2 Books on Reformed Natural Law / Theology

A popular (mis)perception of Reformed theology is that it rejects natural approaches to theology and ethics. However, this thesis has been challenged recently by a number of Reformed scholars. This dual book review considers two books that make a great pair, as they make a thorough case, historically and philosophically, for the presence and positive use of natural law and natural theology in the Reformed tradition.

The first book is Stephen Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), x + 310 pp.  The thesis of the book is the consistent use of natural law in Reformed theology:

The Protestant Reformation carried over, though with some critical modifications  certain theological, philosophical, and legal ideas common to the western Christian church. These common teachings include the idea that God promulgated a natural law that directs and binds human creatures; that this law of nature has been written on every human heart; that conscience and reason serve as natural lights leading people to act in accord with natural law; that the natural law and the Old Law (Decalogue) differ only as means (or conveyors of moral information) but not in fundamental moral content; that while human cognition of the natural moral order was obscured by sin, the natural law still yields sufficient data to assist people in distinguishing between good and evil; that neither knowledge of, nor adherence to, natural law is sufficient for either justification or redemption; and that a natural-law jurisprudence is crucial to maintaining just and well-ordered temporal polities, regardless of whether they are governed by Christian princes or legislatures. (2)

Grabill believes that a recovery of natural law would be useful to contemporary Reformed theologians, because it would give them more contact points with the broader Christian tradition and because it offers an approach to moral conversations with secular culture. However, he does not develop this theme in any detail.

Rather, the book is a historical examination. It begins, somewhat counter-intuitively, in the 20th century with the theologian Karl Barth and a few other theologians. Grabill starts here because Barth and his conversation partners are largely responsible for the perception of Reformed theology as opposed to natural law. Grabill surveys their objections to natural law, but stresses that their objections to natural law stem from their own theological projects and represent a departure from traditional Reformed theology. Their historical claims are suspect because (1) they illegitimately separate Calvin from the Reformed tradition and privilege him against it and because (2) their appeal even to Calvin is suspect.

The second chapter deals with a second source of the misconception that Reformed theology is opposed to natural law. Many Catholic scholars have asserted that natural law belongs to the realist (predominately Thomist but also Scotist) philosophical tradition of the Middle Ages, whereas Protestantism is tied to the nominalist philosophical tradition, which has at best a defective natural law theory. Grabill argues that the difference between the two medieval philosophical traditions has been exaggerated and alleges that, in any case, significant Reformed theologians fall on the realist side.

The rest of the book covers four Reformed theologians, representing the various phases of Reformed orthodoxy according to the periodization of historian Richard Muller. John Calvin (1509-64) and Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-62) both belong to the pre-orthodox phase, but both are necessary to demonstrate, contra the Barth thesis, that Calvin was in substantial agreement with his Reformed colleagues. Johannes Althusius (1557-1638) was an exceedingly influential Reformed jurist and political philosopher in the period of early orthodoxy; Grabill shows his indebtedness to the very early orthodox systematic theologian Jerome Zanchi (1516-1590). Last, Francis Turretin (1623-1678) was the preeminent Reformed systematic and polemical theologian of the high orthodox era. Also, a conclusion sketches the way natural law thinking succumbed to rationalist influences in the late orthodox era and was transformed into a rather different project.

The first achievement of this book is its thorough coverage of a few highly significant but unfortunately neglected Reformed thinkers. Grabill’s analyses are sure to become a point of departure for other interesting projects. The second contribution lies in its success at reframing the conversation about Reformed theology and natural law. Examining the Reformed tradition as a partial critique of the medieval Western church rather than as a full rejection of it makes possible a more nuanced discussion of continuities and discontinuities, perhaps leading to even more clarity about the distinctive character of Reformed theology. I thought the one weakness of the book was the conclusion, which hastily covers the 300 year gap from Turretin to the present. I would rather have seen a more thematic conclusion that strove to answer the question of what makes Reformed natural law theory distinctively Reformed, or how the broader framework of Reformed theology transposed the medieval natural law tradition into a new key. Despite frequent intimations that this happened, the details are scant.


The second book is Michael Sudduth, The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009), xii + 238 pp. This book is a hybrid of historical analysis and analytic philosophy. Sudduth’s goal is to determine whether Reformed theology provides a cogent objection to natural theology, and his conclusion is that it does not. Sudduth distinguishes between natural theology α, which is natural knowledge of God either implanted or acquired, and natural theology β, which consists of formal theistic arguments that codify and develop the raw materials from natural theology α. Sudduth maintains that Reformed theology allows for both types of natural knowledge.

Natural theology can be developed and employed in various ways. The first distinction is between dogmatic and pre-dogmatic natural theology. Dogmatic natural theology occurs within the sphere of Christian theology (i.e., dogmatics), as Christians assert, with the support of Scripture, that there is natural theology. Dogmatic natural theology is used several ways: “(i) confirming and explicating the natural knowledge of God as a biblical datum, (ii) assisting the systematic development of a biblically based doctrine of God, and (iii) strengthening and augmenting the Christian’s knowledge of God” (53). A pre-dogmatic natural theology purposefully brackets out all theistic faith commitments and attempts to construct through reason alone a natural theology that will serve as a foundation for dogmatics. A third use is the apologetic use, which defends theism against skeptical claims. Sudduth shows that the dogmatic and apologetic uses are predominant in Reformed theology. After the Enlightenment some thinkers take a pre-dogmatic approach while others, reacting against the pre-dogmatic approach, back away from natural theology entirely.

After an opening chapter that surveys a very wide range of Reformed thinkers from the Reformation to the present, Sudduth moves on to his main theme of looking at potential Reformed objections to natural theology. He is particularly interested in project objections, ones that do not merely target a particular argument or mode of employing natural theology, but rather insist that the entire enterprise of natural theology grounding theistic arguments is inconsistent with Reformed principles. He identifies three general approaches that might generate project objections.

The first set of objections concerns immediate knowledge of God. If natural knowledge of God were exclusively immediate, then any inferential theistic arguments would be at best redundant. One way of developing this objection would be to say that the naturally implanted knowledge of God is immediate. Sudduth argues instead that the Reformed tradition asserts that there is, alongside the immediate sensus divinitatis, a knowledge that is spontaneously inferred from creation by mature, properly functioning minds. It is inferred in the sense that it rests on premises (e.g., the beauty of the cosmos implies God), but spontaneous in that the inference does not take concentrated reflection over time. It is similar to the automatic inference of seeing a light turn on in a living room window and concluding (perhaps even unconsciously) that someone is inside. Sudduth takes an entire chapter to cover the recent objections of Plantinga and Baillie to natural theology and concludes that the logic of their own positions actually allow for more natural theology than they suppose.

A second set of objections arises from the noetic (cognitive) effects of sin. The thrust of these objections is that whatever theoretical validity theistic arguments might have, the presence of sin  keeps people either from recognizing them or being persuaded by them. Sudduth appeals to the Canons of Dordt and to Calvin, which affirm an ongoing natural knowledge among unregenerate people. Some natural knowledge is necessary for it to perform its role of rendering people culpable for not acting on it. Sudduth does acknowledge, though, that sin affects both the range and scope of natural knowledge for the unregenerate, rendering their knowledge unreliable or at least less reliable. However, he thinks that some objectors have gone astray by focusing on non-propositional or existential knowledge of God, which is not the sort of knowledge natural theology delivers. Also, some have connected too closely the concepts of natural theology and the image of God. Sudduth affirms that regenerate people are in a good epistemic condition to recognize and use natural knowledge. Scripture both authorizes and guides theistic arguments

The third set concerns the logic of theistic arguments themselves. The first type of objection asserts that the theistic arguments are unsound. An underlying premise for many of these critics is that the arguments must function as logically demonstrative proofs. Sudduth agrees that they fail if employed in this manner, but argues that they can be employed as probabilistic arguments that do not form the basis for the knowledge of God but are useful for showing how the knowledge of God is justifiable. Another objection is that the theistic arguments, even if true, supply an inadequate description of the God of the Bible or perhaps even misrepresent God. Barth and other criticized the theistic arguments for not being Trinitarian. Sudduth points out that, if one is not looking to the arguments as a basis of one’s theology or for salvation, they need not be Trinitarian. Further, natural theology in general is not Trinitarian, but it is true knowledge of God; why should theistic arguments, which merely codify natural theology, be held to a different standard? A related objection is that the theistic arguments do not even yield a robust theism, but perhaps simply an Aristotelian first cause or a very powerful but not infinite, eternal, omnipotent being. Sudduth gets into some detail here, but one of his key insights is that the theistic arguments taken simultaneously and cumulatively yield a far more robust theism than they do individually. For theistic arguments to be valid, they do not need to give a complete description of God, but merely offer enough overlap that we can identify the being they represent as compatible with the God of the Bible.

In summary, Sudduth argues that all people possess some knowledge of God and that regenerate people are authorized and guided by scripture to codify that natural knowledge into theistic arguments. These arguments serve to reassure Christians that there is no conflict between rational reflection on God and the biblical witness and to ward off counter-arguments by unbelievers. They may also decrease unbelievers’ warrant in their own positions and increase his willingness to consider Christian claims. The Reformed tradition provides no objection to this project.

