Friday, November 5, 2010

The Baptized Body by Peter Leithart

I originally posted these on another blog as three separate parts, but I'm combining them here as one post.

I’m currently reading Peter Leithart’s book, The Baptized Body. In the opening chapter, there is much to commend. Let me choose three examples.

First, baptism has socio-political implications. In other words, when I am baptized, my allegiances, my citizenship, and my responsibilities as a citizen are fundamentally altered. Baptism doesn’t only affect me, it doesn’t only affect the Church, but it affects the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world—and not only eschatologically, but as soon as it occurs.

Second, baptism is a basis for instruction, not an end of instruction. Baptists, who deny infants the rite of baptism, take the view that baptism is something that comes after faith has been demonstrated as the result of instruction into who is the object of that faith (Jesus Christ), His work, and how that work applies to the recipient. But if faith is something that is not only instantaneous, but also progressive, why should the sign be kept from those under the lordship of faith-filled parents? Parents who pass on language expect their children to speak as they speak as they grow into this instruction. Parents who pass on basic household instructions expect children to eventually learn and do what they are told. The symbols used to communicate realities that children are only just learning to understand are not withheld, but rather inform the meaning parents seek to give. Somehow the passing on of the faith becomes radically different from all other instruction, but there is no justification for this dramatic shift. But baptism, as a symbol of the faith in Christ and all that it entails by way of blessings and responsibilities is part of the way a child learns what faith is—it is not the end of instruction, but a basis for it.

Third, sacraments do work and require work. By work I don’t mean that they are “good works” in some forensic sense. Rather, they are participatory rather than entirely introspective or contemplative. The meeting of minds is a central aspect (as I’ve stated in a previous post here), but it is not the only aspect, and the mental aspect is supported by, and even accomplished through the interaction with or participation in the work/effort/action of baptism and communion. Objectively, though not always efficaciously, baptism and communion cleanse the believer of sin, confer upon the believer the rights and privileges of Christ, including the responsibilities of covenant fidelity, and draw the believer into communion with Christ and His Body. We can say objectively, because that is what God has purposed the signs to signify, and how He has instructed us to regard them and those partaking of them. That some will partake powerlessly, faithlessly, subversively does not invalidate the sign or its meaning—for a general purpose need not entail a universal application (I can say, “My class is full of good students,” even while there are a few who are “bad students.” The fullness does not imply totality in each particular, but generality across the class).

Despite these excellent points, there are unfortunately stinkers too. Two points in particular stick out. One is relatively minor, but is cropping up as a pattern (in three readings of Leithart now)—I don’t like the way Leithart discards long-standing terminology on the basis of contemporary misuses or misunderstandings. Provocation is not always perceptive. The other quibble is more grievous, and is based in poor definition, and poor attention to logical implication.

First is the disjunction between means and ends. Leithart avoids the term “ends,” but it seems apparent from his description and examples that what he opposes to means are the things means are supposed to be getting us toward, helping to accomplish, etc. He says, for example, “Is the sentence ‘food is a means of nourishment’ any more precise than ‘food nourishes’?” or “Is sex a ‘means of making love’ or is it ‘making love’?” He supposes that these sentences are tautologies, which they are, but then he takes the additional step of arguing that this invalidates the precision of “means” as a term of description: “In each case, sticking ‘means’ into the sentence gives the impression of insight and precision, but without much payoff.” But just because one may omit the word in several cases of expression does not imply that it loses precision in all cases of expression.

Suppose I confess the faith to an unbeliever, and as a result of my confession the unbeliever repents and believes. By Leithart’s logic, saying, “My confession saved this unbeliever” is as precise as saying, “My confession was a means of saving this unbeliever.” The first is true, but confusing insofar as it leaves unexpressed the other means that were necessary for the event to have been accomplished. By including “means” I communicate that more than my confession contributed to the unbeliever’s salvation. And this is precisely the type of precision that the Westminster Confession is aiming at in using the phrase “means of grace.” There are several means of grace—ways in which God graces us—none of which in itself is the sum and total of God’s particular grace to His people. Baptism graces. Communion graces. The Word graces. And all of these by God’s determination and power. The emphasis upon “means” is to point back to the “primary cause” who confers, and who also does not confer.

This fact on non-conference is another reason why “means” language is more precise. Every time one has sex, “lovemaking” is not only objectively portrayed, but subjectively accomplished, if we take the terms to be identical. Water is a bit more fluid (pardon the pun) for it can wash effectively or ineffectively based on how it is applied. Baptism and Communion are objective rites, but they do not confer in and of themselves what they signify (which Leithart acknowledges). Thus, God must act through them, in them, or by them, but “them” not apart from Him. The reprobate who has “bad faith” (though by all appearances he has faith) lacks the new birth wrought by God. This is so by definition, for God does not confer his favor (grace) upon, does not commune with, does not look upon with love the one determined by wrath or hatred from eternity. The appearance of faith is no different than an alien’s appearance of citizenship, or the imposter’s appearance of belonging. Now this is the first chapter, so perhaps Leithart will bring the discussion back around, but as it stands in this section, I don’t see how ridding ourselves of “means” language affords us greater clarity.

