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Rom. 5:11

“But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation [with God](Rom. 5:11).

One of the more outrageous notions of the Christian religion is that the individual human being can have a personal relationship of sorts with God, the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible. This is what Paul says: we boast in God, who is our Father and who cares for us. Such an assertion sounds positively egomaniacal to the ears of many nonbelievers, who are convinced that even if God did exist, surely He would have better things to do than to bother with friendship with puny human beings. It sounds to some as if Christians have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, as if the claim to a personal relationship with God is somehow predicated on the fact that we are worthy of God’s attention.

There are two things wrong with this agnostic critique. On the one hand, it misunderstands the Christian message. On the other hand, it results from a kind of false modesty that is really just disguised pride.

Let’s start with the first problem. According to the Christian religion, our friendship with God is not grounded in our own magnificence or importance, but in the fact that God condescends to make Himself known to us and to invite us into fellowship with Him. Christ teaches clearly that “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (Matt. 11:27). This means that knowledge of God always begins from God and never from us. If we know God at all, it is not because we are so wonderful, but because God makes Himself known to us out of pure grace. He makes Himself known because He is good and wishes to share good things with us, not because we are worthy of them but because He loves us and wishes to give us gifts. Our friendship with God is entirely a matter of grace, unmerited favor.

On the other hand, to say that God, if He exists, would have better things to do than to commune with human beings, is not a modest but an arrogant assertion. It assumes knowledge about what God would do and what His interests would be, knowledge which cannot be had by human beings. How is a human being supposed to know what God is like and what He cares about, if He does not Himself tell us? Once more we can appeal to the words of Christ: No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son deigns to reveal Him. If we cannot know by our own strength what God is like and what He wants, then neither can we arrogantly assert that God, if He were to exist, would be uninterested in fellowship with human beings. That is superficially modest but actually arrogant, and it is nothing more than a way of avoiding the kind of confrontation with oneself and reckoning which the encounter with God requires on our part. I don’t even mention the fact that God, if He exists, is not a limited being like us, so that He has to be careful not to stretch Himself too thin and occupy Himself with unimportant matters. That is how we have to live because we are finite; God is infinite and not subject to the same limitations we are; thus, if God so chooses, He can have fellowship with human beings and it would not a waste of His time or resources or attention or energy, which in any case are all infinite.

Most importantly of all, our friendship with God was won for us through Christ Jesus, who reconciled us to God. It is human beings that are at odds with God, and not God who is at odds with human beings. This is also why some people reject the notion that God would have a personal relationship with human beings — because they are secretly opposed to God and want to justify intellectually, by means of a specious argument, their refusal to turn to Him in repentance. Our sin puts us at odds with God and it also leaves in His debt, because we should be punished for what we do. But Christ saves us and reconciles us with God, who sent His Son into the world for our sake, to die for our sins and to make atonement for us, and to win us over to God, through the Holy Spirit, by demonstrating God’s love for us and giving us confidence in approaching God. We become friends of God and can boast in Him because He came and sought friendship with us and cleared every obstacle that stood in the way. This is God’s gift; it isn’t because human beings are just so wonderful that we deserved it.

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Acts 7:23-25

“When [Moses] was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his relatives, the Israelites. When he saw one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his kinfolk would understand that God through him was rescuing them, but they did not understand.” (Acts 7:23-25)

What is the connection between what we feel on the inside, on the one hand, and divine providence, God’s plan for us and for the world, on the other? Does God’s providence work like that sometimes? Does He operate by putting a desire to do something in the heart of a person? If that is so, how can a person know whether that desire is really from God, i.e. whether God truly intends for that person to undertake the respective desired work, or not? What happens in the case when a person finds himself with a strong desire to do this or that for the sake of the Gospel, is fully convinced that this desire comes from God and represents God’s calling for him, and yet it doesn’t work out?

The narrative about Moses, here being retold by Stephen before his martyrdom, is quite interesting. On the one hand, Moses has a sincere and proper desire to see that his people be freed from the yoke of Egyptian slavery. On the other hand, he attempts to bring about their liberation in the wrong way, at the wrong time, and he fails. And yet Moses is the man chosen by God to lead the Hebrews out of slavery and subjugation into the freedom promised them by God. But the people do not recognize this calling on the part of Moses, even long after they had crossed the Sea of Reeds.

