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Oliphint on Thomistic A Posteriori Knowledge of God

November 24, 2017 7 comments

Van Til’s disciple K. Scott Oliphint has been arguing for years that a rejection of scholastic, classical apologetics entails a rejection of classical theism as well. He says “much of systematic theology that’s done, especially in theology proper, needs a complete revision and re-write.” Oliphint himself has started such a re-write of theology proper. Pushing back against these revisions, and rightly defending classical theism, many reformed have regretfully felt the need to affirm Thomistic, classical apologetics as well. I do not believe that is necessary in order to affirm classical theism.

It is important to recognize that Oliphint sees deductive reasoning itself as Thomistic natural theology. When someone defends the doctrine of divine impassibility by stating “The Scripture speaks in such a way as to require viewing certain texts literally and others metaphorically or anthropopathically; otherwise we are left with seemingly contradictory propositions respecting the doctrine of God (cf. John 1:18 with Exod 33:23),” Oliphint objects that requiring Scriptural propositions to be non-contradictory is to impose Thomistic natural theology on Scripture. We should not seek to logically reconcile Scripture but should instead allow Scripture to limit our logic/reason.

So what is really a debate about the role of logic in the interpretation of Scripture has instead become a debate over Thomism vs presuppositionalism, regretfully (note that Oliphint has helpfully suggested that Van Til’s apologetic be called “Covenantal” rather than Presuppositional in order to distinguish his idiosyncratic view from other presuppositionalists).

Having said all of that, I actually found Oliphint’s recent 2-part lecture on Thomistic apologetics to be helpful insofar as it lays out Thomas’ a posteriori view of natural theology. Here are PDFs [1 and 2].

Implicit Knowledge

First, knowledge of God is not self-evident to men. All men possess implicit knowledge of God’s likeness, but it is very vague, general, ambiguous, and confused. We desire happiness (our “beatitude”), therefore we desire God.

“For man knows God naturally in the same way as he desires Him naturally. Now man desires Him naturally in so far as he naturally desires happiness, which is a likeness of the divine goodness. Hence it does not follow that God considered in Himself is naturally known to man, but that His likeness is.”

Natural Reason

To really have knowledge of God, we must observe the world around us and make various logical deductions until we arrive at who God is. This is known as a posteriori knowledge.

“Wherefore [because this implicit knowledge is vague] man must needs come by reasoning to know God in the likenesses to Him which he discovers in God’s effects.”

From Sense Experience

Thomas was not a fan of anything a priori. Knowledge was always and only gleaned by way of the senses…

[Rom 1:19] “Our natural knowledge begins from sense. Hence our natural knowledge can go as far as it can be led by sensible things, but our mind cannot be led by sense so far as to see the essence of God, because the sensible effects of God do not equal the power of God as their cause. Hence from the knowledge of sensible things, the whole power of God cannot be known, nor therefore can His essence be seen. But because they are His effects and depend on their cause, we can be led from them so far as to know of God whether he exists and to know of Him what must necessarily belong to Him as the first cause of all things, exceeding all things caused by Him.”

So Thomas’ understanding of Romans 1:19 is that Paul is speaking of the possibility of the human intellect, that is, natural reason, of itself to be able to demonstrate and conclude for the knowledge of God [based on sense experience].

Prove God’s Existence

“[T]here are certain things to which even natural reason can attain. For instance, that God is, that God is one, and others like these. Which even the philosophers proved demonstratively of God, being guided by the light of natural reason.”

So you can see in Thomas there’s no ambiguity in what he’s doing here and there’s no ambiguity in what he means by natural reason because he says his example is the philosophers did this – they demonstratively did this.

An Alternative

There was some precedence in the history of the church for the possibility of the beginning of a reformation in this area… John of Damascus, for example, argued that Romans 1 teaches that the knowledge of God is implanted in all men. Thomas is aware of that. What does he say about it? He cites John of Damascus in his argument against the self-evidence of God.

Objection 1. It seems that the existence of God is self-evident. Now those things are said to be self-evident to us the knowledge of which is naturally implanted in us, as we can see in regard to first principles. But as Damascene says (De Fid. Orth. i . 1, 3), the knowledge of God is naturally implanted in all. Therefore the existence of God is self-evident.

Reply Obj. 1. To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude. For man naturally desires happiness, and what is naturally desired by man must be naturally known to him. This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching; for many there are who imagine that man’s perfect good which is happiness, consists in riches, and others in pleasures, and others in something else.

So he’s rejecting what John of Damascus has set forth because he cannot imagine a situation in which the proposition “God exists” is known by us in a way that the terms are self-evident.

Comments

[A] problem with Thomas is, if it is the case that the Logos has been revealing who God is from the beginning [John 1] such that we all know God, by virtue of being in the image of God, then guess what? The existence of God is self-evident to us – utterly so – and that’s what we suppress.

I completely agree with Oliphint here. The knowledge of God is not something arrived at as the result of contemplation of creation (wisdom). Rather, knowledge of God is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). And everyone, even infants – not simply those who rationally reflect upon nature – possess knowledge of God and what he requires of us. (I disagree with Oliphint that this knowledge is not propositional. I believe it is.)

This is not a new idea. These two epistemologies have wrestled against each other for centuries.

Arnobius asks, “What man is there who has not begun the first day of his nativity with this principle; in whom is it not inborn, fixed, almost even impressed upon him, implanted in him while still in the bosom of his mother?” (Stirling)

 

In the early chapters of his De fide orthodoxa, the Eastern Christian Father John of Damascus claims that human beings possess a naturally implanted knowledge of God’s existence. The Patristic tradition from which the Damascene draws his ideas emphasizes the ambiguity of this claim.

