Category Archives: Augustine

A Roman Empire State of Mind

Are you proud of your home city? What about your capital city or country? As someone who was born in Bradford and lived all my life in the UK, its hard to imagine what true patriotism feels like. The closest I get is my feelings for my homeland of Yorkshire, (but unfortunately, rumours of a referendum on independence are completely unfounded!). So it’s hard for me not to be cynical when you see others being effusive about their home city. I love the uplifting sentiments and soaring chorus line of Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind – a song about her beloved New York. But I can’t help feeling this is the exception in the cynical and apathetic world we live in.

So I ask myself:

  • What would it be like to be so passionate about your national identify that you were as devoted to it as much as we are our football clubs or celebrities?
  • What if you loved your home city so much it was the dominant element in your identity?
  • What if the values that had shaped the formation of your nation also united the nation’s people?
  • What if those same values had driven the conquest of all other nations and had brought great wealth and glory to your nation?

Well, then you would have a tiny inkling of what it was like to be a Roman citizen.

For those of us in the West I think it is almost impossible to imagine what it is like to admire and even idolise your capital city and nation. We are so full of cynicism that its hard to imagine people ever being so naive. But this was the wonder and beauty of Rome – that although it had its fair share of problems, it was loved, really loved, by its people. More than a logistical head of an empire – Rome was a dream.

But then what would happen if that dream was shattered? How strong would be the emotional outpouring when it was finally crushed and the city was sacked? Well this is exactly what happened in 410AD. As the Romans were looking around for explanations for this disaster, some pointed the finger of blame at the Christians. It was in response to this criticism that Augustine wrote the City of God and in Book 1 he attacks these criticisms head on. 

Augustine helpfully summarises the focus of Book 1 at the start of Book 2 “the first duty that presented itself was to reply to those who hold the Christian religion responsible for the wars with which the whole world is tormented, and in particular the recent sack of Rome by the Barbarians.” He goes on to say that his opponents ascribe the defeat to the Christian’s prohibition of “the offering of abominable sacrifices to demons”. 

He begins his defence by looking at the remarkable restraint that the Barbarians demonstrated in sparing many of those who took refuge in the tombs of the Christian martyrs. He seeks to highlight the ungratefulness of those that were saved from death by their momentary association with the protection offered by the name of Christ, who moments later were vocal opponents of the very faith that had rescued them. This all happened while many Christians were tortured and killed. In response to these injustices, he asks the questions: “why did these divine blessings extend also to the godless and the ungrateful? And why did the hardships inflicted by the enemy fall alike on the godless and godly?”

Thus, the start of Book 1 seeks to understand the cause and effect relationship between religious worship and temporal blessings. If it is true that gods are to be worshiped for blessings in this life only and there is a causative connection between the two, then there could be some ground for complaint. However, as Augustine demonstrates, Rome’s pagan gods had been unable to prevent past defeats when they had been worshiped as the national religion. He then explains, that although there is no direct connection between the two, there is an indirect undercurrent at work. He explains that there is a purpose in suffering – both for the righteous and the wicked. For the righteous God uses suffering to purify their desires and refine their character, while for the wicked he uses it to judge their behaviour. He explains it with the analogy of fire: “the fire which makes the gold shine makes chaff smoke” (1.8).

Augustine then address some of the practical pastoral issues that such suffering produces – what about Christians who were not buried? What about Christian women who were raped? What about those who committed suicide because of the shame of their assault? These were pressing issues of his day and he seeks to answer the issues they raise. Regarding the issues of burial, he says that based on Matthew 10.28  those who cannot kill the soul can do nothing with a dead body that can threaten the resurrection.

With regard to rape, Augustine seeks to comfort those who have suffered under this terrible violation with the thought that chastity and purity is something that cannot be taken away without our consent. He uses the example from popular culture of Lucretia’s suicide to illustrate that the Romans believed it was possible to remain innocent and yet be violated in this way. However, he cannot agree with her suicide as the right response for he sees this as an unnecessary reaction to perceived immortality. He quotes a saying of the time that “there were two people involved and only one committed adultery” (1.19). Hence, he sees this as murdering an innocent person – themselves! For if the person really is innocent of immorality then what right have they to murder themselves and commit such a sin.