There is even more to this interesting story. Moses initially feels a strong desire to save his people, as Stephen says. But when God actually calls him from the burning bush, Moses presents excuse after excuse, seeking by any means to avoid the calling which God placed on Him. He was receiving exactly what he wanted — or in any case, he was receiving what he had wanted some years before that, but now he thought it too much for him. From this I understand that we might at times have a proper sense of God’s calling for us, but we do not understand the proper time. And it is even possible that, when the time comes, we no longer find ourselves equally desirous to do the thing to which we are called.

Thankfully, from the episode with Moses we can understand that God, if He has a special calling, seems to insist on its being fulfilled. He does not take No for an answer from Moses and even makes concessions to his weaknesses, such as letting Aaron speak for him to the Egyptian rulers.

But it is also true that God’s calling for Moses was confirmed by some external means. Moses was not just someone with a desire to liberate the Hebrews. His calling from God was confirmed by something outside of himself, by the miracle with the burning bush and the signs and wonders of the Exodus and, in the end, as God Himself specifies, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain” (Exod. 3:12).

There arose many other would-be liberators of Israel in history. Gamaliel mentions them in the council when they discuss the pesky Galilean movement of Jesus followers — Theudas and Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:35-39). They were not called by God. We can know for sure that they had a very powerful desire to see Israel freed from captivity. But they were not so sent by God, in spite of the piety and respectability of their wishes. God was not with them in what they were doing. This is why discernment is so important. It is not enough simply to feel a strong desire for something. Our desires may be good ones, but it does not follow from the fact that I have a desire for something that therefore God is calling me to do it.

I remember I once read a book on discerning God’s will when I was doing my MDiv. Around that time I had applied for a PhD program and, despite my every expectation, I was not admitted. I was very disappointed by that and I wanted to know why that happened to me. Reading this book on discerning God’s will, I came away with the conclusion that discerning God’s will is next to impossible. For every event that takes place, there are multiple possible interpretations, multiple ways of fitting it into a more general idea of what God is up to. Things only make sense looking backward from a distance, so to speak — i.e., once much time has passed and you have moved on from the thing in question. Like someone once said, life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.

What does this mean for the question of divine calling? In many evangelical circles, faithful persons are concerned to try to discern “what it is to which God is calling them in this season of their lives,” to use the evangelical jargon. Many times I wonder whether or not this is just a waste of time and a source of needless anxieties. In the case of Moses, there was a clear calling, accompanied by signs and wonders and the very insistence of God. It seems to me that if there is some important calling for your life, God is more than capable of making it clear to you as such. Otherwise, perhaps nothing remains except for you to make good use of your time and resources in whatever you judge to be best.

Hos. 14:1-3

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take words with you and return to the Lord; say to him, “Take away all guilt, accept that which is good, and we will offer the fruit of our lips. Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses; we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy.” (Hos. 14:1-3)

I would like to comment on this passage from the prophet Hosea.

His story, of course, is a famous one. He is told by God to marry Gomer, a prostitute, who will cheat on him and abandon him, just as Israel “cheats on” God and abandons Him in the pursuit of other gods. Then he is told to take Gomer back, just as God will receive Israel back to Him in spite of their spiritual adultery. After this story, Hosea proceeds to prophesy directly against Israel (not so much Judah) for its idolatry, to which Hosea refers as “whoredom.” There is very much in Hosea’s oracles that is worth commenting on perhaps at another time.

The particular passage which I have cited is from the end of Hosea’s book, after God has threatened to punish Israel (not Judah) for its idolatry and faithlessness before the Lord.

The first thing Hosea tells them is: Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Scripture teaches that “there is a time for everything” (Eccl. 3:1). This means that there is also a proper time to undertake a return to the Lord, namely when a person has stumbled because of iniquity. Especially important in this respect is that Scripture’s teaching regarding the proper time be admitted irrespective of what we feel. It may happen that a person who has stumbled because of her iniquity does not feel like returning to the Lord. She might not feel like it for a number of reasons: for example, she may think that a life apart from the Lord is preferable to a life with Him; or she may think that there is no hope for her now that she has stumbled, i.e. she may feel that she has stumbled too far and the Lord has given up on her. Both of these thoughts are false and must be rejected out of preference for the teaching of Scripture. When a person stumbles because of her iniquity, that is a proper time for her to return to the Lord, not to fall further into her sin, nor to wallow in thoughts of divine abandonment and hopelessness.

But how is this return to the Lord to be undertaken? How do we go about returning to the Lord when we have stumbled because of our iniquity? Hosea specifies this when he says: Take words with you and return to the Lord. This is also very important. One of the curious effects of sin is that it makes it difficult to pray. A person may very well make up her mind that she will not do certain things again, but for whatever reason, if she has stumbled because of her iniquity, she finds it hard to pray. I wonder whether the reason might not be the following. If we make up our minds not to sin again, we can do this while keeping God at a distance somehow; we do not find ourselves face-to-face with God in those moments, but rather with ourselves or with our own consciences. But when we pray, we put ourselves face-to-face with God, and this is precisely what we do not want to do when we have stumbled because of our iniquity. Our shame over our sin makes us want to hide from God, to run away from Him just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden. In praying, on the other hand, we recognize our nothingness before God and our total dependence upon Him for everything, even for our repentance from sin. For this reason it is important not only to make up our minds not to sin, but also to come before the Lord with words and to pray to Him when we repent.

I know from my own experience that many times when I go before the Lord in the prayer of repentance, I do not know what to say. Perhaps others have this same problem. It is all the more wonderful, then, that the Bible contains a prayer of repentance which I can claim for my own and use when I repent! This is what the prayer says:

Take away all guilt, accept that which is good, and we will offer the fruit of our lips. Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses; we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy.”

Let’s consider the content of this prayer piece-by-piece.

Take away all guilt.” The biblical teaching, as far as I understand it, is that our guilt before God cannot be erased by anything we do. It has to be taken away by God if it is to be resolved at all. Therefore, when we repent of our sins, we should not have the impression that what we are doing is such as to erase the fact of our sin before God. Repentance for what we do against others may have this effect, but sin before God is not like that. God must erase it; even if we repent and live lives of perfect righteousness from the moment of repentance forward, we have not done anything except what was already our obligation from the beginning. Repentance can perhaps erase our guilt vis-àvis others because our relationships with others are conditioned upon trust. I only want to be your friend if I can trust you, and your repentance when you do me wrong establishes that I can trust you. But our relationship with God is not so conditioned; we are always already in relationship with God and we cannot avoid it. Moreover, God is omniscient and does not need my repentance to know that He can or cannot trust me. For that reason, repentance does not have the same effect with God as with our neighbors. No, God must take away our guilt if it is to be removed at all.

Accept that which is good.” This is an interesting petition. My comments will be tentative and exploratory. Perhaps the idea is something like this. In our lives as Christians, as people of God, we do not only ever commit horrible sins. There are still some good things which we do. In our prayer of repentance, we might rightly ask that God accept whatever good we might have done and not to forget it. This was a prayer that various figures in the Old Testament did, for example Hezekiah, when he received word from the prophet Isaiah that he would die: “‘Remember now, O Lord, I implore you, how I have walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.’ And Hezekiah wept bitterly” (Isa. 38:3).

We will offer you the fruit of our lips.” This represents one of the central prophetic insights about the true nature of sacrifice and the nature of God. God is not fed by our sacrifices, He is not strengthened or improved by them, He does not need them in any way. The true “sacrifice” (in the sense of “offering”) which God desires from us is not an animal but praise and thanksgiving from the heart. This is what God really wants: a heart which loves Him and thanks Him for the good things which He has given. In the context of the prayer of repentance, this promise suggests that the penitent person recognizes the true nature of her relationship before God. She is not repenting of her sins by means of some sacrifice which appeases an angry and hungry God, but rather is reorienting her entire life, her being, vis-à-vis God. She will recognize her total and utter dependence upon God for everything, even for the act of repentance and the removal of guilt, and will thank Him for His goodness and grace.

