July 26, 2005

R. L. Dabney (1820–1898) and Other Theologians on Volitional Complexity in God

R. L. Dabney was a brilliant theologian. He is particularly outstanding when it comes to grasping a sense of complexity in God's motives. He brings a sense of coherence to biblical passages that speak of God's will in different senses. Some Reformed and Calvinistic theologians tend to downplay God's preceptive will as if it is not an "active principle." It's as if it is not really expressing a desire or will in God. It's absolutely vital that we understand and adhere to the biblical teaching on this matter. It will also help us to begin to understand the problem of evil and suffering in the world. As Paul Helm said in the book The Providence of God:
The need to distinguish two (or more) wills in God is not simply a consequence of the idea that all events are directly under the providential guidance of God. Rather, any understanding of the relationship between divine activity and human activity which allows that God either wills or permits every action, which recognizes that there are in fact morally evil actions, and which defines some at least of such actions in terms of a breach of a divine command, must employ a distinction between the will of God as command, and the will of God in some other sense.
It is just because it is possible to conceive of two ‘wills’ in God that the problem of evil arises; the contrast is the familiar one between the omnipotence and the all-goodness of God.
Paul Helm, The Providence of God. Contours of Christian Theology, ed. G. Bray (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1994), 132–33.

Open Theism makes the same mistakes that Hyper-Calvinists make (they are polar opposites but similar in rationalism). They fail to properly understand complex motives in God because it does not "make sense" to them. Their systems won't allow it, therefore it can't be true. It is as J. C. Ryle said, "I have long come to the conclusion that men may be more systematic in their statements than the Bible, and may be led into grave error by idolatrous veneration of a system." One of those grave errors is misunderstanding God's will as expressed in scripture. The following are quotes that I have found to be helpful.

Here is R. L. Dabney on God's will:
4. God’s Volitions Arise out of a Complex of Motive.

The manner in which a volition which dates from eternity, subsists in the Infinite mind, is doubtless, in many respects, inscrutable to us. But since God has told us that we are made in His image, we may safely follow the Scriptural representations, which describe God’s volitions as having their rational relation to subjective motive; somewhat as in man, when he wills aright. For, a motiveless volition cannot but appear to us as devoid both of character and of wisdom. We add, that while God "has no parts nor passions," He has told us that He has active principles, which, while free from all agitation, ebb and flow, and mutation, are related in their superior measure to man’s rational affections. These active principles in God, or passionless affections, are all absolutely holy and good. Last: God’s will is also regulated by infinite wisdom. Now, in man, every rational volition is prompted by a motive, which is in every case, complex to this degree, at least that it involves some active appetency of the will and some prevalent judgement of the intelligence. And every wise volition is the result of virtual or formal deliberation, in which one element of motive is weighed in relation to another, and the elements which appear superior in the judgement of the intelligence, preponderate and regulate the volition. Hence, the wise man’s volition is often far from being the expression of every conception and affection present in his consciousness at the time; but it is often reached by holding one of these elements of possible motive in check, at the dictate of a more controlling one.

For instance a philanthropic man meets a distressed and destitute person. The good man is distinctly conscious in himself of a movement of sympathy tending towards a volition to give the sufferer money. But he remembers that he has expressly promised all the money now in his possession, to be paid this very day to a just creditor. The good man bethinks himself, that he "ought to be just before he is generous," and conscience and wisdom counterpoise the impulse of sympathy; so that it does not form the deliberate volition to give alms. But the sympathy exists, and it is not inconsistent to give other expression to it.

We must not ascribe to that God whose omniscience is, from eternity, one infinite, all-embracing intuition, and whose volition is as eternal as His being, any expenditure of time in any process of deliberation, nor any temporary hesitancy or uncertainty, nor any agitating struggle of feeling against feeling. But there must be a residuum of meaning in the Scripture representations of His affections, after we have guarded ourselves duly against the anthropopathic forms of their expression. Hence, we ought to believe, that in some ineffable way, God’s volitions, seeing they are supremely wise, and profound, and right, do have that relation to all His subjective motives, digested by wisdom and holiness into the consistent combination, the finite counterpart of which constitutes the rightness and wisdom of human volitions. I claim, while excersing the diffidence proper to so sacred a matter, that this conclusion bears us out at least so far: That, as in a wise man, so much more in a wise God, His volition or express purpose is the result of a digest, not of one, but of all the principles and considerations bearing on the case. Hence it follows, that there may be in God an active principle felt by him, and yet not expressed in His executive volition in a given case, because counterpoised by other elements of motive, which His holy omniscience judges ought to be prevalent.