He then asks if suicide can ever be a noble act of self-sacrifice to avoid being defiled. Augustine argues that one sin should not be avoided by committing another – particularly if committing an actual sin to avoid a potential sin. He takes this to its logical extreme and says that if we really wanted to avoid all potential sin we should commit suicide straight after being saved. For at this point we can avoid all future sin and ensure that we have been cleansed of all sin. By using this extreme example he shows how absurd this train of thinking is. True greatness, he argues, is a “spirit that has the strength to endure a life of misery instead of running away from it” (1.22). He does add the caveat that in some exceptional circumstances (e.g. Samson’s suicide) God may directly proscribe a particular act that in normal circumstances would be disallowed.

In the final few chapters he returns to the issue that he began with and says that the real reason the anti-Christians complain is because they want to return to their indulgent and indolent past. He paints a vivid picture of pagan hedonism that was mediated through the plays and actors of ancient Rome. Actors that were, apparently, producing degraded plays at the request of these pagan gods. He concludes that a further use of temporal judgements is to curb our lusts by fear of punishment. He rebukes their inconsistency when “you refuse to be held responsible for the evil that you do, while you hold the Christian era responsible for the evil which you suffer” (1.33).

Response

This is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking first book from Augustine. I agree with his basic argument about the difficulty of attributing cause and effect between temporal events and the worship of false gods or even the true God. For it is only when God speaks into his creation (either in prophecy or interpretation) to explain the purpose of a particular event that we can be certain of his intention. It would be difficult to argue for the truthfulness of Israel’s God if military victories were the only criteria we had to go on. Many times Israel was routed before its enemies – most often because of their unfaithfulness. But to an outside observer, such as the Assyrians attacking Judah in 2 Kings 18.31-35, it seemed that Israel was like any other nation. Only the interpretation of the prophets provides the context for the various judgements on the nation.

However, I found his view of rape to be too influenced by Greek thought, who regarded the body (flesh) as evil and the spirit (soul) pure. Hence he thinks that what happens to one can be isolated from the other – the body can be defiled while mind and spirit remains pure. I struggle to share this view as I see the body inextricable connected to spirit so that what defiles one defiles the other. Finally, I didn’t share all his comments on suicide. However, it did remind me of the current debate on assisted suicide in the UK and his encouragement to take the nobler path of enduring difficulties rather than taking the drastic but immediate way out is a timely reminder of the virtue of perseverance.

Father, help me to see you are guiding the current of my life, but not need an explanation for every breaking wave. I seek you and know that you are shaping my life, through the good and hard times. Help me to be content with knowing the destination, without questionning the purpose of each trial that leads me to you. I trust in you Lord, grant me perserverance to endure to the end, Amen

All About Augustine in 2012

Its been two years since I blogged my way through Calvin’s Institutes and I have decided the time has come to make 2012 the year of Augustine! The two books people are most familiar with are his autobiography, Confessions and the City of God. The City of God is Augustine’s defence of Christianity from the accusation that it was the cause of Rome’s fall to the Barbarians in 410 AD. It’s a long book consisting of 22 books across 1000 pages. I’ve split up the book into a daily reading plan and will write a post for each of the 22 books.

After being consumed by Calvin’s Institutes during 2009 I know that classic theology texts are not everyone’s idea of fun. So the question needs to be asked: “Why bother spending so much time and energy reading and writing about a book written 1600 years ago? What possible relevance could it have for our world today?” I hope to be able to answer this better by the end of 2012, but for now, here are five reasons I believe this is a valuable  exercise:

  1. Augustine was writing at the time of changing cultural philosophy. He was writing during the ascendancy of Christianity in the Roman Empire, over the previously established paganism. His arguments for why this happened and explanation of the relative fortunes of each will surely be instructive for our time when we see the opposite trend. Christianity is now in the decline in Western Europe and secularism is taking its place. How will Augustine’s explanations stand the test of time?
  2. Calvin continually referred to Augustine. In the Institutes that I read in 2009, Augustine was the one person that John Calvin referred to again and again as the most reliable and informative church father on the many theological issues that he discussed. I am intrigued to read Augustine himself and uncover more of what Calvin saw in the writing and teachings of this great teacher.
  3. I want to take the road less travelled. Short attention spans and Wikipedia are the order of our day. Who can be bothered reading an ancient text for enjoyment – just read the wiki and move on. We can only read a certain number of books in our lifetime – I want to read the ones that are the greatest theology books ever written. With my commute I can manage to read 3 or 4 pages a day for a year and get through an all-time classic on the train instead of playing Angry Birds.
  4. Augustine is a central figure of both protestant and catholic traditions. He is someone whom both traditions call upon for different reasons. I believe that understanding him better will help me appreciate my own roots, and also those who have drawn from these same roots on the other side of The Reformation divide.
  5. It will deepen my theological understanding. Like reading Calvin’s Institutes, reading this book from the 5th century will challenge my understanding of Christian theology and how to apply it to our current time. By challenging myself to write a 700 word post summarising the main points and demonstrating its relevance to our own day it will stretch my ability to apply ancient truth to modern life. Taking historic Christianity and speaking into today’s world is my aim – how better to develop this passion than with such a book?

So, here I go, look out for the first post on Book 1 in the next couple of weeks, let’s see what Augustine brings us during 2012…

The Stench of Chronological Snobbery

God Is Not Great, Chapter 5

By chapter 5 Hitchens is well into his stride, his main thesis in this chapter is that religion only flourished in the past due to ignorance and superstition in times of “abysmal ignorance and fear”. In these less enlightened times people could (almost) be excused for believing in fairy tales invented to simultaneously comfort the masses and exert power over them. In an incredible demonstration of speed-assassination he rolls off tabloid-like sound bites on Aquinas, Augustine, Martin Luther and Isaac Newton. Each of these men were incredibly deep thinkers and spent years in seeking to understand the world around them through science and faith, but they are assigned to the intellectual scrap heap because they have a theistic worldview. Yes there are things they believed that we look back on now, with the benefit of hindsight, as primitive and simplistic. But to take this anomaly and assign it as a one sentence strap line, or more like epitaph, over their lives is downright dishonest.

In Surprised by Joy CS Lewis reveals his prejudices about the past: “Here were gods, spirits, afterlife and pre-existence, initiates, occult knowledge, meditation. “Why — damn it — it’s medieval,” I exclaimed; for I still had all the chronological snobbery of my period and used the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse. Here was everything which the New Look had been designed to exclude; everything that might lead one off the main road into those dark places where men are wallowing on the floor and scream that they are being dragged down into hell. Of course it was all arrant nonsense. There was no danger of my being taken in.”

The preconception shows itself by a scoffing at anything older than we are, “how less educated they were back then, how foolish” we say. But this attitude forgets two things – firstly that if we had we lived back then our intellectual capacity would have been dwarfed by the names mentioned earlier and secondly, that in 100 years generations to come may well look back on us and wonder how we could have believed such primitive ideas that we think are the height of sophistication today. A little more humility and a great deal more balanced critique of these historical figures is required if our analysis is to stand the test of time. I cannot say it better than Lewis when countering his friend Barfield who had become an Anthroposophist:

“Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

It was at this point that I wondered if Hitchens’ one-liners betrayed his journalistic roots – not taking the time to present the case in its entirety – just lifting certain facts to suit the argument. Hitchens seems content to sacrifice a longer piece of even-handed commentary to the quick flashes of an eloquent assault. I began to wonder if Hitchens is only ever able to skim the surface of the arguments, scoring quick points in a tae kwon do style attack, but never plumbing the depths of an Augustine to find the real person behind the fictional caricature. He sums it all up by saying that “we have nothing much to learn from what they thought, but a great deal to learn from how they thought.” Granted, he thinks it is mostly learning from their mistakes!

But wait! There is someone who Hitchens would hold up as a critical thinker of a past century. William Ockham lived in the early 14th century and is most famous for his “Ockham’s Razor” which bears his name – this view describes the attempt to “disposing of unnecessary assumptions and accepting the first sufficient explanation or cause”. Essentially this means he sought to use logic to understand cause and effect behind religious faith. Thus, Hitchens presents Ockham as an orthodox, if controversial, Christian thinker who challenged the religious thinking of his day. In his search to simplify his preconceptions and find a logical explanation to his faith, Ockham realised that the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved. Moreover, in being obsessed with tracing back the cause and effect of each assumption he eventually comes to the wonder “Who created the Creator? Who designed the Designer?” This is music to Hitchens’ ears –a religious philosopher who unwillingly exposes the problem of the origin of God.

However, what Hitchens and Ockham fail to realise is that the “natural law” of cause and effect is not law which binds a free God – it is the expression of a created logical world.  Just as within a jigsaw there are inbuilt rules over which piece will fit with which neighbouring piece, but the designer of the jigsaw is not limited by these rules. So too God stands outside of our laws of nature and philosophical assumptions. Yes, within his created world, he has appointed cause and effect to underpin the world, but he is not bound by such spatial-bound sequential laws.

It’s the same with time – it is pointless to ask who or what existed before God, for he stands outside of time, as an eternal being. Yes we can use logic and reason to understand something of God and his world, but at one point we must put down these primitive tools and accept the knowledge of God through his self-disclosed revelation. Not that this divine revelation is illogical or unreasonable, but that logic and reason are limited in their ability, they can only take us so far. It’s a bit like using a step-ladder to reach the stars – it’s in the right direction, but ultimately futile. So our use of logic is good and proper, but they are not sufficient in themselves.

We need to realise that our knowledge of God would have been extremely limited had he not chosen to reveal himself. As Paul reminds us in Romans 1.20, the world around us testifies to his divine wisdom and unlimited power. But it is unable to reveal his character and attributes, for that we needed him to break the silence and speak to us. But even as God reveals that he is “a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34.6), he is still unknowable on a personal level due to our corrupted spiritual hearts. For the knowledge of God must be both experiential and doctrinal, and like oil and water, a pure and holy God and impure, unholy people don’t mix.

We think knowing something is as simple as firing up Google or Wikipedia, but what if I asked you how it felt to win an Olympic gold medal? Do you know how it feels to win a gold medal? Some do, but it’s not something I can know unless I put in the effort, compete and win – there are conditions to be met before we can experience that knowledge. So too with God, we are spiritually incapable of knowing him until he cleanses us and repairs our hearts. This is what Jesus was doing on the cross – making it possible for sinful corrupt creatures to know a holy and pure God. Wining the medal for us, competing on our behalf, and as we become united with him, we come to know what it feels like to win.

It’s not enough to understand and even believe the facts about God (for even the Devil does this), we must experience an awakening of our spirit to a new relationship with him – to be born again in our mind, soul and spirit. Logic and reason can help us to begin to fathom how he made it possible for us to know him, but they can never bring us into that relationship. Only the Spirit of God acting in the humbled heart through the mediatory work of Jesus can create such a knowledge.

The whispered promises of a betrothed groom

Book 3 Chapter 18 Section 1-10

How willingly we make promises to each other when we are in love. Nothing compels us to commit ourselves to each other apart from our desire to intertwine our lives so they can never be separated. On the marriage day we say our vows that promise provision, protection and faithfulness. The promises spring from a well of love that desires to make the other person feel completely secure and safe.

The star-struck lover giving precious promises to his beloved is the image that springs to mind from this final chapter on justification by faith. Here Calvin deals with the passages in the bible where God is said to grant eternal life to those who act graciously and uprightly (e.g. Matthew 25.31-46) and reward those who have acted well in this present life (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5.10). Rather than demonstrating that our works are the ground for our salvation Calvin argues that these passages indicate “not the cause, but the order of sequence.” Eternal life is given to those who have previously been adopted into the family of God for “the kingdom of heaven is not the hire of servants, but the inheritance of sons.”

More than that, we can see that God promises a reward to our works in order to motivate us to keep going. Knowing how weak we are and prone to giving up he promises rewards for our efforts. “For in order to animate us in well-doing, he allows no act of obedience, however unworthy of his eye, to pass unrewarded.” But such rewards are subsequent to salvation, for as Augustine says “To whom could the righteous Judge give the crown if the merciful Father had not given grace…and how could these be paid as things due were not things not due previously given?”

Thus our reward is certain, not because we deserve such a reward, but entirely because God has promised to give us what we don’t deserve. Again Calvin quotes from Augustine, “faithful is the Lord, who hath made himself our debtor, not by receiving anything from us, but by promising us all things.”

Response

We are used to thinking that God is no man’s debtor – that He more than rewards those who give up or sacrifice things for him. However, in an important sense God has put himself in debt to his children to give them what he has promised in his word. Everything God gives us is sourced from his infinite mercy – from our adoption as sons to the rewards for our service. God is not in the least indebted to us in anyway, but he makes himself indebted because he wants to. His rewards are the promised gifts of a lover not the wages of a servant.

There is nothing within us that means we should ever expect a reward for our vain attempts at good works. The basis for our blessing lies entirely within the promises made from a free and sovereign God. Nothing external compelled God to give us these promises – they are founded on the love of a lover for his beloved. It is as if we are the betrothed bride listening to the whispers of our lover, telling us what he will do for his most precious possession.

In Jewish culture the betrothal was a definite and binding agreement upon both groom and bride, who were considered as man and wife in all legal and religious aspects, except that of actual cohabitation. It was a joining of two people that guaranteed marriage at a later stage. Thus God puts himself in our debt, the God who is completely free brings himself under obligation to his bride. He adorns us with sweet promises, the fulfillment of the promises are certain, because of his character and because of his betrothal to us.

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13.8

Father, we rejoice in the many great and precious promises you have showered upon us. Thank you that you take delight in your people, help us to live in the light of this grace and be people of mercy and compassion. Help us to respond in loving obedience, not for fear of punishment or hope of reward, but out of love for the one who has captured our hearts. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Faith acquires what the law requires

Book II Chapter V Section 1-19

In this final chapter on the subject of free will Calvin addresses some of the questions that are raised in response to his teaching on this topic. So far Calvin has argued that our will is free only in so far as it means we act voluntary and not under compulsion, in our natural state we willingly choose to do what we love – sin. He claims that we are not ultimately free to choose whether to do good or evil until we are created anew by the indwelling Spirit. He recognises that the Spirit acts in the heart of people to restrain them from evil, but this is not sufficient to transform them. We need a new heart. A living soul of flesh implanted by God that wills to serve Him and is enabled by His grace to have the power to serve Him.

Some of the questions he tackles in this chapter are:

  • Does God mock us in demanding things we are not able to do (when he commands us to obey precepts He knows we are unable to do)?
  • Does this teaching not make the promises and precepts of God pointless if we have no power to respond to their encouragements and warnings?
  • Why does God rebuke the people of Israel and blame them for things they were unable to avoid?
  • How can mankind be held accountable for things they are powerless to change?
  • If the scripture teaches that God waits for us to repent then surely something must depend on us?
  • The scripture describes good and bad works as our own, how then is it that we are held responsible for the bad works but the good ones are attributed to Him?

In answer to some of these questions Calvin repeats the comment of Augustine that “God does not measure the precepts of the law by human strength, but, after ordering what is right, freely bestows on His elect the power of fulfilling it”. Augustine himself says “God orders what we cannot do, that we may know what we ought to ask of Him…Faith acquires what the law requires…nay, more, God demands of us faith itself, and finds not what He thus demands, until by giving it He makes it possible to find it”.

Calvin argues that there is no contradiction between God demanding a new heart within us, and then declaring that He gives it. Again from Augustine: “What God promises, we ourselves do not through choice or nature, but He Himself does by Grace”.

How does all this work in practise? Does God do everything while we sit back and relax? Well, not quite. God has given the believer a new heart to love and serve Him. Now they have the Spirit within to empower them to live for Him. So we want to act righteously, and although we often fail, we freely choose to follow our Saviour. Calvin puts it this way “you act and are acted upon, and you then act well when you are acted upon by one that is good…nature furnishes the will which is guided so as to aspire to good”.

Response
What Calvin is essentially saying here is that our nature has provided the power to will, but God provides the new direction and sustaining power. We have the innate ability to reason and decide on a particular action, but like the horse illustration that was used in the last chapter, we need to be broken in. God must tame our stubborn wills and bring us to a point of submission. Although the final victory over our old nature was certain from the moment of regeneration, there is a moment by moment decision required of whether to yield or resist.

God pleads with His people to be willing, “do not be like the horse or mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you” (Psalm 32.9). But we are weak and our efforts half-hearted. How we need His forgiving, healing Grace. Praise Him that our salvation does not depend on us, but on our sinless, spotless, Saviour.