Assyria shall not save us.” Of course, this petition has a specific meaning in the original context in which Hosea’s prophecy is uttered. Israel was looking left and right for beneficial political allegiances rather than depending upon God for salvation. But perhaps similar that we do in our own lives. Perhaps we look to an “Assyria” of our day and age to save us from our problems, rather than looking to the Lord. What is Assyria for the 21st century American Christian? Perhaps it is a political program, or perhaps it consists in various spiritual practices that have a dubious or uncertain connection to biblical revelation, or perhaps it is something else altogether. This is not to say that the “things of this world” are not useful and don’t have their own place in the life of a Christian. For example, I would never suggest that a Christian forego reasonable medical intervention and simply pray for healing from God. But with respect to the problem of sin, no one else can save us except God. No social program, no spiritual practices, and indeed nothing apart from God can save us from the guilt of our sins, and whatever other benefit these things might have in the short or long term, it is still ultimately necessary that each person confront God personally and seek salvation on a personal, individual level.

We will not ride upon horses.” I think this is closely connected to the previous affirmation that Assyria will not save us. If Assyria will not save us, i.e. if things outside of us but still at the level of the human will not save us, then neither will we try to ride upon horses and save ourselves. Just as nothing terrestrial and created can save us, so also neither can we save ourselves. We cannot erase our guilt before God and we cannot create righteousness in us by our own efforts. If we are to be saved at all, we must be saved by God.

We will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands.” Hosea is talking about physical idols which the Israelites were wont to produce and to worship. In our own day and age, the idolatry resides perhaps at the level of ideas and beliefs. We conceive our own ideas about God and about who He is, what He wants, how He deals with us, rather than being taught by God in Scripture and especially in the person of Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son who has made the Father known to us (John 1:18). Part of the prayer of repentance is abandoning our idolatrous disposition to make up our own ideas about God — e.g., that God is not really so bothered by our sin, or that He overlooks it, or that He doesn’t call us to account for it, etc. — and recognizing our dependence upon God even to have knowledge of Him and to know what He is like and what He wants from us.

In you the orphan finds mercy.” What is the state of an orphan? An orphan is a child who belongs to no one and who has no one to take care of her. An orphan is as lonely and as decontextualized as possible; an orphan is a human being who doesn’t belong to anyone or anywhere. The prayer of repentance which Hosea offers here puts the penitent person in the position of the orphan. Because of our sins, we are orphans in the world: we do not belong to God and we do not belong to His world, either, since we have sinned against Him and are liable to punishment. In repentance, we ought to recognize this as our state and come before God in admission of our weak and fallen state. At the same time, however, we do this with full conviction that in God the orphan finds mercy. God is not a despot who may or may not help us; rather, He is a Father to the orphans and rejects no one who comes to Him (cf. John 6:37). We repent not because we have no chance before God, but precisely because only in God do we have a sure chance at restoration. That is why the proper time for repentance is when we have stumbled because of our iniquity: because God, “whose property it is always to have mercy,” as the Anglican liturgy states, Himself calls us to repent so that He can accept us and restore us.

If I were briefly to summarize the idea of the prayer of repentance which Hosea offers here, I think I would say the following. Whereas sin is an attempt to assert our independence and self-sufficiency in the world, repentance means recognizing our total dependence upon God for everything — for knowledge of Him, for the act of repentance itself, for the removal of our guilt, etc.

Eph. 4:4-6

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:4-6)

Perhaps the reason why Paul is concerned that the Ephesians “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3) is that this unity, the unity of the individual congregation, is the proper reflection of the unity which is so ubiquitous in the “things of the Gospel,” so to speak. In other words, because there is one body and Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, Christians must also be united with one another in the Church. Plurality, division, strife, factions, disunity, fragmentation and the rest all serve as ways of defacing the proper image of the Church. Seeking unity is for Paul a way of living a life worthy of calling we have received (Eph. 4:1).

Disunity can arise in many different ways. For example, it might arise because of personal ambitions and conflicts among Christians. It might also arise because Christians do not or seemingly cannot agree amongst themselves on issues which they take to be very important, whether doctrinal or practical or both. It would be naïve to think that Christians ever existed in a pristine state of perfect unity at any point in the history of the Church, except perhaps at the earliest beginning (e.g., Pentecost). The Acts of the Apostles catalogues many examples of early Christian disunity, for example with respect to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church. Paul’s epistles likewise contain ample evidence that individual Christian congregations were afflicted by problems of conflict and disunity even in the first generation of Christians.

