Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Kevin DeYoung, the Heidelberg Catechism and Gordon Clark

I've been reading Kevin DeYoung's newest book, The Good News We Almost Forgot, on the Heidelberg Catechism.  Kevin says that Lord's Day 10 is his favorite.  Here are questions 27 and 28 which address God's providence:
Q. 27 What do you understand by the providence of God?
A. Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty-- all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.
Q 28 How does the knowledge of God's creation and providence help us?
A. We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from his love. All creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved.
Here's part of what Kevin wrote for this day:
"I will sometimes ask seminary students being examined for ordination, 'How would the Heidelberg Catechism, particularly Lord's Day 10, help you minister to someone who lost a loved one in Afghanistan or just lost a job?'  I am usually disappointed to hear students who should be affirming the confessions of their denomination shy away from Heidelberg's strong, biblical language about providence.  Like most of us, the students are much more at ease using passive language about God's permissive will or comfortable generalities about God being 'in control' then they are about stating precisely and confidently to those in the midst of suffering 'this has come from God's fatherly hand.'  And yet, that's what the Catechism, and more importantly the Bible teaches."  (59-60)
When I read this I thought of Gordon Clark.  Clark was a Christian philosopher and theologian from roughly the 1930s to the 1970s.  He was unashamedly Calvinist.  Some would say a "hyper-Calvinist."  If Kevin is disappointed to hear students today what would he think of Clark?  Here's what I mean.  In his book Religion, Reason and Revelation Clark quotes Georgia Harkness who was arguing for the necessity of free will in order for people to be held responsible for their actions.  I pick up with the final paragraph of her quote.
"'Some still hold that when the typhoid victim dies from lack of proper sanitation, it happened because it was 'to be.'  There is a good deal of illogical comfort in such a view.  But not many, even of the most rigorous of Calvinists, would now say that if a man gets drunk and shoots his family, it is the will of God that he should do so!'"
Clark responds:
"This quotation [the full quote is a page long] shows clearly the moral motivation behind the theory of free will; but at the same time it shows so much muddle headedness, misstatement of facts, and fallacious innuendo that before the argument proceeds, one preliminary should be put out of the way.  I wish very frankly and pointedly to assert that if a man gets drunk and shoots his family, it was the will of God that he should do so."  (Religion, Reason and Revelation, 220 emphasis mine)
Now before we dial "1-800-Brian McLaren" to report a Calvinist gone wild let me say a few things.  Clark is not providing a script to use when visiting the victim of such a crime.  This is a chapter dealing with God and evil in a book on theology and Clark is calling it as he sees it.  He was not one to allow "feelings" to diminish the truth of Scripture as he understood it.  Clark had no room for statements like "God didn't will this but he did permit it."  For Clark "permission makes no sense when applied to God."  Why not?  He explains:
"It is quite within the range of possibility for a life guard to permit a man to drown.  This permission, however, depends on the fact that the oceans undertow is beyond the guard's control.  If the guard had some giant suction device which he operated so as to engulf the boy, one would call it murder, not permission.  The idea of permission is possible only where there is an independent force, either the boy's force or the ocean's force.  But this is not the situation in the case of God and the universe.  Nothing in the universe can be independent of the Omnipotent Creator, for in him we live and move and have our being."  (ibid 205)  
Of course all of this is only relevant given a Calvinist framework but that's precisely the point.  What I see DeYoung saying is that if we are going to adhere to a catechism that proclaims the providence of God then there should be nothing to shy away from.  Our language will vary in certain contexts (DeYoung's original question is specifically put in the context of pastoral counseling) but the truth remains the same. 

For further reading I suggest John Frame's The Doctrine of God pp. 174-182.   See also D. A. Carson's Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility where he says:
"Similarly, distinctions between permissive will and decretive will appear desperately artificial when applied to an omniscient and omnipotent being; for if this God 'permits' sin, it cannot be unknowingly and unwillingly, and therefore his 'permission' must be granted knowingly and willingly.  Wherein then does this permission differ from decree?"  (214)
My reference to Frame and Carson are not meant to imply that they agree with Clark in every aspect only on the issue of the idea of "permission" as used of God.  Both authors have significant differences or nuances to Clark.  Most notably Frame interacts quite frequently with Clark in his writings.


Terrance Tiessen said...

Louis, I understand (and sympathize with) the resistance to speaking of God's "permission" within a monergistic framework. Nevertheless, I find it a helpful term precisely because permission is, by definition, WILLING. For this reason, I have argued that "permission" is actually a concept incoherent with synergism (e.g. Arminianism).

To permit something is to deliberately allow to occur what one could have stopped if s/he willed to do so. This is not what Arminians mean when they speak of God permitting, except in a very general sense, that is, in the sense of having "permitted" almost everything that libertarianly free creatures would choose to do.

In speaking of the fall, Calvin also objected to the language of permission but I think that a careful reading makes it clear that what he was objecting to was "mere permission," not the active choice of God that the classic Reformed distinction intends.

Consequently, I still posit that "divine permission" is appropriate when referring to all acts of evil that occur. This is not to exclude such events from God's comprehensive decree, only to acknowledge that there is a difference between those good things God wills to bring about by his own direct agency and those acts of evil that God wills should occur, without God being the direct and responsible moral agent of their occurrence.


Louis said...


I am honored by your taking the time to comment. Thank you. I can fully concur with your comment especially the last paragraph. Frame also sees an appropriate use of "permission" if properly understood as does my former philosophy professor John Feinberg (though he prefers "undesired will" see his No One Like Him p. 696). For too many I think the idea of permission carries a connotation that God during those times simply has no control of the situation and is as much a victim as the people involved in what ever transpires. I think this is most evident of Open Theism.