There’s been a renewed burst of climate change contrarianism going around the interwebs, fuelled by the factoid that arctic sea ice has increased dramatically this year (never mind that it’s only risen relative to last year, by far the worst year on record). The actual factual claims here have been amply debunked by others, but it’s led to a couple interesting discussions over the last week, including one with a friend who posed to me some of the arguments one commonly meets in American Reformed denialist circles. My response grew long enough that I thought it worth sharing as a blog post. Read More
The Way of Sharing: A Critical Assessment of Dismissing Jesus, Pt. 6
Jones’s fifth chapter, “The Way of Sharing,” calls Christians to a life of bounteous, exuberant generosity, but one which goes beyond the pale, stingy virtue that we tend to think of as “generosity” or “charity.” Too many of us complacently accumulate vast possessions and then give out of our excess, secretly congratulating ourselves on giving up something that we are entitled to, and making sure (subtly, to be sure) that the recipient knows we have made a sacrifice. It is not hard to see that this is not a Biblical model of generosity. Instead, we are called to transcend the opposition between “mine” and “yours,” to be people of whom it might be said, “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own” (Acts 4:32) Rather than saying, “This is all mine, but I will deign to give some to you,” we should learn to say, “This is yours, for you have need of it.” That much, I would agree with Jones, seems clear from the Biblical testimony; and yet this is a subject sorely fraught with confusions and tensions. Immediately, in our post-Cold War world, our thoughts go to that perennial bogeyman, “Communism,” and its shadowy sidekick, “Socialism.” Does “sharing” mean giving up private property altogether, and holding all things in common? we worry. And what, after all, is it that we’re being condemned for—is it sheer abundance of material things, wealth as such? Or is it some people having more than other people—is inequality as such a problem? Or is it just some people having too much while others suffer in need—inequality in the face of indigence? Usually people mean the last of these three, but sound like (or are heard as if) they mean the first or the second. Read More
Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 3
In the first part of my review of A.J. Joyce’s Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology, I remarked that this was an oddly schizophrenic book, a bit of a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde. On the one hand, it features a basically sound, thorough, and helpful exposition of the key aspects of Hooker’s moral theology out of the primary sources, and on the other hand, an uneven and confused polemic against Reformed readings of Hooker. Chapter Four, investigating Hooker’s theological anthropology, is a case in point.
The choice to begin with an account of human nature, rather than of the sources of moral theology—reason and Scripture—might seem an odd one, but Joyce’s instincts are good here. For Protestantism in particular, we must first start from an account of human nature, and its current fallen state, before we can say much about how the authorities of reason and Scripture function in human life. Put simply, a very strong doctrine of total depravity would tend to demand a moral theology based almost entirely upon special revelation; a more optimistic doctrine of human nature would create more space for the use of general revelation in constructing an account of the moral life. The classic stereotype, of course, is that Hooker gives us a remarkably rosy evaluation of human nature, one which differs notably from the Reformed understanding of total depravity, and the grim pessimism of a figure like Calvin, and therefore represents a fundamental departure from an authentically Protestant understanding of the relative authority of reason and Scripture. Read More
A Harvest Prayer
Composed for St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, Harvest Sunday (Sept. 23rd), 2012
Lord of all Creation, we give you thanks and praise for the beauty and bounty of this earth, which we reflect on in this season of harvest. As the Psalmist said,
You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills;
they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell; they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
Great gift-giving God, for most of us today in the West, this celebration is perfunctory, a reminder of a quaint and long-ago time when we depended on the rhythm of the seasons, depended on the bounty of summer and autumn to sustain us through the dearth of winter. Today (even in Scotland) we live in a perpetual summer of bounty, well-fed, supplied with wine and oil in abundance. We heartily thank you for these blessings, and ask that you would help make us more grateful day by day, but we pray also for deliverance from the blindness and callousness that such easy prosperity can cause. Help us remember today the billions of our brothers and sisters who do not share in this bounty, many of whom still depend each year on a good harvest to keep any food on their table.
