Monday, February 14, 2011

Practical Deism

The Bayly bros did a recent post which drew my attention to an older post by Scott Clark. I’ll excerpt what I take to be Scott’s key contentions:

As I pointed out in those places both as a matter of history and, more fundamentally, as a matter of biblical revelation, we are clearly taught not to try to interpret providence. It is a temptation that we must resist. When God has not revealed himself (either explicitly or by “good and necessary inference” from Scripture) we should be silent. The plain fact is that we don’t know why a tornado struck that steeple just at that moment. It is fascinating, and surely it is sobering, just as a cancer diagnosis is sobering. But think of the difficulties attached to interpreting providence. I grew up in Tornado Alley. Like snow, humidity, and hail, they were a natural fact. When the “Big One” hit Omaha in 1975 or an even bigger one hit Grand Island (Neb) the next year, was that a message from God? Was God particularly displeased with the sinners in Omaha and Grand Island? When a tornado hits a lonely farmhouse in Kansas or even wipes out an entire town (Greensburg, Kan) does that mean that God was particularly displeased with them?
What makes me roll my eyes is not the wrath of God or the folly of denying his instruction regarding sin and grace but the presumption of those who think they can know the “hidden things” of God (Deut. 29:29).
We don’t need to add gravity to the Word by appealing to interpretations of providence which, in the nature of the case, is ambiguous. Piper may be right, but he may not be right. The truth is that God knows the end from the beginning. We cannot even begin to fathom what that means. God knows from eternity. He knows in a single act. He knows comprehensively. He knows intuitively. He knows freely. He knows sovereignly. He knows easily, effortlessly. He knows in a way that we can try to describe (apprehend) but in a way that we can never comprehend. One of the biggest problems with proposed interpretations of providence is this: not only do they directly contradict the express teaching of our Lord, but they also entail an insufficient appreciation for the majesty of God. I know it sounds odd to challenge John Piper on a theme like this, but that’s what is ironic. God’s ways are mysterious. They are far beyond our finding out. We’re not canonical actors. God doesn’t reveal to us the meaning of this earthquake, that flood, or that tornado. He just doesn’t. We don’t have what the classical Reformed and Lutheran theologians called “Archetypal theology,” i.e., we don’t know what God knows, the way he knows it. We have “ectypal theology,” i.e. we have “analogical” (their word) theology. God gives us analogues of his knowledge, but our intellects never intersect with his. We’re not capable of knowing what God knows, the way He knows it. Such knowledge would destroy us.
There is another problem. I’ve seen cases where a given interpretation of providence becomes binding, a kind of extra-canonical word from God, a fence around the law as it were. In such a case, Christians are no longer bound only the Word (which has to be interpreted, applied, and confessed by Christ’s church) but to the interpretation of natural revelation beyond that given in the Word. Rom. 1 teaches us the general meaning of natural revelation, but, beyond that we have no inspired interpretation and certainly not of particular episodes. The human lust to know that which we should not, to seek that which is hidden from us, is ancient and deadly. Whoever knows “God’s will for your life” is a very powerful person indeed: ask the victims of the Word-faith and Kansas City prophets (etc).
The meaning of a particular providence is hidden from us. If God wanted us to know the meaning of a particular providence, he would tell us but He hasn’t, has He? I don’t know that John is wrong, but I don’t know that he’s right. That’s just the point: I don’t have to know. We have the Word. Sola Scriptura.

By way of comment:

i) I haven’t bothered to acquaint myself with Piper’s statement, or the event which precipitated his statement. I don’t need to.

For Clark is simply using that to illustrate a universal policy. So I assume he’s not trying to extrapolate from the one particular incident. A universal extrapolation from one particular incident would be fallacious, inasmuch as circumstances vary from one case to another.

Therefore, my response doesn’t turn on the specifics of the immediate illustration.

ii) Scott is taking a position similar to W. K. Clifford (“The Ethics of Belief”) in his celebrated debate with William James. And this raises an important issue.

