What Does it Mean to be Human? Leithart on the Nature of Natures (Delivered from the Elements Review, Pt. IV)

(See previous installments of this review here, here, and here).

In this installment, we turn to what is perhaps the most puzzling, but also perhaps one of the most consequential, features of Leithart’s book: his treatments of the notion of “nature.” It is, I must confess, far from clear just how much Leithart is trying to do with his reconceptualization of this basic metaphysical and theological category. On the one hand, we might be dealing with little more than rhetorical flourishes or shifts of emphasis away from a category that Leithart thinks has too often preoccupied the attention of Christian theologians. On the other hand, we might be dealing with a fundamental reconception of the status of the human person and its relations to God and to other persons along radically voluntarist lines, a reconception that cannot help but have far-reaching consequences for much of Christian theology and ethics, consequences which could not but be largely harmful in my view. I wish to tread carefully, for fear of either being an alarmist on the one hand or a naively charitable reader on the other.

Similarly to my approach in the previous post, I will first state in a nutshell what I take to be the salient features of Leithart’s exposition on this point, and then list my main points of concern/critique. I will then expound these points at considerably greater length (though thankfully shorter than my last post), with accompanying quotations from the text, before concluding by suggesting a better way forward. Read More

“Nature Hath Need of Grace”: An Excerpt from *Richard Hooker*

The following is an excerpt from chapter 6, (“Hooker as Philosopher”) of my new book, Richard Hooker: A Guide to His Life and Work.


When Hooker says that “nature hath need of grace,” he does not merely have in mind fallen human nature’s desperate need for the redemption promised in Christ. To be sure, this is affirmed unequivocally in the Laws, but this need is so pressing precisely because mankind is meant for life in God. All created things, says Hooker, following an Aristotelian metaphysic, strive by nature not merely toward particular goods, but to a comprehensive final good, “our sovereign good or blessedness, that wherein the highest degree of all our perfection consisteth, that which being once attained unto there can rest nothing further to be desired” (I.11.1). And since “there can be no goodness desired which proceedeth not from God himself, as from the supreme cause of all things,” it is clear that “all things in the world are said in some sort to seek the highest, and to covet more or less the particiation of God himself” (I.5.2). Although this is true of all creatures, it is especially true of mankind, the capstone of creation, who is capable of participating in God by his reason and will, knowing God and loving him: “Then are we happy therefore when fully we enjoy God, as an object wherein the powers of our souls are satisfied even with everlasting delight: so that although we be men, yet by being unto God united we live as it were the life of God” (I.11.2).

Now this desire for supernatural happiness, Hooker is at pains to establish, is itself natural, for all men have it. It is not in our power not to desire this, he says. Therefore, being naturally desired, it must in some sense within natural capacity since “It is an axiom of nature that natural desire cannot utterly be frustrate” (I.11.4). So man’s reason is not enclosed within the bounds of creation, but naturally transcends these bounds, by desiring and striving unto the supernatural end of union with God.

Of course, Hooker has no doubt that, fallen as we are, we have lost this natural capacity for the supernatural, but we have not lost the desire, nor have we lost all knowledge of the object of this desire. On the contrary, Hooker is convinced, with Paul in Romans 1, that unbelievers are still dimly aware of it, and that the greatest amongst pagan philosophers succeeded in discerning many fundamental truths about God as the supreme source of being and governor of the world. At their best, says Hooker, they have been able to recognize our creaturely dependence on Him, and to discern such duties as “that in all things we go about his aid is by prayer to be craved,” and “that he cannot have sufficient honour done unto him, but the utmost of that we can do to honour him we must” (I.8.7, quoting Plato’s Timaeus and Aristotle’s Ethics).

This natural knowledge of and desire for God has important consequences not only for Hooker’s attempt to lay out the foundations of natural law in Book I of the Laws, but throughout his defense of the English Church. Although we often think of liturgy, church government, and all the rest falling within some self-contained bubble of “grace” over against “nature” or “redemption” over against creation, Hooker recognizes that nothing could be further from the case. On the contrary, he argues, the public exercise of the Christian religion is simply the full, purified, and rightly-directed expression of this natural impulse to do “the utmost of that we can do to honour him.” Christ is the fulfillment of long ages of pagan yearning, and so our worship of Christ, far from seeking to rid itself of any resemblance to non-Christian religions, should seek to adopt and perfect all that is best in them.