On the one hand, there are sources that treat such knowledge as naturally implanted propositional content. “God exists” is a proposition that governs our actions prior to any inferences we make about the world. On the other hand, there are sources that consider naturally implanted knowledge of God’s existence to be the conclusion of an innate inferential capacity. “God exists” is a proposition we arrive at posterior to our knowledge of the world.

“John of Damascus and the Naturally Implanted Knowledge of God’s Existence in Bonaventure and Aquinas” – Joseph Steineger

Augustine is a pre-eminent representative of the implanted, immediate, self-evident view, while Aquinas is a pre-eminent representative of aquired, mediate, a posteriori empiricism.

Augustine of Hippo stands unrivaled as the brilliant exponent of the Christian thesis that the knowledge of God and of other selves and the world of nature is not merely inferential. Whatever else is contributory to the content of human cognition, this knowledge involves a direct and immediate noesis because of the unique constitution of the human mind. Knowledge of God is no mere induction from the finite and nondivine, but is directly and intuitively given in human experience. However much knowledge of the self and of the physical world may be expounded by inference, it is brackted always by a primal antecedent relationship to the spiritual world which makes man’s knowledge possible and holds him in intuitive correlation with God, the cosmos, and other selves.

God, Revelation, and Authority – Carl F. H. Henry

Calvin followed Augustine in this regard.

The knowledge of God is given in the very same act by which we know self… That the knowledge of God is innate (I. iii. 3), naturally engraved on the hearts of men (I. iv. 4), and so a part of their very constitution as men (I. iii. 1), that it is a matter of instinct (I. iii. 1, I. iv. 2), and every man is self-taught it from his birth (I. iii. 3), Calvin is thoroughly assured.

Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God B. B. Warfield

B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge followed Calvin and Augustine.

Those who are unwilling to admit that the idea of God is innate as given in the very constitution of man, generally hold that it is a necessary, or, at least, a natural deduction of reason. Sometimes it is represented as the last and highest generalization of science. As the law of gravitation is assumed to account for a large class of the phenomena of the universe, and as it not only does account for them, but must be assumed in order to understand them;so the existence of an intelligent first cause is assumed to account for the existence of the universe itself, and for all its phenomena. But as such generalizations are possible only for cultivated minds, this theory of the origin of the idea of God, cannot account for belief in his existence in the minds of all men, even the least educated… We do not thus reason ourselves into the belief that there is a God; and it is very obvious that it is not by such a process of ratiocination, simple as it is, that the mass of the people are brought to this conclusion… Adam believed in God the moment he was created, for the same reason that he believed in the external world. His religious nature, unclouded and undefiled, apprehended the one with the same confidence that his senses apprehended the other.

Theology Proper, “The Knowledge of God is not due to a Process of Reasoning” – Charles Hodge

Kuyper likewise.

Adam possessed in himself, apart from the cosmos, everything that was necessary to have knowledge of God. Undoubtedly many things concerning God were manifest to him in the cosmos also; without sin a great deal of God would have become manifest to him from his fellow-men; and through the process of his development, in connection with the cosmos, he would have obtained an ever richer revelation of God. But apart from all this acquired knowledge of God, he had in himself the capacity to draw knowledge of God from what had been revealed, as well as a rich revelation from which to draw that knowledge. Our older theologians called these two together the “concreate knowledge of God”; and correctly so, because here there was no logical activity which led to this knowledge of God, but this knowledge of God coincided with man’s own self-knowledge. This knowledge of God was given eo ipso in his own self-consciousness; it was not given as discursive knowledge, but as the immediate content of selfconsciousness… [I]n this clear and immediate self-knowledge there was, without any further action of the logos in us, an equally immediate knowledge of God, the consciousness of which, from that very image itself, accompanied him who had been created in the image of God. Thus the first man lived in an innate knowledge of God, which was not yet understood, and much less expressed in words, just as our human heart in its first unfoldings has a knowledge of ideals, which, however, we are unable to explain or give a form to. Calvin called this the seed of religion (semen religionis), by which he indicated that this innate knowledge of God is an ineradicable property of human nature, a spiritual eye in us, the lens of which may be dimmed, but always so that the lens, and consequently the eye, remains.

pg 186-187, Abraham Kuyper, Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology

See also Kuyper’s The Natural Knowledge of God

It would be a mistake to assume Thomism is simply the historic Christian view.

Richard Muller

Oliphint’s selections from Muller are very interesting. I hope to get my hands on a copy to read in full.

“A generalized or pagan natural theology, according to the reformers, was not merely limited to non-saving knowledge of God. It was also bound in idolatry.”

The interpretation of that is that the theistic proofs, when done by one who is not regenerate, produces and idol – is bound by idolatry…

“This view, the problem of knowledge, is the single most important contribution of the early reformed writiers to the theological prolegomena of orthodox protestantism. Indeed, it is the doctrinal issue that most forcibly presses the protestant scholastics toward the modification of the medeival models for theological prolegomena.”

Conclusion

Thomism is merely one of the epistemologies offered in church history. There are good reasons to doubt that it is biblical. Instead, consideration should be given to the belief that general revelation is innate, propositional revelation implanted in every heart prior to any experience in the world – and that this latter view is more consistent with the reformed belief in the self-authenticating nature of Scripture. Oliphint has helped lay out these differences, even if his particular Van Tillian perspective is not to be embraced.

