Saturday, January 19, 2008

Calvin's nonvoluntarist deity

John Calvin
Original Oil Painting
University Library of Geneva
(Image from Wikipdia)

I've recently become aware of more and more Calvinists among Southern Baptists, the church in which I grew up, but when I was young, I never heard anybody in my church speak up in favor of predestination. That doctrine was for the Presbyterians. Most Baptists adhered to a sort of popular Arminianism, which emphasizes the free will of individuals to make their own choice in accepting or rejecting grace.

My grandmother had even heard of 'official' Arminian theology and mentioned it once in explaining to me her rejection of predestination. The term stuck in my head, but I hadn't seen it written down, so I later confused it with Armenian Christianity as my knowledge increased beyond my understanding, so I imagined in my sophomoric views that the early theologian Pelagius (born 354), who emphasized free will, was an Armenian and that his theology had so influenced the Armenian Church that Pelagianism came to be known as Armenianism.

Eventually, sometime after my sophomore year, I got that point straightened out.

Anyway, as I was saying, I've noticed more Calvinist among Southern Baptists these days, and my anecdotal impression has now been confirmed through an article in Christianity Today by Ken Walker, "TULIP Blooming" (1/17/2008), which reveals the following fact:
Although only 10 percent of SBC pastors identify themselves as Calvinists, nearly 30 percent of recent seminary graduates do.
The influence of these new graduates on the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is already being felt:
Long considered more Arminian in orientation -- emphasizing an individual's need to respond to the gospel rather than God's election in salvation -- the nation's largest Protestant denomination is grappling with doctrines of grace and election amid a seminary-led revival.
I suppose that I'll be hearing more about this issue in the years ahead, so I'd best start boning up on the predestinarian and free-will theologies of Calvin and Arminius, respectively. In fact, one of the leaders of the Bible study class that I attend at Seoul International Baptist Church (SIBC) is a Calvinist, and he's a very well-informed, interesting individual.

This man regularly refers to God's "sovereignty," a theological point that I've often heard Calvinists emphasize in such as way as to nearly suggest theological voluntarism, an extreme view emphasizing the power of God to do anything he damned well pleases. Obviously, this would make Calvinism similar to the Medieval Nominalism of Duns Scotus or to the mainstream theology of orthodox Islam (insofar as I understand these).

However, the Christian philosopher Michael Sudduth, writing in his unpublished paper "Calvin and the Medieval Dialectic of Divine Omnipotence" (1997), argues that Calvin was no voluntarist, and he cites this passage from Calvin:
That Sarbonic dogma, therefore, in the promulgation of which the Papal theologians so much pride themselves, "that the power of God is absolute and tyrannical," I utterly abhor. For it would be easier to force away the light of the sun from his heat, or his heat from his fire, than to separate the power of God from His justice. Away, then, with all such monstrous speculations from godly minds, as that God can possibly do more, or otherwise, than He has done, or that He can do anything without the highest order and reason. For I do not receive that other dogma, "that God, as being free from all law Himself, may do anything without being subject to any blame for doing so." For whosoever makes God without law, robs Him of the greatest part of His glory, because he spoils Him of His rectitude and justice. Not that God is, indeed, subject to any law, excepting in so far as He is a law unto Himself. But there is that inseparable connection and harmony between the power of God and His justice, that nothing can possibly be done by Him but what is moderate, legitimate, and according to the strictest rule of right. And most certainly, when the faithful speak of God as omnipotent, they acknowledge Him at the same time to be the Judge of the world, and always hold His power to be righteously tempered with equity and justice. (Calvin, A Doctrine of the Secret Providence of God (1558) in Calvin's Calvinism: Treatises on the Eternal Predestination of God and the Secret Providence of God, tr. Henry Cole (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1987?), p. 248)
By "Sarbonic dogma," I'm assuming that Calvin was referring to theologians associated with La Sorbonne (the University of Paris), that Medieval university founded in Paris by Robert de Sorbon in 1257, for one of its early theologians was the theological voluntarist Duns Scotus, who taught there from 1293 to 1297.

