Theology

Bavinck on the Use of Philosophy

Herman Bavinck on the use of non-Christian philosophy in the service of Christian theology:

Initially the Reformation assumed a hostile posture toward scholasticism and philosophy. But it soon changed its mind. Because it was not, nor wanted to be, a sect, it could not do without theology. Even Luther and Melanchthon, therefore, already resumed the use of philosophy and recognized its usefulness. Calvin assumed this high position from the start, saw in philosophy an “outstanding gift of God,” and was followed in this assessment by all Reformed theologians. The question here is not whether theology should make use of a specific philosophical system. Christian theology has never taken over any philosophical system without criticism and given it the stamp of approval. Neither Plato’s nor Aristotle’s philosophy has been held to be the true one by any theologian. That theologians nevertheless preferred these two philosophical systems was due to the fact that these systems best lent themselves to the development and defense of the truth. Present also was the idea that the Greeks and Romans had been accorded a special calling and gift for the life of culture. Still to this day, in fact, our whole civilization is built upon that of Greece and Rome. And Christianity has not destroyed but Christianized and thus consecrated those cultures. Still, theology is not in need of a specific philosophy. It is not per se hostile to any philosophical system and does not, a priori and without criticism, give priority to the philosophy of Plato or of Kant, or vice versa. But it brings along its own criteria, tests all philosophy by them, and takes over what it deems true and useful. What it needs is philosophy in general. In other words, it arrives at scientific theology only by thinking. The only internal principle of knowledge, therefore, is not faith as such, but believing thought, Christian rationality. Faith is self-conscious and sure. It rests in revelation. It includes cognition, but that cognition is completely practical in nature, a knowing (γιγνώσκειν) in the sense of Holy Scripture. Theology, accordingly, does not arise from believers as such; it is not a product of the church as institution; it does not have its origin in the official ministry Christ has given his church. But believers have still another, fuller life than that which comes to expression in the church as institution. They also live as Christians in the family, the state, and society, and pursue the practice of science and art. Many more gifts than are operative in the offices are granted them, gifts of knowledge and wisdom and prophecy. Among them, too, there are those who feel a strong impulse toward study and knowledge, who have received gifts for apprehending and systematizing the truth of God. Thus theology arises in the church of Christ; its subject is not the institutional church but the church as organism, the body of Christ. It is a product of Christian thinking.

Source: Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1: Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Baker Academic, 2003), pp. 608-9.

Materialism and Mysteries

Bart EhrmanA friend brought this recent blog post by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman to my attention. Since it intersects with several areas of interest to me, I thought it would be fun to write some commentary on it.

Dr. Ehrman makes four basic points in his post:

  1. He is a metaphysical materialist. He believes that everything that exists is material in nature.
  2. Materialism faces some “enormous conceptual problems.”
  3. Even so, that’s no reason for him to abandon materialism, because every belief-system has its mysteries. Every belief-system has conceptual problems that seem to defy explanation, but it doesn’t follow that it’s unreasonable to hold on to that belief-system.
  4. Moreover, while every belief-system has its mysteries, it can still be the case that some belief-systems are more reasonable than others.

Let’s consider each point in turn.

1. Materialism

After some throat-clearing about not trying to “impose” one’s views on others, Dr. Ehrman writes:

Anyway, as probably fewer members know, I have been more-or-less a complete materialist for about twenty years. I do not believe there is such a thing as a non-material, supernatural realm. There’s the material realm, and that’s it, all the way down.

I used to think that we are (I am) made up of two things: a body and a mind/soul/spirit/whatever you want to call it. I don’t think that anymore.

But for now, I think I am made up of one thing. Matter. I’ve got (by my count) one body, eleven organ systems, 79 organs, roughly 37 trillion (count them!) cells, and god knows how many molecules. And nothing else. If some of those cells die – well they die all the time. If enough of them die in one place at one time, it could be a problem. If one of the organs goes kaput, it could be a very big problem. If one of the vital organs goes, as we used to say in high school, it’s cookies.

So Ehrman is clearly rejecting any version of dualism in favor of a clear-eyed, straight-talking, unabashed materialism. Everything that exists is entirely material in nature, including you and me. There is no soul distinct from the body. There is no mind distinct from the brain.

As I’ll explain shortly, I think this materialist position is demonstrably false, but I have to give Ehrman credit for being so direct and explicit about his position. No mincing words here! No side-stepping or fencing-sitting. I’ve encountered many unbelievers who are eager to criticize other people’s views without ever committing to any specific position themselves. They’re very eager to declare what they don’t believe (and why they don’t believe it) but very reluctant to tell us what they do believe (and why they believe it).