A great example of how this conviction informs Hooker’s method can be found in his discussion of festival days and the legitimacy of the church calendar in Book V of the Laws. He begins with an elaborate disquisition on the nature of time, the rhythms of rest and motion appropriate to all created beings, and on God’s action within created time. All of these things lead men naturally to “the sanctification of days and times” as “a token of that thankfulness and a part of that public honor which we owe to God for his admirable benefits” (V.70.1). Even heathen peoples therefore testify “that festival solemnities are a part of the public exercise of religion” (V.70.5), and besides, he adds, working his way through the church year holiday by holiday, they are of great importance to “keep us in perpetual remembrance” (V.70.8), of God’s redeeming work. Therefore, “the very law of nature itself which all men confess to be God’s law requireth in general no less the sanctification of times than of places, persons, and things unto God’s honor” (V.70.9). Hooker follows a similar method in his discussion of matrimony a few chapters later, even going so far as to justify the appropriateness of celebrating the Eucharist within the wedding ceremony by referencing “the laws of Romulus” which “established the use of certain special solemnities, whereby the minds of men were drawn to make the greater conscience of wedlock” (V.73.8).

The same conviction undergirds Hooker’s understanding of the place of religion in a political commonwealth. Rather than seeking to justify the Queen’s authority in the church by reference to Old Testament examples like Hezekiah and Josiah, as many of his predecessors did, Hooker begins with Aristotle:

For of every politic society that being true which Aristotle hath, namely, “that the scope thereof is not simply to live, nor the duty so much to provide for life, as for means of living well”: and that even as the soul is the worthier part of man, so human societies are much more to care for that which tendeth properly unto the soul’s estate, than for such temporal things as this life doth stand in need of. (VIII.1.4, quoting Aristotle, Politics III.6)

Political theology, on this understanding, is simply rightly-ordered political philosophy.


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

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.

Vegetables are Food

So, I posted this entire quote 2 1/2 years ago.  However, I re-read the chapter containing it, from O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order, the other day and was just as mesmerized this time as I was the first time, so I thought it good enough to warrant sharing again:

Abstraction from teleology creates a dangerous misunderstanding of the place of man in the universe. For it supposes that the observing mind encounters an inert creation–not, that is, a creation without movement, but a creation without a point to its movement. Thus the mind credits to its own conceptual creativity that teleological order which is, despite everything, necessary to life. All ordering becomes deliberative ordering, and scientific observation, failing as it does to report the given teleological order within nature, becomes the servant of techne. Of course, man continues to eat vegetables; but he no longer knows that he does so because vegetables are food, and comes to imagine that he has devised a use for them as food. And so he looks for other uses for them, which will seem to him to have as much validity as that one which was, if he could only have remembered it, given in nature. That vegetables exist as food for other animals than himself will not impress him–unless, of course, the continued existence of other animals too falls within his deliberative purposes for the world, in which case both vegetation and animal life will continue to hold their value as a feoff from himself. Thus arises the irony of our own days, in which the very protection of nature has to be argued in terms of man’s ‘interest’ in preserving his ‘environment’. Such a philosophy offers no stable protection against the exploitation of nature by man, since he can discern nothing in the relations of things to command his respect. And, of course, this unprincipled domination must extend itself to include his own psychosomatic nature, all that is not itself the devising mind, so that humanity itself dissolves in the polarization of the technological will and its raw material. Man’s monarchy over nature can be healthy only if he recognizes it as something itself given in the nature of things, and therefore limited by the nature of things. For if it were true that he imposed his rule upon nature from without, then there would be no limit to it. It would have been from the beginning a crude struggle to stamp an inert and formless nature with the insignia of his will. Such has been the philosophy bred by a scientism liberated from the discipline of Christian metaphysics. It is not what the Psalmist meant by the dominion of man, which was a worshipping and respectful sovereignty, a glad responsibility for the natural order which he both discerned and loved. (52)