Thursday, March 27, 2008

The God Who Commands

I wrote out these notes and reflections many years ago as I was reading Richard J. Mouw’s The God Who Commands A Study in Divine Command Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 1990). I publish them here, not because I embrace Calvinism or wholeheartedly endorse Mouw’s take on Divine Command Theory, but primarily because I so often hear the word “Calvinist” used in such pejorative terms that I frankly wonder if the persons using that term really understand what it means. Related to that concern is my conviction that many Christians who think they reject a Reformed approach to ethics may find, on closer inspection, that they have been more deeply influenced by it than they realize. Regardless, Mouw’s book is a readable, scholarly, and reliable resource.

According to Richard J. Mouw, the central emphasis on Divine Sovereignty in Calvinist thought surfaces in the following view of the salvific process: “human beings are totally incapable of initiating the redemptive operation; in that operation, if it is to get started at all, is a divine elective option; when God chooses to negotiate the atoning arrangement there is no salvific ‘waste factor’; God’s efforts are irresistible; and no divine transaction ever gets cancelled” (pp. 95 & 96). The corresponding doctrines are those of total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints (TULIP).

Calvinism stresses Divine voluntarism over and above the human adjustment to external laws or rules (cf. Mouw, p. 97). The exercise of Divine free will is prior to the human will and forms the basis on which human beings conform themselves through obedience to God’s commands. Mouw calls this “the naked will-to-will encounter” between God and human beings, an encounter which differentiates Calvinist ethics from natural law ethics (Ibid., p. 97). Whereas Thomistic natural law ethics tends to ground law in Divine reason, Calvinist ethics grounds law in Divine will. For the Thomist, natural human reason participates in the rational order of the universe (Logos), a rational order which reflects the Providential design of god and which makes available to human reason the basic moral precepts of natural law (observance of which constitutes the minimal conditions for moral virtue). To know the “other” side of the natural law requires revelation of the divine law in scripture. The Calvinist’s main point of difference with this view lies in the status of the divine law. For the Thomist, the revelations of divine law conform to the eternal law. For the Calvinist, the revelations of divine law conform solely to the will of God.

Calvinist ethics therefore differs from the four-fold emphasis in Thomistic ethics on eternal law, natural law, human law, and divine law. Mouw writes that “the Thomist preferred a picture in which both the divine and human wills were already immersed in law prior to the presentation of the biblical imperatives” in the revealed divine law (p. 98). Law exists prior to either human or divine will in this view. The divine law reveals the eternal law, which itself serves as “God’s own everlasting normative point of reference” (ibid.). The Divine will, in other words, is always and already subject to an eternal and immutable law.

By contrast, the voluntarism of Calvinist ethics stresses that what Thomas calls divine law is not so much conformity with an eternal and immutable moral law “as a free and direct address from sovereign divine will to defenseless human will” (Mouw, p. 98). In other words, the Calvinist stresses the grounding of the revealed biblical imperatives in God’s will rather than in an eternal law. No law exists apart form the Divine Will. This is an important distinction because it gets at the question: are God’s commands right because God commands them, or does God give commands because these commands are in themselves right? The Thomist opts for the latter option, the Calvinist opts for the former.

However, Mouw notes that Calvinists typically (although not always) soften the voluntarism in this picture in ways that answer the charge of arbitrariness in God’s commands. This softening occurs in two ways. The first softening factor is “the Reformed emphasis on covenant(Mouw, p. 100). The biblical theme of covenant reveals that the “God who overwhelms our depraved wills with sovereign grace is a deity who honors commitments and who calls human beings to exhibit consistent patterns of behavior” (Ibid., pp. 100-101). In other words, the God who freely consents to enter into covenantal relationship with human beings is not morally arbitrary. If human beings respond in faith and obedience to God’s commands – which call persons into relationships of trust and loyalty – then God will honor the covenantal commitment already enacted by the Divine Will prior to the exercise of human agency. Mouw speaks of this divine-human relationship as one of “an interpersonal intimacy” characterized by “an increasing unity of purposes in the context of covenantal mutuality” (Ibid., p. 19). Elsewhere, Mouw accents the covenant theme when he writes: “Ethics, as portrayed in the Scriptures, is a dimension of the believer’s relationship to God, and attempts to isolate morality from this very basic ‘I-Thou’ context will inevitably seem artificial. … The fact of the concrete encounter with the specific mystery of the divine presence is itself a constituting factor of the good life, including the good moral life” (Ibid., p. 42).

