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Who wouldn’t want to read John Calvin on The Secret Providence of God? Well, it depends what kind of book you are looking to read.

The subject is certainly an interesting one. The caveat is that the book is polemical in nature. He’s not simply asserting what he believes on this subject so you and I can be edified. He’s responding to “charges” made by a former student/associate of his, Sebastian Castellio. The editor’s (Paul Helm) indicates some of their prior relationship. But in the final pages of the  book Calvin gives us more information about their relationship. This book reeks of betrayal. Polemics and betrayal make for some bombastic language at times. It may also explain why this book is not as clear as I’d hoped at times (but perhaps this was me having been online too much, rotting my brain, or too focused on the good cigars I’d often smoke while reading this). I read this book intermittently over the course of a few months. Far too long for a book of its size (122 pages), but I’ve been busy with other matters.

All this to say, I’d be careful to whom I recommend this book. I would recommend this for more mature Christians who have an interest in Calvin because they’ve already read his more popular works. It would be of interest to students of the Reformation and theological methods. I would not recommend this to someone struggling with the doctrine of providence or unfamiliar with how to do theology.

Helm’s introduction informs us that this was, in fact, Calvin’s third response to his fellow Frenchman on the subject. I suspect his frustrating was mounting as would mine. They met in Strasbourg. Castellio’s strength seemed to be languages, and Calvin appears to have taken a liking to the man. For a time Castellio was rector of the College of Geneva. It didn’t last long. First, Castellio denied the canonicity of the Song of Songs, calling it a lewd book. Then Calvin worked with him on a translation of the Bible into French. They differed greatly, and argued, about their approaches to translation. As the relationship soured, Castellio resigned from the college. He seems to have accepted at least some of Servetus’ writings, for later in this volume Calvin calls Servetus his master (this could be figuratively since Calvin did consider him a heretic in the body of his response). But the execution of Servetus by the Genevan authorities led to Castellio’s personal campaign against them, and Calvin. He was not open about this, often using a pen name instead of his own.

“The work provides us with a small window onto the boisterous, argumentative years of the Reformation, not in this case to the main conflicts but to the skirmishes initiated by some of its lesser characters, such as Pighius and Servetus and, of course, Castellio.” (pp. 18)

Helm notes that Calvin was generally gentle and accommodating to those he considered open or friendly to his views. “But he is pitiless and unflattering toward those such as Castellio who openly crossed him.” Castellio, on the other hand, seems less concerned with clear theological thinking as to ridicule and misrepresent Calvin. His goal seems to be to repeatedly jab his finger in Calvin’s eye. If they lived next to each other in Bowling Green, one thinks he’s blindside Calvin and stomp him when Calvin got off his lawn mower.

“To Calvin’s intense irritation, here is a man, once a friend and follower, who is not impatient of the carefully crafted subtleties that Calvin sometimes uses to advance his position, and above all contemptuous of the God whose interests Calvin sought to advance. Even their Protestantism provides them with little common ground.” (pp. 19-20)

Helm then moves into some theological analysis of the book. He critiques Castellio’s method. The antagonist blurs theological distinctions so that he accuses Calvin of equal ultimacy regarding God’s decrees of salvation and sin/reprobation. Calvin follows a typical medieval view of the two wills of God: his secret will (decrees) and his revealed will (declarations & commands). Calvin depends heavily on Augustine in this volume, the only other author he quotes. Castellio’s method also relies heavily on reason while Calvin’s on revelation. Castellio sets reason above revelation. While Calvin obviously uses reason, he understands it to be bound to revelation. There are limits to the powers of reason as well as things not revealed to us. He invokes Deut. 29:29 (as any student of Calvin’s would guess). His introduction is helpful in understanding how each participant will engage in this disputation. Helm also notes, at the end, how Arminius’ own formulations are dependent upon Castellio’s. He built, as Muller calls it, a theology of creation, far more popular than Castellio’s. But both rejected Calvin’s theology of grace.

