September 27, 2006

Restoring the Revealed Will

For those who may not realize it yet, my blog is frequently devoted to an attempt to revive the revealed will of God among Calvinists. I am not seeking to subtract or minimize what is true of God's special or decretal will (as some of them suspect), but only to underline certain biblical, historical and systematic teachings that I hope will restore a clearer vision of God's revealed will. I believe that the revealed will, and truth that pertains to it, has been eclipsed by a strong interest in God's decrees. This emphasis on and interest in God's special decrees is understandable, given the rampant free will theologies prevalent in our autonomous culture(s). Also, since God has told us some things about his decrees in scripture, believers find tremendous comfort in the fact that God is indeed almighty, and he will certainly bring his special purposes and promises to pass. All historic Calvinists rejoice in God's glorious sovereignty.

However, we should not favor some truth as the expense of others. For this reason, I am seeking to get fellow "Calvinists" to climb from point 1 to point 5 below:

1) The bible distinguishes between a decretal (sometimes called secret) and preceptive (sometimes called revealed) will in God.
2) God commands all that hear the gospel call to believe in Christ and repent.
3) This preceptive will reveals an ardent and sincere desire in God that men believe (or comply with the command).
4) This shows that God wills the salvation of all (I don't mean equally), for repentance is salvation.
5) God wills the salvation of all by a righteous and completely sufficient means, i.e. on the basis or ground of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. So, there is a sense in which Christ can be said to have died for the salvation of all.

Some get stuck at point 1 (not really thinking of the latter as a "will"), while others are fine up until point 3. Many of them choke on points 4 and 5 (especially what I am saying about point 5), see the logic, and then revert back to problems that pertain to point 3 (and 1 by implication).

These are my 5 points for restoring God's revealed will. Once they are completely and coherently adopted, the ripple effect for the rest of one's systematic and biblical theology is quite profound. I believe that the above 5 truths (viewed in conjunction with truths that pertain to God's sovereign decrees) will produce a warm and truly evangelistic Calvinism so necessary for our day.

If you ever wonder where I am at in my daily theological meditations, I am at Golgatha, contemplating what the Godman was doing on the cross, and reflecting on how it should impact all of my thinking and behavior. The Apostle Paul was frequently there himself.

NKJ 1 Corinthians 2:2 For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.


David Ponter said...

Hey Tony,

I think the problem really started when the will of God began to be distinguished as will of decree and will of sign. I think Howe is right. The focus becomes the decree is now actual, but the will of sign is just: a sign. Signs are just markers to something. The virtual becomes actual and the actual becomes virtual.

In Calvin, the language is secret and revealed. For him, the secret is mystery, clouded. Its not the proper base by which we categorise God's redemptive dealings. The revealed is our rule, it is the proper foundation upon which we from which we operate. In his mind then, its becomes not about "grading" Scripture, seeing some parts as less than real, others as truly substantial (ie decretal-actual).

Calvin then didnt have to say stuff like: well God really wills only the salvation of the elect, so when it says here Christ willed the salvation of certain reprobates, he did so merely and only as a man with human emotions.

To Calvin, while his theological and exegetical field of vision, so to speak, was layered, he resisted (tho not always successfully) the pull to reduce certain parts were to a bare phenomonology like some of his followers did.


Tony Byrne said...

Hi David,

I don't think the problem is necessarily one of terminology, but one of conception. I think the problem goes back to the days of Augustine, who seemed to indicate that God cannot will something that is inefficacious. I don't think Howe is complaining about the terminology (will of good pleasure and will of sign), but the systematic assumptions behind those labels. God's commands are certainly signs or pointers to what he wills for us to do, which, of course, is grounded in his own holiness. Merely calling his commands a "sign" does not necessarily negate the idea that he desires compliance from all those commanded.

Also, there is no more of a problem "distinguishing" between these various aspects of God's will any more than there is a problem distingushing between God's various properties. While God is not made up of parts (I affirm some senses of simplicity), we should not push the doctrine of divine simplicity so far as to suggest that there is no complexity to God whatsoever. Dabney makes this point in his Indescriminate Proposals article, as you know.

It seems that all of the labels used to capture the biblical distinctions have shortcomings. Even if we use "secret" and "revealed," there are problems. What is secret becomes known to us, either at the time that God reveals it beforehand or when it actually comes to pass. I find similar difficulties with decretal/preceptive, good pleasure/sign, effectual/ineffectual, purpose/wish etc. At least the secret/revealed terminology goes back to language used as early as Deuteronomy.

I concur with things that you have said, but I just wanted to add some qualifications and observations to see what you think.


Mathew Sims said...

Great article Tony. Most Calvinist I have run across would gladly say that Christ died for all, in the sense that God elected the entire world all could be saved, but that it is effective only for those who believe (the elect).

Is that what you are meaning? Or am I missing the boat?

Appreciate your balance!

Soli Deo Gloria

Tony Byrne said...

Hi Mathew,

Most Calvinists today affirm what some (like Davenant and Ussher) call a “bare sufficiency” as over against an “ordained sufficiency.” Consider the difference in the following analogy.

Frodo and Bilbo have offended a great and wealthy King. As a result, the King fines them and puts them in prison. Frodo and Bilbo are poor and cannot pay what they owe. However, the King, in his mercy and grace, decides to pay Frodo’s fine but will not release him from prison unless he agrees to join his army (his release is conditional). Frodo decides to enlist and is therefore freed. Bilbo is left in prison and receives justice.