I found this book very useful and persuasive. One note of caution is that certain sections use techniques from analytic philosophy that may be off-putting to the uninitiated. However, the book is still intelligible even to those without analytic training, and if a reader decided to skip or skim those parts, I don’t think she would miss any crucial elements.

Together, these two books provide a firm basis for Reformed thinkers to engage in natural theology and natural law from within their own tradition. I hope many do.

To Reading and Reviews


Calvin Beyond Luther: The Law of Moses

One of the textbook differences between Lutheran and Reformed theology is the Reformed assertion of the “third use” of the law, that is that the law serves to guide the conduct of believers. Thus, there is a way in which law and gospel co-exist in the believer’s life. Lutherans emphasize the contrast between law and gospel. Law comes “before” gospel in the sense that it prepares the sinner to receive the gospel. Gospel is deliverance from the law and the beginning of life in the Spirit. Part of the disagreement seems to me to derive from different descriptions of the content and function of the law. Randall Zachman gets at the problem:

Although both Luther and Calvin agree that the Old Testament contains attestations of God’s mercy as well as commandments and threats, it is nonetheless true that when Luther thinks of the law of Moses he thinks of the Ten Commandments in their theological use, whereas when Calvin thinks of the law of Moses he thinks of “the form of religion handed down by God through Moses” that sets forth God as Father to Israel in Christ under the double image of the tribe of Levi and the posterity of David.

This means that Calvin, in contrast to Luther, forces us to understand the Ten Commandments not as prior to, but as already contained within, the self-revelation of God the Father in Jesus Christ. This point will have direct implications on how Calvin understands the impact of the law in the narrow sense upon the conscience. On the one hand, it will mean that we cannot acknowledge that we are sinners who lack every good thing unless we at the same time know God as Father; on the other hand, it will mean that the principal use and proper purpose of the law will be in the lives of those who have already been adopted as children by the Father, and that this third use of the law will itself be given a christological meaning and shape just like the rest of the law of Moses. (The Assurance of Faith, 144)

Often the form of the question we ask determines the shape of the answer. An investigation into how a person might be assured of the favor of God will quickly (on Protestant principles) lead to a contrast between law and gospel. Likewise, an inquiry into the principles of Christian life seems to sputter or descend into subjectivism if “law” in some broad sense does not enter the picture.  Perhaps Christian theology needs multiple perspectives on law and gospel in order to handle every theological problem. I find it likely, though, that one conception will end up becoming architectonic, while others wills be slotted into it to fill out the picture. So far, I’m more confident in the ability of the Reformed system to appropriate the Lutheran contribution than vice versa.

Review – Union with Christ by Robert Letham

Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology by Robert Letham explores what many have called the central teaching of the Reformed doctrine of salvation. Indeed, one of the purposes of the book is to unravel the many threads that tie union with Christ not only to personal salvation, but also to creation and recreation, the incarnation, and the Church. Union with Christ, then, is a comprehensive perspective on God’s activity toward mankind, especially toward his elect. Union is not so much a locus of theology in itself as it is a way of relating and integrating the various themes of theology.

Because union is the sort of doctrine that is discussed in relation to other doctrines, Letham does not organize the book according to Scripture, history, and theology. Rather, he arranges the book thematically, incorporating the three components into each chapter. The first chapter, “Creation,” establishes the foundational principles for union: Christ as mediator of redemption and man as the image of God. These two truths provide the cosmic or natural foundations for union, which provide a platform for a higher level of union in grace.

The next chapter, “Incarnation,” develops the theme of union by showing that in the person of Christ, God and man are perfectly united. The history of Christology comes to the fore in this chapter, as Letham retells the early Church’s struggle to articulate the Incarnation as the basis of salvation. As a man Christ had to live in perfect conformity to God’s law, die as a propitiation, and conquer death with new life. However, the Incarnation does not, by itself, ensure our salvation. Christ was united to human nature in general, not to the elect. Thus, the third chapter, “Pentecost,” explains how the Holy Spirit unites the elect to Christ so that they, as individuals and as a corporate body, share in him and his benefits.

So far the book follows a redemptive-historical format, explaining the trinitarian and narrative basis for union. The final three chapters explicate in what union with Christ consists, grouping aspects of union into three categories: representation, transformation, and death and resurrection. The chapter on transformation is masterful. It covers issues relating to the ordo salutis (order of salvation), the relationship between the Greek Fathers and Reformed theology, and the bumpy history of Reformed thought on sacramental theology. It concludes with ten theses on union with Christ and transformation. It is worth reading the book simply for this chapter.