I’ve probably spent too much effort to explain what could be said in one sentence: the problem is not with the term “means of grace,” but with the misunderstanding of what it identifies or what is its definition. Leithart wants new terms (or old terms that find new usage), which seems good so long as we don’t discard terms that are still full of use, despite their misuse or misunderstanding.

The second objection I have is Leithart's explanation of God's relation to time.

He begins, “For some, however, God’s transcendence of time effectively cancels out any real interaction or involvement that God might have with creatures in time. Because God has determined and knows that some person will be reprobate, He cannot really, sincerely favor that reprobate in time. Because God has scripted history and fixed the course of events, God never really reacts to our actions. When the Bible says, ‘God changed His mind,’ it is mere anthropomorphism. This is not a satisfying answer. The Bible says God changed His mind, and the Bible is true (Exod. 32:14; Jer. 26:19; Amos 7:3,6). The Bible also says God does not change His mind, and that is also true (1 Sam. 15:29). We should try to affirm both equally well, and not allow one biblical truth to cancel another. Any time our theology makes it difficult or impossible to say what Scripture says, our theology must be mistaken.”

One small note, but important note: God hasn’t determined and known that some person “will be” reprobate, but rather God determines and knows that a person “is” reprobate. One doesn’t become elect or reprobate at some point in history, but is elect or reprobate from eternity, and is revealed before (displayed in front of or toward) creation as elect or reprobate in the Last Day. This is a subtle, but all important distinction, because insofar as we want to have eternal election—God choosing to place his love on certain men prior to and apart from any condition in those men—then we also by implication affirm eternal reprobation (whether supralapsarian or sublapsarian in order). You don’t get one without the other, and therefore all men for all of time are categorized in one of these two ways, never to be confused or alternated.

Second, let’s recognize that in tackling one of the most difficult philosophical topics (time) in addition to the part time plays in one of the most difficult theological topics (God’s relation to time) Leithart fails to define his terms—and not just in this quotation, but anywhere in the section. What is time? What is “changelessness?” We get lots of description, some propositions and supporting claims, but no definitions. It is impossible to resolve the relation of God’s immutability and time without knowing what exactly immutability and time are! Leithart promptly goes to the Bible, which is the right move, but instead of clarifying a single meaning, he identifies two mutually exclusive meanings and says we must have both! God cannot be glorified in logical contradictions, no matter how “mysterious” we want to proclaim them to be. Open that door and we can do all sorts of gymnastics upon the same basis: The Bible says that God’s eyes roam to and fro over the earth; the Bible also says that God is a spirit, which means He has no body; well, the Bible says God has eyes, and God has not eyes, so we must affirm both! Clearly this is absurd, and no one resolves anthropomorphisms of this nature by arguing that “somehow” God has and also has not body parts.

We needn’t resort to affirming contradictions anyhow. The word Leithart identifies as “change” is nacham, and means to repent, regret, be sorry, comfort, console oneself, or be comforted. The key idea here has to do with how God is positioned toward His people. In 1 Sam. 15:29 God is rejecting Saul, and Samuel wants Saul to be clear that God is beyond persuading, i.e. there is no repentance that can bring about restoration—God is not like men, who will be comforted by your efforts to appease him. In Exod. 32:14 Moses is interceding with God to spare the people for His name’s sake. Clearly this is in line with God’s eternal desire, and so here God accepts the mediation of Moses, for it is for God’s purposes to relent from destroying Israel. Has God “changed His mind” or was it that He never intended to wipe Israel off the face of the earth in the first place? Just because the language is put into dramatic form doesn’t imply that we toss out what the Bible elsewhere affirms about God’s eternal willing. Resolving the issue doesn’t require affirming the contradiction, nor does it require a definition of God’s relation to time wherein God is undergoing some change within Himself toward the people whom He is addressing or being addressed. We don’t even need to attempt to distinguish reprobation and election in these passages, but only that God is disposed to impose or relent of wrath on the basis of intercession actual or potential. That God exacts the consequences of sin at one time and does not exact them at another does not entail that God is changing His mind, or changing anything regarding His dispositions toward those upon whom the consequences fall.

