Calvinistic Bona Fides

As the chapter title suggests, DW is intending to establish Calvinistic good faith with his readers. DW recognizes that there are critics out there who are saying that the objectivity of the covenant (as propounded by Federal Vision authors) constitutes a threat to Reformed thought, especially as regards God’s sovereignty in salvation. The thesis of this chapter is found on p. 24 (emphasis his):

We do not begin understanding the objectivity of the covenant by inching away from black-coffee Calvinism; rather, we begin be asserting it in the strongest possible terms. God is the God of everything.

What follows is a discussion of the sovereignty of God as it intersects with man’s freedom. In general, I think he holds to the traditional Reformed position here. There are one or two omissions which he might have discussed, such as the definition of free will as either compatible (defined by the person’s nature) or absolute (the power of contrary choice, which directly conflicts with the sovereignty of God). However, we will here give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he holds to the compatible definition of free will.

DW affirms that God is in control of the world, including sin (pp. 24-25): “Nothing happens outside the decretive will of God.” However, DW’s position is not without difficulties. On p. 26, for instance, DW asserts that God foreordained a world full of free choices: “God ordains noncoercively” (emphasis his). He seeks to explain his point by adding, “Remember, the point being made here is not that divine sovereignty is merely consistent with secondary freedom but rather is that which establishes it” (p. 26, emphasis his). Now, I am willing to allow that DW may not be making an absolute statement here. Some clarification would be helpful. However, in the case of Paul’s conversion, are we going to say that God did not coerce Paul’s will, changing it utterly so that Paul would take an entirely different direction? Did not God ordain coercively in Paul’s case? At the very least, God ordained that Paul’s conversion would be violent. Surely, God does not always ordain in this coercive way. However, sometimes God does. The reason I make this point is that some conversions to Christianity are indeed violent. Otherwise, what is the point of affirming irresistable grace?

DW’s motivation for writing this chapter is fairly plain on pp. 30-31:

In no way am I backing away from high-octane Calvinism. There will be things written later in this book which may look as though this is happening, but the reader should be assured that it is not. The point of this section has been to establish foundational Calvinistic bona fides. Doctrinal prejudice may still refuse to see how the harmonization works, but the harmonization is still there. So the reason for covering this ground again is that some have assumed (readily and wrongly) that the objectivity of the covenant poses a threat to the Reformed faith. In reality, it is the historic Reformed faith. (emphases all original)

I have a couple of issues with these statements. Of course, more shrill critics would say that this is a cover-up for contradiction being allowed into the book, and that we are simply being asked to take DW’s word for it that the things that look contradictory are in fact not so. I am willing to say something less than this: I am not willing to take DW’s simple word for it without argumentation, although I am willing to listen carefully to the argumentation. But I do not view these words as a proof of the argument. That will await the rest of this review to determine whether or not he has proven his case. However, I do have a problem with his saying that the objectivity of the covenant is the historic Reformed faith. Witsius and a’Brakel believed that the covenant of grace was made only with the elect, hardly an objective definition. Would Wilson agree with Witsius and a’Brakel? I think not. So, at the very least, DW’s statement is an exaggeration. Does this claim for the objectivity of the covenant disenfranchise all those Reformed folk out there who do not believe in the objectivity of the covenant? Again, maybe DW is not being absolute in his claims here. Clarification would again be helpful.

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16 Comments

  1. Andy Dollahite said,

    April 30, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    Lane,

    With respect to God acting coercively in the conversion of saints, I don’t understand what you mean. I’ve always thought that God’s irresistible grace always applies to the changing of a dead heart into a regenerated heart by the Spirit. This happens for all true saints. Following regeneration there is never a need for coercion because faith is the natural response of a renewed heart, and is in this sense a free choice. I freely chose God as a consequence of His monergistic act of regenerating my heart. Of course, all of my choices are “secondary freedoms” which result from God’s sovereign freedom, but they are truly free. No Christian can ever be said to have been coerced into faith, because their faith is a free response of a regenerated heart. Have I misunderstood your point?

  2. Ben G. said,

    April 30, 2007 at 7:05 pm

    On the question of the interaction between God’s will and ours, it seems to me that “God ordains noncoercively” and “…not that God’s sovereignty is merely consistent with secondary freedom but rather is that which establishes it” amounts simply to a reference to WCF 3.1’s assertion that by God’s eternal decree there is no “violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” and of 9.1: “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil.”

  3. April 30, 2007 at 8:57 pm

    [...] Green Baggins [...]

  4. Patrick Ramsey said,

    April 30, 2007 at 9:36 pm

    Lane: As you may well know, Witsius does not deny that the Covenant of Grace includes the non-elect in its administration (see The Economy of the Covenants, 1:283). He confesses that the reprobate in the church are “really in covenant with God, and, in a certain sense, even branches ingrafted into Christ,” Apostles’ Creed, 2:355. So in one sense he would affirm the objectivity of the covenant.

    The problem with some versions of the “objectivity” of the covenant is that they divorce election and covenant. Schilder is a classic example. Thus all the promises of the covenant are for everyone in the covenant and they are all conditional. Election determines who will be regenerated and meet the condition of faith and repentance.

    The problem with this is that though the Scriptures do not equate covenant and election, they do coordinate the two. Regeneration and the gift of faith are covenant promises and are made only to the elect. See WCF 7.3. See also http://dpatrickramsey.blogspot.com/2005/03/parties-of-covenant-of-grace-part-5_28.html

  5. Glenn said,

    April 30, 2007 at 10:19 pm

    Lane,

    Why would anyone question Wilson’s stance on Calvinistic soteriology and the decrees of God after having read his book on it?

    Hard Words, Easy Chairs
    http://www.canonpress.org/shop/item.asp?itemid=373

    Just my thoughts. I’ve read the book and listened to it and it was very orthodox and straight forward.