On the whole, though, the book is a bit disappointing. Despite its admirable breadth, logical progression of thought, and interdisciplinary awareness, it possesses one fatal flaw: length. The book is simply too short to develop properly the ideas it contains. Letham’s previous book, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, comprises 551 pages. This one is a miniscule 164. Often, a provocative statement is left unsupported or a significant historical figure is given the most cursory treatment. Detailed exegesis is sorely lacking, insufficiently compensated for with abundant parenthetical citations. Almost all the chapters seem more like sketches than finished products.

Also, the book varies in style. At times, it reads in a popular, almost unscholarly, tone. At others, long strings of Latin obscure the text. For example, Letham is relating a comment by Calvin, “Paul testifies that we are of the members and bones of Christ (Paulus nos ex membris et ossibus Christi esse testatur).” More often than not, the Latin takes up space rather than clarifies a point. A few times, I noticed that something was underlined in the Latin, presumably for emphasis, without any correspondingly indicated emphasis in the English translation. Since I read Latin, I found these choices to be mere annoyances, but I suspect non-Latinists will be much more frustrated by this. The Latin should have been either omitted or moved to the footnotes, except in cases of special significance.

Nevertheless, I am glad I read this book, especially for the chapter on transformation. Letham’s overall approach to union with Christ is highly illuminating, and the germs of many worthy thoughts reside here in nuce. Also, the upside to it being a short work is that if you don’t like it, at least you didn’t invest too much time in it.

Published in: on January 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review – War Against the Idols by Carlos Eire

Carlos Eire’s War Against the Idols is a study of iconoclasm during the Reformation. Its thesis is that the Reformation introduced a new theology of worship and idolatry that led to major sociological shifts. Iconoclasm is the key indicator of the presence of this theology. Thus, much of the Reformation, particularly the Reformed side, can be studied by the spread of iconoclasm, which constitutes a pattern in reforming activity.

Beginning with Erasmus, proceeding through Karlstadt and the Swiss Reformers, and culminating in John Calvin, a theology of worship arose that stressed the necessity for worshiping the spiritual God “in spirit” rather than through material props. Whereas most medieval theologians had considered icons and relics to be physical helps in worship, leading people from the earthly to the heavenly, these reformers argued the opposite. Material things, particularly those not commanded in Scripture, merely distracted the soul and weighed it down. The later critics insisted that any veneration or reverence offered to them is idolatrous. Pure worship must be strictly according to the rule of Scripture and without mediators, save Christ.

Iconoclasm was the primary identifying mark of the Reformed side of the Reformation, distinguishing them from the Lutherans. Eire penetrates through Luther’s rhetoric to identify the theological differences between Luther and Karlstadt, differences that separated Luther from most of the other Reformers. In the Swiss Reformation, cities moving toward Protestantism evidenced similar patterns of reformation, centering on iconoclastic acts. Iconoclasm demonstrated popular support for the Reformation and forced city authorities to consider Protestant claims.

Iconoclasm had far-reaching political consequences. It raised the question of righteous popular rebellion. Eire’s narrative illuminates the central role of the common folk  in pressuring city governments to embrace Protestantism. Snippets of popular pamphlets and records of lay sermons witness the diffusion of Reformed theological principles through farmers and tradesmen. Eventually, the Reformed tradition would engender theories of right resistance, and most of those theories would validate themselves by appealing to God’s authority as overruling earthly powers. All of Eire’s sociological and cultural data is eye-opening, offering a complementary perspective to reformation histories that concentrate on the works of a few theologians.

Nevertheless, there are two serious flaws in Eire’s interpretation. The first is his contention that reformation-era Catholicism was a religion of immanence, whereas the Reformed religion was one of transcendence. Eire uses these terms imprecisely, making them roughly equivalent to “material” and “spiritual.” Yet, this distorts their meaning. As Eire’s own evidence shows, the assumption that God’s power was present in relics and through sacraments did not necessarily furnish Catholics with a feeling of God’s nearness and intimacy. Many laypeople were afraid to take communion, and the mediation of saints could easily make God seem even further away, at the end of a long line of middle men.

Furthermore, the Reformers intended not to make God more distant, but closer. It’s true that they emphasized his spirituality, his radical “otherness” that makes all physical representations inappropriate. Yet, by shifting the channel of grace away from sacramental items and into the worshiper’s own soul, through faith granted directly by the Spirit, they related God to man in the most intimate manner possible. Mediators eliminated, the believer is free to approach God himself. Thus, Eire has at points overestimated the gap between Lutheran and Reformed piety. Both issue from the doctrine of justification, a doctrine of God’s personal favor toward the individual.