Bart Ehrman is not one of those unbelievers. Kudos to him for nailing his materialist colors firmly to the mast!

Concise Theology Essays

If you haven’t already done so, you should check out TGC’s Concise Theology series of short essays. It’s an impressive collection and should prove to be an excellent (free!) resource. I’ve already recommended several articles to people who have contacted me with theological questions. (Perhaps some generous donor would be willing to fund translations into Spanish, Mandarin, and Arabic?)

It struck me that a significant number of the essays were contributed by current and former professors at Reformed Theological Seminary, so I’ve taken the liberty of listing them here:

The Bible

The Church

Creation

End Times

God

Salvation

Sin

Systems and Methods of Theology

Let me know if I missed any! (There may be some essays yet to be posted.)

Anderson and Beall on Theological Paradoxes

Anyone interested in the topic of theological paradoxes will probably enjoy these two episodes from the freshly-minted Furthering Christendom podcast. In the first, I chat with Tyler McNabb and Mike DeVito about the model I develop and defend in my book Paradox in Christian Theology. In the second episode (recorded the very next day!) Tyler and Mike talk with philosopher JC Beall about his preferred approach to theological paradox.

Dr. Beall has some very kind things to say about my work, even though he ends up taking a different position. I want to preserve classical logic (specifically, the law of non-contradiction) and my model aims to do just that. Thus, on my view, theological paradoxes are merely apparent (not real) contradictions. Beall, on the other hand, wants to bite the bullet (or as he puts it, “knock on the door”!) and say that orthodox Christology is both true and contradictory, which requires one to accept a non-classical logic. (I should add that he thinks there are other, non-theological reasons for questioning classical logic.)

In my conversation with Tyler and Mike, I briefly explained why I prefer my approach over Beall’s, even though we largely agree on the parameters of the problem we’re both seeking to address. Although I didn’t know in advance that Dr. Beall would feature in the immediately following episode, it’s quite interesting to compare my motivations for preserving classical logic with his motivations for rejecting it.

I also found intriguing Dr. Beall’s comments on identity relations within the Trinity toward the end of the video (around the 57-minute mark). Beall expresses his view that logic as such doesn’t contain “an identity predicate” and “identity is not part of logical vocabulary.” I’m inclined to agree with him. I think identity is a substantive metaphysical concept rather than a purely logical one; what’s more, there are different kinds of identity and it’s not obvious which kind holds between the divine substance and each of the divine persons. I’ve suggested that it’s a sui generis kind of identity that has no analogue in the creation. (I’ve discussed this in my book and a few other places.)

Anyway, I enjoyed the conversation and I look forward to reading Dr. Beall’s forthcoming book on the subject.

 

Pick Your Worldview?

RTS Washington DCI’ve been having a lot of fun conversations recently. The latest was with my friends and colleagues at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington DC. In the most recent episode of their freshly-minted podcast, we had quite a wide-ranging discussion of topics such as analytic philosophy, the propriety of Reformed analytic theology, paradoxes in Christian theology, worldview apologetics, and my personal journey from electronic engineering to philosophical theology.

If you want to know why they titled this episode “Pick Your Worldview” rather than “Choose Your Own Worldview” — well, there’s a story behind it, but you’ll have to listen to find out!

While you’re at it, check out the other episodes in their podcast. Great stuff!

Calvinism and the Problem of Contrition

I recently received the following inquiry about an alleged problem for Calvinism:

This problem is explained in a new book I’ve been reading, The Challenges of Divine Determinism, by Peter Furlong (a theist who’s agnostic about the reality of divine determinism). Furlong calls this problem the problem of contrition, which lies in the observation that (to put the basic point briefly and crudely) in order to repent for one’s sins in the fullest way, one must wish to have never sinned in the first place–but if divine determinism is true, and so God willed one to sin, this means that one must wish that God had not willed what He did, and so one’s will must be in some sense aligned against God’s to repent. Of course no Christian wants his will to oppose God’s.