 

See also:

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Natural Law: Greek or Hebrew? — Reformed Libertarian

The phrase “natural law” itself is capable of so many interpretations that anyone who advocates natural law must expend a great deal of effort explaining what he means.1 In his excellent essay Perspective on Natural Law, Gordon H. Clark argues […]

via Natural Law: Greek or Hebrew? — Reformed Libertarian

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Natural Law: Greek or Israelite? — Reformed Libertarian

The phrase “natural law” itself is capable of so many interpretations that anyone who advocates natural law must expend a great deal of effort explaining what he means.1 In his excellent essay Perspective on Natural Law, Gordon H. Clark argues […]

via Natural Law: Greek or Israelite? — Reformed Libertarian

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DG Hart on General Revelation

October 1, 2015 5 comments

One of the things that got me going a little bit was the idea that we need to interpret natural law or general revelation through the lends of Scripture, the spectacles of Scripture. That would also seem to fit with the idea of the importance of regeneration because not everyone would interpret Scripture well apart from regeneration. So its the regenerate that need to interpret or understand general revelation or natural law.

And in my mind, I am just struck by how much, I think I said this in the first round, there are authors who are remarkably gifted at interpreting natural law or general revelation. And so much wiser than most Christians whom I read. And part of that has to do with how much time they spend thinking about general revelation and its structures, its categories, its givenness, in a way that oftentimes Christians don’t. And I think Christians don’t for good reasons because oftentimes they’re more inclined to read the Scripture than nature.

Now, there would be Christian scientists who would read nature more than the average Christian, or artists who might read parts of nature more than the average Christian. But still, when it comes down to on average, it seems more Christians are inclined to interpret Scripture or go to Scripture as their norm for their lives, and not look at general revelation. But that means that the people that don’t go to Scripture and are looking at general revelation all the time kinda have a leg up on Christians in their capacity to understand, at least how general revelation works, and if they’re theists, how that, in some ways, reflects God, or the creator.

http://reformedforum.org/ctc124/

If your doctrine of general revelation leads you to say what Hart just said, you need to go back to square one and re-assess what general revelation is. No unregenerate pagan has a “leg up” on the Christian reading Scripture, in terms of understanding God’s revelation.

First, general revelation does not contain anything that is not more clearly revealed in Scripture. That’s why Calvin said:

For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any books however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly…

Let the reader then remember, that I am not now treating of the covenant by which God adopted the children of Abraham, or of that branch of doctrine by which, as founded in Christ, believers have, properly speaking, been in all ages separated from the profane heathen. I am only showing that it is necessary to apply to Scripture, in order to learn the sure marks which distinguish God, as the Creator of the world, from the whole herd of fictitious gods. We shall afterward, in due course, consider the work of Redemption. In the meantime, though we shall adduce many passages from the New Testament, and some also from the Law and the Prophets, in which express mention is made of Christ, the only object will be to show that God, the Maker of the world, is manifested to us in Scripture, and his true character expounded, so as to save us from wandering up and down, as in a labyrinth, in search of some doubtful deity…

Therefore, while it becomes man seriously to employ his eyes in considering the works of God, since a place has been assigned him in this most glorious theatre that he may be a spectator of them, his special duty is to give ear to the Word, that he may the better profit.69 Hence it is not strange that those who are born in darkness become more and more hardened in their stupidity; because the vast majority instead of confining themselves within due bounds by listening with docility to the Word, exult in their own vanity. If true religion is to beam upon us, our principle must be, that it is necessary to begin with heavenly teaching, and that it is impossible for any man to obtain even the minutest portion of right and sound doctrine without being a disciple of Scripture. Hence, the first step in true knowledge is taken, when we reverently embrace the testimony which God has been pleased therein to give of himself. For not only does faith, full and perfect faith, but all correct knowledge of God, originate in obedience…

For if we reflect how prone the human mind is to lapse into forgetfulness of God, how readily inclined to every kind of error, how bent every now and then on devising new and fictitious religions, it will be easy to understand how necessary it was to make such a depository of doctrine as would secure it from either perishing by the neglect, vanishing away amid the errors, or being corrupted by the presumptuous audacity of men. It being thus manifest that God, foreseeing the inefficiency of his image imprinted on the fair form of the universe, has given the assistance of his Word to all whom he has ever been pleased to instruct effectually, we, too, must pursue this straight path, if we aspire in earnest to a genuine contemplation of God;—we must go, I say, to the Word, where the character of God, drawn from his works is described accurately and to the life; these works being estimated, not by our depraved Judgment, but by the standard of eternal truth. If, as I lately said, we turn aside from it, how great soever the speed with which we move, we shall never reach the goal, because we are off the course.

Institutes 1.6 THE NEED OF SCRIPTURE, AS A GUIDE AND TEACHER, IN COMING TO GOD AS A CREATOR.

Second, the scientific process is not, in any way, general revelation. John Byl explains:

In the traditional evangelical view general revelation consists of God’s self-revelation: the invisible character of God is made known through His works of creation and providence (e.g., Rom. 1:20). Thus general revelation is considered to be quite distinct from nature, which is merely one of the means by which general revelation is mediated…

The term “revelation” carries the connotation that the knowledge which is revealed goes beyond our mere observations of nature. It implies that through the visible workings of nature certain invisible characteristics of nature are made manifest. We must then ask precisely what the contents of such revealed knowledge are and how it may be acquired.

In the case of God’s self-revelation, the step from the visible creation to the invisible God is made largely via the rudimentary knowledge of God that has been naturally implanted in the human mind…

The notion that God has revealed truth in two books, Scripture and nature, has been advocated as a means of reconciling science and Scripture from the beginning of the scientific revolution. And from the beginning it has been abused… Historically, the doctrine of the two books has frequently led to a demise in biblical authority.