Eire’s second flaw is his lopsided portrayal of John Calvin. Now, in general, Eire’s analysis of Calvin’s theology is penetrating. On several issues, he is quite nuanced and sensitive. However, possibly in order to conform Calvin to the ill-conceived immanence/transcendence scheme, he reads Calvin’s theology as if Calvin is arguing for a distant, mysterious, “other” God. This is entirely incorrect. Calvin’s stress on God’s hidden essence is part of his polemic against speculative reason trumping scriptural revelation. Calvin’s God is as imminent as he is transcendent. Providence is his particular care for each individual creation. The pagan might regard God not merely as mighty Lord, but the regenerate believer recognizes him as loving Father also. The believer’s union with Christ by the bond of the Spirit is the most immanent relationship imaginable between God and man. The labels of transcendence and immanent caricature both the Catholic and Reformed positions, and particularly distort Calvin’s theology.

Still, War Against the Idols is a worthwhile and interesting read. Eire’s more narrow analysis is quite judicious, and his assembled facts, sources, and explanations are invaluable. I found the ideological ties between certain reform-minded Catholics and the Reformers particularly enlightening. I highly recommend this book for any interested person who has at least an elementary understanding of the Reformation and its major figures.

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Published in: on February 8, 2011 at 1:29 pm  Comments (9)  
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Review – The Bondage and Liberation of the Will by John Calvin

The Bondage and Liberation of the Will (BLW) is the English name of John Calvin’s Defensio sanae et orthodoxae doctrinae de servitute et liberatione humani arbitrii adversus calumnias Alberti Pighii Campensis. I am thankful for the English title, as well as for this edition by A. N. S. Lane and translation by G. I. Davies. Calvin’s 1539 edition of Institutes had attracted the attention of the Roman Catholic theologian Albert Pighius, who proceeded to attack it in Ten Books on Human Free Choice and Divine Grace. “The first six respond to Calvin’s second chapter, the remaining four to chapter 8” (xiv). Calvin responded at first only to Pighius’ first six books, that response being BLW.

BLW is not the easiest of Calvin’s works to read. It is something of a line by line refutation of Pighius’ works. Since Pighius himself tended to wander a bit and repeat himself, the train of thought in BLW could be graphed as a distorted spiral. Furthermore, much of the argument is about how to interpret numerous church Fathers correctly, so there are some dull paragraphs haggling over the exact wording of a quote or whether a certain sentence has been placed in correct context.

Yet, BLW is far from dull. A careful reader will discover that Calvin’s responses to the six books constitute swelling variations on a theme, not banal repetition. Many gems lie concealed in circuitous tunnels. Part of Book One affords insight into Calvin’s claim to catholicity while justifying the “schism” of the Reformed churches. Book Two reveals Calvin’s knowledge and use of the Church Fathers, and Book 3 provides perhaps the most sustained appeal to Augustine all of Calvin’s writings. Books 4-6 build on the previous ones, introducing finer distinctions and more elaborate explanations of Calvin’s doctrine.

Calvin addresses one major theological issue in BLW: the nature of free will. Along the way, many other points of doctrine are brought to bear on the discussion. Pighius defines free will as the power of contrary choice, that is, the power of the individual to choose rightly or wrongly in any given moral crisis. Calvin denies this power, yet insists that the will is free in the sense that the will’s acts derive from its own soul; its actions are internally bound but not externally coerced. Thus, Calvin does not like the term “free will,” because most people associate it with Pighius’ concept, but he is not opposed to it as long as his definition is used.

Pighius accuses Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity as being Manichaeism. Calvin responds that he distinguishes between human nature as created and human nature as fallen. Adam indeed had the power of contrary choice, but through his sin he forfeited it for himself and all his descendents. Pighius’ refusal to admit this joins him with the Pelagians. This distinction is interesting, because Calvin describes the faculty and purpose of the will (and the other faculties) as substantially good and unchanged but accidentally corrupted. Here we see Calvin employing Aristotelian terminology to make a distinction. This very doctrine later formed the basis for the Kuyperian notion of common grace.

Pighius errs when he thinks that he can deduce man’s ability from man’s responsibility given in the Law. Although that may have been true for Adam, Calvin argues to the contrary that the law serves to demonstrate our lack of ability, impelling us to run to Christ for mercy. The arguments in Romans 3 and 5 refute Pighius. Because Pighius underestimates the effects of the Fall and the severity of the Law, he imagines that man can prepare to receive grace through prayer and humility. Here, Pighius is condemned not only by Scripture, but also by Augustine and by the Council of Orange.

Against Pighius’ charge that Calvin’s doctrine of total providence leaves no space for human activity, Calvin affirms the employment of secondary causes. The farmer sows, knowing that the crop must come from the Lord. Yet, it would be lunacy for him not to sow. God’s necessity does not negate human responsibility. God ordains all events for his own ends; even when he ordains a sinful action, it is not the sin itself that God authors. God is accomplishing his own good work while the creature works evil. At times, though, Calvin’s language implies that God himself coerces wicked behavior (38-40). Although the thrust of his doctrine affirms two levels of causality, occasionally Calvin leaves himself open to the charge of divine omnicausality.