“For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so He condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit”. Romans 8.3+4

Father, help our weak wills and sinful hearts to long and search for You. Forgive us our sins and renew our hearts that we may walk with You in unity rather than grieving Your Spirit within us. Pour out Your Grace today Lord, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.

The law of unintended consequences

Book II Chapter IV Section 1-8

The law of unintended consequences states that any purposeful action will produce some unintended consequences.  It means that however much we try and control the effects of our actions some things will happen that we did not intend. The truth of this law seems pretty self-evident and thinking about this law can provide some insights into Calvin’s arguments in this short chapter. In it he returns to the question of God’s control over both evil and indifferent events and how He manages to overule everything to His own ends. If He is overuling such events then how much responsibility can be attributed to man and how much to the devil?

Calvin begins to answer this question by using Augustine’s analogy of comparing the human will to a horse where God and the Devil are the riders. When once the control of the will is given to the Devil “like an ignorant and rash rider, he hurries it over broken ground, drives it into ditches, dashes it over precipices, spurs it into obstinacy or fury”. By contrast when the reigns of life are given to God “like a temperate and skilful rider, guides it calmly, urges it when too slow, reins it in when too fast…and keeps it on the proper course”.

Calvin next attempts to explain how we can attribute the same work to God, to Satan and to man without either excusing Satan or making God the author of evil. This issue was also addressed in Chapter 18 of Book I. Calvin argues that we can understand how these various factors interconnect if we look “first to the end (or purpose), and then the mode of acting” (italics mine). Using the example of the Chaldeans attack on Job’s camels in Job 1.17, we can see the three different purposes in the same act:

  1. God’s purpose is to exercise the patience of His servant through adversity
  2. Satan’s purpose is to drive Job to despair
  3. The Chaldeans purpose is to make unlawful gain by plunder

Calvin argues that “such diversity of purpose makes a wide distinction in the act”. We can also note the diversity of the mode of action:

  1. God allows Satan to afflict his servant, he hands over the Chaldeans to the impulses of Satan
  2. Satan willingly incites the Chaldeans to commit the crime
  3. The Chaldeans willingly rush to fulfil their desires

Thus, we can see how the same act can be attributed to God, Satan and man “while, from the difference in the end and mode of action, the spotless righteousness of God shines forth at the same time that the iniquity of Satan and of man is manifested in all its deformity”.

Response

This one illustration powerfully demonstrates the boundaries of the law of unintended consequences. All created creatures, whether spiritual or human beings are bounded by this law. Neither angels, or devils or people can control all the outcomes of one simple act. However, God is not bound by this law, He sustains and controls all things for His own purposes. He works within His own law of intended consequences.

Often we cannot understand what He is doing and why, and sometimes it is impossible for us to see any good to come out of an act. But we can rest in this truth that our God is able to overule the most impossible situations to bring His purposes to fulfilment. One day we will more fully understand how God has caused all things to work for the good of those that love Him. But for now we walk by faith, trusting our loving Father.

“It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God”. Genesis 45.5+8

Father, we pray you would enable us to fully trust that you are in control of all things, overuling them for our benefit. Even in the darkest night we hold onto Your hand and look to You to lead us. We believe and know You are working for our good, help us to find our peace in acceptance of this truth, for Your sake, Amen.

Free to do what you love

Book II Chapter II Section 1-27

After looking at original sin (or as Calvin calls it, hereditary sin) in Chapter 1 of Book 2, Calvin moves on to consider whether as a result of the fall man really has the freedom to choose to do good or evil. Does man really have a free will?

In order to answer this question Calvin first outlines how the mind works, how we make decisions. He identifies various elements within the soul, including the intellect, sense and appetite or will. He outlines the view of the philosophers who saw reason as illuminating the mind and informing the will to make decisions. However, they acknowledged that the will could be diverted from following reason by sense (pleasure and passion) that distort the appetite and turn will towards lust. But they believed that if man could rise above the influence of such carnal desires then he would be able to act justly and live an upright life. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is an excellent example of stoic philosophy that taught distancing ourselves from pleasure and pain in order to live a just life. Thus, the philosophers saw our innate reason as essentially pure and perceived the problem to be in trying to follow its inner light.