Paul teaches that there is one body and one Spirit. When he says “body” I presume he means to refer to the Church as the body of Christ, a metaphor which he has already used in this epistle (Eph. 1:22-23). One important question for Christian theology, especially in the present day, is: How is this body identified? How does it subsist? In what does it consist?

On this matter there are different opinions. Some in the Eastern Orthodox Church, for example, insist that one identifying marker of the body of Christ is the Eucharistic communion: where the Eucharist is, there is the Church, and where there exists communio in sacris, fellowship in holy things (viz., the Eucharist), there exists the Church. The Roman Catholic Church insists that the Church subsists in its fullness only in those congregations which are in full communion with the bishop of Rome. Protestants have their own opinions about this matter as well.

I am still thinking through these things myself, and this is a topic to which I will have to return in the future. For the time being, these are my thoughts.

If, as Paul says, the Church is the body of Christ, then the being of the Church consists in its connection to Christ. What is the most essential aspect of this connection to Christ? In my opinion, it is faith in Christ. This means that every person who has faith in Christ is a member of Christ’s body and thus a part of the Church. Paul also says elsewhere that “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rom. 8:9). This must mean that there is a connection between faith in Christ and the possession of the Spirit; and indeed, it is precisely through the Spirit that faith is born in us. So the possession of faith in Christ and the possession of the Spirit, which go hand in hand, are necessary and sufficient conditions for belonging to the body of Christ, i.e. for being part of the Church.

What is faith? I have written about this in a paper titled “Claritas scripturae, theological epistemology, and the phenomenology of Christian faith,” which will be published in next year’s issue of Journal of Analytic Theology. In brief, I argue that faith is a kind of abiding preoccupation with Jesus Christ. I intentionally do not import too much dogmatic content into this definition, although of course I think that certain dogmas are more appropriate for the kind of abiding preoccupation I have in mind than are others. In my opinion, a person can have faith even though she might be wrong about very many things or even not have much of an opinion on diverse topics of Christian dogmatics. It is the person of Jesus which is central. Much more should be said about this, obviously.

Now things also get complicated when it comes to sacramental communion in the Church. For example, from the beginning Christians have also insisted on the necessity of the rite of baptism, a point which they learned from Christ Himself who told them: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). And yet there are instances in Scripture in which a person arguably demonstrates faith in Christ or possesses the Spirit apart from baptism: the thief on the cross is an example of the first, and the Gentiles who received the Spirit when Peter preached to them are an example of the second. There is reason for thinking that these are exceptional cases, of course, since the thief was nearing death and the Gentiles had to receive the Spirit before baptism in order for Peter and the other Jewish Christians to be positive that God had elected them while they were still Gentiles. To my mind, what is most reasonable to say is this: while faith in Christ and possession of the Spirit alone are jointly necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in the body of Christ, baptism in water is a very important rite which is “functionally necessary,” we might say, even though it is not absolutely, strictly necessary. In other words, if a person came to me and said that she wanted to be a Christian, I would insist that, among other things, she be baptized in water in the name of the Holy Trinity.

What basis might there be for establishing Eucharistic communion as a condition of membership in Christ’s body? Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:53-56). If we take this famous discourse to refer to the Eucharist, then it seems that there may be the beginning of an argument for Eucharistic fellowship as a condition for membership in Christ’s body. But this is to move too quickly. It is one thing for membership in Christ’s body to depend upon the fellowship with Christ’s body and blood which takes place in the Eucharistic meal, and it is another thing entirely for the Eucharistic communion to be mediated by means of an episcopal system. Communion with Christ in the bread and wine is one thing, it is “vertical,” and fellowship with a particular ecclesial system in which the Lord’s death is celebrated in the Eucharistic meal is another, it is “horizontal.” It must first be established the Eucharistic meal confers communion with Christ only when it is celebrated by the proper episcopal authorities.

For my part, I think that the fellowship with Christ which is conferred by the Eucharistic meal depends on Christ. Even in the episcopal system, it is not the bishop or the priest in his own power who makes the bread and wine to be the body and blood of Christ; the miracle takes place through the activity of the Holy Spirit. Fellowship with God always depends on the condescension of God. For this reason, it seems to me theologically justified to suppose that the Eucharistic meal, as it is celebrated in Protestant communities, can still confer eternal life and fellowship with Jesus, and this because Jesus makes it so, even apart from the mediation of the episcopal system.

