Saturday, January 16, 2016

Regeneration and the means of grace

If regeneration is an immediate act of creative power it cannot be said to be wrought through the instrumentality of the Word of God in the sense of the gospel. For when we use the term the Word of God in such a sense we mean the Word of God proclaimed to us, addressed to our consciousness, operative in our consciousness, and engaging our consciousness with the appropriate effects. In other words, we do not meant the word of divine fiat, for that we must posit as the action of regeneration. (John Murray, "Regeneration," in John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, 196)

In an earlier post, I pointed out the problems with trying to do away with the term "regeneration" by attempting to subsume regeneration under the category of effectual calling. But while I agree regeneration is a distinct (note: not separate) act from effectual calling, I agreed that it was through God's Word in effectual calling that regeneration happens.

In his article on the topic however, John Murray goes further, trying to distinguish between two types of regeneration. The first is unmediated by the proclaimed Word but purely of divine fiat. The second is mediated by the proclaimed Word (pp. 196-7). In a certain sense, we can say that some people seem to show signs of regeneration prior to the proclamation of the Gospel, but is that a real example of someone who is regenerated by divine fiat alone apart from the proclaimed Word?

It is my contention that Murray is wrong here. While certainly there is a distinction between the divine fiat Word, and the proclaimed Word, yet, inasmuch as the proclaimed Word is faithful to the Scriptures, it is the very Word of God. God has instituted means to lead people unto salvation, and those include especially the preaching of His Word (WSC Q89). Thus, in the matter of salvation, there is a tight relation between the divine fiat and the proclaimed Word. Certainly, equating them is ridiculous since no preacher is God, but since God is pleased to work through His ordained means, then the divine fiat always works in conjunction with the preached Word.

Seeing the tight relation between the fiat Word and the proclaimed Word, we can and should say that the divine fiat Word in the effectual call accompanies (either before, contemporaneous, or after) the divine fiat Word. Thus, contra Murray, regeneration is an immediate act of creative power (in the sense that God did it by fiat), and yet regeneration can be said to be wrought through the instrumentality of the Word of God (in the sense that God ordained the preached Word to accompany the fiat Word). Practically, we should expect regeneration to happen co-extensively with the proclaimed Word, with no particular choice in the temporal order of these events. Thus, we might see some people who were initially disinterested in the Christian faith yet they come to faith after hearing the proclamation of the Gospel, while others might show a tender heart and were already receptive to Christ even prior to hearing the Gospel.

There are therefore not two senses of regeneration, but one. God's speech is one, therefore there is one sense of regeneration. Regeneration is unmediated by creaturely agency, yet God is pleased to use the means of grace for it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Article: Some practical problems with Cheung's heresies

I have consolidated and improved upon what I have written on the practical problems with Vincent Cheung's theology into an article, and you can read it here. Here is the conclusion:

Cheung’s heresy has produced poison fruits: the twin fruits of emotional resignation, and distrust in God. These are not the fruits of a God-centered ministry, and should be rejected as what they are: the works of the devil. May God open the eyes of Cheungians and grant them repentance and faith. Amen

Monday, January 11, 2016

The meaning of "puritan"

In essence, the ‘puritanism’ of this selection of authors extends no further than their desire for further reformation of the protestant church within the three kingdoms – hence the identification of ‘puritanism’ with an ecclesiological trend [Crawford Gribben, The Puritan Millennium: Literature and Theology, 1550-1682 (Studies in Christian History and Thought; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008), 8]

What exactly is a "puritan"? In Crawford Gribben's work, the noun/ adjective "puritan" is defined broadly as a desire for further reformation of the protestant church, which historically is situated in the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Wales. Thus, the word "puritan" can encompass both those who put a higher priority on the unity of the church and thus seek more gradual reforms, even the preservation of things they deem adiaphora (e.g. vestments), and those who put a higher priority on the purity of the church and thus agitate for quicker and stricter reforms. Over time after the Restoration of 1660, those who agitated for quicker and more radical reforms became known as the Nonconformists, who were forced out of the Church of England. Prior to 1660 however, all of them were within the young Reformed Church of England.