Discarding this view as not fully appreciating the impact of the Fall, Calvin then assesses the view of the church fathers on the topic of free will. He concludes that all of them, with the exception of Augustine, see man as corrupted at the sensual level only. They, like the philosophers, see our innate sense of reason as largely unaffected. He thinks this was driven by a misguided attempt to prevent people from feeling impotent to change their behaviour. Augustine defines free will in this way “it is a power of reason and will to choose the good, grace assisting, – to choose the bad, grace desisting”, emphasising man’s reliance on God’s grace for every good act. Calvin agrees with Augustine that without the transforming effect of grace man is completely powerless to live uprightly. He admits that mankind is not without the occasional spark of insight into the right path to follow, but our love for sin is such that we continue to decide to do that which we love – our sin.

Calvin goes on to describe three types of freedoms – the freedom from necessity (or compulsion), the freedom from sin, and the freedom from misery. He argues that the first freedom – the freedom from being forced how to act – is inherent to man and could not be removed, but the other two freedoms have been lost through the Fall. So, man has the free will to act however he so chooses, but he cannot act free from the power of sin. Calvin sums it up this way: “man is said to have free will, not because he has a free choice of good and evil, but because he acts voluntarily and not by compulsion”. But is this any type of freedom? “that man is not forced to be the servant of sin, while he is, however, a voluntary slave, his will being bound by the fetters of sin”.

Response

The issue of free will is contentious, we feel like we act freely and make up our minds over how to act. Indeed, it is true that even after the Fall, reason is able to act as a guide. But it is also in some measure corrupted, our conscience is not always reliable and even when it points us in the right direction we do not have the moral power to carry out our good intentions. Even when we recognise that we are caught in a trap, our will is not free to step out of the net.

We need help from outside to change. Just like the English rugby player who after he was caught for doing cocaine was actually pleased that he had been found out before his addiction completely ruined his life, we need someone to step in and save us. Someone who has the power to overcome our weak will and set it in a new direction.

The case for the Saviour is being steadily built as each chapter unfolds. He is able to take us from being voluntary slaves to sin and make us willing love slaves to Him, so that we desire to do what’s right and have the power to carry it out. Then and only then are we willing and able to do what pleases Him. The struggle with sensual desires still wages but we have a new power within to will and to do what we now love – live a godly life.

“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin…So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”. John 8.34

Father, if we are completely honest we recognise that there is nothing in us that desires you. It is only by your Spirit working in us that we desire to draw near to you and begin to love and serve you. Thank you that you have taken away our heart of stone and given us a heart of flesh. Fan into flame this desire and give us a steadfast heart to seek Your face, for your name’s sake, Amen.

A straight line with a crooked stick

Book I Chapter XVIII Section 1-4

If God controls all things and directs them according to His plan and purpose, including even the actions of Satan himself, then how can He also be free from all blame as well? This is the most common objection to the doctrine of providence and it is to this that Calvin applies himself in this chapter. He  tries to understand the issue by laying out some proposed solutions:

1. God permits evil but does not will it. This is the idea that God sits back and does nothing when evil occurs, He allows it to happen but does not want it to. The question here is if God “permits” things to happen does He do so willingly or unwillingly? Does He turn a blind eye as a passive spectator or does He in some sense will these things to happen? We know that God cannot be completely in control of all creation, and yet not also be completely in control of evil events occurring in that creation. God Himself testifies in His word that He is in control of events, whether good or evil (e.g. Isaiah 45.7, Amos 3.6). So if we agree that in some sense He is willing, or controlling, these events, that are against His declared will written in the law, does that mean He has two wills?…

2. There are two contrary wills in God. This tries to address the question of how God can decree by a “secret counsel” what He openly prohibits in His law. In Himself His will “is one and undivided, to us it appears manifold, because from the feebleness of our intellect, we cannot comprehend how, though after a different manner, He wills and wills not the very same thing”.

Calvin uses the example of the death of Christ as an event which was against the precept of God (“thou shalt not murder”) but at the same time it was willed by God to happen (Acts 4.28). Augustine puts it this way when speaking of that which is done contrary to His law “nor does He permit it unwillingly, but willingly; nor would He who is good permit evil to be done, were He not omnipotent to bring good out of evil”. Or as Luther put it, “God can use a crooked stick to draw a straight line” or as Dr David Calhoun says in lecture 6 of his lectures on the Institutes: “we do not know how God wills to take place what He forbids to be done”.

