August 24, 2005

Decretalizing the Preceptive Will?

As many of you know by now, I frequently address what I consider to be a decretal sickness among so called "Calvinists." I don't have a problem with God's efficacious decree, or with the way the bible talks about it. However, many Calvinists are so focused on the decretive will of God that other doctrines get eclipsed. Everything is filtered through a decretal grid. They may even try to derive our duty from God's secret will, rather than from revealed commands.

Many doctrines can be decretalized, whether it's the issue of common grace (they remove any loving intentionality of God behind the gifts--it virtually becomes common hate), the offer of the gospel (they remove the "well-meant" aspect out of the doctrine--it virtually amounts to ill-meant offers), or the sufficiency of Christ's death (it's really not sufficient for all, but could have been hypothetically 'if God had so intended'--it's virtually limited sufficiency). All of these doctrines are made to collapse into the decree.

What's astonishing is that the preceptive will can also collapse into the decree. There is a sense in which some "Calvinists" decretalize the preceptive will.

Here's an excerpt from an online discussion that I think illustrates the point. As you read it, examine yourself to see if you are suffering from decretalism.

VV said:
But I would say all men are obligated to obey God, but God does not desire all to obey. i.e. Pharaoh and other vessels of wrath Rom 9:17-22. Now if you wish make man's obligation do [sic] obey God's desire than [sic] fair enough, I don't have a problem with that.

My reply:

I find the above statements contradictory. One the one hand you are saying that God does not desire some to obey what he has commanded, then on the other hand you say you don't have a problem with what I am saying, i.e. that God desires compliance to his commandments whenever he commands.

Paul is NOT teaching in Romans 9 that God does not want the vessels of wrath to obey. It's referring to the fact that God has a decree which will certainly come to pass in their case, and they are responsible before him. Wrath against them presupposes responsibility and culpability.

It's absurd to draw the conclusion that God didn't want Pharoah to obey. This would make God's commandment to him, "Let my people go," a hypocritical command, i.e. he wouldn't really have a desire that Pharoah comply with that command. It's just the case that God's motive for his decree is stronger than his preceptive motive in that case. Paul is expounding God's decretive will in that matter in Romans 9, but not to the exclusion and eclipsing of the distinct preceptive motive. Dabney is trying to capture this idea:

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.

Again, Dabney says:

“Every deliberate rational volition is regulated by the agent's dominant subjective disposition, and prompted by his own subjective motive. But that motive is a complex, not a simple modification of spirit. The simplest motive of man's rational volition is a complex of two elements: a desire or propension of some subjective optative power, and a judgment of the intelligence as to the true and preferable. The motive of a single decision may be far more complex than this, involving many intellectual considerations of prudence, or righteous policy, and several distinct and even competing propensions of the optative powers. The resultant volition arises out of a deliberation, in which the prevalent judgment and appetency counterpoise the inferior ones.”

VV said:
Is it not better to speak of the one will of God seen in different senses?

VV said:
But again my original question:
Is not better to speak of the one will of God that is seen in different senses, thats all, nothing more.

My reply:

I don't necessarily have a problem with that way of putting it, but it can be ambiguous and potentially misleading. Some might say the above when they see the preceptive will as merely a means by which God's real will, the decretive, comes to pass. In other words, the preceptive will is not really a distinct motive and active principle in the opinion of some. It's just a way of labeling God's commands which are means to his end, and the end reflects the only real will. They are still working with the assumption that God's real will is the decretive, and the issuance of commands are merely secondary causes by which God's real will comes to pass. This is an error, and a subtle one that is not frequently detected.

Some High and Hyper-Calvinists will admit a two-fold sense in which "will" is used biblically, but the preceptive actually collapses into the decretive in their view, hence the vagueness and ambiguity in the expression "one will of God seen in different senses." One has to ask the person, "What do you mean by saying that?" It will differ from person to person.

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