General Revelation and Evangelicalism

Finally, general revelation does not consist of trees and ants and stars. General revelation is propositional revelation of God and what He requires of man revealed innately within man. Prior to the fall, it was as readily present in man’s mind as the words you are reading now are in your mind. Starting with this innate knowledge of God, man could look out upon creation and see His creator reflected in it. But he does not start with creation. He starts with God already revealed within his mind.

Natural or general revelation is self-authenticating because it is the revelation of the Creator to the creature made in his image… Romans 1:18-32… asserts that such revelation leaves men without excuse because it actually imparts to them a certain knowledge of God. By it that which is known about God is made evident in them and to them. His eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen and understood by men… Let it be clear what the force of the testimony of Scripture is. It is not that men may know God; nor that they potentially know God and will come to know him if they will use their reason aright. It is not that men by natural revelation have a certain vague notion of some undefined deity. It is rather that men are immediately confronted with a clear and unavoidable revelation of the true and living God.

Samuel Waldron, Exposition of the London Baptist Confession of Faith, p. 38-42

Charles Hodge:

That this opposition is wicked because inexcusable on the plea of ignorance, is proved in this and the following verses. They wickedly oppose the truth, because the knowledge of God is manifest among them. Agreeably to this explanation, this verse is connected with the immediately preceding clause. It may however refer to the general sentiment of Romans 1:18. God will punish the impiety and unrighteousness of men, because he has made himself known to them. The former method is to be preferred as more in accordance with the apostle’s manner and more consistent with the context, inasmuch as he goes on to prove that the impiety of the heathen is inexcusable.

Since that which may be known of God, is manifest in them.
This version is not in accordance with the meaning of γνωστόν which always in the Bible means, what is known, not what may be known. Besides, the English version seems to imply too much; for the apostle does not mean to say that everything that may be known concerning God was revealed to the heathen, but simply that they had such a knowledge of him as rendered their impiety inexcusable. We findγνωστός used the sense of γνωτός, known, Acts 1:19; Acts 2:14; Acts 15:18; γνωστὰ ἀπ ̓ αἰῶνός ἐστι τῷ θεῷ πάντα τὰ ἔργα αὺτοῦ; and often elsewhere. Hence τὸ γνωστόν is = γνῶσις, as in Genesis 2:9, γνωστὸν τοῦ καλοῦ καὶ τοῦ πονηροῦ.

The knowledge of God does not mean simply a knowledge that there is a God, but, as appears from what follows, a knowledge of his nature and attributes, his eternal power and Godhead, Romans 1:20, and his justice, Romans 1:32.

φανερόν ἐστιν ἐν αὐτοῖς, may be rendered, either is manifest among them, or in them. If the former translation be adopted, it is not to be understood as declaring that certain men, the Pythagoreans, Platonists, and Stoics, as Grotius says, had this knowledge; but that it was a common revelation, accessible, manifest to all. In them, however, here more properly means, in their minds. “In ipsorum animis,” says Beza, “quia haec Dei notitia recondita est in intimis mentis penetralibus, ut, velint nolint idololatriae, quoties sese adhibent in consilium, toties a seipsis redarguantur.” It is not of a mere external revelation of which the apostle is speaking, but of that evidence of the being and perfections of God which every man has in the constitution of his own nature, and in virtue of which he is competent to apprehend the manifestations of God in his works. For God hath revealed to them, viz., the knowledge of himself. This knowledge is a revelation; it is the manifestation of God in his works, and in the constitution of our nature. “Quod dicit,” says Calvin, “Deum manifestasse, sensus est, ideo conditum esse hominem, ut spectator sit fabriae mundi; ideo datos ei oculos, ut intuitu tam pulchrae imaginis, ad auctorem ipsum feratur.” God therefore has never left himself without a witness. His existence and perfections have ever been so manifested that his rational creatures are bound to acknowledge and worship him as the true and only God.

This correct understanding of general revelation explains how all men, even if they are not scientists or philosophers engaging in complicated supposed theistic proofs, are inexcusable before God. Infants, those who are blind, and those who are mentally impaired – that is, those whose interaction with nature is hindered – are just as equally inexcusable because their knowledge of God is implanted in their heart at conception. It is not derived from nature.

Gordon Clark sums it up “[O]ne may note that nobody can recognize a flower as God’s handiwork, unless he has a prior knowledge of God. As Calvin said, the knowledge of God is the first knowledge a person has. It is innate; not derived from experience.”

And therefore, no, the unregenerate pagan does not have a “leg up” on the Christian in understanding God’s revelation because that revelation starts in his heart, and because of the fall “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” So we need the spectacles of Scripture, and regeneration to properly use the spectacles, if we are to know anything of God’s revelation.

I recommend John Robbins’ MP3 series Thinking Biblically (Collection 7), particularly Knowledge of God.

Good News for Two Kingdoms!

February 7, 2011 1 comment

I have good news for all you natural law two kingdoms advocates out there, like Darryl Hart: An uncontacted people group has been found in the Amazon!

Why is this good news for Darryl Hart? Well, because Darryl Hart believes very strongly that the Bible should never be used in determining public policy and state laws. It should never even influence people who make those laws. The problem is, it’s really, really difficult to find a society that is completely ignorant of and unaffected by the Bible – in other words, a society who relies only upon general revelation (which Hart says they must).