At any rate, Sudduth comments on the passage above from Calvin:
Perhaps more than any other single passage in Calvin this statement is crucial to understanding Calvin's position on both voluntarism and the Distinction [i.e., between "the potentia Dei absoluta (absolute power of God) and the potentia Dei ordinata (ordained power of God)"]. What is striking about this passage is that in it Calvin clearly denies that God can do just anything without being subject to blame for doing so. Similarly he denies that God is exlex or super legem (beyond law). Furthermore, Calvin is explicit that God has reasons for what He does, and they are just reasons, but they are simply hidden from us in this life. These points set definite moral constraints on what God can do. I take this to be evidence against the voluntarist reading of Calvin alluded to earlier (in section II). For the voluntarist, God cannot act inordinately because whatever God does is just by virtue of his doing it. The divine act makes the moral fact. Calvin, however, following theologians such as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, maintains that God cannot act inordinately because of the consistency of the divine nature. God's being righteous may be epistemically mysterious in many respects, but it is not ontologically vacuous.
This emphasis upon God's consistent nature thus precludes a radically voluntarist reading of Calvinism (though some hyper-Calvinists might even deny Calvin on this point and return to Duns Scotus). But Calvin is also worried about the Euthyphro dilemma, which he wants to circumvent through these words concerning God:
He is a law unto Himself. But there is that inseparable connection and harmony between the power of God and His justice.
Calvin wants to ensure that God is just, but Calvin's emphasis upon God being a law unto Himself leaves unclear what makes the 'justness' of God just. Calvin does not wish to leave God's justice arbitrary, as though God's absolute might makes what he does absolutely right even though he could have done utterly differently than he has done. But he also does not wish to impose justice upon God by referring to a standard external to God. But is God, then, divided within Himself into a capacity for willful absolute power and a standard of divine, infinitely wise justice? Would the latter act as God's conscience, as though an imperial God were to think, like Nixon, "Yes, we could do that -- but it would be wrong." Calvin probably wouldn't like to imagine God in this way either.

Be that as it may, Calvin's insistent Christian belief that God has a divine nature that in some nonarbitrary way grounds divine justice, and also divine love, places Calvin's thinking in the mainstream of Christian theology and, as it happens, distinguishes his position from that of mainstream Muslim theology, which holds that God does not have a nature and can do as he arbitrarily pleases.

Or such is my understanding of Islamic theology...

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At 7:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do Calvinists differ in their approach or attitude towards missionary work? If they think people's souls are preordained to salvation or damnation, then why proselytize or do they think they should still spread the Gospel and let God sort them out?

At 8:35 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

More recently I thought the same, knowing that I grew up in a missionary church.

At 8:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, according to the Christianity Today article, that is an issue. Apparently, some Calvinists have not supported missions. But other Calvinists accept what is called the "Great Commission" to do mission work because it was commanded by Christ.

But even so, they're just taking coals to Newcastle, aren't they?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 8:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, did I answer your question, too?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 9:01 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

I think so, but I'm not familiar with "taking coals to Newcastle."

Another curiosity, all Korean churches that I've seen in the US are Presbyterian. There seems to be a continuing influx of immigrants from Korea, so their churches, businesses and other institutions, have dual signs on them. Is something in their indigenous religion or culture that would make Calvinism attractive?

I feel like I have ask this before.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Newcastle was the center of coal production in 19th-century England -- as we history types are required to know -- so one need not take any coal there.

By analogy, if God has predestined the blessed, then what need have they of the Gospel message?

As for your other question, I think that Korean Christians are mainly Presbyterian because the Protestant missionaries who came here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were mostly Presbyterians.

I guess that proves that Calvinists can do mission work.

Actually, the Catholic Church here in Korea is growing the most these days. Protestants used to be considered progressive in education, politics, and so on, but they now seem narrow-minded and rigid to many Koreans because Korean society has developed and become much more sophisticated.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne.

These 3 related references point out that everything that Calvin said, and that Calvinists believe, is quite besides the point---a hedge around their fear.



3. www.dualsens.htm

Plus 2 references on Real God as Indivivible Conscious Light---not much Conscious Light to be found in Calvinism!


At 8:53 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, your links don't work as posted, and at least two appear to be wrong or broken even if I try copying and pasting them, but even those that I accessed in this way don't appear to have much to say about Calvinism.

If you have some direct point to make about the post, please make it, but be sure to address the blog entry directly.

And be sparing with linking until you learn how to link correctly.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too am from Melbourne, at least to some small degree. Coincidentally I self identify as Presbyterian.

Be those as they may, as I've grown older and more introspective I've considered to some degree the notion of predestination. While not placing myself within the ranks of the astute, I believe a person must reject the notion insofar as the person lives his life. I believe personally that actions in life have more weight than the notion would seem to weigh.


At 6:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, the Calvinist line about predestination is intricately intertwined with the tangled threads of grace and works.

I'm no expert, but Calvin seems to have taken Luther's emphasis upon grace alone, not works, and interpreted any human role at all as a 'work'.

Hence "irresistible" grace, which makes even the elect's choice to accept salvation purely God's action, and therefore grace, not works.

However, I think that


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