Sunday, February 24, 2013

What do you believe?

This is a sequel to my previous post:

Let’s begin with some of Nate Shannon’s statements:

On a larger scale, there are the problems of freedom and election and of providence and evil. All of these are thought to be at least apparently paradoxical. And the reason for this perception, and for the tremendous efforts it evokes toward resolution, is that it is assumed that notions of logical relations and of logical necessity operate univocally; it is assumed that they apply equally to man and to God. It is assumed that the laws of logic, as we articulate them and have come to understand them, obtain identically or are equally true in all possible worlds, even in eternity past, before creation.

In sum, the irreducible ontological distinction between Creator and creature, and precisely this arch-ec [archetypal-ectypal] or original-analogue order, give us revelationally grounded, analogical theological predication. We have true knowledge, so we reject equivocism; but because of the 'ontological distance' between the Creator and the creature, our knowledge is ever partial; so we reject univocism.

I take Shannon to be proposing the following principle: all true statements about God are only analogically true, not univocally true.

Let’s consider the real-world implications of that principle. Suppose a seminary graduate–let’s call him Nate–applies for ordination in the OPC or PCA. The Presbytery questions him on his understanding and affirmation of the Westminster Confession. For instance, they question him about these theological statements:

1. God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

2. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.

3. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.

4. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.

Now, I myself think I understand what those statements assert. I think I understand what the words mean. And I think I understand what the Westminster Divines intended to convey.

But what about Nate? Nate has to add caveats to every one of those theological statements. Nate can’t affirm, simpliciter, that God unchangeably foreordains everything that comes to pass. Nate can’t affirm, simpliciter, that God predestined the fate of the elect or foreordained the fate of the reprobate. Nate can’t affirm, simpliciter, that God unconditionally chose the elect. Nate can’t affirm, simpliciter, that the number of the elect is fixed from all eternity.

In fact, strictly speaking, Nate denies every one of those theological statements. Nate can only assent to those statements in a qualified sense. According to Nate, God only chose the elect in an analogical sense. God only predestines every event in an analogical sense. And so on.

Same thing with other theological statements in the Confession.

1. God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.

Nate can’t affirm meticulous providence, simpliciter. God only upholds, directs, disposes, and governs all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least in an analogical sense.

Or take these statements:

1. God hath appointed a day, wherein he will judge the world, in righteousness, by Jesus Christ, to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged, but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.

God will only judge the world in an analogical sense.

2. The end of God's appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of his justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fullness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord; but the wicked who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.

God will only bless the righteous with everlasting joy in an analogical sense. God will only consign the damned to everlasting punishment in an analogical sense.

Now, I don’t object to theological analogies, per se. The Bible contains many theological analogies.

However, it’s not enough to profess that a theological statement is analogically true. For unless you can explicate in what sense the statement is true, unless you can tell us what the statement asserts to be the case, or denies to be the case, unless you can tell us what would be consistent with the statement, or what would be inconsistent with the statement, then your profession is vacuous. 

Absent that, I have no idea what Nate actually believes or disbelieves. Indeed, absent that, Nate has no idea what he actually believes or disbelieves. Otherwise, what distinguishes Nate from a heretic or unbeliever? 

In what respect is the claim analogous to reality? In what respect is the claim disanalogous to reality? What falls within the scope of the analogy? What falls outside the scope of the analogy? 

For instance, when the Confession says the number of the elect cannot be augmented or diminished, according to Nate, that statement–a statement about divine action–isn’t strictly true. At best, that statement approximates reality. The real situation is merely similar to the claim. By the same token, the real situation is in some unspecified respect dissimilar to the claim. No theological statement ever coincides with the situation it describes.  At most, the two overlap in some indefinable way.

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