Lord of life, autumn is not only a time of bounty, a time to celebrate the vibrancy and richness of creation, but also a reminder of its fragility, of mortality. The sun retreats, the warmth and light ebbs, the trees grow brown and wither; even as the fruits fall from laden branches and the fields yield their grain, the plants that give us life shrivel and die, until the cycle of new life begins in Spring. For us today, Lord, who have been greedily harvesting from nature’s bounty without pause for generations, who have reaped where we have not sown, this reminder of fragility and mortality carries an extra uneasiness, a sense of urgency. All around us are signs that the cycles of summer and winter, springtime and harvest as we have known them may not last much longer, that after our long harvest of the earth’s resources, creation as a whole withers under the weight of our demands—as Gerald Manley Hopkins lamented,
“all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil;
and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”
Gracious God, forgive us our heedless ways, and give us the courage and conviction to change them. Teach us how to care for this rich earth rightly, that it may yield its plenteous fruits for future generations, and above all for those in other parts of the world who suffer now in want—want that is magnified by the changing climate, as streams dry up that once were full, grain withers in unprecedented heat, and storms wreak havoc on homes and harvests.
God our Father, you have created not merely earth, sky, and water, plants and animals, but also the human race, and blessed it with innumerable gifts of wisdom and skill. At this harvest time, we can thank you for the rich harvest of another sort, in which our church is reaping the fruits of the many human labors that have gone into building up its worship and ministries over many years. We thank you especially for the harvest of the Connect Groups, years in planning, and finally launched this month. We pray that you would bless them to become places of loving fellowship and empower them to be beacons of light shining in our communities. We thank you also for the harvest of our School of Theology, another ministry long planned that has come to fruition this Fall. We pray that through these classes, your Word would be opened up as never before to those attending, that their faith would be strengthened and enriched. Strengthen Jeremy and Graham as they lead this ministry.
As these two examples suggest, this time of year is not merely a time of endings, but of beginnings, as new seeds are sown to prepare a future harvest. As students return to their studies, and some are beginning university or postgraduate studies for the first time, we pray that you would watch over them and be a light unto their path. Keep the students of this church faithful in your ways, remembering that the study of your Word is of greater value than all other earthly knowledge. Bring new students through the doors of this church, and help us to welcome them and provide a home and community for them here.
Finally, Lord, we thank you for the wine that gladdens man’s heart and the bread that strengthens it, more than any earthly bread and wine—the Eucharistic feast we are about to share with you. We thank you for taking the labor of human hands, the harvest of the old creation, and returning it to us as the firstfruits of the new creation, the eternal life of your Son.
In His all-powerful name we pray. Amen.
Leithart, Bavinck, and the Nature of Natures
A few weeks ago, Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart engaged in a debate of sorts on their blogs on the subject of regeneration, which morphed somehow into a debate on natures and substances. Without trying to delve into all the (often elusive) details of what they were up to, Leithart was particularly concerned with maintaining a strong emphasis on the mediation of God’s actions through creation, which meant, for him at least, that we needed to be wary of doctrines of “natures” and “substances” which reify creatures over against God. Instead, as he argued in “Do Things Have Natures?“, we need to insist that God is always dynamically at work in and through his creatures, which means that if God is a historical God, one who unfolds his will in a drama of creation, fall, and new creation, then “natures” are not fixed quantities, but potentially take on new properties as God uses and transforms them in this drama. One way of looking at this issue is to ask, “What are miracles?” For if God is always dynamically at work in his creation, and doing new things in it, then the miraculous is only relative.
Once put this way, the question seems to largely turn on the doctrine of providence, particularly the sub-headings usually called “preservation” and “concurrence.” Preservation, essentially, insists that the Christian God is not a deist God; his creation is always dependent upon his sustaining power, which preserves it in being. Concurrence insists that the Christian God is not a pantheist God; he is always and everywhere at work in his creatures, and yet they have a created integrity of their own which allows them to have a certain fixed identity in vis-a-vis God. In his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck offers a wonderfully lucid and balanced treatment of these issues, and a little walk through his text may prove instructive for resolving these thorny issues.
Bavinck first affirms that we must not blur together creation and providence (which is precisely what is at stake, it seems, in asking whether God changes the natures he has created), but at the same time must hold them together very carefully, never attributing “independence” to the created order (which was Leithart’s overarching concern):
“The two are so fundamentally distinct that they can be contrasted as labor and rest. At the same time they are so intimately related and bound up with each other that preservation itself can be called ‘creating’ (Ps. 104:30; 148:5; Isa. 45:7; Amos 4:13). Preservation itself, after all, is also a divine work, , no less great and glorious than creation. . . . Although distinct from his being, it has no independent existence; independence is tantamount to nonexistence. The whole world with everything that is and occurs in it is subject to divine government. . . . Scripture knows no independent creatures; this would be an oxymoron” (RD II:592)
The two dangers, here, he says, are deism and pantheism, as just mentioned. Leithart is certainly leaning heavily against the former danger, and one consequence of this is to tend to blur the distinction between miracle and God’s “ordinary” action in creation. Bavinck says that in pantheism, means that “there is no room for miracle, the self-activity of secondary causes, personality, freedom . . .” and over against it, “it was the task of Christian theology to maintain the distinction between creation and preservation, the self-activity of secondary causes, the freedom of personality . . .” (599) If we emphasize so much the immanence of God in creation, if we make everything a “miracle” because it is the direct work of God, then we also thereby make nothing a miracle, because the natural order has no self-activity.
