Creaturely Agency and the Two Kingdoms

At the Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference last month, Michael Horton delivered a fascinating paper entitled, “Let the Earth Bring Forth: The Spirit and Human Agency in Sanctification.”  Really, though, he could have left off “in Sanctification” from the title, since his wide-ranging paper explored many different loci of dogmatics, and indeed, ran out of time to even properly address sanctification.  The goal of the paper was to challenge the kind of hyper-Calvinistic thinking that has often crept into the Reformed tradition, suggesting that divine and human agency is a zero-sum game, and that the omnipotence of God must be matched by the impotence of his creatures.  In place of this paradigm of Creator-creature relations that threatens to cripple human agency, Horton wanted to offer a more robustly Trinitarian account in which the Spirit functions as the mode of divine agency which creates, animates, and enhances human agency, instead of simply trumping it.  

“Some defences of divine sovereignty,” Horton laments, “share with Arminianism a tendency toward a univocity of being between God and humans…both assume that divine and human agency are quantitatively rather than qualitatively distinguished.  Like a pie divided unequally between the host and guests, free agency is something to be negotiated or rationed between God and human persons….

In an analogical perspective, however, God is qualitatively distinct from creation, and so too is our agency distinct from though dependent upon God’s.  There is no freedom pie to divide….God alone is sovereign, but that is the source of rather than threat to creaturely liberty.  God does not make space for us by restricting his agency, but rather gives us our own creaturely space precisely by creating, governing, sustaining, and saving us.  Unlike the tyrants of history who stalk the earth extinguishing the voice and power of subjects, God’s sovereign presence animates and liberates human agency.”


Horton roots this paradigm in the doctrine of creation, by noting how, although we often draw attention to the omnipotent divine fiat in the creation narrative–“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light”–there is another grammar operative in this narrative as well: “And God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed’…And the earth brought forth vegetation.”  This construction, which appears several times in the creation account, shows God calling upon the creation to act according to its own created agency; creaturely media are not mere dead instruments in the hand of God, but have their own integrity; have, as Hooker would put it, “laws” of their own beings, according to which God has called upon them to function.  This is not true only for creation, but for redemption as well.  Creaturely media, while retaining their own distance, are sanctified for service to the divine work, through which they are not only themselves renewed, but take part in the renewal of the whole of creation.  


All of this, needless to say, is immensely fascinating, and resonates deeply with so much of what I have been discovering in Hooker as a corrective to some of the distortions in the Reformed tradition, which i have characterised as the product of the “Puritan mindset”–the zero-sum game between Creator and creatures.*  


Ironically, though, as regular readers will know, I have deployed this Hookerian account of divine and human agency against, among other things, the modern Reformed two kingdoms theory that fails to satisfactorily integrate natural and supernatural law, human and divine authority, but has to play them off against one another or insulate them from one another.  Reformed two kingdoms theorists like VanDrunen and Hart have been quite intent on radically distinguishing creation from redemption, and denying to the institutions of creation any role as means in God’s redemptive work.  Natural structures must remain outside the supernatural work of God, neither renewed nor renewing.  I say “ironically,” of course, because Horton is, at least as I understand it, generally identified as one of the leaders of the R2K school of thought that VanDrunen has so aggressively developed.  And yet Horton could enthusiastically quote John Murray toward the end of his paper, employing the language of transformation which VanDrunen reflexively rejects:

“Special grace does not annihilate but rather brings its redemptive, regenerative, and sanctifying influence to bear on every natural or common gift; it transforms all activities and departments of life; it brings every good gift into the service of the kingdom of God.  Christianity is not a flight from nature; it is the renewal and sanctification of nature.”

All this suggests, once again, that the instincts of the R2Kers are considerably closer to the heart of the tradition than the conceptual apparatus on which they have sought to graft those instincts.  It is as if they have set their eyes upon the right summit (the Reformed reconciliation of divine and natural law), but were so concerned to avoid the pitfalls and crevasses right in front of them (“transformationalism,” theonomy, etc.) that they set off up the wrong peak altogether, and now find themselves vainly gesturing at their goal across a wide gulf.  

*See here for the initial development of some of these thoughts.

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