But now we finally have the solution! All we need to do is send someone into the jungle to observe how this tribe’s government functions, and then implement the same form of government here. That way we will finally be free of the Bible’s influence and we can finally have the type of government God wants us to have!

God the benevolent Scientist

February 2, 2010 6 comments

Modern Two Kingdoms theology has never, ever made sense to me.  In very short summary, the position of Two Kingdom advocates (spearheaded by David VanDrunen) is that there is no such thing as a Christian worldview.  They are emphatic that the Bible is only supposed to be used in the church and that it must not be used in issues of civil government, work, or even family.

The most absurd part is that they argue everything that is not governed by the Bible, which is everything except church, is to be governed my natural law.  It does not matter if you point out to them that natural law is simply the law of God written on the hearts of all men, the same law that has been clarified for us in the Bible.

When I attempted to point this out to a Two Kingdoms advocate recently at Darryl Hart’s blog, they insisted that natural law provides us with all kinds of information necessary to live life.  Because this person was a plumber, his example was plumbing:

Anyway, Christian plumbing is my turf here, your talking to a 4th generation plumber (I worked on the business end mostly though). I would argue that observation and natural revelation and all true domains of human knowledge are inextricably linked. General revelation functions to point to a Creator who sets up a functional cosmos; it also informs us on how the cosmos functions. All cosmic functions necessarily operate within the laws of nature whether they are moral or amoral. Plumbing is entirely dependent on natural revelation/natural law even though it is amoral. Let me explain…

There are many laws of nature that have to me navigated in even the most simple plumbing process such as soldering copper pipe which has taken mankind a few thousand years to master. It takes a understanding of the metallurgical properties of copper that make it desirable as a potable water delivery system: copper is malleable and resistant to corrosion and relatively abundant and easy to extract (which makes it inexpensive in relation to other non corrosive metals). Soldering itself requires an understanding of welding, which in this case requires the binding of two different metals to form a seal sufficiently tight so as to be impenetrable by water molecules, which again is governed by fundamental laws of chemistry. I could go on to explain how hydro-mechanical principles govern waterflow, but I won’t bore you with more details. I am sure though that nearly every vocational discipline, including the justice system interact so much with natural law that it would be staggering to draw out the processes in entirety.

When I pointed out that the “law” of gravity is something completely different than the law of God, and advised not to confuse the two, I received the following reply:

We must be using different dictionaries. I am really not sure how you can maintain that functionally physical laws and moral laws operate on different planes. They can be violated, but there are consequences. Yes, I do agree that natural law includes the moral code written on the human heart, but that is simply because these exist in a larger cosmic system where God created a good universe that worked just as he designed it to. It is precisely because of this that governments operate off of general revelation even if imperfectly and/or unknowingly. Why else would we have similarities in Hammurabi and Moses, Roman law and American law. Discontinuities are a given, but the commonality of law, and prevasively political nature of human history even in the absence of special revelation testifies to the sufficiency of natural law in the political arena.

I’m not making this stuff up. I suggested we go ahead and look at the dictionary, naively thinking it would help clarify things with this man:

law: 1a: a rule or order that it is advisable or obligatory to observe
synonyms law, rule, regulation, precept, statute, ordinance, canon mean a principle governing action or procedure. law implies imposition by a sovereign authority and the obligation of obedience on the part of all subject to that authority

Precept: 1 : a command or principle intended especially as a general rule of action
2 : an order issued by legally constituted authority to a subordinate official

That is what law means when we talk about the law of God and natural law. Way down in definition 6 is a different definition for things like the “law” of gravity:

6 a : a statement of an order or relation of phenomena that so far as is known is invariable under the given conditions

synonyms: see in addition hypothesis

God’s law is not God’s law because God saw what would naturally occur if we committed adultery and he wanted to protect us from those natural consequences. It is God’s law because He sovereignly imposed it on those bearing His image as a rule for what ought and ought not to be done.

Furthermore, are you suggesting that the “law” of gravity is just a statement of what ought to be done? Are you suggesting that we should all obey the law of gravity, meaning we should not violate it by floating around? I didn’t think so.

In sum:
one definition is prescriptive, the other is descriptive.

The response?

The prescriptive nature of moral law is something that I believe flows from the descriptive nature of natural law…

…The prescriptive command: “Don’t jump off of a cliff” presupposes (the is) gravity. Assuming a person values his life, the moral implication of the isness of gravity is that one ought not act out in a way where gravity becomes a life-threatening reality. I would argue that the Decalogue extrapolates its prescriptions from the ises of God’s character and from the world he creates.

How else can the psalmist claim that the heavens tell of the glory of God if there is no revelatory value in nature itself that cannot be extracted from even cursory observation?

So the Decalogue is really just a hypothesis about nature. Maybe God should have submitted it to a peer review journal?

See related: Karl Popper and the Emperor’s Clothes

Pink and NCT

January 30, 2010 22 comments

In my last post, I mentioned how properly understanding the Mosaic covenant will help to resolve a number of current debates.  I think Pink has done a great job of articulating some crucial, and almost completely disregarded points about the Mosaic covenant and in this post I will be applying his thoughts to the issue of New Covenant Theology.  If you are unfamiliar with NCT, it is very briefly summed up in the belief that only the New Testament is normative today.  They are sympathetic to dispensationalism and covenant theology, but depart from both.  The crux of the disagreement between NCT and Covenantal Baptists has to do with the law of God.

Law of Christ

NCT argues that Christ abolished the 10 commandments and replaced them with “the law of Christ” (which happens to be 9 of the 10 commandments). They argue that the 10 commandments were only for Israel and they were only concerned with outward obedience. Christ’s law is more spiritual and is concerned with the inward. Therefore, we should only obey the commands that are explicitly commanded in the NT.

