Monday, April 02, 2018

'Absolutely incomprehensible’

'Absolutely incomprehensible' - A surprising expression to find John Owen using. The context is the following:

Herein consists the excellence  of faith above all powers and acts of the soul – that it receives, assents unto, and rests in, things in their own nature are absolutely incomprehensible’. (50)

This is from Owen’s A Declaration of the Glorious Mystery of the Person of Christ – God and Man (1679), (Works I.) Chapter three of the book, ‘The Person of Christ the most ineffable Effect of Divine Wisdom and Goodness’. ‘[O]f all the effects of the divine excellencies, the constitution of the person of Christ as the foundation of the new creation, as ‘the Mystery of Godliness,’ was the most ineffable and glorious’. (45) Owen links present faith in the mystery of the Incarnate Son to the blessed vision.

I shall only say, that those who are inconversant with these objects of faith – whose minds are not delighted in the admiration of, and acquiescency in, things incomprehensible, such as is that constitution of the person of Christ – who would reduce all things to the measure of their own understandings, or else willfully live in the neglect of what they cannot comprehend – do not much prepare themselves for that vision of these things in glory, wherein our blessedness doth consist. (52)

This isn’t simply the exaggerated language of a grumpy late Puritan, soured and disillusioned by political failure and defeat. Owen was following the logic of the Definition of Chalcedon, (451) which set forth the two-natured character of the person of the incarnate Logos. In two paragraphs, propounding the mystery of the Incarnation.

[We also teach] that we apprehend this one and only Christ – one Lord, only begotten – in two natures; [and we do this] without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one nature into the other, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them into two separate categories, without contrasting them according to area or function. (Leith, Creeds of the Churches, 36)

Notice two features of this language. First, these expression set out the apprehension of the ‘one and only Christ’.  Not comprehension, but apprehension. This is borne out by the fact tat there follow a number of negative statements. The two natures are ‘without confusion’, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them, and finally without contrasting them according to area or function. This is negative theology, setting out what the consequences of the Incarnation does not have, rather than providing a positive account of the mystery of the Incarnation. This language safeguards that mystery it does not explain it.

In referring to the incarnation as ‘absolutely incomprehensible’ Owen used the two words with deliberation. By that phrase he did not mean ‘entailing a self contradiction’. The Puritans and Reformed Orthodox were hot on the principle of non-contradiction. No sound doctrine contained one.  Rather, if something is absolutely incomprehensible to us then we cannot, as finite beings with limited comprehension,  understand it. Not even partially. We cannot get our minds around it. It is a fundamental feature of the Creator creature relationship that the finite cannot encompass the infinite. So then if something is incomprehensible we cannot understand or get around our minds round what is infinite. If incomprehensibility is due to a failure on our part to understand what a ‘black hole’ or what an ‘enzyme’ is, then to the extent that we understand these terms then our comprehension is increased. These are cases of what we may call ‘conditional' comprehension or incomprehension. We start to comprehend these terms when some competent person explains them to us. You might say that we cannot ever comprehend anything fully. We may all too obviously misunderstand a detail or an implication, and so our understanding is pretty good though not complete, functionally sufficient. What Owen meant by attaching ‘absolutely’ to ‘incomprehensibility’ is that there are states of affairs that we shall never fully understand. Not even in heaven, since our finitude is essential to us.  Of course in this plight we may resort to non-literal descriptions. So Calvin when referring to the Incarnation spoke of God ‘clothing’ himself with our nature. We are in a state of absolute incomprehension when the attempt to put into literal language that the infinite and eternal God is in union with a human nature fails. Here it is not a case of being short of a detail or details, but that the very idea of an infinite being taking on a finite nature is will be beyond us. That state of affairs is absolutely incomprehensible or, in another of Owen’s expressions, it is ‘ineffable’.


What might be called the theological sensibility of Owen is very different from that which is generally current in evangelicalism. For him, the Christian faith pivots on a mystery. No effort is made to qualify it in any way. By contrast, the current temper is to attempt to iron out the sharp edges of divine mysteries by devising ‘models’ of this and of that mystery. The very presence  of mystery in the faith seems to rankle. The presence of mysteries in the gospel, particularly the mysteries of the triunity of God and the incarnation of the God-man, seem to get in the way, and it is the task of apologetics n ‘Christian scholarship’  to create  human analogies which will  sugar the pill. Owen had met such people.

Some would have all things that we are to believe to be levelled absolutely unto our reason and comprehension – a principle which, at this day, shakes the very foundations of the Christian religion. It is not sufficient, they say, to determine that the faith or knowledge of anything is necessary unto our obedience and salvation, that it seems to be fully and perspicuously in the Scripture – unless less the things so revealed  be obvious and comprehensible unto our reason…(50)

So we find efforts to treat the God-man,  is that the mystery of the Incarnation comes to be understood along Nestorian lines, or Apollinarianism, or Kenoticism or Arianism, or some variant of these. Some favour a ‘Christology from below’, others a ‘Christology from above’ some even seek to offer an account of a materialist Christology, it now being passé to employ the character of an immaterial spirit. Others venture the thought that when Jesus died God died, and was dead for three days. There are even advocates of a non-incarnational incarnation, for 'incarnation' is a word which is to be used metaphorically rather than one that expresses the literal truth. It may be that the scholar thinks he has a novel insight, but the novelty will as likely as not turn out to be one of the above, or some combination of these features.


Owen links the ineffable mystery of the Incarnation with what the apostles have to say. It is understandable that in those who lack faith the Incarnation is ‘absurd and unreasonable’. ‘But where this faith is, the greatness of the mysteries which it [the Incarnation] embraceth heightens its efficacy, in all its blessed effects, upon the soul. Such is the constitution of the person of Christ, wherein the glory of all the properties and perfections of the divine nature is manifested and shine forth. He links this with apostolic passages such as ‘Beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, we are changed into the same image, from glory to glory’. (2 Cor. 3.18)

The glass wherein this glory is represented unto us – proposed to our view and contemplation – is divine revelation in the Gospel. Herein we behold it, by faith alone. And those whose view is steadfast, who most abound in that contemplation by the exercise of faith, are ‘changed into the same image, from glory to glory’ – or  are more and more renewed and transformed into the likeness of God, so represented unto them. (51)
That which shall, at last, perfectly effect our utmost conformity to God, and therein, our eternal blessedness – is vision, or sight. ‘We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’ (I Jn. 3.2) Here faith begins what sight shall perfect hereafter.  But yet ‘we walk by faith, and not by sight’ (2 Cor. 5.7)  But yet ‘we walk by faith , and not by sight:’. (2 Cor 5.7) And although the life of faith and vision differ in degrees – or as some think, in kind – yet have they both the same object, and the same operations, and there is a great cognation* between them.  (51)
 (*cognation - relationship by descent  from the same ancestor  or source.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Holiness and Morality

In his great work, a Discourse on the Holy Spirit: His Name, Nature, Personality, Operations and Effects ….(in Vol. 3 of the Goold edition) John Owen devotes an entire book (two hundred pages) to the sanctification of the saints. For him sanctification is as much the immediate work of God’s as is regeneration. He cites I Thess .5.23. ‘the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.’ On the basis of this passage Owen connects evangelical peace and sanctification. So Paul prayed that God would infallibly sanctify the Thessalonians throughout, and that they would be preserved blameless to the coming of Jesus Christ. God is the eternal spring and only fountain of all holiness. (367). God is our sanctifier. He alone is our peace. He cites Rom, 15. 33; 16. 20,' the God of love and peace', 2 Cor.13.11, 'the God of peace.' And similarly in Phil. 4.9,  ‘What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practise these things, and the God  of peace will be with you’.


So as Paul wrote that ‘And those he predestined, them he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified’ he could well have inserted ‘sanctified’ between justified and glorified’. As in effect he does in ch. 12 and following.  (I hope this comment is not misunderstood) 

So sanctification, as here described

is the immediate work of God by his Spirit upon our whole nature, proceeding from the peace made for us by Jesus Christ, whereby,  being changed into his likeness, we are kept entirely in peace with God, and are preserved unblamable, or in a state of gracious acceptation with him, according to the terms of the covenant, unto the end. (369)

The importance and distinctiveness of sanctification for Owen is that it flows only from the gospel. It is an evangelical change ‘for holiness is nothing but the implanting, writing and realizing of the gospel in our souls’. Hence it is connected also with truth , the truth of the gospel, in the New Testament. As in Ephesians 4.24, ‘the holiness of truth’; Titus. 1.1 ’and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness’; and John 17.17 ‘Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth’. So as he connects sanctification and peace, so he connects sanctification and truth.  

But why an individual may be pursuing holiness in the fear of the Lord, it does not follow that to be holy, or to be following holiness, that person needs to be acquainted with the details of sanctification . Just as one doesn’t have believe the doctrine of election in order to be among the elect, neither does a person have to be learned in the doctrine of sanctification in order to be a follower of holiness. Owen makes this point very clear:

More than that, these beginnings are mysterious and secret  as Owen says. 

The work itself, as hath been before declared at large, is secret and mysterious;  and therefore, (as in some) I  hope in many, there is the reality and essence of holiness, who yet can find nothing of it in themselves, nor perhaps in anyone else, but only Jesus Christ, who is of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord, and is it may be the same secret manner thrive as to its degrees in them who yet perceive it not. (403) 
 It might seem that there is a whiff of evangelical antinomianism in Owen's view. But this is not so.
But our duty and God's grace are nowhere opposed in the matter of sanctification, the one doth absolutely suppose the other. Neither can we perform our duty herein.without  the grace of God; nor doth God give us  this grace unto any other end but that we may rightly perform our duty. He that shall deny either that God commands us to be holy in a way of duty, or promiseth to work holiness in us in a way of grace, may with as much modesty reject the whole Bible (384)

Regeneration is one event: all who are regenerated are equally so. In the case of sanctification it is rather different. Sanctification has also a definite beginning, regeneration, and in that sense is a  definite sanctification as John Murray said. And its fruit, holiness, being acquired and displayed gradually, is different in different saints.


So what does Owen say about morality? Various things. For instance, he recognizes that it is highly valued. ‘It far exceeds in worth, use and satisfaction, all that the honours, powers, profits and pleasures of the world can extend to’. (372) It was praised and encouraged ‘by learned contemplative men among the heathen. They shamed many that are called Christians.

But to suppose that this moral virtue, whatever it be really in its own nature, or however advanced in the imagination of men, is that holiness of truth which believers receive by the Spirit of Christ, is to debase it, to overthrow it, and to drive the souls of men from seeking an interest in it. And hence it is  that some, pretending highly a friendship and respect unto  it, do yet hate, and reproach what is really so, pleasing themselves with the empty name and withered carcass of virtue, every way inferior as  interpreted in their practice, to the righteousness of heathens. (372)

Moral virtue and law-keeping are altogether different from gospel holiness. And defenders of moral virtue are often to be found as enemies of true godliness. For one thing, holiness is incomprehensible to the  moralist. The wisdom in true sanctification, its springs and growth in the believer…. Its ‘ways, residences and paths, are so hidden from the natural reason and understandings of men’ (372) that misunderstand and prejudice are inevitable. The natural man does not understand the things of the Spirit of God.  


Regeneration is one event: all who are regenerated are equally so. In the case of sanctification it is rather different. Sanctification has also a definite beginning, regeneration, and in that sense sanctification is 'definite' as John Murray said. But its fruit, holiness, being acquired and displayed gradually, is different in different saints.                               

No man, I say, by his mere sight and conduct,  can know and understand aright the true nature of evangelical holiness; and it is, therefore, no wonder if the doctrine of it be despised by many as an enthusiastical fancy.(372)
Hence it often falls out…that those who are most zealous and industrious for and after a legal righteousness, walking in a strict attendance unto duties proportionable unto light and convictions, pretending to be it, and bearing some resemblance of it, are  the most fierce and implacable enemies of true evangelical holiness’. (373) 

Thursday, February 01, 2018

The Westminster Standard - III

John Davenant

In the last of our ventures into the theological terminology of the Westminster Confession we shall have a look at its usage of the phrase ‘the author of sin’


 There are two of these occurrences - 

Decree III.I ‘neither is God the author of sin’

Providence V. IV. ‘…..yet so as the sinfulness thereof proceeds only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.’

Both texts deny that God is the author of sin by (in the case of his decree) affirming that God freely and unchangeably ordains whatever comes to pass, including in this ‘whatever’ evil acts take place. And so by denial of the mistaken inference that God in this business of ordaining evil acts  is  the author of sin, He is nevertheless the source (perhaps by permission)  of that evil of the evil actions he decree.  In the case of the phrase as it occurs in the chapter ‘Of Providence’ the inference is not enthymemetic, the wording being fuller. For the author of sin to apply to God, he would have had to have been the one from whom the sinfulness of an action proceeds. But this is impossible because God ‘is most holy and righteous’  so that he can be neither the author or approver of sin. This harks back to what is stated in III.I. that God orders  evil actions  to fall out in such a way that neither is ‘the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away’, and so they act  ‘according to the nature of second causes’, so for example wicked men produce wicked acts.

The charge that ‘God is the author of sin’ is routinely levelled at Calvinists. But the universal decree is preserved, as is universal and particular divine providence. The decree is important if we are to respect the creator-creature distinction. The Lord ‘respects’ the natures of his creatures, so that it is me who  ties my tie, not the Lord. He decrees me tying my tie.

