Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Nicole critiques Kendall's view of assurance

I am continuing my review of Roger Nicole's article on Calvin's doctrine of the atonement. Part of Nicole's article is devoted to a critique of R. T. Kendall's book, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649. This book is a very interesting read for the student of history and an important one for the student of theology.

After Nicole's general criticism of Kendall, covered in my previous blog entry, Nicole briefly analyzed Kendall's assertion that Calvin saw a strong connection between faith and assurance. Kendall, quoting Calvin, said this:

For since he necessarily hates sin, how shall we be convinced that He loves us until those sins for which He is justly angry with us have been expiated? Thus before we can have any feeling of His fatherly kindness, the blood of Christ must intercede to reconcil God to us. [Footnote, Calvin, Comm. John 3:16]

This statement reveals why Calvin feels so strongly about a universal expiation by Christ's death; Christ's deat is that to which we look because it is the 'pledge' that God loves us. Calvin does not direct us to God's secret decree; it is 'Christ alone' to Whom 'faith ought to look'. [Footnote, Comm. John 3:16. Cf. Comm. John 15:9....] For 'we are to learn to fix our eyes on the death of Christ, whenever our salvation is concerned'. [Footnote, Calvin, Comm. Rom. 5:11.]

Had Christ died only for those whom God had chosen by His secret decree, then, it would obviously cease to be a pledge to all.

For Kendall, this strong connection in Calvin's theology between faith and assurance made it impossible for Calvin to have taught limited atonement. Nicole criticizes that argument:

The close connection posited by Kendall between universal atonement and the assurance of faith must also be challenged, for universal atonement is neither necessary nor sufficient for assurance. It is not necessary since my understanding of how the work of Christ affects others is not essential for a perception of how it affects me. It is not sufficient since on Kendall’s showing, all covered by the atonement will not be saved; assurance, if it is to be reliable, needs to be grounded in something that actually makes a difference between the saved and the lost.

Nicole, John Calvin's View of the Extent of the Atonement, Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985) 197 at 204-205.

Universal atonement such as Kendal posits, Nicole alleges, is neither necessary nor sufficient for assurance. Let's examine this argument. First, universal atonement is not necessary for assurance. It is not necessary for I can know the effect it has on me though I may not know the effect it has on anyone else.

Second, universal atonement is not sufficient for assurance. It is not sufficient, he says, because some who are covered by the atonement will not be saved. So a person could feel insecure because the atonement doesn't necessarily save anyone. I can only trust in that which makes a difference and only some other factor, something other than the atonement, makes a difference, therefore I must look to that other thing — my own faith perhaps? — for assurance.

I have several objections to Nicole's argument here. First, the strong connection between the atonement and assurance is not original with Kendall, it comes directly from Calvin. Anyone familiar with Calvin's commentary to John 3:16 will admit this.

For God so loved the world. Christ opens up the first cause, and, as it were, the source of our salvation, and he does so, that no doubt may remain; for our minds cannot find calm repose, until we arrive at the unmerited love of God.

* * *

He gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him may not perish. This, he says, is the proper look of faith, to be fixed on Christ, in whom it beholds the breast of God filled with love: this is a firm and enduring support, to rely on the death of Christ as the only pledge of that love. The word only-begotten is emphatic,... to magnify the fervor of the love of God towards us. For as men are not easily convinced that God loves them, in order to remove all doubt, he has expressly stated that we are so very dear to God that, on our account, he did not even spare his only-begotten Son. Since, therefore, God has most abundantly testified his love towards us, whoever is not satisfied with this testimony, and still remains in doubt, offers a high insult to Christ, as if he had been an ordinary man given up at random to death. But we ought rather to consider that, in proportion to the estimation in which God holds his only-begotten Son, so much the more precious did our salvation appear to him, for the ransom of which he chose that his only-begotten Son should die.

Calvin, Comment to John 3:16. Our minds cannot find repose, says Calvin, unless we discover proof of the unmerited love of God. Jesus assures us emphatically of the fervor of God's love. And here is a firm and enduring support on which the mind of sinful man can rest. God has testified his love for me by sending his only-begotten Son on my behalf.

It seems to me that Kendall was quite correct to point out Calvin's views on assurance. In the Institutes, Calvin makes the knowledge of God's favor an essential element in saving faith. (See Institutes 3.2.7.) Count Zinzendorf captured this spirit very well in his famous hymn, Jesus Thy Blood and Righteousness

Lord, I believe Thy precious blood,
Which, at the mercy seat of God,
Forever doth for sinners plead,
For me, e’en for my soul, was shed.

Lord, I believe were sinners more
Than sands upon the ocean shore,
Thou hast for all a ransom paid,
For all a full atonement made.

When from the dust of death I rise
To claim my mansion in the skies,
Ev’n then this shall be all my plea,
Jesus hath lived, hath died, for me.

More objections to Nicole's argument on this point next time.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Nicole's critique of R. T. Kendall's view of history

I am going to devote a few articles to Roger Nicole's criticism of R. T. Kendall, which appears in Nicole's well-known article on Calvin and limited atonement. (John Calvin's View of the Extent of the Atonement. (Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985): 197-225).)

Roger Nicole spends a few paragraphs critiquing R. T. Kendall's 1979 book, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford University Press, 1979, 2d ed. Paternoster, 1997).

Kendall's radical thesis

Let me preface this discussion by saying that I was personally devastated by Kendall's analysis. Not only is Kendall's book eye-opening, his analysis amounts to a stunning critique of the reformed doctrine of faith. Kendall shows that the trajectory of reformed theology has been significantly altered by the theologians that followed Calvin, particularly the theological heritage of Perkins and Ames. Though Kendall spends a sparse few pages on the doctrine of limited atonement, he shows convincingly that Calvin could not have held to limited atonement by virtue of the very nature of Calvin's doctrine of faith. Comparing modern reformed theology to Calvin, today's reformed theology has a completely different doctrine of faith. Though Kendall hits at limited atonement only indirectly, his blow is shattering.

If you think, dear reader, that I am exaggerating, I assure you that I am not. Kendall's thesis is radical: it lays the axe to the root of the tree.

Nicole's criticism of Kendall

Nicole's criticism of Kendall can be summarized in these two points:

  1. Either Kendall is right or the reformed theologians of four centuries of history, from Beza to B. B. Warfield, are right.
  2. Kendall has badly misread Calvin. Kendall selects his quotations, his evidence is ambiguous, and Kendall quotes Calvin out of context. The imagined connection in Calvin's theology between assurance and universal redemption is a figment of the imagination.

I will cover the first point in this article, then take up the second point in an article or two to follow. First, here is Nicole's broad criticism of Kendall:

1979 saw the appearance of R. T. Kendall’s Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649. In this volume the author attempts to document that there is a great chasm between Calvin’s theology and that of his successor Beza, followed in turn by William Perkins and others and culminating in the Westminster Assembly, which unconsciously was veering in the direction of Arminianism rather than proceeding in the path delineated by Calvin. This extremely paradoxical thesis appears to rest primarily upon the observation that Calvin grounded the assurance of faith in the conviction “that Christ died indiscriminately for all men” and included this assurance in the very “essence of faith.” The same position is espoused in Kendall’s essay on “The Puritan Modification of Calvin’s Theology” in John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World, a work otherwise in line with traditional Calvinism. Kendall’s position was very vigorously disputed in devastating reviews by A. N. S. Lane, W. Stanford Reid, and especially Paul Helm.

On the face of it Kendall’s view appears well-nigh incredible, for it implies that practically all the Calvinist successors of Calvin from Beza to Warfield and beyond, passing through the Synod of Dort delegates and the members of the Westininster Assembly, were basically wrong concerning the major direction of their theology. To call the Westminster Assembly doctrine of faith “crypto-Arminian” is preposterous. Kendall’s position impugns also practically all the Arminian theologians for failing to recognize that Calvin was their ally in the matter of the extent of the atonement, and the Calvinists with respect to the nature of faith! Frankly, it is easier to believe that Kendall is wrong rather than this whole galaxy of theologians!

Nicole, 203-204, citations omitted.

Calvin couldn't have taught unlimited atonement — could he?

The argument that nearly every reader of reformed literature makes to himself at one time or another when confronting the Calvin problem is this one: Calvin couldn't have taught unlimited atonement. He just couldn't have! Why, if he did, then the whole reformed community has been wrong about him! Surely Calvin believed TULIP!

That stubborn refusal to deal with Calvin's theology on its own terms because of the weight of contrary expert authority is one of the stock arguments against the idea that Calvin taught unlimited atonement. But it is a fallacy. Though all those men — from Beza to Warfield — may have misread Calvin, whether they did or didn't is irrelevant to the question of Calvin's meaning when he wrote, for example, the following:

Luke goes still farther in showing that the salvation brought by Christ is common to the whole human race, in as much as Christ; the author of salvation is descended from Adam, the common father of us all.

Institutes, 2.3.3. Kendall can read Calvin too, and he has made an analysis for our benefit. Kendall has criticized the theologians who followed Calvin. But that criticism cannot be wrong merely because it is a criticism. Nicole, in answering Kendall, has simply counted noses and concluded that because more theologians believe Calvin taught limited atonement, he must have done so. What authority can that have against an actual reading and analysis of Calvin and his reformed successors?

I submit that it has no authority.

One problem that is often encountered in scholarly literature is the genetic fallacy writ large. Expert A analyzes something and comes to some conclusion: let's call it conclusion Z. Expert B believes A and simply repeats his analysis uncritically. Expert C follows B and before you know it, a universe of experts —or even a galaxy of theologians — has supported conclusion Z.

But what if expert A was wrong? That is what Kendall has said. Now I am not saying that the galaxy of theologians has simply followed Beza, Perkins, or Ames or anybody in particular — the problem has not come up in that simple obvious manner. But if Kendall is right, it has arisen in something like that manner. That this is the case is shown by Nicole's argument itself. Nicole's criticism of Kendall is essentially just expert following expert. Kendall can't be right, says Nicole, because of the galaxy of theologians.

Kendall cannot be dismissed in this frivolous manner, merely because he has disagreed with the understanding of a significant historical movement. Fifty million Frenchmen can be wrong, and it is certainly not ipso facto wrong to criticize them. Further, Kendall's criticism is a strong one and ought to be taken up in a serious manner, not simply tossed aside.

Was the Westminster Assembly "crypto-Arminian?"

Yes, Kendall did say that the Westminster Assembly's doctrine of faith was crypto-Arminian. One must keep this criticism in perspective, though. Kendall was saying that the Assembly's doctrine of faith is crypto-Arminian, not their doctrine of depravity, free will, sovereignty of God, election, or predestination.

Further, Kendall has provided specific criticisms with reference to the thoughts of specific theologians. He has made thorough comparisons of those thoughts with Calvin's own. Nicole's dismissal of Kendall's argument as "preposterous" is a disservice to the intelligent reader.

As a brief summary of Kendall's thought on this point, I make the following observations.

First, Kendall criticizes the Assembly's doctrine of faith as voluntaristic. That is, reformed theology sees faith as an act of the will, where Calvin sees faith as knowledge. Calvin's viewpoint is obvious from Calvin's definition of faith in the Institutes:

We shall now have a full definition of faith, if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.

Not only is faith knowledge, but it is "firm and sure knowledge." Calvin did see assurance as essential to Christian faith.

And finally, this knowledge is received passively. Whereas an act of the will is, by its very nature, active, Calvin sees faith as passively received. Kendall quotes Calvin to this effect: faith is "something merely passive, bringing nothing of ours to the recovering of God's favor but receiving from Christ that which we lack." Kendall, 19, quoting Institutes 3.13.5. (Compare Calvin's comment on John 6:29.)

Second, Kendall criticizes the Assembly's doctrine as implying that faith follows repentance. The reformed theologians after Beza emphasized, to a greater or lesser extent, the idea of repentance as preparation for faith. Calvin rejected this; he saw faith as producing repentance:

Now it ought to be a fact beyond controversy that repentance not only constantly follows faith, but is also born of faith.... There are some, however, who suppose that repentance precedes faith, rather than flows from it, or is produced by it as fruit from a tree. Such persons have never known the power of repentance, and are moved to feel this way by an unduly slight argument.

Insititutes 3.3.1. Compare also this quote about preparation:

We are all sinners by nature, therefore we are held under the yoke of sin. But if the whole man is subject to the dominion of sin, surely the will, which is its principal seat, must be bound with the closest chains. And, indeed, if divine grace were preceded by any will of ours, Paul could not have said that “it is God which worketh in us both to will and to do” (Phi 2:13). Away, then, with all the absurd trifling which many have indulged in with regard to preparation.

Institutes 2.2.27. Repentance, which is an act of the will, is "bound with the closest chains," and requires God's work to produce it. Thus for Calvin, repentance cannot be a preparation for faith.

It is in these respects that Kendall criticizes the Westminster Assembly's doctrine of faith as crypto-Arminian. Nicole does not answer or even address Kendall's criticisms on these points — apart from his casual comments that the criticisms are "paradoxical," "well-nigh incredible," and "preposterous."

More on this subject next time.

Friday, November 02, 2007

W. G. T. Shedd on 1John 2:2 - Conclusion

In the Editor’s Preface to the third edition of W. G. T. Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology, Alan W. Gomes writes that "modern evangelical systems tend to be weaker precisely at those points where Shedd’s is most robust." In this blogger’s opinion, the statement is true with respect not only to modern evangelicalism, but with respect to modern evangelical Calvinism as well. Today’s Calvinism has a view of God that is myopic, emphasizing the sovereignty of God to the exclusion of His love of all mankind. Shedd’s view of the mercy of God would tend to counteract that defect. Here is a marvelous passage, in which Shedd extols the mercy of God as shown in the free offer of the gospel:

The Christian gospel--the universal offer of pardon through the self-sacrifice of one of the divine persons--should silence every objection to the doctrine of endless punishment. For as the case now stands, there is no necessity, so far as the action of God is concerned, that a single human being should ever be the subject of future punishment * * *