Now, I urge the practical question: Why may not God consistently give some other expression to this active principle, really and sincerely felt towards the object, though his sovereign wisdom judges it not proper to express it in volition? To return to the instance from which we set out: I assert that it is entirely natural and reasonable for the benevolent man to say to the destitute person: "I am sorry for you, though I give you no alms." The ready objection will be: "that my parallel does not hold, because the kind man is not omnipotent, while God is. God could not consistently speak thus, while withholding alms, because he could create the additional money at will." This is more ready than solid. It assumes that God's omniscience cannot see any ground, save the lack of physical ability or power, why it may not be best to refrain from creating additional money. Let the student search and see; he will find that this preposterous and presumptuous assumption is the implied premise of the objection. In fact, my parallel is a fair one in the main point. This benevolent man is not prevented from giving the alms, by any physical compulsion. If he diverts a part of the money in hand from the creditor, to the destitute man, the creditor will visit no penalty on him. He simply feels bound by his conscience. That is, the superior principles of reason and morality are regulative of his action, counterpoising the amiable but less imperative principle of sympathy, in the case. Yet the verbal expression of sympathy in this case may be natural, sincere, and proper. God is not restrained by lack of physical omnipotence from creating on the spot the additional money for the alms; but He may be actually restrained by some consideration known to His omniscience, which shows that it is not on the whole best to resort to the expedient of creating the money for the alms, and that rational consideration may be just as decisive in an all-wise mind, and properly as decisive, as a conscious impotency to create money in a man’s.
R. L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 529–531.

God is not at odds with himself anymore than a judge who shows volitional complexity. As the Reformed theologian Charles Hodge said:
A judge may will the happiness of a man whom he sentences to death. He may will him not to suffer when he wills him to suffer. The infelicity in such forms of expression is that the word "will" is used in different senses. In one part of the sentence it means desire, and in the other purpose. It is perfectly consistent, therefore, that God, as a benevolent Being, should desire the happiness of all men, while he purposes to save only his own people.
Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 1:405.

Dabney, in God's Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy, explains further in his illustration concerning George Washington:
A human ruler may have full power and authority over the punishment of a culprit, may declare consistently his sincere compassion for him, and may yet freely elect to destroy him. A concrete case will make the point more distinct. Chief-Justice Marshall, in his Life of Washington (Vol. 4., Chap. 6.), says with reference to the death-warrant of the rash and unfortunate Major André "Perhaps on no occasion of his life did the commander-in-chief (Washington) obey with more reluctance the stern mandates of duty and of policy." In this historical instance we have these facts: Washington had plenary power to kill or to save alive. His compassion for the criminal was real and profound. Yet he signed his death-warrant with spontaneous decision....Let us suppose that one of André's intercessors (and he had them, even among the Americans) standing by, and hearing the commanding general say, as he took up the pen to sign the fatal paper, "I do this with the deepest reluctance and pity," should have retorted, "Since you are supreme in this matter, and have full bodily ability to throw down that pen, we shall know by your signing this warrant that your pity is hypocritical." The petulance of this charge would have been equal to its folly. The pity was real; but was restrained by superior elements of motive. Washington had official and bodily power to discharge the criminal; but he had not the sanction of his own wisdom and justice. Thus his pity was genuine, and yet his volition not to indulge it free and sovereign.
R. L. Dabney, “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” in Discussions: Theological and Evangelical, ed. C. R. Vaughn (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1890), 1:284–286.

God is not at odds with himself anymore than one who postpones his desire for an ice cream cone because of some greater motive. As John Frame said:
Someone might desire an ice-cream cone and have easy access to one, but voluntarily postpone fulfilling that desire until finishing a piece of work. He might value finishing the job more than eating the ice-cream cone, or perhaps not. Maybe he actually values the ice cream more, but believes he will get more enjoyment from it after the job is done. So, our decision-making process is often complicated. The relationships between our many desires, and between the various means of achieving them, are complex.

No comments: