September 25, 2006

John Howe (1630–1705) on God’s Revealed Will (Voluntas Beneplaciti, et Signi)

What’s significant about the following quote is that John Howe is saying that some theologians, who distinguish between the will of God’s good pleasure (voluntas beneplaciti) and will of sign (voluntas signi), do not think of the will of sign (or God’s revealed will) as a "will" (voluntas) at all. In effect, they think the only real will is God’s secret will (voluntas beneplaciti). They basically make a distinction without a difference in their system. Some think of God’s command as not indicating a desire or will in God for compliance, but that God only willed the command (or sign) itself. As one modern hyper-Calvinist put it, “It would be conducive to clarity if the term will were not applied to the precepts. Call the requirements of morality commands, precepts, or laws; and reserve the term will for the divine decree. These are two different things, and what looks like an opposition between them is not a self-contradiction” (Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation [Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, 1995], 222–223). Clark is doing what Vos describes (and tries to correct): "Some have denied that the existing [or the preceptive] will has the character of a will, and they wish to degrade it to merely a prescription. One must observe, however, that in God’s prescriptions His holy nature speaks and that in fact they are founded upon a strong desire in God" (Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics: Theology Proper, ed. R. B. Gaffin [Grand Rapids: Lexham Press, 2012–2014], 1:23). Howe also tried to correct this problem long again, and said that such conceptions of God’s will are not adequate to address the “ignominious slander which” men of “profane and atheistical dispositions would fasten upon God.”
I must here profess my dislike of the terms of that common distinction, the voluntas beneplaciti, et signi, in this present case. Under which, such as coined, and those that have much used it, have only rather, I doubt not, concealed a good meaning, than expressed by it an ill one. It seems, I confess, by its more obvious aspect, too much to countenance the ignominious slander which profane and atheistical dispositions would fasten upon God, and the course of his procedure towards men; and which it is the design of these papers to evince of as much absurdity and folly, as it is guilty of impiety and wickedness: as though he only intended to seem willing of what he really was not; that there was an appearance to which nothing did subesse. And then why is the latter called voluntas? Unless the meaning be, he did only will the sign; which is false and impious:—and if it were true, did he not will it with the will of good pleasure? And then the members of the distinction are confounded. Or, as if the evil actions of men were, more truly, the objects of his good pleasure, than their forbearance of them. And of these faults the application of the distinction of God’s secret will, and revealed, unto this case, though it be useful in many, is as guilty.
John Howe, “The Reconcilableness of God’s Prescience of the Sins of Men, with the Wisdom and Sincerity of His Counsels, Exhortations, and Whatsoever Means He Uses to Prevent Them,” in The Works of John Howe, 3 vols. (1848; repr. Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1990), 2:502.


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