In which Richard Muller Distinguishes Edwards from the Reformed Orthodox Tradition

If you want to understand the thinking of the fathers of the early church, you have to be conversant with the thinking of classical antiquity. One does not come up with sophisticated intellectual tools all by oneself. The Christian thinkers of the early church realized and appreciated this, if they did not always give credit where credit was due. If you want to understand the thinking of the theologians of the middle ages, you need to be familiar with the philosophy that was employed then. You have to understand the Christian Platonism that arose in the first few centuries and was dominant until the twelfth. You will have to understand this Christian Platonism as the context in which a more taxonomically versatile and methodologically explicit Christian Aristotelianism arose in the thirteenth century. If you want to understand the thinking of the Reformers and of Reformed Orthodoxy, you still need to be conversant with the philosophical commitments of medeival theologians because there are more continuities than discontinuities. Richard Muller is eminently conversant in the philosophical approaches and distinctions that inform the theology of the reformation.

This lecture is nothing new, but it was to me, and very interesting. Reformed Protestants with a strong commitment to the authority of confessions have been expressing disquiet about Jonathan Edwards, and this has puzzled me. It is no doubt part of the unease with American Evangelicalism, of which all American Reformed Protestants are in some way a category. They wish always to stress the differences. Jonathan Edwards’ star is bright in the firmament of American Evangelicalism.

Richard Muller argues that Edwards’ determinism is not that of the calvinism of the Reformed tradition. If I understood correctly, he claims that Edwards’ departure consists in claiming for causality a much reduced definition, one in which there is little more than an efficient causality and not the full range of causality the Christian Aristotelianism of Reformed Orthodoxy accepts. The result is that rather than having all the necessary distinctions to allow for free choice, fundamental indeterminacy of the will, and faculty psychology, Edwards develops in a more Amyraldian way, taking as his philosophical forebears Hobbes and Locke.

There is Q & A following, which is worth listening to also.



Winter of the Unexamined Life

It snowed all day. We watched it from within; we walked in it, all the way to the cheerful bar. The place was loud and lively. In the cold weather we consumed calories, we of the north. Haddock from the sea, potatoes, malt vinegar and ketchup–which in mystical signification meaneth all the vegetables you could possibly require.

There is a smell to a snowy day, isn’t there? It is the smell of that which is remote having drawn near.

After dark the winter skies over the city never quite darken. The snow continues, blurring the distant trees. That is when to walk. Shapes under the sky are more definite; the world is otherwise. The trees lighten toward the top. Their shape is different with the snow: not the fullness of leaves but an amplification or exposition of structure. The pines become preponderant; their branches sag with snow. All is wonder.

I come back reluctantly from the quiet that remains after winter’s work. I chow down on wings like a barbarian. I drink tea.

A Neo-Calvinist of Me

This year’s Gaffin lecture at WTS was about religious persecution and the Indonesian constitution. The constitution of Indonesia is the result of a compromise between an Islamic theocracy and a secular state, and it is called Pancasila. The idea is to impede any one religion forming the ideological basis of government while also rejecting a religious neutrality in the public sphere. So they believe that the state should encourage religions to flourish because religion is necessary to human societies; but the government must not use any one religion for its purposes, or be used by any one religion for that religion’s purposes. The speaker said he believes there should be a separation between church and state, not between religion and the state. It seems a useful distinction. The idea is to have religion in the public square, and the government making sure it is encouraged to remain and to contribute, without being of any one religion.

The lecture is based on Kuyper’s ideas, also known as neo-Calvinism, and I found that it was not something with which I could disagree. There is a lot of what I’d call natural theology assumed—which in Kuyperian lingo, from what I can tell, is termed common grace. It works for me. I wish Kuyper had not called his system Calvinsim, and instead had talked of Protestantism. It isn’t as if Arminians deny that God is sovereign, after all. Still, Arminianism doesn’t say God’s sovereignty the way Calvinism does. Anyway, having overcome that difficulty, I find that my interaction with the kind of neo-Calvinism the Indonesians are doing is very compelling.

Not Enough Virtue Signaling

You know you’re a theistic mutualist when you write a review of James Dolezal’s book that cracks down on him for not having sufficient theistic mutualism. You know you are a theistic mutualist when you think it is balanced to include some theistic mutualism to the doctrine of God as a concession to modern theologians, since so many of them are. Dolezal’s excellent book argues that theistic mutualism is wrong, and he shows that it is far more pervasive than we might think. This book review inadvertently demonstrates both things.

What is theistic mutualism? It is the confused assertion that God really changes in response to us.

One form of theistic mutualism is process thought and open theism. In open theism God responds to us because, like us, he is not altogether sure what is going to happen and his being is dynamic. That is one way of accounting for what Scripture teaches, but it is not a Christian way of doing so. And yet it is more consistent, alas, than the second form of theistic mutualism, which is Dolezal’s target.

The newer kind of theistic mutualism affirms that the immutable God changes in response to us. The mechanism here is sovereignty. Sovereignty, for Calvinist theistic mutualists, is God deciding he can behave in a way that really contradicts what he actually is; God gets to do so. And it is explained as if this is in some way mysterious and not simply irrational. Not only is God unchanging, they might say, he also can at the same time decide to change . . . somehow. That, they say, is what Scripture plainly teaches.

From Dolezal: “Let us again consider Bruce Ware’s doctrine of God’s relational mutability in chapter 2. Ware writes, ‘God changes from anger to mercy, from blessing to cursing, from rejection to acceptance. Each of these changes is real in God, though no such change affects in the slightest the unchangeable supremacy of his intrinsic nature.’” I know it sounds arrogant to theistic mutualists for me to say that this is nonsense, so I won’t. I’ll go with what Dolezal says, who goes on to argue that if you posit real changes that are not part of God’s nature, then you no longer affirm simplicity in any meaningful way. You can affirm the words, but divine simplicity is an idea incompatible with any divine change, and what divine reality is not . . . all that is in God? Call the change real, unreal, or whatever category you please. Be honest, then, and just say you deny divine simplicity.

At least Andrew Moody is honest: he plainly denies it. “Dolezal’s refusal to allow any complexity in God’s inner life creates some other peculiarities in his theology of creation too.” What is baffling is that he commends Dolezal for affirming it. “As Dolezal rightly points out, if it isn’t a real unity of essence it isn’t monotheism.”

Theistic mutualism can be charitably described as full of paradox, and it can only arise in a theological climate in which the reliable philosophical insights (clear thinking about difficult things) are ignored, distorted, despised, or repudiated altogether. The result is what Dolezal describes in his book. Exhibit A could be the book review.

“Dolezal is right to insist that humans can’t affect who God is in himself. Yet Scripture also makes it abundantly clear that there is a sense in which we can increase God’s glory—in the sense of his renown—by declaring his praises. In fact this is the very reason we exist.”

What is the word ‘yet’ doing there? What exactly is it Moody affirms? That we somehow enhance what God is in himself by bringing him glory?

I love how he makes it sound as if Dolezal has denied the very reason for our existence! What enormity will Dolezal commit next? Here’s my absolute favorite thing Moody says: “Unhappily, however, there is not a single reference to the cross in this book.”

What would a reference to the cross add to the argument of this book? It amounts to a statement about not understanding what is being argued. The book needs a reference to the cross like it needs a reference to Kuyper’s theory of sphere sovereignty or Baptist ecclesiology. It has nothing to do with what he’s arguing, it just sounds pious.

Who would have thought there are so many things you can say about God that you can write a whole book on the doctrine of God and not mention the cross? Could it be that Dolezal talks about it when he’s dealing with Christology, or even Soteriology or writing on the doctrine of God exhaustively rather than just refuting theistic mutualism?

I wonder, is it that it is reviewed by the Gospel Coalition? Is that why the cross comes up? If you add things that do not have to do with the argument but push buttons for certain people you know what you’re doing? Virtue signaling.

And that is the real problem with Dolezal’s book, isn’t it? There is not enough Gospel virtue signaling.  The problem is that virtue signaling is not sound judgment or a persuasive argument, which is what Dolezal’s book actually contains.


Note: David Bentley Hart calls theistic mutualism monopolytheism, and if that terms works for you (it is my favorite) then it explains a lot. Hart’s argument is that when you deviate from classical theism what you get is a lesser god, a god of the realm of the pretty amazing gods of polytheism but not the utterly transcendent God of classical theism. What sets the God of classical theism apart? Incomprehensibility, immutability, impassibility, infinity, eternity, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and above all, simplicity; he is God without potency because he is pure act, altogether perfect and in no way potentially so; there is in God no distinguishing being and existence, for his being is absolute—there cannot not be God. If you deny that which makes him wholly other, even if you nitwittedly first affirm his wholly-otherness, because you don’t understand what can and has to be understood about his transcendence you have put him in the realm of the gods, which is the inferior realm of polytheism. So when you diminish the one true God but still claim only one, Hart calls you a monopolytheist.