Bavinck defines the relationship of preservation and concurrence: “Preservation tells us that nothing exists, not only no substance, but also no power, no activity, no idea, unless it exists totally from, through, and to God. Concurrence makes known to us the same preservation as an activity such that, far from suspending the existence of creatures, it affirms and maintains it” (605). Both emphases must be maintained. On the one hand,
“God is never idle. He never stands by passively looking on. With divine potency he is always active in both nature and grace. Providence, therefore, is a positive act, not a giving permission to exist but a causing to exist and working from moment to moment. If it consisted merely in a posture of non destruction, it would not be God who upheld things, but things would exist in and by themselves, using power granted at the creation. And this is an absurd notion. A creature is, by definition, of itself a completely dependent being: that which does not exist of itself cannot for a moment exist by itself either.” (605)
This side of the question is heavily emphasized in Leithart’s post.
On the other hand,
“Creation and providence are not identical. If providence meant a creating anew every moment, creatures would also have to be produced out of nothing every moment. In that case, the continuity, connectedness, and ‘order of causes’ would be totally lost, and there would be no development or history. All created beings would then exist in appearance only and be devoid of all independence, freedom, and responsibility.” (607)
Now, his discussion of concurrence is where things get very interesting. Bavinck argues that we cannot attempt to speak of development within natures, unless we can talk about existent natures in the first place. A determinate creation must precede providence. Otherwise all is mere flux:
“Now providence serves to take the world from its beginning and to lead it to its final goal; it goes into effect immediately after the creation and brings to development all that was given in that creation. Creation, conversely, was aimed at providence; creation conferred on creatures the kind of existence that can be brought to development in and by providence. For the world was not created in a state of pure potency, as chaos or as a nebulous cloud, but as an ordered cosmos, and human beings were placed in it not as helpless toddlers but as an adult man and an adult woman. Development could only proceed from such a ready-made world, and that is how creation presented it to providence. . . . Every creature received a nature of its own, and with that nature san existence, a life, and a law of its own. Just as the moral law was increated in the heart of Adam as the rule for his life, so all creatures carried in their own nature the principles and laws for their own development.” (609)
It is at this point he brings up miracles, and although making the point that we should not think of miracles as divine interventions in creation, since God is never not working in creation, wants to avoid pushing this line of argument too far:
“For that reason a miracle is not a violation of natural law nor an intervention in the natural order. From God’s side it is an act that does not more immediately and directly have God as its cause than any ordinary event, and in the counsel of God and the plan of the world it occupies as much an equally well-ordered and harmonious place as any natural phenomenon. In miracles God only puts into effect a special force that, like any other force, operates in accordance with its own nature and therefore also has an outcome of its own.
“But at the creation God built his laws into things, fashioning an order by which the things themselves are interconnected. God is not dependent on causes, but things do depend on one another. That interconnectedness is of many kinds. Although in general it can be called ‘causal,’ the word ‘causal’ in this sense must by no means be equated with ‘mechanical,’ as materialism would have us do. A mechanical connection is only one mode in which a number of things in the world relate to each other. Just as creatures received a nature of their own in the creation and differ among themselves, so there is also difference in the laws in conformity with which they function and in the relation in which they stand to each other.
“These laws and relations differ in every sphere. . . . It is the providence of God that, interlocking with creation, maintains and brings to full development all these distinct natures, forces, and ordinances. In providence God respects and develops—and does not nullify the things he called into being in creation. It does not pertain to divine providence to corrupt the nature of things but to preserve [that nature]. . . . Thus, therefore, God preserves and governs all creatures according to their nature, the angels in one way, humans in another, and the latter again in a away that differs from animals and plants. But insofar as God in his providence maintains things in their mutual relatedness and makes creatures subserve each other’s existence and life, that providence can be called mediate.” (610-11)
So yes, things do have natures, determinate ordered causal relations which God has appointed at creation and continues to uphold at every moment. These natures may unfold in time as seeds do into trees, as God brings them to full development, but in this process, he does not have to remake what he has once made; his providence does not become a form of continuous creation.