Problems with Reformed Baptist Responses

While there are a number of problems with NCT (imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the law written on the hearts of all men, Matt 5, Rom 7:22, knowledge of the inward, spiritual law in the OT, distinction between Decalogue and rest of the laws of Moses from the beginning, etc, etc), I do not feel that Covenantal Baptists have done the best possible job in refuting NCT.  Many of them have done a tremendous job of showing the new covenant spiritual understanding of the Decalogue, but in my opinion, they have not done a tremendous job of showing the Mosaic understanding of the Decalogue.  I feel that too many Covenantal Baptists are content to rest on the shoulders of paedobaptist covenant theologians and allow them to do the heavy lifting.  I do not think this is good for the baptist cause, or for critiquing NCT.

The paedobaptist understanding of the Mosaic covenant is completely at odds with the baptist understanding of the Mosaic covenant.  While the WCF sees the Mosaic covenant as simply an administration of the covenant of grace, the (most likely) editors of the LBC denied the Mosaic covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace and instead believed it was an entirely separate covenant. They agreed with John Owen:

This covenant [Sinai] thus made, with these ends and promises, did never save nor condemn any man eternally. All that lived under the administration of it did attain eternal life, or perished for ever, but not by virtue of this covenant as formally such. It did, indeed, revive the commanding power and sanction of the first covenant of works; and therein, as the apostle speaks, was ?the ministry of condemnation,? 2 Cor. iii. 9; for ?by the deeds of the law can no flesh be justified.? And on the other hand, it directed also unto the promise, which was the instrument of life and salvation unto all that did believe. But as unto what it had of its own, it was confined unto things temporal. Believers were saved under it, but not by virtue of it. Sinners perished eternally under it, but by the curse of the original law of works.

Owen, Works, 22:85-86. (Commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13)

(Richard Barcellos does an excellent job of explaining Owen’s view and refuting the NCT claim to Owen http://www.rbtr.org/RBTR I.2 John Owen and NCT.htm )

That the Mosaic covenant was not part of the CoG, and that it was “confined unto things temporal” is essential to understand. It was a covenant of works (mixed with some ceremonial grace), the reward of which was healthy living in the promised land, the curse of which was war, plague, and exile.

Outward Obedience

One of the important contributions that Pink makes (Owen rejects it, or at least a Roman Catholic version of it), is that not only did the Decalogue in the Mosaic covenant serve a different end, the required obedience to it was also different. As part of their national covenant of works, God required an outward obedience to the letter of the Decalogue.

Here, finally, is how A. W. Pink expressed it (I apologize for the length, but it’s worth it):

“The national covenant with Israel was here (Ex. 19:5) meant; the charter upon which they were incorporated, as a people, under the government of Jehovah. It was an engagement of God, to give Israel possession of Canaan, and to protect them in it: to render the land fruitful, and the nation victorious and prosperous, and to perpetuate His oracles and ordinances among them; so long as they did not, as a people, reject His authority, apostatize to idolatry, and tolerate open wickedness. These things constitute a forfeiture of the covenant; as their national rejection of Christ did afterwards. True believers among them were personally dealt with according to the Covenant of Grace, even as true Christians now are; and unbelievers were under the Covenant of Works, and liable to condemnation by it, as at present: yet, the national covenant was not strictly either the one or the other, but had something in it of the nature of each.

“The national covenant did not refer to the final salvation of individuals: nor was it broken by the disobedience, or even idolatry, of any number of them, provided this was not sanctioned or tolerated by public authority. It was indeed a type of the covenant made with true believers in Christ Jesus, as were all the transactions with Israel; but, like other types, it ‘had not the very image,’ but only ‘a shadow of good things to come.’ When, therefore, as a nation, they had broken this covenant, the Lord declared that He would make ‘a new covenant with Israel, putting His law,’ not only in their hands, but ‘in their inward parts’; and ‘writing it,’ not upon tables of stone, ‘but in their hearts; forgiving their iniquity and remembering their sin no more’ (Jer. 31:32-34; Heb. 8:7-12; 10:16, 17). The Israelites were under a dispensation of mercy, and had outward privileges and great advantages in various ways for salvation: yet, like professing Christians, the most of them rested in these, and looked no further. The outward covenant was made with the Nation, entitling them to outward advantages, upon the condition of outward national obedience; and the covenant of Grace was ratified personally with true believers, and sealed and secured spiritual blessings to them, by producing a holy disposition of heart, and spiritual obedience to the Divine law. In case Israel kept the covenant, the Lord promised that they should be to Him ‘a peculiar treasure.’ ‘All the earth’ (Ex. 19:5) being the Lord’s, He might have chosen any other people instead of Israel: and this implied that, as His choice of them was gratuitous, so if they rejected His covenant, He would reject them, and communicate their privileges to others; as indeed He hath done, since the introduction of the Christian dispensation” (Thomas Scott).

The above quotation contains the most lucid, comprehensive, and yet simple analysis of the Sinaitic covenant which we have met with in all our reading. It draws a clear line of distinction between God’s dealings with Israel as a nation, and with individuals in it. It shows the correct position of the everlasting covenant of grace and the Adamic covenant of works in relation to the Mosaic dispensation. All were born under the condemnation of their federal head (Adam), and while they continued unregenerate and in unbelief, were under the wrath of God; whereas God’s elect, upon believing, were treated by Him then, as individuals, in precisely the same way as they are now. Scott brings out clearly the character, the scope, the design, and the limitation of the Sinaitic covenant: its character was a supplementary combination of law and mercy; its scope was national; its design was to regulate the temporal affairs of Israel under the divine government; its limitation was determined by Israel’s obedience or disobedience. The typical nature of it—the hardest point to elucidate—is also allowed. We advise the interested student to reread the last four paragraphs.

