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.



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.

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.

Explaining the Reformation

One of the difficulties I find in explaining the Reformation to people of our time is that we often assume that the Reformers were converted the same terms we think of our own conversion. In some cases this involves thinking that they reached a point in which they decided to abandon unbelief and to believe. On the one hand, you can raise a lot of suspicion by suggesting to persons who believe in the importance of personal conversion for real Christianity that the Reformers had no such experience. On the other hand lies the dishonesty of failing to understand their thought and experience on their own terms rather than ours. They were Christians, but they did not express their Christianity in every way as we do.

It seems like a good opportunity to make a few things clear.

1 You are not saved because of a personal decision you made. You can only be saved because God choses to convert you. God may do this suddenly, or he may do it gradually. Your conversion may be so gradual or so early that you are not conscious of a specific time during which you went from unbelief to belief. It seems to me that if we think carefully about believing, we do not find that believing is something we deliberately decide to do. We are persuaded about something or not, and what we discover when we become introspective is that we already really do believe (or still do not because we aren’t persuaded). The point is, we find out that it is already true, not that we can make it true.

It is one thing to be converted, it is another thing to be conscious of how it transpired. When, for example, did I go from acknowledging the existence of the person who would be my wife to loving her? I am not sure. Nor do I live in a situation in which I have to examine myself and give an account that demonstrates that transition. The question is (if the question even arises): do I love her now, not do I have a memory of at any point coming to love her. When we ask people about their conversion these days, we ask them about their understanding of that event. It was not a question that I find the Reformers making (which does not mean it is an invalid question) (that I do not find them making that question may be entirely due to my limited exposure to what they wrote, but I have encountered nothing that leads me to think otherwise). An event may not be a specific point of time, and it may take place without being entirely understood by the person in the midst of it. The rise of the papacy, for example, was an event: long, complex, and with many inadvertent factors. We cannot make the requirement for conversion that you can explain what happened.

The Reformers, then, are not so strange. What is, is that there came a time when a personal (as opposed to an impersonal one acknowledged, such as a creed) profession of faith (tell us in your own words) became important, but that was after the Reformation, not before and not during. When nobody is being asked to describe his own experience of conversion, nobody thinks of it in those terms. The question that causes is, when did we start doing that and why?

2 Salvation may be spoken of as personal possession, but if you omit the fact that Salvation is something for which you wait, then you have left out a crucial part. You will be saved if you are found believing, and genuine faith will persevere. A decision, an experience of conversion is not necessarily the same thing. If your trust is in having made a decision, you are trusting the wrong thing. If your trust is in Jesus Christ, then you are trusting the right thing. It doesn’t matter when you started doing this or how you got there, what matters is that you, in fact, are.

3 God is sovereign in the use of means for the conversion of the elect. These means may include, in certain eras, the complete absence of alternatives to Christian belief. It is entirely possible that you are assumed to believe, that you also assume that you believe, and this unexamined assumption be true or false. A false assumption will damn you, but a true assumption is possible. It seems to me entirely possible for a true believer to assume he is one without consciously experiencing conversion. The test which takes it beyond assumption, which is crucial, is not retrospective; it is contemporary: am I repenting? Not, did I repent? Am I believing? Not, did I believe? That is all.

Right? There is actually a lot of my own past struggle with assurance woven through that, which, I realize, is personal experience. It shows we use it to order things, and must; but it has to be used correctly. Have I? What am I missing?

Natural Theologian Xenophanes

One of the problems I have with denying natural theology is that there appear to be theological gains not only for Christians to make, but already accomplished by pagan philosophers. One argument to counter this, offered by Augustine, was to have Plato run into Jeremiah in Egypt, and so have proper Greek theological conclusions (assumed by the church for doctrinal purposes in late antiquity) derive from special revelation. Another argument would be to say that we are reading the conclusions we achieved afterward into these earlier times.