Baffled by the Lack of Anxiety

I think it is weird that I can’t detect any conversation on the Muller piece on Oliphint. In case you’re wondering why I would even expect one, let me quote the final paragraph of the post.

There are, in sum, several fundamental problems with Oliphint’s work on Aquinas that stand in the way of the book serving a useful purpose. The first of these problems is simply that Oliphint’s argumentation evidences major misreadings and misunderstandings of the thought of Thomas Aquinas on such issues as the relation of reason and revelation, the noetic effects of sin, the praeambula fidei, the analogia entis, the nature and character of the proofs of the existence of God, and the relation of the doctrine of divine simplicity to the doctrine of the Trinity.

That is not something that could cause a stir. It’s academic, it can be debated, and it is about the interpretation of Aquinas, who was a complex enough figure to have acquired over the years interpretations. But it continues:

The second, related problem is that his argumentation rests largely on the thought of Cornelius Van Til, who by no stretch of the imagination can be viewed as a competent analyst of the thought of Aquinas. The end-result of their readings is a mangled interpretation of Aquinas that impedes genuine access to his thought and actually stands in the way of legitimate interpretation.

I wish he would expand the domain of Van Til’s acknowledged incompetence, but Muller has a book to review and keeps to the point. The point is to say that at least in this, there is ideology going on. Anything that obscures legitimate interpretation is ideological in nature, right? This is something still for scholarly debate, but much more controversial than the first problem. Yet there is more:

Third, inasmuch as the Westminster Confession of Faith and Reformed Orthodoxy in general are largely in agreement with Aquinas on issues of epistemology, natural theology, doctrine of God, and, indeed, apologetics, Oliphint’s and Van Til’s views at best stand at the margin of what can be called Reformed and, at worst, create a kind of sectarian theology and philosophy that is out of accord with the older Reformed tradition and its confessions.

That is a call to arms! There is a good hard barrage at presuppositinalism in areas of no small consequence. To call Presbyterians marginally in agreement with the Westminster Confession at best and deviant at worst when it comes to three of these four areas requires a response. Richard Muller is going to get a response, no doubt, simply due to his stature. What baffles me is that the chatter of the internet seems to be awaiting it. Where are the fireworks?

I have seen scattered comments. But no more. One to the effect that it seems that people are being called by this to abandon Van Til for Aquinas. That shows some puerility. Nobody is calling for anybody to raise another Christian to the gratuitous stature of a paragon before whom all he opposed must be humbled the way presuppositionalists do for Van Til, swearing absolute loyalty.

What the debate is about more than anything, it seems to me, is the doctrine of God. Is the God of classical theism, the God of natural revelation and an epistemology continuous with (because derived from) the philosophy of antiquity in fact the God Christians have always worshiped, or is this God indeed a distortion? If you think this is a small matter, you are not qualified to make any theological judgments.

Not being qualified to make a judgment has never stopped the chatter of the internet, however. So what’s going on?

The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart

The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, BlissThere are so many reasons to read this book. Not reading David Bentley Hart, at least this book, is like not reading Richard Weaver or C. S. Lewis, like not reading A. W. Tozer or Plato, like not reading Augustine of Hippo or G. K. Chesterton, like not reading T. S. Eliot or John Eriugena. Put Hart on the shelf where you keep your best books, right beside Thomas Traherne.

The book is intelligent in a way few books achieve. It is also beautiful. Hart writes about high things, and he does so as one who is familiar and competent. That is no mean skill. There is also a lot of scorn in this book, and it is entirely appropriate. The chap has a mind.

Hart is ostensibly answering the contemporary rage for materialistic naturalism and emotional atheism. His response is complete. He ranges far, he ranges wide, and his conclusion is absolutely wondrous.

Natural Theology

A book was written on Aquinas recently, and published by Crossway P & R. Richard Muller wrote what I understand is an 11-page book review (for the Calvin Seminary journal) exposing the historiographical shortcomings of this book. Someone (perhaps Muller himself) has reduced that book review down for blogging and is posting one section a week every Monday on Reformation21. Next Monday we should see the third and last installment of the most fascinating series posted on Ref21 in living memory.