3. God is the author of sin. If we agree that God uses the agency of the wicked but also governs their “counsels and affections” for His own purposes then are not the wicked unjustly punished for only doing what He wanted? Is He not complicit in their crimes? But Calvin argues we are confusing God’s will with His precept. for while evil men “act against the will of God, His will is accomplished in them”. He argues that these men are following the evil desires of their hearts and that “they are not excusable as if they were obeying His precepts, which of set purpose they violate according to their lust”. Each is responsible for his own sin, irrespective of how God overrules the outcome.

Response

Confused? That’s probably a good sign, my head hurts. Well does Calvin say “the feebleness of our intellect” in understanding such deep truth. This is a hard teaching and at this point its important not to react by throwing our hands up in the air and saying its impossible to understand any of this so why bother. Calvin recognises this danger and warns against discarding a truth revealed in scripture just because it exceeds our capability to understand it!

He also reminds us that if these truths were not useful to be known God would never have ordered his prophets and apostles to teach them. Even though we cannot understand how God accomplishes His will through evil instruments we cannot deny that this is what the scriptures teach. How should we deal with these hard truths? “Our true wisdom is to embrace with meek docility, and without reservation, whatever the Holy Scriptures have delivered”.

“I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” Isaiah 45.7

Father, once again we have reached the end of human wisdom. Help us to trust in Your wisdom and gracious loving care. As a child trusts their father to do right, we trust you even when we can’t understand you. We are the creatures, you are the Creator. You are infinite, we are finite. Bring us all to the place of clearly understanding what the scriptures teach, and there may we stop and gaze, lost in wonder and adoration at Your infinite wisdom. Amen.

The secret impulse of God

Book I Chapter XVI Section 1-9

How involved is God in His creation? Did He set up the laws of nature then step back to observe the outcome? Does He intervene only at certain times in order to fashion His desired outcomes? Does He control every motion within the universe moment by moment? Where do we put God’s involvement on the spectrum from blind watchmaker to micro-manager? This is the issue Calvin addresses in Chapter 16.

Calvin begins by refuting the notions of chance and fortune. He reasons that while inanimate objects are subject to innate properties, yet they “exert their force only in so far as directed by the immediate hand of God”.  They are merely instruments which “God constantly infuses with energy” and uses for His purpose. Calvin then illustrates this point using the example of the sun (and earth). He points to the occasions in the bible when at the prayer of Joshua and Hezekiah the shadow of the sun was stopped or moved back, respectively. Thus, although the earth appears bound by natural laws which govern its motion, it in reality it is governed by God.

So, God is able to overrule natural law when He so chooses, but isn’t this just a special case? Not so argues Calvin. By referring to many passages speaking of the intimate governance of God, Calvin argues that “not a drop of rain falls without the express command of God”. Here Calvin agrees with Augustine, who taught that “if anything is left to fortune, the world moves at random”. What seems to others as chance, “faith will recognise as the secret impulse of God”.

Response:

If we really believe that not one sparrow falls to the ground without His will (Matthew 10. 29, along with many other passages of similar teaching) then it is logical to believe that God is intimately involved in every single action within creation. While it may be logical, its hard to get our head around. How can all the seemingly random acts of creation – including animals, humans and the cosmos – at all times, in all places, over all history, be controlled and guided by a divine hand?

As finite creatures limited by time and space this is a hard concept to grasp. Much easier to say that God is in charge in some abstract disconnected way and that he occasionally steps in for the odd miracle or two. But He has not left this option open to us. This teaching gives us some insight into what omnipotent and omniscient really mean. How big is our God?

This doctrine immediately leads onto two key questions: if absolutely everything that happens is governed and directed by God, then how can we understand the occurrence of evil in the world and what role do our decisions and actions take in God’s providence? It is these questions that Calvin addresses in the next chapter. I’m looking forward to it already!!

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father…So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Matthew 10.29+31

Father, we see something of Your amazing power and care as we meditate on these truths. Help us resist the temptation to try explain how You do it, but rather help us to become lost in wonder and adoration at Your intimate involment in our world. Thank you for Your loving and personal care, Amen.