Which is better: a policy that minimizes the possibility of error at the risk of filtering out more truth, or a policy that maximizing truth at the risk of filtering out less error?

For instance, if you never read the Bible, you can never misinterpret the Bible. In a sense, you can never be a heretic.

Does that mean ignorance of the Bible is a safer policy? Hardly. For Scripture is the source of saving truth.

iii) Naturally, any attempt to discern God’s providence should come with the proviso that we might be mistaken. But we must make allowance for that possibility in many other areas as well, including the religious sphere.

When we pray, there’s a possibility that we will pray wrongly. Should Christians therefore refrain from prayer?

When we preach, there’s a possibility that we will preach wrongly. Should Christians therefore refrain from preaching?

Or take Jewish judges. Jewish judges had to evaluate testimonial evidence. They could judge erroneously. Convict the innocent.

Likewise, they had to analogize from case laws to parallel situations. They could misapply case law, and thereby render an unjust verdict.

Does that mean it would have been preferable to never hear cases? Hardly.

iv) Quoting Deut 29:29 begs the question. That’s a categorical statement. It distinguishes a class of hidden things from a class of revealed things. But it doesn’t tell the reader in advance what’s what.

v) Clark is evidently alluding to Lk 13:1-5. But how does reading providence contradict the “express teaching of our Lord?” How does Clark validly infer a blanket prohibition from the terms of this passage?

On the face of it, Jesus is correcting the simplistic theodicy of some questioners. If your theology is defective, you may, in turn, misgauge providence. Okay.

vi) By way of comparison, consider Jesus’ statement in Jn 3:12, where he reproves Nicodemus for failing to discern the ways in which providential events function as concrete metaphors to signify spiritual truths. Cf. J. R. Michaels, The Gospel of John (Eerdmans 2010), 193-94.

vii) Consider the dialectical interplay between providence and prophecy (or typology). On the one hand, prophecy interprets future events. It reveals God’s purpose (or at least one overriding purpose) in decreeing that event. So prophecy can enable us to appreciate the divinely intended significance of certain providential events.

However, the match between prediction and event works both ways. You must also interpret providence to perceive how prophecy (or typology) is realized in certain events. So you must be able to interpret providence in light of prophecy, and prophecy in light of providence. You can’t understand how two things correspond unless you can grasp both relata of the relation.

viii) What about “canonical actors?”

a) To begin with, not all “canonical actors” have a divine interpretation of providential events. Rather, they themselves are often in the thick of things.

b) In addition, “canonical actors” can function as examples to and for the faithful (e.g. 1 Cor 10:6,11). They can model proper or improper conduct. So sometimes we should take our cue from their actions.

ix) Is every case of providence ambiguous, or equally ambiguous? How is Clark in any position to say that? It’s not as if he’s familiar with every case of providence. Indeed, he only familiar with a smidgeon of cases. The tiny little fraction he’s heard about or read about or personally observed.

x) Apropos (ix), take a coincidence miracle. To an outsider, this is just an ordinary event. Only the individual who happens to be the beneficiary of the miracle, who understands how timely and unlikely is this turn of events, how it ministers to his extremity, is in a position to appreciate the providential character of the event.

So is a coincidence miracle ambiguous or unambiguous? That’s depends. It’s person-variable.

xi) How would understanding God’s providence “destroy us”? After all, Clark thinks we do understand God’s providence in those instances where Scripture itself interprets divine providence.

xii) In what sense do we only have an analogy of God’s knowledge? On that view, what does it mean to know that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary?

God knows what that means to him. But what does that mean to us?

We only have the analogue. So does this mean we don’t know that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary? Instead, we only know something analogous to that proposition? And what’s the analogue? What’s analogous to the Virgin Birth, which supplies the actual object of our knowledge? If the proposition in question isn’t that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, then what’s the substitute proposition that takes its place?

That someone like Jesus was conceived by someone (or some thing?) like the Holy Spirit in something like a womb of someone like the Virgin Mary? And where does the similarity begin and end? If it’s only analogous, then it’s both like and unlike the Virgin Birth.

 xiii) If we’re forbidden to interpret providence, then we should never thank God for answered prayer or other mercies that come our way.

Sure, it’s possible to misinterpret providence. We should always take that into account. But if we followed Clark’s strictures, it would conduce to a piety of willful, studied ingratitude.

In fact, Clark’s position borders on a practical Deism, where we thank God for providential past actions (recorded in Scripture), but we dare not thank God for providential actions in the present lest we misconstrue his providence. Yet that, in effect, reduces Christian piety to Deist piety.

Indeed, on that view, it’s wrong to thank God for saving us, since that’s something he did after the Bible was written.

xiv) There’s a basic difference between seeking providential signs, and thanking God for apparent providential mercies that come our way. In the latter case we’re simply acknowledging God’s loving-kindness in our lives. An act of recognition and celebration.

Of course, we could be mistaken in our interpretation of events, but we shouldn’t take that possibility as an excuse to doubt and question every apparent special providence in our lives. That attitude would be unfaithful and ungrateful.

Surely we expect God to work in the lives of the elect, even if we can’t predict the ways in which he will act.  

xv) And what about Clark’s belief in the binding authority of uninspired credal statements (i.e. the Reformed confessions)? Is that an extracanonical word from God?


  1. "Which is better: a policy that minimizes the possibility of error at the risk of filtering out more truth, or a policy that maximizing truth at the risk of filtering out less error?"

    Wow. That's a tough question! This puts me between a rock and a hard place.

  2. The substance of Clark's reaction to Piper's tornado comments (and Piper's comments about other disasters over the last seven years) seems to be nothing more than pointing out that those who won't heed the law or the prophets won't pay attention if someone comes back from the dead. I don't think Clark's response risks practical deism in any meaningful way.

    On the other hand, interacting with Clark's contention that pastors and theologians should not attempt to interpret providence in a prophetic fashion because we have the scriptures is worth continued discussion. That is the real substance of Clark's comments about Piper and not a general discussion of providence in the life of any believer.

    I think a more thorough correction of Clark's comments about providence and interpretation would be to point out that interpreting the future consequences of recent events is actually what prophecy frequently was. Prophecy included interpreting future events but even that role was merely a part of the more common task of interpreting the future based on recent events. This is easily demonstrated in the life of Ahab. God predicted that Ahab would have victory and then when Ahab chose to spare Ben-haded God revealed that Ahab's unwillingness to kill his adversary would lead to his own death. By it's nature even canonized prophetic interpretation of providence was in its own time contingent. It's a point you made broadly but I think this specific example may be more helpful in illustrating what you intended.


    "The substance of Clark's reaction to Piper's tornado comments (and Piper's comments about other disasters over the last seven years) seems to be nothing more than pointing out that those who won't heed the law or the prophets won't pay attention if someone comes back from the dead. I don't think Clark's response risks practical deism in any meaningful way."

    While that observation may be valid in its own right, I don't see the textual basis for your gloss in his actual post. You've improved on what he said by substituting a more reasonable position for what he actually said.

  4. I've followed Piper's comments about disasters over the last seven years so my gloss on Clark's post is based on Piper's pattern of comments rather than Clark's specific response to a specific statement. If Clark had clarified that what he was responding to was a pattern in Piper's public statements as a pastor on disasters over the last decade and not just a comment about a tornado his points would have been clearer and more easily defended.

  5. Dear Steve,

    Not only does it risk it (practical deism), unless we introduce numerous interpretive glosses into Clark's post out of some kind of hopeful charity I think we have to conclude that it embraces it.

    And you're right to apply Clark's reasoning to all providence. It would have been easy enough to qualify the post, but he didn't.

    Thanks for this.

    In Christ, David Bayly