would be the heir of the world (the father of nations). The promise was given prior to the Law, that is, prior to the command to be circumcised, and therefore was not given through the Law, but through faith in God Himself, and His faithfulness to fulfill His promises.