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Jesu, Juva

Sovereignty and responsibility

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Calvinism is often accused of a kind of fatalism or determinism that does violence to the will of the creature. But this is a caricature, at least of the best of Calvinism. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith confesses that “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet . . . the liberty or contingency of second causes [is not] taken away, but rather established.” (WCF 3.1)

This was a position that ebbed and flowed in the church. Augustine defended the sovereignty of God against Pelagius, and the Protestant reformation once again recaptured it.

In his recent book, Delivered From the Elements of the World, Peter Leithart shows that a healthy Augustinian view still persisted in the early stages of medieval Scholasticism:

[H]igh Scholastics like Aquinas did not . . . think that human beings could in any way escape the oversight and providence of God. Human beings are ontologically incapable of being independent causes of anything. For Thomas at least, cooperation between God and humans is not competition, and causation is not a sum total of divine and human causation.

According to Fergus Kerr, this theme “takes us right to the heart of Thomas’s theology. He often quotes Isaiah 26:12: ‘Lord, thou has wrought all our works in us’—which he takes . . . precisely as excluding all competitiveness between divine and human agency.” Cooperation for Thomas does not picture “two rival agents on a level playing field,” but rather he “sees it as a mark of God’s freedom, and ours, that God ’causes’ everything in such a way that the creature ’causes’ it too.” . . . According to Kerr, Thomas consistently contests the notion that “if God produces the entire natural effect, surely nothing is left for the human agent to do,” emphasizing instead a doctrine of “double agency,” in which God and humans act to produce the same effect, though in different ways. Thomas rightly sees this as an implication of the doctrine of creation: “It is always by divine power that the human agent produces his or her own proper effect: that is the doctrine of creation. It is not superfluous, even if in principle God can by himself produce all natural effects, for them to be produced by us as causes. Nor is this a result of the inadequacy of divine power, as one might be tempted to think, thus giving way to the charms of process theology. On the contrary: it is a result of the immensity of God’s goodness (bonitas: “bounty”). It is another implication of the doctrine of creation that God wills to communicate his likeness to things not only so that they might simply exist but that they might cause other things. Indeed, this is how creatures generally attain the divine likeness—by causing.”

. . . On this early understanding [prior to 1250], . . . [d]ivine and human causation are never in competition; causation is not a “zero-sum game” in which creaturely causation can only be affirmed at the expense of divine causation. Every event in creation is wholly the product of God’s action, and yet at the same time it is totally caused by creatures. God causes by influencing from within the creation, not by exerting power externally from without. . . .

So long as divine and human causation were not seen to be competitive, and as long as a human action was not conceived of as the product of human causation added to divine causation, human contributions to salvation could not be conceived of as independent contributions. On this view, there might be a proper synergism: We work out our salvation not in addition to God working in us, but because God works in us. We work and love because his Spirit who is love is poured into us and his power works in us. As soon as the notion of causation assumes an area of pure nature in which human beings act and exist in semi-independence of God’s action, then synergism becomes a Pelagian nightmare. This is the kind of cooperation posited by late medieval theology, and the kind of cooperation the Reformers were correct utterly to reject. (Leithart, 320-324)

All this is simply to say that God is the author of his creation. We do not think to say that Sauron and Saruman are not deeply responsible and accountable for their actions just because Tolkien penned them. We do not think to say that Frodo and Sam made no great sacrifice or achieved no great thing because Tolkien had intended it all along. Nor do we think to charge Tolkien with a lack of affection for his creation, willfully subjecting so many to the destruction of Melkor, Smaug, Sauron, Saruman and others, merely to show off his ability to turn a beautiful story.

Nor should we think to charge God with this.

Yet, wonder of wonders, unlike any other author, God entered his own creation to make things more deeply right than any other story.

God so loved the world (John 3:16)

Outrushing the fall of man is the height of the fall of God. (Chesterton, Gloria in Profundis)

Written by Scott Moonen

August 12, 2016 at 10:42 pm

Posted in Biblical Theology

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