This particular edition of BLW is skillfully crafted. The translation is smooth, clearing up ambiguous phrases while artfully rendering key technical terms. Lane’s introduction is fantastic, providing all the necessary critical information and a summary of the contents. Marginal notes track the argument by paragraph and summarize key points. The page numbers and divisions of the Corpus Reformatorum are noted, so the reader can easily compare this translation with the Latin. [Lane has since produced a new critical edition of the Latin text, which can be found in the series Ioannis Calvini opera omnia denuo recognita et adnotatione critica instructa notisque illustrata.]

Since BLW is one of Calvin’s most significant polemical works, no student of Calvin or the Calvinist doctrine of providence can ignore this work. Thankfully, Lane, Davies, and Baker Books have done a fantastic job producing BLW’s first appearance in English.

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Published in: on November 13, 2010 at 5:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review – Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought by Arvin Vos

Arvin Vos’ Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought butchers the sacred cow of contemporary Protestant philosophy, the vilification of Thomas Aquinas. Vos, a Reformed Protestant, demonstrates that traditional Protestant interpretation of Aquinas flawed. Moreover, he argues that in some cases Aquinas’ thought is superior to Calvin’s and the Reformed tradition’s; he urges Protestants to re-appropriate their Thomistic heritage.

Vos’ catalogue of Protestant errors is embarrassingly thorough. Protestants have wrongly opposed Calvin to Aquinas on the nature of faith. Though their language is quite different, their substance is similar. Vos argues against Wolterstorff that in matters of faith, Aquinas was a fideist (in Wolterstorff’s somewhat unusual categorization) rather than an evidentialist. Regarding the Five Ways, Vos contends that they are not philosophical prerequisites to belief. Their actual function is much more interesting, and I urge readers to concentrate on this exposition, which I found to be the highlight of the book. Aquinas does not, as many Protestants suggest, construct a two-story view of knowledge in which faith is superadded to reason; rather, he argues that philosophical demonstration is unnecessary (though not unhelpful) where there is faith. Finally, Aquinas does not radically distinguish nature from grace or make grace an accessory to nature. A careful consideration of Aquinas’ definition of nature dispels that notion.

At first, Vos’ thesis may seem too revisionist, too innovative to be credible. After all, is it really likely that such a wide spectrum of Protestant thinkers — Carl Henry, Rienhold Neibuhr, Cornelius Van Til, Francis Schaeffer, Herman Dooyeweerd — have all misinterpreted Aquinas? Vos points out that there are very few Protestant scholars with firsthand proficiency in Aquinas, with the result that mistakes in secondary sources are widely disseminated. Even more crucially, Vos’ interpretation of Aquinas is not particularly original. He draws heavily from 20th century Catholic scholars, such as Henri de Lubac, Etienne Gilson, Marie-Dominique Chenu, G. de Broglie, and others.  The Thomism of “pure nature” and rationalism that Protestants rightly refute, say these authors, stems not so much from Thomas as from Thomistsof the 16th- and 17th centuries, who were seeking to bolster Catholicism against Protestantism and Cartesianism. As these scholars have called attention to misinterpretations of Aquinas within their own tradition, Vos does likewise for Protestants.

The claim that Protestantism has widely misinterpreted Thomas, but not necessarily Thomism, is itself significant enough to make Vos’s work worth reading. The sharpest bite is not this point, however, but Vos’ assertion that Aquinas’ definition of faith and description of the natural powers of man is superior to Calvin’s. Reformed readers may not swallow this easily, but they cannot ignore  Vos’  argument. Besides, anyone who can sludge through Van Til or Dooyeweerd should have no problem handling this lucid, 174-page treatment.

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Published in: on October 12, 2010 at 11:59 am  Comments (1)  
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The Ten Commandments – A Law of Grace?

(This is part 2 of a series on the Ten Commandments.)

Perhaps the most common mistake made when teaching the ten commandments (1oC) is to start with the first commandment. This is a misstep because it treats the 10C as if the Israelites just found them carved on a rock in the desert. It rips them from their locus in the biblical story. For this reason, the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) admonishes us to pay attention to the preface of the 10C, the words that God spoke before he started listing commands:

Q. 101. What is the preface to the Ten Commandments?
A. The preface to the Ten Commandments is contained in these words, I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Wherein God manifesteth his sovereignty, as being JEHOVAH, the eternal, immutable, and almighty God; having his being in and of himself, and giving being to all his words and works: and that he is a God in covenant, as with Israel of old, so with all his people; who, as he brought them out of their bondage in Egypt, so he delivereth us from our spiritual thraldom; and that therefore we are bound to take him for our God alone, and to keep all his commandments.