If one accepts this view of things, then the Church as Christ’s body turns out to be a very diverse thing indeed. What all Christians have in common is faith, which I understand to be a kind of abiding preoccupation with the person of Jesus Christ, and this preoccupation arises within them as a result of the activity of the Holy Spirit. This preoccupation should lead them, in the ideal case, to gather together as a body and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Him, as He commands us in Scripture, but at this point we have moved beyond a bare definition of the essence of Christian faith (and therefore membership in the body of Christ) and proceeded to a consideration of what healthy, “functional” faith looks like.

Response to Ryan Mullins on divine simplicity

Ryan Mullins, whom I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time at Los Angeles Theology Conference 2018, has written a post critiquing the doctrine of divine simplicity. Because I am a convinced proponent of the doctrine, I would like to offer a response to Mullins’s argument in what follows.

In essence, Mullins argues that the doctrine of divine simplicity is contradictory to commonly held Christian beliefs regarding divine freedom and the contingency of divine grace. This is because if one grants divine simplicity, one must assert the identity of God with His own necessary existence and His act, in the actual world, of giving grace. But if God is identical to His own existence as well as to His act of giving grace, then He could not exist without having so acted. This means that His act of giving grace is as necessary as His existence. But grace must be freely given, i.e. it must be possible for God not to give grace. This means that it must be possible for God to exist apart from His act of giving grace, and this entails that He cannot be identical to that act, which conclusion is contrary to the doctrine of divine simplicity.

His argument is spelled out in an extended syllogism as follows:

1) If God is free, then God can refrain from acting to give grace.
2) God is free.
3) Therefore, God can refrain from acting to give grace. 
4) If God’s act to give grace is absolutely necessary, then God cannot refrain from acting to give grace. 
5) God can refrain from acting to give grace.
6) Thus, God’s act to give grace is not absolutely necessary. 
7) God’s existence is absolutely necessary.
8) Anything that is identical to God’s existence must be absolutely necessary. 
9) All of God’s actions are identical to each other such that there is only one divine act. 
10) God’s act to give grace is identical to God’s one divine act. 
11) God’s one divine act is identical to God’s existence. 
12) Therefore, God’s one divine act is absolutely necessary. 
13) If God’s one divine act is absolutely necessary, then God’s act to give grace is absolutely necessary. 
14) Therefore, God’s act to give grace is absolutely necessary. 
15) Therefore, God cannot refrain from acting to give grace.  
16) Therefore, God is not free.

Mullins suggests that it is the insertion of premises specifically connected to the doctrine of divine simplicity (namely, premises 8-11) that leads to the contradiction, and therefore the proponent of divine simplicity must specify which premises in the argument he rejects.

I am inclined to think that the problem with the argument runs deeper than just an inappropriate premise or two. Rather, it seems to me that the problem of theological language in the light of divine simplicity has to be considered in greater detail.

Suppose that divine simplicity is true. This means that God is beyond all forms of composition, including the sorts of metaphysical composition implicit in univocal ascriptions of action to agents. An action is normally something that an agent performs and yet is distinguishable from the being of the agent, just as my being is one thing, and my action of typing this blog post is another thing: the action is a kind of modification of my being, apart from which it is still possible for me to exist. But theological language ascribing action to God cannot be understood in this sense, because God is not like me. I act in virtue of modifications of my being, or rather my acting consists in the diverse modification of my being, whereas God, if He can be said to “act” at all, must “do so” in such a way that His being is not modified in any way whatsoever.

For me to act is for my being to be modified in various ways: I gain an intention, I move my body in various ways, etc. God does not have a body and He does not change in any way whatsoever, per divine simplicity, so that divine action cannot be understood in this way. Rather, “action” is ascribed to God in the sense that He produces various effects. Thus, He gives grace because He produces the effect that some human beings receive grace, even though this “act” does not involve any change within Him. It is understood entirely with reference to the effect produced, and not on the basis of anything within the cause.

In other words, for me as a proponent of divine simplicity, theological language about divine action really consists in ascribing causal responsibility to God for certain effects; it is a rather anthropomorphizing way of saying that God effects a certain state of affairs. To say that God gives grace is to say that He causes some persons to receive grace, by which is presumably meant a change or modification of their being such that the deleterious effects of sin are undone and they are restored to wholeness.