For the Scriptures everywhere describe God as naturally and spontaneously merciful and declare that all the legal obstacles to the exercise of this great attribute have been removed by the death of the Son of God 'for the sins of the whole world' (1 John 2:2). In the very center of the holy revelations of Sinai, Jehovah proclaimed it to be his inherent and intrinsic disposition to be 'merciful and gracious, long-suffering, forgiving iniquity and transgression' (Exod. 34:6-7). Nehemiah, after the exile, repeats the doctrine of the Pentateuch: 'You are a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, and of great kindness' (Neh. 9:17). The psalmist declares that 'the Lord is ready to forgive and plenteous in mercy unto all that call upon him' (Ps. 86:5); 'the Lord takes pleasure in them that fear him, in those that hope in his mercy' (147:11). From the twilight of the land of Uz, Elihu, feeling after the promised Redeemer if haply he might find him (Job 33:23), declares that 'God looks upon men, and if any say, I have sinned and perverted that which was right, and it profited me not; he will deliver his soul from going down to the pit, and his life shall see the light' (33:27-28). The Bible throughout teaches that the Supreme Being is sensitive to penitence and is moved with compassion and paternal yearning whenever he perceives any sincere spiritual grief. He notices and welcomes the slightest indication of repentance: 'The eye of the Lord is upon them that fear him, upon them that hope in his mercy' (Ps. 33:18); 'whoso confesses and forsakes his sins shall have mercy' (Prov. 28:13). The heavenly Father sees the prodigal when he is 'yet a great way off.' He never 'breaks the bruised reed' nor 'quenches the smoking flax.' If there be in any human creature the broken and contrite heart, divine pity speaks the word of forgiveness and absolution. The humble confession of unworthiness operates almost magically upon the eternal. Incarnate mercy said to the heathen 'woman of Canaan' who asked for only the dogs' crumbs, 'O woman, great is your faith; be it unto you even as you will' (Matt. 15:28). The omnipotent is overcome whenever he sees lowly penitential sorrow. As 'the foolishness of God is wiser than man,' so the self-despairing helplessness of man is stronger than God. When Jacob says to the infinite one, 'I am not worthy of the least of all your mercies,' yet wrestled with him 'until the breaking of the day,' he becomes Israel and 'as a prince has power with God' (Gen. 32:10, 24, 28). When Jehovah hears Ephraim 'bemoaning himself,' and saying, 'Turn me, and I shall be turned,' he answers, 'Ephraim is my dear son. I will surely have mercy upon him' (Jer. 31:18, 20).

Now the only obstruction, and it is a fatal one, to the exercise of this natural and spontaneous mercy of God is the sinner's hardness of heart.

W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3d. edition, pages 930-931. In Shedd’s theology of 1John 2:2, we see a well-rounded view of God’s love for the whole world as expressed in Christ’s expiatory work.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

More W. G. T. Shedd on 1John 2:2

In Shedd’s view of Christ’s expiation for the sins of mankind, the work of Christ is not merely theoretical. Christ has done all that is necessary for the sins of man to be forgiven. In relation to God’s justice, Christ’s atonement cancels the claims of the law against the human race:

In the third place, atonement, either personal or vicarious, naturally and necessarily cancels legal claims. This means that there is such a natural and necessary correlation between vicarious atonement and justice that the former supplies all that is required by the latter. It does not mean that Christ’s vicarious atonement naturally and necessarily saves every man; because the relation of Christ’s atonement to divine justice is one thing, but the relation of a particular person to Christ’s atonement is a very different thing. Christ’s death as related to the claims of the law upon all mankind cancels those claims wholly. It is an infinite "propitiation for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2). But the relation of an impenitent person to this atonement is that of unbelief and rejection of it. Consequently, what the atonement has effected objectively in reference to the attribute of divine justice is not effected subjectively in the conscience of the individual. There is an infinite satisfaction that naturally and necessarily cancels legal claims, but unbelief derives no benefit from the fact.

W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3d. edition, page 724. This being the case, the gospel can be freely offered to all:

The atonement is sufficient in value to expiate the sin of all men indiscriminately; and this fact should be stated because it is a fact. There are no claims of justice not yet satisfied; there is no sin of man for which an infinite atonement has not been provided. All things are now ready. Therefore the call to come is universal. It is plain, that the offer of the atonement should be regulated by its intrinsic nature and sufficiency, not by the obstacles that prevent its efficacy. The extent to which a medicine is offered is not limited by the number of persons favorably disposed to buy it and use it. Its adaptation to disease is the sole consideration in selling it, and consequently it is offered to everybody.

Shedd, page 750. The man who refuses the benefit of what Christ has done effectively limits the atonement by his unbelief. Christ has done all that is necessary for the salvation of every man as far as God’s justice is concerned. For those who refuse the gracious offer of Christ’s expiation, justice will be satisfied another way.