The word "puritan" therefore is descriptive more of a mood, or "ecclesiastical trend," than of fixed doctrines or even a certain type of piety. Now, in some modern day Reformed circles, "puritan" is associated with a certain type of inward piety and a striving after holiness. On pastoral practice, we have Richard Baxter's The Reformed Pastor, and John Owen's The Mortification of Sin is perhaps the most well-known work on self-examination and striving after holiness in mortifying the flesh. But historically, this understanding of "puritan" seems skewed. Oliver Cromwell can be considered a "puritan," but I doubt he would be a great example of supposed "puritan piety," at least not unless you are willing to contemplate massacring countless Irish as being a godly behavior. The more episcopal-minded James Ussher can be called a puritan, but a high church puritan doesn't exactly fit the modern Reformed mold of a "puritan," does it?

It is therefore better to use the more historically-based definition of "puritan" as a mood for ecclesiastical reform, instead of focusing on the more inward pietism-lite of a select few. No doubt a concern for inward piety and godliness is part of the 17th century puritan movement, yet its main focus is the reformation of the church. To be a "puritan" is thus to be discontent with the semi-Reformed status of the Church. It says no to the current ecclesiastical situation. It will not settle for the status quo under the partial truth that "there is no perfect church." Yes, there are no perfect churches, but there are churches reformed, and churches unreformed. What we desire is for churches to be always be reformed, going back to the Scriptures and confessing and practicing the historical Christian faith.

Another instance of Cheungian heresy

I have lost a friend to Cheungism, and blocked by him on Facebook. Recently, I was given a glimpse at what he had posted on one of the Facebook forums, and to some extent I was glad for the block, because I would have torn my hair out in frustration at such nonsense. Introducing the writings of Vincent Cheung to him to read is one of my biggest regrets. I am grieved by his fall from orthodoxy, and especially since he refuses to change. I was told however that perhaps I was too hasty in my denunciation of his Cheungian ways, but after seeing what he had posted, I think that my concern is at least partially validated.

The provocative nonsense he had posted in the forum was a statement that God actually deceives people. In the meta, there was a link to this article by Vincent Cheung, which states that God does tempt people, since God is fully sovereign and therefore he controls everything directly. Here we see an even more toxic fruit of Cheung's hard-shell determinism. It is bad enough that God is said to be the direct cause of evil, but now God actually deceives and tempts people? Just because He Himself is not the agent doing it, but He sent agents to do it, does not make any real differences at all. If I were to tell someone to murder X, does that mean that I am not guilty of murder since I did not personally commit the act?

There is nothing in Cheung's article that I have not refuted already, except the biblical texts. With regards to these texts, here we see Cheung violating a basic tenet of good exegesis: which is that clearer texts are supposed to interpret the more obscure texts, and narratives are to be interpreted according to didactic texts. Cheung cites the narrative texts 2 Samuel 24 and 1 King 22 and uses them to contradict what James 1:13-18 explicitly teaches, all in service to his occasionalist philosophy. This kind of bad exegesis is not surprising, for Cheung has an a priori dogmatic system which must be preserved at all costs; what the Scriptures say must be always re-interpreted to serve that philosophy.

For most people, it is enough to show that Cheungism holds that God deceives people. But, like every cult around the world, Cheungians seem willing to bite all the bullets their position entails. My only counter-argument is the same argument that I have used against God being the Author of Sin, namely, that it may exonerate God at the expense of compromising His nature. Besides that, I am totally at a loss how to refute this nonsense. It's almost like trying to refute someone who insists he is Superman and has just flown to and fro the Alpha Centauri system yesterday. Cheungism is a sickness of the mind and spirit, and God is using it as judgment to delude those who seek to be wiser than God Himself. May God in His mercy deliver them from this strong delusion Cheungians have.

Friday, January 08, 2016

What practical differences does making God the "Author of Sin" have

“But you are full of the judgment on the wicked; judgment and justice seize you.
Beware lest wrath entice you into scoffing, and let not the greatness of the ransom turn you aside.
Will your cry for help avail to keep you from distress, or all the force of your strength?
Do not long for the night, when peoples vanish in their place.
Take care; do not turn to iniquity, for this you have chosen rather than affliction.
Behold, God is exalted in his power; who is a teacher like him?
Who has prescribed for him his way, or who can say, ‘You have done wrong’?
“Remember to extol his work, of which men have sung. (Job 36:17-24)

Theologically, it makes a big deal whether God is or is not the Author of Sin. Yet, even if the dust will settle on this topic and my rebuttal to Vincent Cheung's rationalistic hypercalvinism, some might not see the differences between the two views. After all, God is the ultimate cause of sin either way, so does it matter whether it is "direct" or "indirect?" For Arminians like Roger Olsen, what difference does it make whether God directly caused sin, or indirectly superintends sin?