Now, the doctrine of divine simplicity implies that there is really only one divine act, as Mullins notes, and that it is identical with God Himself. However, Christians also affirm that God produces certain effects contingently (such as the giving of grace or the creation of the world). Ryan will therefore rightly ask me how it is possible that God can remain perfectly self-identical while producing certain effects only contingently. How can God remain the same across all possible worlds, if I may use this kind of language, while at the same time producing His effects only contingently?

Mullins’s argument presupposes a certain principle of causality, which I will state as follows: a difference in effect presupposes a difference in the cause. In other words, if God produces a certain effect in this possible world which He does not produce in another possible world, this must be because there is something different in Him across possible worlds — e.g., in this possible world He has chosen to give grace and in the other, He has not. A difference in effect presupposes a modification in the being of the cause.

I think the proponent of divine simplicity who wishes to preserve the possibility of creaturely contingency must deny this principle. God is perfectly unchanged across all possible worlds, but in some He produces certain effects and in others He does not. There is no difference in God as cause, even though there is a difference in the effect. In this way, it is possible to preserve creaturely contingency while not compromising the doctrine of divine simplicity.

This means that there are at least two ways of understanding a phrase like “God’s act to give grace,” such as Mullins calls it in premise (4) and (10). It could be understood as referring to that by which God produces the effect of the reception of grace, namely Himself, or it could refer to the effect of the reception of grace which God produces insofar as it is produced by God, which is a state of affairs, a modification of the being of some human person. The former is necessary, since God exists necessarily, whereas the latter is contingent, because God only contingently causes human beings to receive grace. “God’s act of giving grace,” understood in the former sense, is identical to God Himself, but it is not identical to “God’s act of giving grace,” understood in the latter sense, which is an effect which God produces and to which God is not identical.

Let us therefore define two senses of the term “God’s act to give grace.” In the causal sense, this refers to God Himself, His being, i.e. that in virtue of which the effect of the reception of grace is produced. In the effectual sense, this refers to the state of affairs in which a human being receives grace insofar as it is produced by God, i.e. her being is modified in such a way as to undo the deleterious effects of sin insofar as this is caused by God. This disambiguation of senses helps to show how Mullins’s syllogism fails. God’s act of giving grace, understood in the effectual sense as referring to the state of affairs in which a human being receives grace from God, is free — i.e., God produces this effect contingently. But God’s act of giving grace, understood in the causal sense as referring to God’s being, which is that by virtue of which He produces the effect of the reception of grace in the actual world, is not “free,” because properly speaking the term does not refer to an act at all but only to God’s being, which is necessary. The freedom lies in the contingency of the production of the effect, not in the possibility of the cause to be otherwise.

Mullins’s syllogism succeeds only if the two senses are confused or remain ambiguous. In other words, his argument suffers from fatal equivocation. The proponent of divine simplicity can freely affirm or deny any of the essential premises depending on which sense of the relevant term describing God’s action is meant. For example, the proponent of divine simplicity can agree that “God’s one eternal act” is necessary if this is understood in the causal sense and yet deny that it is identical to “God’s act to give grace” if this latter term is understood in the effectual sense, since the cause is not identical to the effect and can exist without it.

For this reason, I think Mullins’s argument against divine simplicity does not succeed. The really important piece of my response is what I said earlier about a difference in effect not entailing a difference in the cause. If the conversation is to continue, I think that would be an idea worth pursuing in greater detail.

Eph. 4:1-3

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:1-3)

I want to consider this text for the ethical vision which it presents.

There are different theories in ethics regarding how to understand right and wrong. There are obviously many nuances in this discussion, more than I care to outline here. I think painting with broad strokes will do.

Some views, called “deontological,” understand right and wrong in terms of moral obligations or duties. On a deontological theory, for example, to say that murder is wrong is to say that we have an obligation not to commit murder. Different deontologists may disagree among themselves as to how rigid these moral obligations may be. Kant, for example, thought it was never permissible to tell a lie; the law against lying is absolute and uncompromising.

