Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Brief Followup to the Westminster Confession Subject and Predestination

Firstly, I want to thank Mike Felker for discussing the issue of foreordination (predestination) with me. His comments were quite helpful and I hope his understanding of Witness beliefs also has been advanced.

Looking at the Westminster Confession a little more closely, it seems that the "God brings whatsoever comes to pass" language should be interpreted as "God foreordains" (predestines) or God wills all events. That is to say, God foreordained the suffering and death of Jesus, he willed the rape of Tamar, the adulterous affair between David and Bathsheba and the Holocaust along with chattel slavery which wreaked such havoc on many Africans who were brought to America. Yet it is odd that God has condemned many of the acts he supposedly foreordained (willed) and even punished humans for committing them. That still makes little sense to me along with other implications of the Confession.

Am I being uncharitable in my interpretation of the Westminster Confession? I don't think that is the case, and here is why I make this claim.

John Hendryx, when composing a reply to Roger Olson (who is critical of Calvinism) writes:

We acknowledge that we cannot explain all of God's secret acts since God has chosen not to reveal many things about Himself. But one very prominent feature of the Bible is that it frequently declares that God meticulously ordains all that comes to pass (Eph 1:11) AND that men are responsible for their actions. One major example sticks out: the greatest sin ever committed by men in history -- the crucifixion of Jesus ---when the Apostle Peter, preaching at Pentecost declares:

"...this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men." (Acts 2:23)


So Hendryx declares that God "meticulously ordains" all things eternally and immutably--even wicked actions that include the execution of Christ and genocide, cruel slavery, homicides, rape, child sacrifice, abortions, terrorism and a host of other evils that are manifestly ungodly. But yet humans are still fully responsible for all of the previously mentioned actions that God has putatively foreordained.

Or take the much stronger assertion made by Donald E. Hartley:

"No sin imaginable is more horrific than the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Yet, Scripture indicates that this was done by God the Father to God the Son (mediately) through the immediate agency of sinful human beings in the crucifixion (Isa 52:13-53:12; Acts 2:23; 4:28). If this is the worst possible evil that can be imagined, and God is clearly the ultimate cause behind it, then why be repulsed by divine causality when it comes to the rape of a child as if this is a greater evil?"

Hartley insists that God is the agent (doer) of all things (even sins performed by human agents), but God himself is not the author of sin. How this all works is said to be a mystery.

But there are further comments made by Hartley that bear on how one understands the Westminster Confession. He points to Aquinas who apparently thinks that every act undertaken (whether morally good or evil) is good insofar as God has willed all that comes to pass. Hartley therefore raises the possibility that while the rape of a child is evil in one sense, it's potentially good in a "decretal sense." Yet even Hartley admits that hardly anyone wants to hear this view espoused. See

So the "come to pass" language of the Westminster Confession should be understood to mean that God wills or foreordains all that happens. And we have not even touched on double predestination which is likewise addressed in the Confession. I'm still left with many questions that have not been satisfactorily answered. Hendryx, whom I quoted earlier, says:

"Likewise, nowhere in the Bible did God call us to work out the details of this doctrine by philosophical means, or pry into the secret things of God. Rather He calls us to be faithful to the Text that says God ordains all things, even evil, and that, at the same time, God is blameless in doing so. That He ordains sin sinlessly. I do not have to hold these truths together rationally (according to human knowledge) or philosophically but because they are axiomatic in the Bible. My understanding the intricacies of how this comes about is secondary. God is God. DO our finite minds have to understand HOW He does this in order for it to be true?"

While I'll concede that many aspects of God's purposes are not immediately understandable and rightly can be described as "incomprehensible," to retreat into the "mystery corner" is a hackneyed and unsatisfying way to evade the tough questions.


Philip Fletcher said...

One other thing it may be that God knows, what is going to occur. That doesn't mean he foreordained it or causes it. The situation with Jesus was purposed by Jehovah God and agreed upon by Jesus, so it took place that way. God is not responsible for all other acts, but he certainly can know in advance that they occur, and allow them for a greater purpose, but he does not do evil.-James 1:13

Anonymous said...

Satan (and his demons) were fighting for their very existence, fighting to hold onto to the rule of the world. Satan was determined to cause Jesus to break his integrity. This would mean throwing everything at Jesus, testing him even to the point of death. This is what Jehovah and Jesus knew. Satan would try all kinds to things to stumble Jesus, to break his faith. Eventually this would lead to a violent death. It was the last thing Satan had left to try....

Nathan said...

Hi Edgar,

I’ve been enjoying your recent posts on divine foreknowledge.

I wonder if an argument from the "Imago Dei" might help here. It seems to me that the reasons for recoiling at the atrocities of the holocaust are the same reasons why almost all people recoil at the frightful acts purportedly conceived of from within the mind of God. The problem, however, is that we are also purportedly made in the image of God. Yet if the image is repelled by an appalling deed, why would the exemplar not be also? It seems to me that the only way we can escape this conclusion is to accept that we are not really made in the image of God after all. But I don't think any theist is going to want to argue that. After all, if despite being fallen, we are morally capable of discerning the good, then it follows that we are also morally capable of recognising evil.


Edgar Foster said...

Hi Nathan,

I believe you make a good point; this argument could be developed further. As you say, if we find the violation of children repugnant or the Holocaust, then why wouldn't God likewise be repelled by them?

On the other hand, one objection that we can likely anticipate would be the argument from divine impassibility--God is supposed to be emotionless, and incapable of feeling pain, sorrow, etc. But that argument has been addressed by numerous thinkers who find divine impassibility to be a doctrine that sprouted from ancient Greek philosophy rather than the Bible.

You've likely encountered this type of argumentation before. Thanks for sharing the point concerning the Imago Dei: it's a good one.

Edgar Foster said...

Good observation also, Philip. One day, I would like to build on the points you made.

Philip Fletcher said...

As a parent I know what is going to go on with my children if they continue on a present course. As imperfect as I am, I know what will happen, and it does happen as I know it will. Almost all parents will say the same thing. But the supreme perfect God can know what every child is up to and correctly state where it will lead. Cain is a prime example of this. It is just that simple, just as a imperfect parent knows the way of his children, Jehovah God knows what direction we are going in. He doesn't need to control it or cause it. It is obvious when you know someone what direction they will take. There is only a finite number of direction to go in. And we imperfect human limit ourselves even more. It is easy to see what direction someone will take, and Almighty God see and know, he has no reason to cause it. People will act a certain way. It is just that simple.

Mike Felker said...

Hi Edgar-

A little late getting to this, but I appreciated the discussions as well. I'm far from any kind of expert in this area but i'm hoping some of my reformed seminary classes helped me represent the viewpoint accurately.

While there seemed to be some misunderstandings when I began discussing this with you, I can clearly see that you have strived to represent the reformed viewpoint accurately. In my experience with JW's, that is not the norm. But then again, it's not the norm for evangelicals to represent the JW's accurately either.

Anyway, I think the key in understanding reformed theology is to understand it systematically. To simply take their conclusions and respond accordingly really doesn't do it justice. Anyone can take a seemingly extreme Calvinistic conclusion and argue accordingly. But such ignores the pages and pages of arguments to develop and conclude on such a point. This is the case with Calvin and any other systematic theologian. What i'd be more interested in seeing in the future is more interaction with the development of reformed conclusions and not just with the conclusions themselves.

Anyway, i'll keep peeking my head in to see if there is anything specific that I could respond to in future posts.