The preface draws our attention to who God is, and who is he to those who receive the 10C? First, he is their covenant God. In the most general sense, a covenant is simply a contractual agreement. But this covenant harks back to the covenant God made with Abraham, in which he pledged, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.  And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:7-8).

In the covenant, God promises to us not simply blessings or good fortune, but himself. Humans could never scrounge up some sort of leverage to demand God, but he offers Himself freely. What does he want in return? Us. In the preface, then, we see that the 10C is less like a contract and more like marriage vows. These vows describe what the relationship ideally looks like, when each partner lives for the other. Refusing to live by the 10C is, therefore, more than just rule-breaking; it is rejecting intimacy with God.

The second way God reveals himself to us is as our redeemer God. At the time the 10C were given, He had brought the Israelites out of a land of slavery and was leading them toward a promised land of freedom and prosperity. By this act God foreshadowed his ultimate plan of redemption (the very word “redeem” meaning to buy out of slavery). Jesus was sacrificed as a Passover Lamb for sins, and in his resurrection he trampled over all our enemies — sin, Satan, and death — in order to bring us to God.

The law is for people who are slaves no more. More specifically, it is to prevent free people from falling back into the slavery from which they were delivered. Having lived in slavery since birth, we don’t immediately know how to live like free people once we become free. We tend to revert to our familiar slavery. Sin is a merciless taskmaster, and even believers can fall under its whip again if they so choose (Rom. 6:16), but God is ever rescuing them. God’s law does not shackle; it breaks shackles. The 10C, then, are a guidebook for free people, a manifesto of the good life.

However we preface the law, though, it does seem to be in tension with grace. There are numerous passages in the New Testament about the weakness of the law or the bondage of the law or the inferiority of the law. What are we to make of them? Here is Wilhelm Niesel’s paraphrase of Calvin’s teaching on this issue:

If in the New Testament Paul at times speaks of the law in itself, that is only because he wishes to expose the error of those who imagine that man can acquire righteousness by fulfilling the works of the law. But in point of fact the law does not stand thus as an isolated phenomenon. It is not simply a collection of commands about how to live well, but is included in the covenant of grace which God founded.

The tension arises precisely when people ignore the preface and treat the law as something it is not. If they think of it as their entry point into relationship with God or as a means by which they can free themselves from slavery, then it becomes twisted. In this case, it is absolutely opposed to the gospel. In one sense, the law was never meant for us to fulfill. Niesel invokes Calvin on this point as well:

In [Christ] the law has completed its function of judging and punishing, and this has effected the final fulfillment of the law and of the will of God which it represents. For our sakes, and in the sight of God, Jesus Christ walked in the way prescribed by the law; and now we must allow the law to invite us simply to follow in His footsteps.

If we see the law as the depiction of our relationship with God, as the guide to living the free life, as the body of requirements that Christ fulfilled, we can rejoice in it. We can obey it, and when we fail, Christ obeyed it for us.

Psalm 119:18 — Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.

Published in: on October 8, 2010 at 8:56 am  Leave a Comment  
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Review – John Calvin and the Will by Dewey Hoitenga

Dewey Hoitenga’s John Calvin and the Will: A Critique and Corrective is an ambitious project, especially for a Reformed philosopher. Hoitenga believes that Calvin’s view of the will suffers from two internal inconsistencies which have handicapped the Reformed churches from responding intelligibly to their critics. Criticism of Calvin is nothing new, but Hoitenga is unusual in that he wishes to correct aspects of Calvin’s teaching while remaining within the distinctive scope of Reformed theology. Like a doctor transplanting a patient’s own blood vessels to repair a problem in the heart, Hoitenga remedies the defects in Calvin’s theology by applying concepts from elsewhere in Calvin’s writings. He undertakes this risky surgery in order to strengthen and refine contemporary “Reformed epistemology.”

Before launching into a discussion of Calvin, Hoitenga briefly reviews the secondary literature on Calvin’s account of the will and outlines the historical development of philosophical attitudes at the time of Calvin. All strains of thought in medieval philosophy recognized the distinction between the intellect and will as powers of the soul. The will was generally defined (following Aristotle) as a “rational appetite,” and was supposed to have two functions: “As inclination, will is the power that moves us to seek some object we do not at present possess or some end we have not attained, and to do either of these by way of some appropriate means. As the ability to choose, will enables us to select either the means by which to attain the end, and even the end itself in cases where the end is one of several competing ends.”