So when Leithart wants us to accept that God changes, but does not change his mind and attempts to support this claim by explaining how God is both “active” and “responsive” in Creation, he isn’t giving us any logically sound definition of time and change upon which to evaluate his claims. Leithart simply does not define what is response or responsiveness. His affirmation that God passes judgment is not proof that God is responsive, for we can identify judgments of God that are not responsive at all, since they precede the existence of the things to which He would be responding—i.e. when God judges men elect or reprobate prior to creating them, he is not responding to something they have done, but is imposing judgment actively, determinately, without response. Leithart affirms that “God does all things according to the council of His will (Eph. 1:11), and yet God also responds to, reacts to, and passes judgment on things that He Himself has performed. He responds to prayers with showers of blessings. He responds to rebellion with flaming wrath. He mourns over the city and the people that refuse to receive Him. God, the changeless God, is a responsive God.” But this isn’t proof of Leithart’s claim, but mere assertion. We can just as easily assert that these judgments and consequences aren’t something God is “doing” in time, but are the entailment of what He “has done” from eternity—namely, decided that at time T, X would occur to Y on the basis of A. There is no compelling demonstration for Leithart’s claim, but insofar as we accept election and reprobation from eternity we prima facie affirm that God does judge, evaluate, and act from eternity in ways that humans experience in time, without the entailment of God somehow changing something about Himself or His doing in time.

Which brings us to the problem of time itself. Augustine defined time as a quality of created things, thus God’s “entry” into time can only be truly expressed in Christ’s human nature in the Incarnation. God’s actions are not “in time,” but rather human experience of God’s acts is durative rather than immediate. If Leithart wants to disagree with Augustine, then he needs to put forth a definition of time. Instead Leithart says, “God is changeless, but we must define changelessness the way the Bible does and in a way consistent with our Trinitarian convictions. We must be careful not to fill the word ‘changeless’ with whatever content we think is appropriate. For instance, one might argue: God is changeless; any action is change; therefore, God doesn’t really act. When the Bible says He acts, it’s speaking ‘anthropomorphically.’ But that’s not the way the Bible defines ‘changelessness.’ Obviously God does act, and all the time; He works from the beginning until now, Jesus says. We can’t conclude from God’s changelessness that God is motionless. In short, we should affirm both sides of this apparent contradiction between God’s changelessness and His responsiveness.” But how can we affirm what has not been defined or identified? What are changelessness and responsiveness? Descriptions of Biblical events aren’t definitions of these terms. Leithart admonishes us to avoid importing our own meaning to a word, but then instead of giving us a Biblical meaning to use, he simply says it is obvious from the descriptions offered by the Bible.

I would think that Dr. Leithart would know that a description is not the same as a definition. Saying, “this object is hard, sharp edged, and gray” does not a rock define. Nor is saying, “God changes His mind, and God does not change His mind” a definition of God’s changelessness and “responsiveness.” It describes two statements made about God from Scripture, but does not distinguish their meaning or their difference from each other. Leithart’s primary problem is that he takes a change in man’s nature or temporal status to indicate a change in God’s relationship to man: “In short, God has planned everything, but part of what He’s planned is a change in His relationship with us. This is not only explicit in various passages of Scripture, where it is said that God changed His mind [a statement Leithart has asserted, but not proven, as my counter-explanation above has demonstrated], but it is evident from the very nature of the gospel. What can we say about a man who is a rogue apostate, living in flagrant disobedience to God, preying on every attractive woman he meets, backbiting his business associates and cheating his business competition? Are we justified in saying that he is the object of God’s wrath? Certainly. What if he converts? Has God’s attitude toward him changed? Certainly. He has moved from wrath to grace; before God regarded him in Adam, but now He regards him in Christ. God had not shown favor; then He does show favor. That’s what conversion means.”

This is terrible theology. It takes what we observe—a man’s transition from death to life—and identifies it as a change in God’s evaluation. But Scripture affirms that God chose us in Christ from before the foundation of the world, which means God has regarded us in Christ while we were sinners. God does not view the elect who have not yet been converted as reprobate, nor is He disposed toward them in wrath. They are called children of wrath because that is the realm in which they are still living, but that isn’t how God regards them, for otherwise it could not be said that He has elected them in Christ from eternity. They are only “in Adam” insofar as their nature has not yet been changed, but from God’s determination, from His evaluation of them (which, by the way, is always from the view of the individual’s end—glorification or condemnation) is from the nature He shall grant them upon conversion. What Leithart has done is taken the classical Arminian view of God’s relationship toward men in salvation and generalized it out to God’s relation to time. For the Arminian, God responds to what He has planned from eternity because He is dependent upon the free will of the individual to accomplish the plan. Leithart avoids the LFW problem, but keeps the dependency of God to be disposed one way or another on the basis of the temporal conditions of the individuals He has created. The Creator is rendered a passive agent. I don’t take this to be what Liethart believes himself to be saying, but rather I affirm it as an implication of what he has said. It is sloppy thinking, and the saddest part is that he doesn’t need it in order to support the arguments regarding the objective aspects of the Covenant identified in my previous post.

No comments: