Friday, January 13, 2017

Christ and the Decree by Richard A. Muller

Baker Academic, 2008, 240pp 

Why should a busy pastor give time to studying a work of historical theology like this? Surely we'd be better off reading a how-to manual on sermon illustrations, counselling, leadership, or what have you. If we must read theology, let it be an entry level piece, or a nice little primer that won't overload our poor little minds. A work of in-depth scholarship about what people from hundreds of years ago used to think about stuff, what's the point in that?

Well, because we might learn something and gain valuable insights into God's word and ways. Also, those insights may provide us with resources to help resolve some of the theological controversies that are raging in contemporary evangelical circles. Arguments over the eternal submission of the Son, for example. 

It is sometimes claimed that the theologians who followed Calvin and the early Reformers regressed into scholasticism. Not quite arguing over angels on a pin head, but as near as. They moved away from the biblical simplicity of Calvin and Bucer and began to employ hair splitting theological definitions, and developed elaborate theological systems. Those systems used Calvin's teaching on predestination as the axiom from which they deduced their doctrines. 

As Muller demonstrates, however, Calvin was not averse to using the apparatus of scholastic theology in giving expression to his thought. Reformed orthodoxy that followed in his wake continued where he left off. Both in terms of methodology and as they developed key Reformation doctrines. When it came to predestination, it was not the axiom from which they deduced their doctrinal systems by logical extension. 

Predestination underlined the Reformed emphasis on salvation by grace alone. But the decree was discussed in relation to  higher order doctrines, with a concentration on trinitarian ground of decree and its Christological focus. Christ and the decree was the point where the infinite and finite, the eternal and historical met. Christ was seen in relation to the decree in three ways: he is the electing God together with the Father and Holy Spirit; the Elect One, chosen to become the divine/human mediator; and the one in whom sinners were chosen for salvation. 

When it comes to Christology, the Reformed were fully in line with the teaching of the Definition of Chalcedon in confessing that Christ was a divine person with a human nature. But their preoccupation was on Christ as mediator, acting as prophet, priest and king to redeem his people from sin. Close attention was given to Christ's mediatorial work in both his state of humiliation, from his incarnation to the cross, and exaltation, from his resurrection to eternity. That the incarnate Son was and remained fully God when he became man was safeguarded by the so-called extra Calvinisticum. He who was held in his mother's arms as a baby also upheld the universe by his power as the Son of God.

As I say, there has been a lot of rather heated discussion in recent days over whether we may rightly speak of the eternal submission of the Son to the Father. In a way the phrase sounds right because the New Testament bears witness to the fact that the Son was sent into the world by the Father. And that arrangement was made in eternity. In another way, we might feel a bit queasy over the idea that the Son stood in a relationship of eternal submission to the Father. Do we not confess that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are homoousios, of the same divine being? The fullness of that divine being is in all three persons, ruling out any notion of subordination.

Calvin taught that concerning his divine nature, Christ was God in himself, autotheos, but concerning his person he was of the Father. The Reformer acknowledged that there is an order of persons in the Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but insisted that all three persons were equally God, with one divine being and will. Muller brings out that Calvin and his theological heirs successors grasped this point very well when it came to discussing predestination. They saw that Christ was not simply the Elect One, or the means by which the decree was executed. He was also, together with the Father and the Spirit, author of the decree to save. In that sense, the Son was self-designated to act as mediator, willingly submitting to be sent into the world by the Father. 

Reformed thinkers accepted the Partristic insight that in their external actions the three persons of the Trinity act as one, but not in the same way. All things are of the Father, by the Son and through the Spirit. This entails no hint of ontological subordination on the part of the Son as God, but recognises that it was singularly appropriate due to the order of persons that it was the Second Person of the Trinity who became incarnate. 

Talk of the eternal submission of Son to Father is therefore inappropriate. At least it needs to be highly qualified. Better to speak of the Son submitting to the will of God that he be sent into the world by the Father.  But it must be underlined that by 'God' we mean one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We may, indeed then say that the Son is the Electing God, the Elect one, and the one in whom we are elected for salvation. It is partly because we seem to have forgotten that the Son is himself the Electing God that we are having such trouble over the language of eternal submission with its subordinationist overtones. See here for more on Calvin, Beza on this theme. 

Muller expertly traces lines of development from Calvin through to Polanus and Perkins by way of Beza, Ursinus, Zanchi and others. He corrects the notion that Calvin was the gold standard of Reformed theology and that the slightest doctrinal development should be viewed as a deviation. The whole 'Calvin and the Calvinists' thing popularised by R. T. Kendall is shown to be baseless. 

Of Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf (1561-1610) and William Perkins (1558-1602) Muller writes,
In their thought we perceived at last the convergence of parallel lines of christological and predestinarian doctrinal development, the convergence of which can only occur in the infinite depth of the Trinity. And when the lines do converge in the realisation that the Son considered as God is the source, while considered as mediator in union with the human nature, self-determined executor of the decree, then on this infinite scale we also perceive the ultimate doctrinal "arch" of which not predestination but the trinitarian ground of all theology is the keystone. This structure had developed from Calvin, reaching fruition at the end of the century in the codification of early orthodoxy.
Muller's work also teases out the pastoral implications of the orthodox Reformed treatment of Christ and the decree. How are poor sinners meant to know whether they are among the elect? The decree in itself lies hidden in God. But the God who decrees is no deus nudus absconditus, an inaccessibly hidden deity. Muller explains, "There can be no deus nudus absconditus because the Christ who redeems is, according to his divinity, the God who decrees." The trinitarian foundation and Christological focus of the decree means that the believer can be sure they are elect because the Father has drawn them into saving union with Christ by the Spirit. We are in him by faith because we were chosen in him before the foundation of the world. Christ, as Calvin put it is "the mirror of our election." 

1 comment:

Ben said...

The standard complaint against scholasticism, that it concerned itself with angels and pins, misses the point: the question was how many angels could fit on the point of a pin. As incorporeal beings they occupy no space, and there is no space at the point of a properly sharp pin or needle.

According to Dorothy L Sayers (The Lost Tools of Learning) this was a standard debating exercise for students who were being asked to demonstrate their skill in grammar, logic and rhetoric (from the trivium) to which they could add at least geometry (from the quadrivium).

Sayers says that the answer is an infinite number of angels; but tutors were no more interested in the answer than was your school teacher in finding out what you did on your holidays; it had all to do with how you addressed the question and how you expressed the answer.

In paragraph 4, btw, I think you mean averse rather than adverse.