The second softening factor is the emphasis on “the role of biblical law as a positive guide in the Christian life” (Mouw, p. 101). The Calvinist views law, not as an alien burden imposed on human beings (heteronomy), but rather as a gracious gift for guiding human beings in right conduct. This complements biblical themes which portray God’s law as a lamp to the feet, as the way of life, and as sweeter than honey (cf. Psalm 119). This underscores once more a point of difference between Thomistic and Calvinist ethics. Calvinists do not reject the conception of natural law. Rather, Calvinist moral theology stresses the need “to grant at least equal attention to the fact that human depravity impairs our ability to grasp and honor the dictates of natural law” (Mouw, p. 103). Calvinism holds that human beings need revelation even more radically than Thomism does, so they therefore place greater stress on biblically revealed moral imperatives. In this way, the Reformed principle of sola scriptura serves as an antidote to the depravity of human reason.

Mouw repeatedly stresses, in accordance with the factors of covenant and law which soften the radical edges of Divine Voluntarism, that God’s will is not arbitrary. Mouw is well aware that the strong Calvinist emphasis on the centrality of “moral surrender to the divine will” can have disastrous consequences for social and political life in the absence of any “appeal to reasonableness” (Mouw, pp. 2, 20). To counter theologies which view God as an arbitrary commander or which give legitimacy to various forms of oppressive social and political hierarchies, Mouw turns to the biblical witness to stress “the unique status of divine authority” (Ibid., p. 19). Mouw is worth quoting at length on this point:

I believe that God possesses the absolute authority to tell us what to do. At the same time I have no desire to expand my case into a more general defense of moral hierarchism. I am convinced that it is on occasion reasonable to submit to commands whose rationale we do not fully grasp, and the relationship between human beings and the God of the Bible satisfies, I am also convinced, the required conditions for such obedience. … Each case or relationship must be considered on its own merits. Whether a given individual possesses the authority to command our obedience is a matter which must be decided by examining the credentials of the would-be-commander. In this regard it is important to note that the God of Scriptures regularly offers credentials for our examination. The God who issues the “Thou shalts” of Exodus 20 is the one who prefaces those directives with the reminder that we have been delivered from the house of bondage. And the one who, in the New Testament, tells us to keep his commandments, does so on the basis of the fact that when we were yet sinners he died for us. The God who commands in the Scriptures is the one who offers the broken chariots of the Egyptians and the nail-scarred hands of the divine Son as a vindication of the right to tell us what to do. This should make us sensitive to the need to examine the credentials of others who claim the authority to be moral commanders (pp. 19-20).

God’s authority is not just any authority, but a reasonable and worthy authority.

This turn to “soft” Calvinism balances the Bible with “reasonableness” as norms for discerning the credibility of claims for authority to command human submission and obedience. Mouw’s practical casuistry sifts through false claims to authority for the sake of defending the reasonableness of Christian faith against the tyrannies of blind faith. It makes a difference to Mouw whether or not individuals submit to God’s commands with or without warrant. Only those claims to authority that check out with the “larger context” of the biblical witness and with what persons may reasonably expect from a God whose intentions towards human beings are primarily expressed through covenant and law are deemed worthy of obedience (Mouw, p. 10).

When compared with the theological ethics of a Reformed theologian such as Karl Barth, Mouw’s “soft” Calvinism may suggest a kind of human arrogance or pride in the face of the Divine Imperative. However, Mouw succeeds in offering a persuasive case for an objective, deontological approach to theological ethics which grounds moral right and wrong in Divine Commands and which leaves room open for the exercise of human reason in moral discernment.

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