Much confusion will be avoided and much help obtained if the Sinaitic economy be contemplated separately under its two leading aspects, namely, as a system of religion and government designed for the immediate use of the Jews during the continuance of that dispensation; and then as a scheme of preparation for another and better economy, by which it was to be superseded when its temporal purpose had been fulfilled. The first design and the immediate end of what God revealed through Moses was to instruct and order the life of Israel, now formed into a nation. The second and ultimate intention of God was to prepare the people, by a lengthy course of discipline, for the coming of Christ. The character of the Sinaitic covenant was, in itself, neither purely evangelical nor exclusively legal: divine wisdom devised a wondrous and blessed comingling of righteousness and grace, justice and mercy. The requirements of the high and unchanging holiness of God were clearly revealed; while His goodness, kindness, and long-suffering were also as definitely manifested. The moral and the ceremonial law, running together side by side, presented and maintained a perfect balance, which only the corruption of fallen human nature failed to reap the full advantage of.

The covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai required outward obedience to the letter of the law. It contained promises of national blessing if they, as a people, kept the law; and it also announced national calamities if they were disobedient. This is unmistakably clear from such a passage as the following: “Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers: And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee: he will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep, in the land which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee. Thou shalt be blessed above all people: there shall not be male or female barren among you, or among your cattle. And the Lord will take away from thee all sickness, and will put none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which thou knowest, upon thee; but will lay them upon all them that hate thee. And thou shalt consume all the people which the Lord thy God shall deliver thee” (Deut. 7:12-16).

In connection with the above passage notice, first, the definite reference made to God’s “mercy,” which proves that He did not deal with Israel on the bare ground of exacting and relentless law, as some have erroneously supposed. Second, observe the reference which the Lord here made unto His oath to their fathers, that is Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; which shows that the Sinaitic covenant was based upon, and not divorced from, the Abrahamic—Israel’s occupation of Canaan being the “letter” fulfillment of it. Third, if, as a nation, Israel rendered unto their God the obedience to which He was entitled as their King and Governor, then He would love and bless them—under the Christian economy there is no promise that He will love and bless any who live in defiance of His claims upon them! Fourth, the specific blessings here enumerated were all of a temporal and material kind. In other passages God threatened to bring upon them plagues and judgments (Deut. 28:15-65) for disobedience. The whole was a compact promising to Israel certain outward and national blessings on the condition of their rendering to God a general outward obedience to His law.

The tenor of the covenant made with them was, “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine, and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5, 6). “Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him. But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries” (Ex. 23:20-22). Nevertheless, a provision of mercy was made where true repentance for failure was evidenced: “If they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, with their trespass which they trespassed against me, and that also they have walked contrary unto me; and that I also have walked contrary unto them, and have brought them into the land of their enemies: if then their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity: Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham. . . . These are the statutes and judgments and laws which the Lord made between him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses” (Lev. 26:40-42, 46).

The Sinaitic covenant in no way interfered with the divine administration of either the everlasting covenant of grace (toward the elect) nor the Adamic covenant of works (which all by nature lie under); it being in quite another region. Whether the individual Israelites were heirs of blessing under the former, or under the curse of the latter, in no wise hindered or affected Israel’s being as a people under this national regime, which respected not inward and eternal blessings, but only outward and temporal interests. Nor did God in entering into this arrangement with Israel mock their impotency or tantalize them with vain hopes, any more than He does so now, when it still holds good that “righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to nations” (Prov. 14:34). Though it be true that Israel miserably failed to keep their national engagements and brought down upon themselves the penalties which God had threatened, nevertheless, the obedience which He required of them was not obviously and hopelessly impracticable: nay, there were bright periods in their history when it was fairly rendered, and the fruits of it were manifestly enjoyed by them.

The Sinaitic covenant, then, was a compact promising to Israel as a people certain material and national blessings on the condition of their rendering to God a general obedience to His laws. But at this point it may be objected that God, who is infinitely holy and whose prerogative it is to search the heart, could never be satisfied with an outward and general obedience, which in the case of many would be hollow and insincere. The objection is pertinent and presents a real difficulty: how can we meet it? Very simply: this would be true of individuals as such, but not necessarily so where nations are concerned. And why not, it may be asked? For this reason: because nations as such have only a temporary existence; therefore they must be rewarded or punished in this present world, or not at all! This being so, the kind of obedience required from them is lower than from individuals, whose rewards and punishments shall be eternal.

But again it may be objected, Did not the Lord declare, “I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God” (Ex. 6:7)? Is there not something far more spiritual implied there than a national covenant, something in its terms which could not be exhausted by merely outward and temporal blessings? Once more we must insist upon drawing a broad line between what pertains to individuals and what is applicable to nations. This objection would be quite valid if that promise described the relation of God to the individual soul, but the case is quite different when we remember the relation in which God stands to a nation as such! To ascertain the exact purport and scope of the divine promises to Israel as a people we must take note of the actual engagements which we find He entered into with them as a nation. This is quite obvious, yet few theologians have followed it out consistently when dealing with what is now before us.