The book proper begins with a series of Articles, 14, Castellio generates (better, fabricates) from Calvin’s writings. He presents as series of strawmen arguments since they bear little to no resemblance to what Calvin actually wrote. He misrepresents Calvin. What is unclear is how much of this he actually believed and how much he purposely twisted just to tick Calvin off. As he explains these articles you do find instances of confusing logic, conflation of ideas, failure to make distinctions and more really bad theological method. Here are some example of him tying himself in knots (as I noted in the margins of my copy):

“If God wills sin, then the Devil does not will sin. That is to say, the idea that the Devil is God is a complete contradiction. If God wills sin, he loves sin’ and if he loves sin, he hates righteousness.” (pp. 45)

“… if the (secret) will of God often contends with his command, how can it be known when he wills or when he does not will what he commands? … For instance, if God commands me not to commit adultery and yet wills that I commit adultery, and yet I ought not to commit adultery, then I ought to do what is contrary to his will.” (pp. 45)

“Your false God is slow to mercy and quick to wrath. He created the largest part of the world for perdition.” (pp. 52)

“But the God of Calvin is the father of lies who evidently governs sometimes by what he says and at other times by his secret promptings.” (pp. 53)

He’s trying to make Calvin’s understanding of God appear to be a moral monster, and the Christian life not practicable because he can’t make simple distinctions. How you think matters. And this is some seriously stinking thinking. He also appears to operate from a denial of depravity. This is an unstated presupposition of his that seems to infect his reasoning leading to a number of faulty conclusions.

“… if God prompts perverse affections and then he flies into a rage, he hates the same people before the perverse affections arise, for to prompt perverse affections is the work of hatred. Therefore, he hates the innocent. For men are innocent before the perverse affections arise.” (pp. 50)

Castellio also attacks Calvin’s “students” as contentious and sinful. He puts all his arguments into the mouths of Calvin’s opponents while affirming them as personally unanswerable. There is one more claim that his “disciples” depend more upon Calvin “than upon reason.” Here he affirms his view of reason over and above Scripture, and denies that Calvin’s doctrines arise from Scripture.

The main body of the book is Calvin’s point by point response to Castellio. He works through the articles. This divides the book into readable chunks for busy people. Much of Calvin’s argument is that his doctrines are in fact derived for Scripture. He places Scripture above (not against) reason. Castellio argues for common sense, common sense, common sense => theology from below, subject to our judgment. Man is the arbiter of truth.

“But if you allow no other form of reasoning except what an earthly man recognizes, then by such arrogance and disdain you deny yourself access to the very doctrine of knowledge of which is only possible to someone with a reverential spirit. … Everything loses its authority and grace if it does not satisfy your reason.” (pp. 61)

Calvin also notes that he has already answered these objections three or four times thus far. He notes that these articles falsely represent his views. He notes his dependence on Augustine who also faced similar stubborn objections. Castellio frequently didn’t cite Calvin’s works. When he quotes Calvin, he takes him out of context. Some of the accusations he makes are similar to those that Paul faced and answered in places like Romans 9-11. Calvin’s point? “You aren’t arguing against me, but the Scriptures when we examine the tensions in Scripture” is what he’d say. In terms of those tensions and distinctions Calvin asks:

“Truly God invites all men to repentance; therefore, all might return to the road where he offers pardon. Now, what we must here consider is whether the conversion that God requires is according to man’s free choice or is a truly unique gift from God. Therefore, insofar as all men are exhorted to repent, the prophet rightly denies that God wills the death of the sinner. Why does God not convert everyone to himself equally? The reason is in the hands of God’s secret will.” (pp. 71)

He notes that Castellio also has to answer these great questions.

“This knot is also for you to untie. Since no one comes near to God unless the secret influence of the Spirit draws him, why are not all men without discrimination drawn, if God wills all to salvation? For from his discrimination it certainly is to be concluded that God has a particular secret way in which many are excluded from salvation.” (pp .73)

Calvin also unearths some of his other presuppositions: “Nor will you accept that the causes of wrath are in man himself” (pp. 74). Castellio rejects the depravity of men as the root of God’s judgment and man’s temptation to sin. He espouses a weak view of foreknowledge, separating God’s “power and his prescience” (pp. 75). He is judging God by feeble sense, to quote Cowper’s hymn on the subject. Calvin warns Castellio of dualism.  He reminds him that God uses primary and secondary causes (pp. 191). He schools him in the doctrine of concurrence- two or more persons willing the same action but for different reasons (God’s being good and Satan’s and men’s being evil).

There are moments you have to stop and think (especially if you’ve been distracted by your children) to sort out the argument. He will trace out Castellio’s argument at times so keeping the train of thought is essential.

He responds to the questioning of Calvin and disciples’ character with observations about Castellio’s.