Other views, called “consequentialist,” understand right and wrong not necessarily in terms of rigid and absolute moral laws, but in terms of the consequences of action. An action is right — or rather, good — if it produces good consequences sufficiently proportionate to the bad consequences that might accompany it. Consequentialist theories are all about the effects of our actions: if they are sufficiently good, then the act is good, whatever it might be; if they are sufficiently bad, then the act is bad, whatever it might be.

There is also another view, called “virtue ethics,” in which the emphasis is not so much on following absolute laws, nor on producing good consequences, but on acting out of a certain kind of character. The idea in virtue ethics is that our concern should be to act in such a way as to demonstrate virtuous character — a character that is courageous, wise, temperate, and just, for example. And because the virtues are connected to one another — it is not possible to be courageous without also being wise, for example, since “courage” without wisdom is just foolhardiness — it follows that virtue ethics proposes an integrated, holistic understanding of ethical action. The point of ethics is not just to “do the right thing,” nor just to “bring about good,” but to be a wholly good and virtuous person in every respect.

If we return from this philosophical discussion to the text from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, we might come to the conclusion that Paul is proposing something like a Holy Spirit-informed virtue ethics. He doesn’t tell his audience to follow certain rules for action, nor to produce good consequences irrespective of their motivations, but rather to become certain sorts of persons, to act out of certain habits of character. They are to become humble, gentle, patient, loving, concerned for unity.

What difference does it make for Paul to take this approach? Here is what I think. It is not always clear what to do in every situation. Sometimes the circumstances of life leave us in dilemmatic situations in which the right thing to do seems hard to find. When confronted with situations like this, persons of different character will incline in different directions. Confronted with a situation of a private sin gone public, for example, a humble and patient person will certainly react differently than a person who is primarily characterized by a zeal for holiness and following the rules. Our characters inform our vision, the way in which we see the world and the way we approach our lives within it.

Paul teaches the Ephesians to become certain kinds of persons because in this way they will be able to navigate the uncertainties of life in keeping with God’s will. Rules don’t always hold, and the concern to produce “good consequences” can sometimes lead us to do evil things. But if we adopt certain traits of character, if we try to think as humble and patient and loving people — more than that, if we try to become humble, patient, loving people, — then we can face the uncertainties of life with the proper orientation and the right thing to do will become clear to us.

Eph. 4:1

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (Eph. 4:1)

Although he was not always the most elegant writer, the Apostle Paul was certainly rhetorically talented. He knew how to make a strong point. Consider, for example, some of what he says to Philemon in pleading that he receive the runaway slave Onesimus with kindness and love: “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love” (vv. 8-9). This is a rhetorically strong approach because Paul manages to reference his apostolic authority as a basis for Philemon doing what he says while not insisting upon it alone. And when he tells Philemon that he will repay whatever debt Onesimus might owe him, he says: “I will pay it back — not to mention that you owe me your very self” (v. 19). In doing this, Paul shows both magnanimity, in being willing to pay the damages that Onesimus might owe Philemon, while also a position of superiority, reminding Philemon that whatever debt his former slave might owe him, Philemon’s debt to Paul is even greater.

This same rhetorical prowess is on display in this verse in Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. By calling attention to the fact that he is a prisoner for the Lord’s sake, his call to the Ephesians to live a life worthy of the Gospel is even stronger. He can shame them for their lax living and unseriousness and motivate them to be stricter with themselves, because he is suffering for Christ’s sake in prison. Of course, his purpose is not to shame them tout court, but rather to motivate them to live lives worthy of the Gospel by presenting himself as an example.

In light of what Paul does here, I would like to make a point about the ecclesial calendar. In the more “traditional” churches, such as in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism, there are many feast days for a number of saints from all times of the history of the Church. In these days, for example, the sermon preached during the liturgy might make reference to the life and example of faithfulness of the saint in question. Contemporary Christians look to their forebears in the faith for an example of how to live in fidelity to Christ in the face of the dangers of this world.

This seems to me a perfectly reasonable and salutary practice, if it is done intentionally. Paul himself, in this passage from the Epistle to the Ephesians, teaches us that we can learn from the examples of the faithful, and it is especially from those who’ve suffered for the Gospel that we have much to learn. In this light, we might very well do ourselves some good to consider often the many people in Christ’s Church who, by the help of the Holy Spirit, lived lives worthy of the Gospel to which they had been called.