The Scripture has a variety of expressions to convey this. The chapter on Providence underlines this by the variety of verbs that it uses to cover God’s various providential relations. So the Lord (Providence V.1), ‘doth uphold, dispose and govern’ and  ‘by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently’. Writing of the ‘first fall’ the divines refer to this ’not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful  bounding and otherwise ordering and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his holy ends’ (V.IV); to wicked men he ‘doth blind and harden’, ‘and witholdeth’ and  ‘exposeth’ and ‘gives them over’. (V.VI)


The theologians of the era of the Westminster Confession also had another  way of treating the idea that God cannot be the author of sin, than those that the Confession used. This is based on a further distinction, that between the material constitution of an evil act, and its formal nature. As Theophilus. Gale (1628- 78) (who is fond of this distinction) expresses it. ‘For all sin being, as to its formal nature, but a moral privation or relation, it necessarily requires some natural good as its substrate mater or subject.’  The distinction between form and matter is a fundamental one in the scholastic medieval outlook and its Aristotelian sources., which were largely taken over by those who these days are called the ‘Reformed Orthodox’. It corresponds to two different kinds of cause. A formal cause of something is the essence of that thing, what the thing is or is to be. The formal cause of creating a donkey is different from the formal cause of creating a cat, say. The form is the realization of set of properties  which is donkiness, or catness. The material cause is that ‘stuff’ out of which the efficient cause produces the form of the thing. But in the case of human actions, we are concerned first and foremost with the activity of the soul. Besides. Theophilus Gale,   the learned author of The Court of the Gentiles, here are two more examples.

Andreas Rivet (1572-1651), a Huguenot who became Professor of Theology at Leiden, also takes a similar way in his work on providence in the Leiden Synopsis, characterizing the privative nature of evil.

And so it is rightly said that He exercises providence regarding them [sins], since He disposes to do well regarding them. [To bring good out of their evil.] But if one considers only that which is real and sin and ‘positive’, as they say, what others call the ‘matter’ of sin, namely as an entity or as an action, in this sense sins can be said even to be provided by God, but only in a relative sense and not in itself. That is because the formal structure of sin exists in the absence of being and of good, in a certain deformity and disorderliness, which does not come from God and so cannot have been provided for by Him.

If we think of an action, then God upholds it, but if it is evil, it is privative. Considered as a state of affairs, it is defective.  God does not conserve such deficiencies, but only what is positive in them, and in the case of privative actions, this is the ‘substrate’ of the action.

John Davenant (1572-1641)  was one of the English Delegates to the Synod of Dordt, and later on the Bishop of Salisbury. In his Animadversions, Davenant makes the same general point as Gale on the question of God’s relation to morally evil actions.   The crucial point in his argument is that God’s attitude to the formal differs from his attitude to the material aspects of a sinful act. The material element is the soul and the particular powers of the soul, the formal is the motive or intention of the agent in doing this act or avoiding that act.  ‘This distinction is a sound and necessary distinction, and approved by all judicious divines, whether Papists or Protestants’.

Davenant grants ‘God to be the cause of the materiall part, as it denieth him to be any cause at all of the formal, which is the repugnancy or disconformity which the will of the Agent hath with the law or will of God’. He does not hesitate to refer to these as two ‘parts’ of the soul, even though as with most of his contemporaries, at the same time he upholds the simplicity of the soul, that it  is ‘without parts’. Yet a distinction between the formal and the material cause is a clear and sharp general distinction for him, and critical to his argument that there is a significant distinction between causes, since God has a causal relationship to the one which it is impossible for him to have to the other.
God is the primary cause of all that occurs in his creation, the activity of secondary causes. The formal part of an action (its having the particular form that it has) is, in the case of sin, due to human disobedience of the divine law, his falling short of the divine glory. But the soul is the creature of God and as such is good and upheld by him. So, like Gale, Davenant used the term ‘material’ to refer both to the basis of intentions and volitions, which lie in the soul, and the movements of the body which have their basis in the body. These, the bodily movements, the material part of the act, are also caused by God as the primary cause, as the upholder of the creation. The way of willing these various spiritual and bodily parts and functions, what Davenant calls the modus appetendi, is the way that sinful desiring and believing work against [attacks] the revealed will or law of God in this instance, the form or the formal part of the act
God brings about all the material side of things, but not the ‘disorderly Manner of desiring and eating contrary to the law of God'. This he upholds and governs, but does not cause, ‘being a defect’ as Davenant puts it.

So there is a basic outlook that Davenant and the others we have mentioned have in common, though there were differences of detail. In answer to the objection, Davenant refers to God as the primary cause, but stresses the privative nature of sin less than Gale, who is more overtly Augustinian at this point. 

Why does the Confession not take this tack? It is not clear, but I guess it had to do with the Divines' regard for it as a public. Confessional document. Though in places there is evidence of scholastic influences in its wording, they may have judged that this ‘nice distinction’ which requires some explanation before it is understood, was not fitting for general consumption.