Natural law and natural revelation are part of the present debate about classic theism, and an authoritative role for natural theology is a question coming down the pike. Personally, I’m not sure Romans 1:18 denies natural theology—as in, natural man going beyond what is simply natural revelation. This is not to affirm natural soteriology, now. I wonder if some of the (what I perceive as) confusion has to do with failing to distinguish a theological insight from a usefully soteriological conclusion. It occurs to me that another line of argument against natural theology is by making careful distinctions between philosophy and theology, but I don’t personally see exactly how that would proceed. In fact, it is very late in time before we can usefully distinguish them, and so it seems difficult though not impossible to insert a distinction where it is not yet perceived.

But let me put it another way. What if you believe something true and are unaware of how it might condemn you? Would you still suppress it? What if you believe something true and are aware how it might condemn somebody else, though not yourself—hypocrisy being quite a natural failing of mankind? Wouldn’t you be inclined to accept it with some enthusiasm?

Anyway, here’s a good podcast on philosophy in general, and this one is about the pre-Socratic Xenophanes.

Mystery and Theology

Theological discourse is always threatened by the intrusion of irrationality. As far as I can tell (not being a particularly acute theologian, but aspiring to competence), one of the most important things theologians do is draw the line where mystery begins. Distinguishing between what is mysterious and what is irrational is difficult. Still, to confuse the two seems to me fatal, and one of the big problems that has to be addressed in this debate about Classic Theism.

God is mysterious, he must be. But that God reveals himself means that he is not altogether mysterious. The problem with drawing the line between what we can know and understand and what we cannot is a crucial one. We are, in a way, tracing the upper boundaries of human reason. At what point does our finite capacity meet something greater? When it comes to God, soon. And if you say that we can know what in fact we cannot, you are a rationalist. The result is that you will domesticate God.

If, on the other hand, you say we cannot know what we in fact can, you are making things harder than they should be. And you’re degrading what is mysterious in an effort to preserve it. That is when you introduce the irrational. If something is not really mysterious but you insist that it is, then the effect of such mislabeling is not to dignify something lesser with greater status, but to abuse the lesser and to degrade the greater category. To abuse knowledge is to become unknowing, to abuse understanding is to misunderstand, and to abuse reason is to be irrational. Mystery is not irrationality, though distinguishing them is not always easy.

Heating Up

The debate between classic theism and theistic mutualism seems to be heating up. Back in June, James Dolezal published a book naming names (All That Is in God—a good book). Recently, John Frame embarrassed himself with a reply—having been named—from which he is not likely soon to recover. In fact, this reply was so bad that it seems to have brought out some eerie irenic behavior in Mark Jones. He wrote a piece that could almost be described as kindly, urging Frame toward greater coherence as if herding together a scattered collection of marbles. And now Keith Mathison has engaged at length, endeavoring to point out to John Frame in suitable language that disagreement is not the equivalent of a personal attack. Dolezal came up with the term theistic mutualism, but Mathison may have trumped him with a clever play on yesteryear’s battle against open theism: unlatched theism.

In the meantime, I’m working on a song called “O where is your door, Frame?” I’d like to contribute, you see. My review of Dolezal’s book came out a week after the book was released, you’ll remember. More measured, thorough and deliberative reviews have appeared in these last days. There is Kevin DeYoung’s, which is generally positive if blandly subservient to the spirit of the Gospel Coalition in deploring something or other; there is Keith Mathison’s, which is positive, and different from the engagement mentioned above; and there is D. Scott Meadows’, which is enthusiastic.

I also note all this because it seems to me that this is the Trinity debate 2.0. Evangelical systematic theology has problems. But this is to be expected, evangelicalism is a very depleted and diluted form of Christianity. Problems are going to arise naturally. One of the problems, not surprisingly, is careless doctrinal formulation. But this is not the main issue, it is only a symptom of a deeper problem.

I think that the main issue is really the extent to which theology is informed and ordered by philosophy. The conversation keeps going back to scholasticism versus Biblicism. The conceit is that Biblicism is more exegetical and scholasticism is more philosophical. You can tell which side is being favored when the problem is framed that way. Nobody is going to choose philosophy in order to chuck exegesis. The problem is, however, that it is not simply an issue of repudiating philosophy for exegesis, or of neglecting exegesis because one is enamored of philosophy. To frame the issue that way is to smuggle in a conclusion (that philosophy is opposed to exegesis) without properly debating it.

And that is what makes me glad: the debate is being forced.