Running parallel with God’s suffering all nations (the Gentiles) to walk in their own ways, was another experiment (speaking from the human side of things, for from the divine side “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world”: Acts 15:18), conducted on a smaller scale, yet quite as decisive in its outcome. The Jews were placed under a covenant of law to supply an answer to this further question, “Can fallen man, when placed in most favorable circumstances, win eternal life by any doings of his own? Can he, even when separated from the heathen, taken into outward covenant with God, supplied with a complete divine code for the regulation of his conduct, conquer indwelling sin and act so as to secure his acceptance with the thrice holy God?” The answer furnished by the history of Israel is an emphatic negative. The lesson supplied thereby for all succeeding generations of the human race is written in unmistakable language: If Israel failed under the national covenant of outward and general obedience, how impossible it is for any member of Adam’s depraved offspring to render spiritual and perfect obedience!

In the spirit of it, the Sinaitic covenant contained the same moral law as the law of nature under which Adam was created and placed in Eden—the tenth commandment giving warning that something more than outward things were required by God. Yet only those who were divinely illumined could perceive this—it was not until the Holy Spirit applied that tenth commandment in power to the conscience of Saul of Tarsus that he first realized that he was an inward transgressor of the law (Rom. 7:7, etc.). The great bulk of the nation, blinded by their self-sufficiency and self-righteousness, turned the Sinaitic compact into the covenant of works, elevating the handmaid into the position of the married wife—as Abraham did with Hagar. Galatians 4 reveals that, while the Sinaitic covenant was regarded as subservient to the covenant of grace, it served important practical ends; but when Israel perversely elevated it to the place which the better covenant was designed to hold, it became a hindrance and the fruitful mother of bondage.

http://www.pbministries.org/books/pink/Divine_Covenants/divine_covenants_05.htm

The Decalogue written in stone contained the most extreme outward violations of the law of God, which is a spiritual law written on the hearts of all men from the beginning of creation.  As a national covenant, Israelites were required to refrain from these most extreme outward violations of the Decalogue.

Israelites and Image Bearers

However, it’s important to understand that Israelites, under a national covenant with God, were also still descendants of Adam. Thus God did not only relate to them as Israelites, but also as image bearers. As such, they were all by birth under the Adamic Covenant. As Israelites, their required obedience to the Decalogue was outward. But as image bearers, their required obedience was inward. One obedience determined their temporal blessing and cursing as part of the Mosaic covenant, the other obedience determined their eternal blessing or cursing as part of the Adamic Covenant.

This best fits Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 5.  There Jesus contrasts not just the outward and inward obedience to the law, but also the temporal and eternal cursings of the law.  “Liable to judgment” at the hands of the courts of Israel, vs “liable to the hell of fire.” This also makes the best sense of 5:38-42. The contrast here is between a legitimate use of the law by a national ruler and the illegitimate application of that law to the individual.

Christ came to fulfill, not abolish, the law as an individual. And yet He also corrected and seemed to have changed that law for individuals. Properly understanding the Mosaic covenant helps us to clearly see that Jesus was correcting their misunderstanding of both the Mosaic covenant and the Adamic covenant.

A proper understanding of the Mosaic covenant, as Jesus shows, is crucial!

Abraham Booth

Writing “The Kingdom of Christ” in 1788 against the idea of National Churches, Abraham Booth notes:

Now, as the immunities, grants, and honours, bestowed by the King Messiah, are all of a spiritual nature, his faithful subjects have no reason to wonder, or to be discouraged, at any persecutions, afflictions, or poverty which may befall them. Were his empire “of this world” then indeed it might be expected, from the goodness of his heart and the power of his arm, that those who are submissive to his authority, zealous for his honour, and eon- formed to his image, would commonly find themselves easy and prosperous in their temporal circumstances. Yes, were his dominion of a secular kind, it might be supposed that an habitually conscientious regard to his laws would secure from the oppression of ungodly men, and from the distresses of temporal want. Thus it was with Israel under their Theocracy. When the rulers and the people in general were punctual in observing Jehovah’s appointments, the stipulations of the Sinai Covenant secured them from being op pressed by their enemies, and from any re markable affliction by the immediate hand of God. Performing the conditions of their National Confederation, they were, as a people, warranted to expect every species of temporal prosperity. Health and long life, riches, honours, and victory over their enemies, were prom ised by Jehovah to their external obedience. (Ex 25:25,26; 28:25-28; Lev 26:3-14; Deut 7:12-24; 8:7-9; 11:13-17; 28:3-13) The punishments also, that were denounced against flagrant breaches of the Covenant made at Horeb, were of a temporal kind.*

In this respect, however, as well as in other tilings, there is a vast difference between the Jewish and the Christian Economy. This disparity was plainly in timated, if I mistake not, by the opposite modes of divine proceeding, in establishing Jehovah’s kingdom among the Jews, and in founding the empire of Jesus Christ.

*Lev. xxvi. 14—39. Deut. iv. 25, 26, 27* xi. 9.7. xxviii. 15— 68. xxix. 22— 28, See Dr. Erskine’s Theological Dissert. p. 22– 29. External obedience. — Punishments of a temporal kind. These and similar expressions in this essay are to be underwood, as referring to the Sinai Covenant strictly considered, and to Jehovah’s requisitions as the king of Israel. They are quite consistent, therefore, with its being the duly of Abraham’s natural seed to perform internal obedience to that sublime Sovereign, considered as the God of the whole earth; and with everlasting punishment being inflicted by him, as the righteous desert of sin.

p. 98

Note specifically Booth’s reference to Dr. Erskine’s Theological Dissertation “External obedience”. That is precisely the paper that New Covenant Theology (I think maybe John Reisinger) has referenced to demonstrate there was an external obedience even for the 10th commandment.