Theology is not merely abstract. Theology of course must start with the abstract, but it continues into the practical realm, for God is always immensely true and His Word always practical. So, if it is a big deal whether God is the direct cause of sin or the indirect superintendent of sin, then what practical differences would result from the two views? I suggest that it is in how one deals with trials and tribulations in life that the differences between these two views would be manifested.

In the wisdom literature, we read in the account of Job how he struggled with his unjust suffering. Job's three friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar) applied the retributive principle to Job's suffering, and inferred that Job must have sinned because he was suffering. Their dialogues are basically variants on the accusation that Job must have sinned against God and he needs to repent, while Job insisted on pleading his righteousness before God.

In contrast to Job's three friends, his fourth friend Elihu did not so rebuke Job. Rather, he rebuked Job for presuming he could demand an explanation from God, that God is answerable to him. When God finally responds out of the storm, God similarly rebukes Job for his presumption in questioning Him, exposing Job's total inadequacy in the areas of knowledge and power (Job 38-41). It is thus understandable that God did not rebuke Elihu, while Job's other three friends were rebuked (Job. 42:7-8). Elihu's rebuke of Job is fully in line with God's rebuke to Job, and thus it is to Elihu's words that we want to focus our attention here.

In Job 36:17-24, we see here that Elihu rebuked Job for letting his judgment of the wicked descend into a self-righteous exoneration of himself. In Job's bitter affliction, Job has crossed the line from pleading for justice to demanding justice. Job's affliction has turned in this sense into iniquity. Elihu's rebuke, and God's rebuke, is not because Job called for justice and pleaded his cause, but because in his vehement cry for vindication, he has elevated himself to the position of a judge instead of remaining the supplicant.

Thus, we see here that there is nothing wrong with calling for vindication before God. There is nothing wrong with facing trials and tribulations with anguish and calls for relief. All of these are not sinful unless they become demands where we become the judge demanding that God must act (or worse still, take matters into our own hands). But if everything is ordained by God, shouldn't the response to trials and tribulations be resignation and trust in God, instead of anger and anguish and cries for relief?

Here, we see one practical difference between Cheung's direct causation model of sovereignty, and the biblical Reformed model of full sovereignty through both primary and secondary means. Under Cheung's model, one should approach trials and tribulations with a certain sense of "resignation," trusting in God to bring good out of the trials and tribulations. Since everything is directly caused by God, to be angry at the means is to be angry at God, for the means are mere occasions for God to act. But in the biblical model, since the means are not directly from God, but that God superintends all things, then there is nothing wrong with being angry at the means. Anger at sin, anger towards oppression, anguish at suffering — all these are legitimate emotions to be expressed. Cries for vindication from God for what one perceives to be unjust suffering, like in the sufferings of Job, are not sinful in and of themselves. Of course, one has to have faith and trust in God that all things would work together for good (cf. Rom. 8:28), but this trust is not contradictory to having legitimate feelings of anguish and an attitude of questioning. We are after all not Stoics. In Job's case, Job's bitter anguish and suffering coexists with his own faith and trust in God as his redeemer (Job 19); the two are not mutually exclusive.

It is thus in this very practical aspect of life that the differences between Cheung's direct causation model and the biblical Reformed model can be in my opinion most clearly perceived. Cheung's model, while it might not lead to fatalism, certainly necessitates a certain soft form of resignation. After all, how can one be angry at the means if God is the one directly bringing about the means? Can one be angry at God? If I know that all things work together for good, then I would infer that persecution would work together for good, so should I be angry at the persecution of Christians around the world? Why should I if God is directly causing it for good?

Only in the biblical Reformed model that we can both trust God and yet have questions and anger at injustices. We live in a fallen world, not in the realm of God's decrees and sovereign will. Emotions of anguish and bitterness are natural. Instead of striving for artificiality in the Christian life, we should not have any issue with so-called "negative emotions," but rather cultivate faith in God as the deeper anchor for our souls in the many storms of life, so that our faith would bring us through the trials and tribulations that we face in this world.