I Asked The Lord That I Might Grow

I was recently reminded of this beautiful hymn. During those times when God lays us low and employs those inward trials, remember that He is setting us free to find our all in Him,  so that we are perfect and complete. When we who are called by Him mean to do evil, God means it for good, and He will accomplish His will.

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of his salvation know,
And seek more earnestly his face.

‘Twas he who taught me thus to pray;
And he, I trust, has answered prayer:
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair.

I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once he’d grant me my request;
And, by his love’s constraining power,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, he made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart,
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with his own hand he seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Humbled my heart and laid me low.

“Lord, why is this?” I trembling cried;
“Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?”
“‘Tis in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.”

“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free,
To break thy schemes of worldly joy,
That thou mayst seek thy all in me.”

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Analogy

In this post, I’d like to draw attention to the doctrine of analogy in relation to providence and soteriology. I’ve drawn from an article by Dr. Michael Horton in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. His piece is primarily directed towards delineating the distinctions between the theological methods used by Reformed and open theist theologians, but it is a good starting point for thinking about the classical, