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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Friday, 15 April 2011

A thought on mercy (Reply to Crisp, pt 2)

In his article Crisp makes a point, often made by Calvinists, as one of the building blocks of his main article. I here offer a simple reflection on it.
Regarding “grace” and “justice” Crisp writes,
“The two notions are distinct. God may act in a gracious manner towards his creatures, but he need not act in this way, and there can be no requirement for him to do so, because it is of the nature of an act of grace that it is free and not obligatory. By contrast, divine justice is inexorable and must be satisfied on an Augustinian way of thinking. It cannot be set aside, passed over, or abrogated . . . If salvation is a work of divine grace, then God could create a world where no one is saved and this would be consistent with his divine goodness.” (pp. 16–17)
To what extent is this so?

The grammar of “grace” (and “mercy”) and of “justice” does differ in the way that Crisp suggests. Take mercy. An act of mercy is not owed. God is under no obligation to the object of mercy to show mercy. He has not failed in any obligation to the sinner, say, if he does not show mercy. Quite so.

But it may still be the case that there remains a sense in which God does “need” to act mercifully towards the sinner. Not because he needs to show mercy in order to fulfil some obligation to the sinner (the sinner cannot be owed mercy—such a notion is absurd) but perhaps it is the case that it is God’s “nature always to have mercy.” Perhaps it is the case that God is the kind of God who, to be true to himself, “needs” to show mercy. So it is imaginable that mercy is also necessary for God in spite of the fact that its necessity is not identical to the necessity of justice.

Whether that is so would be to be considered more carefully. My point is that the distinction made by Crisp, though valid, does not by itself allow us to conclude that God could, even in theory, create a world in which he failed to save any/some/most/all. Perhaps such a world is indeed impossible given the perfection of the divine nature. God is a merciful God. If he did not show mercy to anyone, while he would not have failed in any obligations to sinners, such a scenario would make the claim that “God is merciful” false. My theological instincts react against that idea.

My second concern is whether a world in which God saved no one is compatible with his goodness. Here I suppose that it depends on what one means by “goodness.” If one holds that “God is good” means no more than “God carries out all his ‘obligations’” (or something like that) then not saving any is compatible with goodness. But this seems a somewhat minimalist understanding of “goodness.” In Scripture God’s goodness seems to be a more robust notion that this. If God does not save anyone then he may not have failed in any obligation to sinners (who cannot “claim” salvation as a right!) but has he actually shown goodness to sinners? And if he has not shown goodness to sinners is he really good in any robust sense?

I anticipate that this comment will elicit the response that God may have shown goodness to sinners in the form of common grace but not in the form of saving grace.

My first thought is that the logic of the Calvinist argument would lead one to say that God's failure to show even common grace to any sinners (for it too is not owed) is compatible with his goodness. So this response does not get to the heart of the problem (i.e., that God can be good without being good to anyone). But let's set that aside for now.

I suppose that in this scenario God has indeed been good to sinners — I have no intention of minimalizing common grace — even though he saves none of them. However, whilst he would have been good, he has not been GOOD. Saving them from eternal destruction is an act of greater goodness than making their lives here and now, on balance, good. So I guess that my point is that God’s goodness is a great, divine goodness and it is this robust goodness God must show to sinners to be true to himself.

Suppose that God has two sons dying of cancer (as a result of their own fault). God would be showing undeserved goodness to them to give them food and drink and friends, etc., but, of course, it is within God's power to heal them and to heal them is an act of even greater goodness. My point would then be this: if God showed common grace to all but saving grace to none then that may be consistent with his goodness but does not seem compatible with his GOODNESS. We may be inclined to say that God is good but not that he is GOOD.

This objection is compounded significantly if we move the discussion from divine goodness to divine love. (It is interesting that Crisp's article discusses the compatibility of hell with divine goodness but has no discussion of its compatibility with divine love. Yet surely love is a fundamental divine attribute as far as Christians are concerned.) Can we say that God is, in his very nature, love if, having chosen to create the world, he fails to love sinners? Here is my own view — no. But that is a discussion for another day.

9 comments:

Peter Gurry said...

"Can we say that God is, in his very nature, love if, having chosen to create the world, he fails to love sinners?" I assume the key is "having chosen to create the world"? Since God expressed intra-Trinitarian love prior to creation, there was never a time he became loving. Creation did not elicit his being love.

I'm thinking that mercy cannot be an intrinsic characteristic. "Perhaps it is the case that God is the kind of God who, to be true to himself, 'needs' to show mercy." How could he have been God prior to creation then? To whom was he showing mercy prior to creation?

It seems better to put mercy in the category that wrath is put in: it is not one of God's intrinsic perfections. It is it the outcome of intrinsic perfections (in this case love) but in itself it is not intrinsic.

"If one holds that 'God is good' means no more than 'God carries out all his "obligations"' (or something like that) then not saving any is compatible with goodness." What if one holds that 'God is good' means "God sustains all that borrows life from him." Wouldn't not saving any be compatible with this definition of goodness? If one day is evidence of his goodness to them isn't a lifetime of sustenance robust enough? If not, how robust is robust enough? And what's the criteria for determining?

Anonymous said...

Oh this is getting deep!

re:
"It seems better to put mercy in the category that wrath is put in: it is not one of God's intrinsic perfections. It is it the outcome of intrinsic perfections (in this case love) but in itself it is not intrinsic."

I'd like to comment:
1 John twice says "God is love" -- that this is absolutely foundational to His being and character.
Now the Bible never says "God is wrath/is punishment". True, at certain places, at certain times, God is wrathful; but it doesn't seem to be fundamental to His being in the same way as " God is love".

For that reason, I don't think we can "put mercy in the category that wrath is put in".

Peter Gurry said...

Deep indeed! Anonymous, I specifically said that wrath is not fundamental to his being. But you didn't show how love = mercy. 1 John says God is love not God is mercy. If you think the latter is true, then, in what sense, what God mercy prior to the Fall? Is there such a thing as intra-Trinitarian mercy?

Anonymous said...

LOL ! Deep indeed, and I'm having trouble keeping up !!

So here's how I feel. I believe the mercy of God would be a natural outcome of his love, once he had created human beings -- something like happens with parents conceiving and birthing children.

But the crux, I think, is this:
because God's love is foundational, then his punishment must also come out of his love, not his wrath (which is not foundational).

And if we accept that God has given us a reasonable understanding of "love" and "justice", then surely he's not going to operate too far removed from our understanding.

Peter Gurry said...

Anonymous, how about if we say instead, "The mercy of God would be a natural outcome of his love, once his created human beings had fallen." Remember, parents give birth to sin-stained children (Ps 51:5) whereas God did not create sin-stained children. So prior to Gen 3, he had no mercy to speak of, correct?

I'm not opposed to his punishment coming out of his love, but let's bring holiness into the picture too. His punishment (which is an action not an attribute) flows from his holy love, how about that? And remember, human analogies will fail in regard to punishment because (a) no parent has ever been holy as God is holy, (b) no parent has ever been omniscient, and (c) no parent can claim to be the source of all life (that old creature-Creator distinction).

As for our reasonable understanding, I'm not so sanguine about it. Rom 1 tells us we suppress the truth in unrighteousness, so I'm not going to be too bothered if the Bible describes things in terms that seem odd to my reasonable understanding. In fact, his thoughts are not our thoughts, so at some point I would expect him to be quite far removed from my understanding, right?

Auggybendoggy said...

Robin,

I recently posted some thoughts on this issues as well. I mentioned to Roger Olson, what if God showed you in a way you could not deny, that he was going to save no-one. I came to the same conclusion you did. Then he is not love.

For someone to declare to someone that they are something requires that they show that something what it is they declare.

It would be meaningless for me to declare that I love all Negros when I treat every single one of them bad.

So when peoeple say, God's not obligated to save anyone, I wonder what that really means. But if God by nature is love, then I assume he will act in the way of love towards his creation (which bears his image - man).

Anonymous said...

Peter, thanks for interacting.

I'll just add two points.

I'm not so sure we can analyse the Divine economy to the extent of distinguishing between God's love and God's mercy the way you do. It reminds me of the supra- and infra- lapsarian debate!

About the claim that the things of God could be so different from our understanding of them -- I think the whole purpose of the Bible is to minimize this. In fact, I think God has shared his ability to love with us humans, precisely so that we humans can understand his love. If anything, his love is different in that it's higher and better than ours, not because it's stranger (from our point of view).

You allude to Is 55:8
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD.

This is responding to the verse before which reads:
"Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon."

The surprising thing about God is that he's more than we expect -- not stranger than we expect.

Peter Gurry said...

So Anonymous, was God merciful before creation? If so, to whom was he merciful?

The purpose of the Bible is to minimize misunderstanding. It reveals God's character. So what does our ability to love have to do with our understanding God's love? I thought that's what the Bible was for?

If his love is only higher, then why do we need the Bible? All we need is calculator (our love x God = divine love).

So I think we need more reflection on the real need for special revelation.

Anonymous said...

Dear Peter and all,

Happy Easter! May God bless us all despite our differences.

I should have been more careful to say:

About the claim that the things of God could be so different from our understanding of them -- I think the whole purpose of the Bible is to minimize this. In fact, IN ADDITION TO THIS, I think God has shared his ability to love with us humans, precisely so that we humans can understand his love.

Your comment:

If his love is only higher, then why do we need the Bible? All we need is calculator (our love x God = divine love).

reminded me of the end of Matthew 6

[43] “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ [44] But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, [45] so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. ... For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? [47] And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? [48] You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Anyway, more important:
Christ has Risen!