The medieval tradition breaks into two streams of interpretation, intellectualist and voluntarist. The intellectualists hold with varying consistency that the intellect governs the will, that is, the will is bound to follow whatever highest good the intellect presents to it. Intellectualists such as Thomas Aquinas struggle on the basis of their intellectualism to give a cogent account of the fall. Voluntarists propose that the essence of the will is freedom, not merely action; thus, they allow for various scenarios in which the will may rebel against the leading of the intellect. Intellectualists usually give a more minimalist account of the freedom of the will, in which the will is free if it is not under external compulsion.

Hoitenga asserts that Calvin is inconsistent regarding the relationship between the will and the intellect. When describing man in the created state, Calvin gives an almost stock intellectualist definition. However, whenever he speaks of man in his fallen and redeemed states, he clearly argues within a voluntarist framework. Moreover, he locates the responsibility for the fall in man’s will, which would seem to imply that the will was not altogether under the control of the intellect. Against R. T. Kendall, Hoitenga offers a voluntarist account of Calvin’s doctrine of faith. Hoitenga’s remedy for this inconsistency is simple: embrace consistent voluntarism of a Scotist sort. An emphasis on the “Augustinian principle,” that in the Fall man lost supernatural gifts while retaining to some degree his natural powers, safeguards voluntarism from inconsistency.

Hoitenga’s second charge of inconsistency will likely strike Reformed readers as much more significant. “Calvin affirms that the will was created with two main components, inclination and choice…. He denies, for the most part, that the will as so created persists into the fallen state…. Calvin retains inclination, but it it is no longer an inclination to goodness, only to evil” (69). Here Hoitenga leverages the Augustinian principle against Calvin. If “inclination to good” is really essential to the definition of the will, then Calvin’s doctrine that the will inclines only to evil means that the will as created has not been merely deformed, but actually destroyed.

Why does Calvin take such a strong stance on the depravity of the will? Hoitenga answers that most of Calvin’s discussions of the depravity of the will are polemically aimed against human pride. Calvin assumes that any ascription of good to the unregenerate will is arrogance. Hoitenga interprets this as derogating nature to laud grace. Furthermore, he charges that Calvin’s view makes it impossible to understand those moral choices that make up human existence, even unregenerate human existence.

To remedy this second defect, Hoitenga suggests that Reformed theologians apply Calvin’s analysis of the fallen intellect to the fallen will. Calvin often praises the fallen intellect, taking pains to express the ways in which it is still admirable and functions. In fact, it functions well enough that man is inexcusable before God for failing to recognize and worship him. Calvin employs the Augustinian principle to distinguish between “heavenly” and “earthly” goods; the fallen intellect barely recognizes the former, but can often serve quite well for the latter. The supernatural gifts of the knowledge of God and holiness are lost, but the natural powers of the intellect persist, albeit not fully. Hoitenga suggests that Calvin should have distinguished likewise between “heavenly” and “earthly” virtue; the will can still operate to make moral choices about earthly things, but does not by itself have the ability to convert itself back into favor with God. For that, supernatural grace is required.

So, Hoitenga counsels that by embracing Scotist voluntarism and the Augustinian principle, Reformed theology can maintain its traditional emphasis on the inability of man to come to saving faith of his own resources while simultaneously offering a robust explanation of the functioning of the fallen intellect. One doctrine which would be affected is “common grace,” which Reformed theologians generally employ to explain the seeming virtue in pagans. According to traditional Reformed theology, common grace merely curbs the evil in man’s will. Hoitenga argues that instead Reformed theology should explain unregenerate goodness by the natural functions of the will. Some such explanation is unavoidable unless by common grace theologians insist that the Holy Spirit suspends the soul’s normal operations.

The epilogue to John Calvin and the Will is a pleasant surprise. Rather than blandly summarizing the argument of the book, it incorporates the critique to chart a forward path for Reformed epistemology. Hoitenga explains how the immediacy and vitality of the sensus divinitas can, when explained along the lines of this refurbished Calvin, meet the challenges of Catholic voluntarists against Alvin Plantinga. He suggests that Plantinga distinguish more sharply between belief in God – basic and thus involuntary – and beliefs of the Christian faith – not basic and thus voluntary.

Hoitenga’s analysis of Calvin is fresh and compelling. It may prove less useful, though, when applied to Reformed theology as a whole. Richard Muller mentions in the preface that alternative analyses of the will were offered both by Calvin’s Reformed contemporaries and by his heirs. One might argue that the Scottish branch of the Reformed church has been operating with a more robust view of the Augustinian principle than has the Dutch, though neither has embraced voluntarism along Scotist lines. It remains to be seen whether Reformed theology will incorporate Hoitenga’s suggestions or find their own.  John Calvin and the Will is an exciting book (as exciting as any book which mentions Duns Scotus can be) for anyone interested in Reformed epistemology or Calvin. Those with little interest in those subjects may pass it by without regret.

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Published in: on September 16, 2010 at 3:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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