A very interesting challenge! Some thoughts in response (bearing in mind that I haven’t read Furlong’s book):

1. Calvinists routinely distinguish between God’s decretive will and his preceptive will.1 The first concerns God’s eternal decree, which infallibly comes to pass, while the second reflects God’s commands for mankind as an expression of his holiness. Thus, God willed preceptively that Joseph’s brothers would not sin against him, but he willed decretively that they would do so (hence Gen. 50:20). As such, we should clarify that when we say “and so God willed one to sin,” we’re speaking specifically of God’s decretive will. There’s no opposition to God’s preceptive will implied here; on the contrary, the reason we wish we hadn’t sinned is precisely because our sins are contrary to God’s preceptive will!

The Repentant St. Peter (Goya)2. Having drawn this distinction, we can be more precise about the challenge posed. The alleged problem is that in order to be truly contrite, one must wish that God had decreed otherwise than he did in fact decree. But why exactly is this problematic? Would so wishing imply that God made some kind of mistake in decreeing as he did? Would it imply that God shouldn’t have decreed what he did? That doesn’t follow at all, as far as I can see. Presumably God could have decreed otherwise than he did (i.e., God had alternatives open to him; nothing necessitated what he actually decreed) and if God had decreed otherwise, he wouldn’t have been wrong to do so.2 Wishing that God had decreed otherwise needn’t imply any deficiency on God’s part (e.g., that God could have decreed something better than what he actually decreed).

3. It strikes me that if there is a problem here, it isn’t a problem merely for contrition but for any counterfactual wishing. Suppose my favored candidate loses the election and I think to myself, “I really wish Jones had won.” If God decreed that Jones would lose, my wishing that Jones had won implies that I wish God had decreed otherwise! So if there really is a problem, I don’t think it has anything to do with contrition per se.

4. What’s more, if this is a problem, it isn’t a problem for divine determinists alone. Molinists also hold that God has an infallible decree, albeit one conditioned by God’s middle knowledge. So if a Molinist truly wishes that he hadn’t sinned, he is also wishing that God had decreed otherwise (specifically, that God had “weakly actualized” some other “feasible world,” some possible world in which he doesn’t commit the sin in question).

5. Christ’s wrestling in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36-44) may be instructive here. Surely in some sense Jesus wished that his Father’s will were otherwise, otherwise his prayers in the garden make little sense. Jesus knew perfectly well that it was his Father’s settled will for him to go to the cross, but he still desired that things be otherwise. Was this a wrongful desire on Jesus’s part? Surely not! (Note that one doesn’t have to be a Calvinist to appreciate this point.)

Obviously I don’t offer this as an example of contrition, only as a case of someone non-sinfully wishing that God had willed otherwise. Of course, Christ obediently subordinated his (entirely understandable) desire not to drink the cup of God’s wrath to the will of his Father. In the end, Christ’s overriding wish was to do his Father’s will. (Praise God!) But that doesn’t mean his other desires weren’t genuine desires.

6. Reflecting on it further, I’m not sure this is even a strictly theological problem, because one can formulate non-theological versions of the problem of contrition. Suppose a young man has premarital sex with his girlfriend. She becomes pregnant and has a daughter whom the man loves dearly. In fact, the couple decide to get married and raise the girl together. Later on, the man experiences a religious conversion and becomes convicted that premarital sex is morally wrong. Should he sincerely wish that he hadn’t engaged in premarital sex? In some sense, yes. But if he hadn’t done what he did, his daughter would never have been born. So is he implicitly wishing that his daughter had never been born? Presumably not!

This raises the question of whether it’s possible to have wishes with logically inconsistent implications (or alternatively, to coherently wish for what isn’t possible). I think it is, although a defense of that claim will have to wait for another occasion. The only point I’m making is that the problem of contrition, if a problem at all, isn’t a problem for divine determinists alone. It can be turned into a problem for everyone. Conversely, if it isn’t really a problem in general, there’s no reason to think it’s a problem for Calvinists in particular.


  1. For a robust exegetical defense of the distinction, see this classic article by John Piper.
  2. It’s true that some Calvinists have taken a necessitarian position with respect to God’s decree, but that isn’t an essential tenet of Calvinism simpliciter.

Determined to Come Most Freely

A preprint version of the article I co-authored with Paul Manata, “Determined to Come Most Freely: Some Challenges for Libertarian Calvinism,” published a while ago in the Journal for Reformed Theology and summarized here, is now available here. Enjoy!

Grudem’s Christian Ethics and Other Themeliana

My review of Wayne Grudem’s Christian Ethics appears in the latest issue of Themelios. (In case you’re left wondering: yes, I actually used a set of scales.)

The April 2019 issue is quite a treat. Some highlights:

Something for everyone!