The problem with the view of Aquinas Muller dismantles is that it is not uncommon. And when it comes to history, the problem with failing to understand something is that you can’t remember what you don’t understand. Richard Muller can be nit-picky; Richard Muller can be tedious; but Richard Muller is seldom wrong, and there is something to be said for that.

Jordan Peterson said it, and it is true: if you can’t understand it, you can’t remember it. Not only because you may have something that was not the case, but also because you can’t retain it until it makes sense. Which last consideration also means that if misrepresenting Aquinas makes sense to you, it is because you have a whole higher order of nonsense in which it is set. I think it also means, in this case, that Aquinas is forgettable, and that should cause any serious theologian alarm. There is a reason why in all these present skirmishes the better historians are consistently lining up on one side, not another. It is worth thinking about!

Richard Muller demonstrates that the book Crossway published on Aquinas is riddled with inaccuracies. It ought, incidentally, to be an indication of the climate of evangelical thought and of the integrity of the publisher if the volume is not pulped once Muller gets done. Really, it is hard to read what Muller wrote and not feel embarrassed for his object. What the book represents is a problem in terms of history because for us human beings neither the past or the future exist: all we have is the present. The only way we have the past is by way of human memory. If we cannot understand, if we distort what happened, we cannot remember what actually happened. We won’t have the past, won’t be informed by it, and are adrift in the present merely. So it matters.

The most amazing thing about the series of blog posts is how easily they expose the error being perpetrated on Aquinas. After all, it isn’t as if Aquinas were a writer who made his views unclear. To get him wrong because he is difficult is one thing: he is difficult. But to get him wrong in what is not that difficult, in what is not that recondite but obvious and foregrounded in his writing just comes across as careless at best or perverse at worst.

I personally think that any historian tainted with presuppositionalism has to live with some contradictions. It is an ideology contrary to honest memory, because it has counterfactual controlling assumptions, such as the denial of natural theology. Let me offer a small example, continuing along the trajectory of apologetics.

David Bentley Hart as a book called The Experience of God. What an amazing book! I do not mean that there are things in there with which I’d disagree, but unlike presuppositionalist books, I can find nothing unintelligent in what Hart writes. In fact, there is so much wonder and wisdom, one hesitates to apply to him the category of mere apologetics.

One of the main things Hart does is natural theology. Hart has apparently done a lot of work in interfaith dialogue; and I think that if you accept the premise of natural theology, in some sense you’re committed to interfaith dialogue. What better way to explore the actual limitations of natural theology? If there is such a thing as natural theology, then there are religions that have a better grasp of it than others. The way to test it would be to go to false religions and measure the amount of truth available, what has been actually done in terms of unaided natural theology. The older the religion, the better, right? If you think about it, those that have a greater degree of truth are more likely to have endured over time and are less influenced by special revelation.

The problem with denying natural theology is explaining the historical instances of it. Plotinus worshipped a divine simplicity, and it is a dodge to say that he somehow extracted it from special revelation. He was no Christian, he had no decent hamartiology to speak of, but his theology proper was not undeveloped. What Plotinus did with what he had was not sufficient for salvation, but that hardly means that it was not breathtaking and sophisticated. It cannot be said he did nothing with it. (Let us not here lapse into a presuppositionalistic totalitarianism of language, the heads I win, tails you lose tricks they play with this sort of thing.) All one has to do to defend Plotinus is go back in time. Plato does natural theology, was he influenced by special revelation? (Augustine amusingly claimed that Plato met Jeremiah while sojourning in Egypt.) You could say that the case against Socrates Plato gives us was a case against what he got right in terms of natural theology. And what about Xenophanes? He was the first one to criticize the gods of polytheism. He understood that God has to be transcendent, immutable, impassible, and disembodied ( and this is where Hart is so brilliant, calling theological mutualists monopolytheists because they have put God back into the realm of the gods, which is, incidentally, a view substandard even in rudimentary Greek philosophy). It makes more sense to me (though I don’t agree with it) to make the argument that Greek thought polluted revealed religion than it does to agree to the classic theism of Christianity and still argue against natural theology.

All of this needs a quotation, doesn’t it? How about the stalwart of Geneva, the pillar of Old Princeton theological clarity, Turretin the Reformed Thomist? “The principles or axioms drawn from reason or philosophy in order to prove some article of faith are not so peculiar to philosophy as that they cannot be supposed to belong also to natural theology (which ought to come before supernatural and revealed).” I.9.18.