The rich King is intrisically wealthy enough to pay the fine of both Frodo and Bilbo, but he only actually pays the fine of Frodo. In relation to Bilbo, the King has a “bare sufficiency” to pay his fine. In the case of Frodo, the King is not only sufficiently wealthy enough to pay his fine, but he actually comes and pays his fine (an “ordained sufficiency”).

The above analogy is not perfect, but it serves to illustrate the difference between a bare and an ordained sufficiency. Some high Calvinists will affirm that the Great King Jesus’ work on the cross is of infinite intrinsic value to pay for the sins of a billion worlds, but he had no intention to satisfy for the sin of anyone but the elect. In relation to the non-elect, he has only a bare sufficiency. A moderate Calvinst would affirm that Christ intended to suffer for the sin of the entire world, which includes the non-elect. His satisfaction is an ordained sufficiency for the salvation of the entire world, even though he has a special intention in suffering with regard to the elect.

A moderate Calvinist would not accuse a high Calvinist of explicitly denying the well-meant gospel offer (which is what hypers do), but might say that the high Calvinist removes the basis for a well-meant gospel offer because Christ didn’t satisfy for anyone but the elect. If Christ didn’t satisfy for the sin of the non-elect, then how can God sincerely wish for them to comply with HIS gospel offer and be saved? He hasn’t paid their fine, so to speak. A limited satisfaction (or limited imputation of sin to Christ) seems incompatible with indescriminate gospel offers.

It gets even more complicated because high Calvinsts tend to think of the imputation of sin to Christ in a numerical and commercial way, as if all the particular sins of all the elect were bundled together and laid upon Christ. Since he suffers for the elect in this fashion, his death “secures” its own application. This is why the either/or dilemma is posed, “Did Christ infallibly secure the salvation of his people? Or merely render it possible for men to be saved?” As W. G. T. Shedd says, the death of Christ, by itself, does not save any man. He does not save his people merely by his dying, and his death does not ipso facto liberate all those for whom it was made. The benefits of his satisfaction are suspended in the case of any sinner until they believe. The efficacy or the certainty of the salvation of the elect is due to God’s special intention or decree which issues in the grant of faith to the elect alone through the agency of the Holy Spirit. The entire work of the Trinity is necessary to secure the salvation of the elect, and not the cross-work of Christ alone considered.

Christ himself, in suffering for the sin of the entire world (not merely the elect’s sin), had a special and general intention corresponding to the secret and revealed aspects of God’s will. When I say that I am seeking to restore the revealed will of God as it touches point #5 (the design and extent of Christ’s satisfaction), I am underlining the biblical teaching that Christ intended to suffer sufficiently for all mankind, and did just that. This viewpoint is not contrary to classical Calvinism, but it is contrary to the prevailing high Calvinist paradigm introduced into the American scene by the republication of some Puritan and Protestant scholastic literature, such as Owen’s Death of Death, in the 1960’s and following decades. Earlier American Calvinism, like that of Edwards, C. Hodge, R. L. Dabney and W. G. T. Shedd, was more in tune with what the early Reformers taught with respect to the revealed will of God. If you say what they said (the aforementioned men and the early Reformers), that Christ redeemed all men sufficiently but only the elect efficienctly, then you will be viewed as unorthodox, treated with great hostility, and smeared with the label “Amyraldian” (I mean what they ignorantly think Amyraut taught [i.e. the mythological Amyraut], but not what he really taught).

The eclipsing of the revealed will by the secret will in the thinking of many of the spokesman for Calvinism today is setting the stage and laying the groundwork for a resurgence of hyper-Calvinism (just as some theology in the 1600’s did for the 1700’s), even though that is strongly denied. I am not saying there is an anti-evangelistic or anti-missionary attitude on the rise, but that many do not think that God desires the salvation of anyone but the elect. This is antithetical to scripture and to the Calvinistic doctrine of the well-meant gospel offer. It’s thought that we evangelize because God merely wants to save the elect, and not because he himself desires the salvation of all according to the revealed will of God.

The undermining of truths that pertain to God’s revealed will is also one of the reasons for the rejection of common grace as classically understood. Some make a fuss about the terminology when they really just have a problem with the idea at issue, namely that God is loving, kind and gracious to all mankind through the common bounties of providence. They don’t like the idea that God has benevolent and saving desires in his common generosities, contrary to what Romans 2:4 implies.

This is the strain of hyperism that I am talking about, and not the caricatured version that many speak of, as if hypers were against evangelism. This caricature of hyperism is partly created by hypers like David Engelsma (such as his book on Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel) and others from the Protestant Reformed Church (Hoeksema’s). They are against common grace and well-meant gospel offers, but resist being called hypers. Why don’t they consider themselves hyper-Calvinists? Because hyper-Calvinists were against evangelism and missions. While it’s true that some hypers were against missions as it was practiced in their day, they were not necessarily against evangelism and preaching indescriminately. Most Calvinists on the internet think that hyper-Calvinism is anti-evangelistic and/or anti-missionary. They also ignorantly consult Wikipedia and get this idea. Thus, hardly anyone qualifies as a hyper historically. If they rightly understood hypers as being against common grace/love, well-meant gospel offers, and duty-faith, then they might start to think about the underlying causes for such thinking. They might come to realize that it consists in the gradual fading of the revealed will of God from one’s focus. They might also see what happens when certain interpreters come to the bible and force a secret will reading upon it.

This reply ended up being a lot longer than I thought it would be. Sorry about that hahaha.

Grace to you,