    Also, were you questioning Wilson’s echo to the WCF regarding God’s decrees ‘establishing’ mans freedom and actions? I thought that made perfect sense as to what he was saying?

  6. Keith LaMothe said,

    May 1, 2007 at 7:32 am

    For anyone doubting Wilson’s Calvinicity I would also refer them to _Hard Words, Easy Chairs_. Or listen to any 2 month stretch of his sermons (a smaller stretch would probably do).

    And as for “In reality, it is the historic Reformed faith.” I agree that the statement could be taken in a way that would definitely be an overstatement, excluding most Reformed Baptists from the Reformed tradition. On the other hand, anyone who agrees with the Westminster Standards concerning covenant children believes in some form of covenant objectivity.

  7. May 1, 2007 at 8:11 am

    Patrick
    I jumped over and read the material you have posted on your blog and I commend you for the way you have laid out the matter. It was well known back in the days of my stay at WTS that Klaas Schilder was in fact the guiding hand behind Shepherd’s views.I actually had a class on Calvin’s theology with one of Schilder’s prized pupils, the deservedly esteemed professor of Dogmatology at the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches in Hamilton, Ontario-Dr. J. Faber when he served for a year as a visiting professor at WTS (When Shepherd was put on leave).Van Til spoke highly of Schilder as a preacher, especially commending to us Schilder’s classic trilogy on the sufferings of Christ- but he also said that Schilder was something of a quirky theologian who was prone to flights of fancy.Another of my professors during Shepherd’s leave of absence, was the noted South African Reformed systematician ,Dr. Boonkers, who studied under Berkhouwer and had a first hand knowledge of the Dutch debates over the covenants.DW might object, but I see that there is a clear line of descent from Schilder to Shepherd to the FV.

  8. greenbaggins said,

    May 1, 2007 at 8:53 am

    I can see from the comments that I was not as clear as I needed to be. I was not intending to bring into doubt Wilson’s Calvinistic soteriology. My point had more to do with the fact that spiritual deadness means, in many cases, outright hostility to the Gospel. In which case God has to coerce a completely rebellious will by means of regeneration. Some of the comments here seem to imply that God’s grace can only be coercive if it acts on the will *after* regeneration, whereas I would argue that regeneration itself is often coercive. By “coercive” here, I mean that God’s grace is acting directly contrary to the spiritually dead person’s will. Hope this clears up things a bit.

  9. Lee said,

    May 1, 2007 at 9:52 am

    Lane,
    I am glad you cleared that up, but maybe you should clear it up a bit more. Either God is coercive all the time or none of the time. If you mean by ‘coercive’ that God is doing something contrary to the will of the spiritually dead, then is not regeneration always coercive? You say it is “often coercive”, but is there ever a time when the unregenerate will of the spiritual dead desires salvation? If not then is not salvation always coercive?

  10. greenbaggins said,

    May 1, 2007 at 10:01 am

    I guess I am thinking of a child who is not regenerate, but neither is he hardened against God. Maybe we should talk about degrees of coerciveness. Yes, you are right that in one sense God’s will is always coercive, making people who reject God to do a 180. However, it is not always a violent conversion, which means that (at least in my mind) it is hard to call it coercive when a baby just naturally grows up in the knowledge of Jesus.

  11. Keith LaMothe said,

    May 1, 2007 at 10:55 am

    Lane,

    In my eyes you were clear that you weren’t doubting Doug’s adherence to a Calvinistic soteriology, I just wanted to echo that he had written a book arguing for it and to say that his teaching is generally very strong in the doctrines of grace.

    By the way, Doug has posted a response to your review of this chapter here.

  12. greenbaggins said,

    May 1, 2007 at 11:01 am

    Yes, thank you Keith. I do read his blog, by the way! :-)

  13. Keith LaMothe said,

    May 1, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    Well, yes, but my expertise in unnecessary verbiage (one manifestation of which is “stating the obvious”) would not be repressed.

  14. Wes White said,

    May 1, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    I have to say I agree with DW on the first point. When God governs the world by His sovereignty, He governs without coercion.

    Coercion, it seems to me, is when someone is compelled but contributes no willing to the action. It seems to me that it cannot be said that God does that. When He directs our steps He concurs with our willing and directs it where He wants to.

    This should be distinguished from moral necessity arising from good or bad dispositions. It is in this sense that man’s will is in slavery to sin.

    When we are regenerated there is an infusion of new dispositions by which we act freely. From this arises a freedom to sin or righteousness (Rom. 6).

    Thus, Paul was made willing not coerced by the inward working of the Holy Spirit.

    See Turretin, Institutes, 10.2.3 and the rest of that question.

    Secondly, in regeneration, we should distinguish between the first and second acts of regeneration. In the first act, man is completely passive and new habits or dispositions are infused (a new heart implanted).

    But in the 2nd act, man is active and converts and believes. Thus, in Ez. 36, it says that “they shall walk in my ways.”

  15. Wes White said,

    May 1, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    Re: Objectivity.

    The question to me is, what do we mean by objectivity? Is this in contrast to the subjective? Does this contradict saying only the regenerate are in the covenant?

    Are we considering something like this?

    Subjective – belonging to the subject, that is, they are only in the covenant in the mind perceiving.
    Objective – they are in the covenant in fact irrespective of our view of them, or those who appear to be in the covenant are in the covenant (thus not merely subjectively but objectively).

  16. May 1, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    Wes, if I may, Wilson’s doctrine seems to see “objective” as meaning, in practice, “irrespective of a credible profession of faith.” Water baptism is an “objective” mark on the human, whereas their faith (or outward profession of it) is not. This is why he believes Romanists are to be identified as Christians.


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