“When I fed you in my home, no man had ever appeared to be more proud and more deceitful or more destitute than yo. Whoever does not perceive you to be an imposter and a cynic devoted to shamelessness, and a buffoon barking against piety, they are absolutely without judgment.” (pp. 118)

“But it must certainly be that you were too dull, because you were not able to understand what I have taught you, both in the familiarity of my own home and also what you heard when I so often preached in the public assembly.” (pp. 119)

“… you boast among your followers that study is empty and frivolous (the same study that is employed in philosophy, logic, and even theology) in order that you might gain more disciples for yourself. … You, on the other hand, request that untutored men who despise all learning and are inflated only with the breath of arrogance appear in public so that they may audaciously make judgments concerning the mysteries of heaven.” (pp. 120-121)

You see here the sense of betrayal that drives his harsh words. Still, these words are mild by some of today’s standards. We see a picture of Castellio as something of a fundamentalist Arminian. He was anti-intellectual; anti-scholarship in addition to exalting human reason. He was also, in Calvin’s estimation, a heretic. He didn’t just disagree, but held to views that Calvin put him outside the bounds of the Church. And so he ends:

“May God restrain you, Satan. Amen.” (pp. 122)

There is much here that is important to learn in terms of doing theology. There is some here that we should likely avoid in terms of doing polemics. We should continue to speak the truth in love. Lay out presuppositions to the light of day for evaluation. Clearly make proper distinctions. Reconcile the tensions found in Scripture instead of just proof-texting. Bur resist the temptation to denigrate the other person. Truth in the face of lies (even half-truths), and love in the face of animosity. I believe Calvin did the former but at times failed in the latter. May God have mercy on us all.

 

 

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When John Piper’s book Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God was originally release, I wasn’t too impressed with the subject.  “Meh” I thought.  When I found it at a deep discount, I thought “ah, I’ll give it a try.”  A few months later, as it hung out on my bookcase, I thought “now might be a good time to read it.”  And now I realize what a doofus I am.  Unlike the former CEO of Yahoo!, I won’t be sued for using that term since I am referring to myself.

“God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in.” Jonathan Edwards

Piper wrote this short book to refute two extremes of thought among Christians and to assert the “better way” to think about thinking.  “It is a plea to see thinking as a necessary, God-ordained means to knowing God.”  One extreme are thought separated from the reality of God as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  This is to think independently of God.  The other extreme is to avoid intellectual exercise because such thinking is unnecessary and wrong.  Piper advocates deep, critical thinking about all things done in recognition and dependence upon God that we might treasure Him.

7Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. 2 Timothy 2

This is one of the primary texts Piper uses to make his case.  We see that Paul commands Timothy to think.  Without thinking there will be no understanding.  But that understanding is given by God.  We don’t just ask of it and fail to think.  We must think and God must grant understanding.  Thinking is often God’s means, His ordinary means.  So, it isn’t not thinking or praying but prayerfully thinking that Scripture advocates.

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Some pastoral questions have brought the disagreement between Van Til and Gordon Clark to mind.  It isn’t so much the views of those men, but some problems I see emerging when reason is elevated above revelation.

This is one of the dangers of “Christian rationalism”.  The mind subtly usurps the authority of Scripture, or special revelation.  They wouldn’t admit to this (I think), but you see it when there is the denial of various doctrines because it does not make sense in light of other doctrines.  They have a hard time reasoning these apparently opposite doctrines that are found in Scripture.  Rather than submit their minds before Scripture, they make the Scriptures submit to their “rational” theology.

There are 2 doctrines in particular that have been problematic for many who espouse Clark’s views.  They affirm the doctrine of election or predestination.  This is the problem, so to speak.  They have a difficult time with both common grace and the free offer of the gospel.  These don’t doctrines don’t make “sense” in light of election, but our minds are not the measure of truth.  Our theology is not to settle for “reasonable” but to reflect revelation.

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Chapter 4 of Piper’s book God is the Gospel focuses on 2 Corinthians 4-6, part of a great passage that weaves themes from creation (Genesis 1) and redemption (the Exodus) to help us understand how it is we have come to behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus.

“In the dark and troubled heart of unbelief, God does what he did in the dark and unformed creation at the beginning of our world.”

Re-creation begins!  Eyes blinded by the Evil One now see because God has shined light into their hearts.  Finally we see glory, rather than all the substitutes the world, flesh and devil have to offer us.

“The supreme value of the glory of Christ revealed in the gospel is what makes Satan so furious with the gospel. … He is mainly interested in making Christ look bad.  He hates Christ.  And he hates the glory of Christ.”

“The kind of seeing that Satan cancels (vs. 4) and God creates (vs. 6) is more like spiritual tasting than rational testing.”

Too often we can be like Paul’s Corinthian opponents- relying on reason & logic rather than revelation (oops, the classical vs. presuppositional apologetics debate).  Our faith is not illogical or irrational.  But fallen sinners are- at least when it comes to Jesus.  So our appeals to reason and logic are essentially useless (see 1 Cor. 2:1-5).  This humbles us (at least it does me), making conversion the result of the Spirit’s work, not my profound rhetoric.

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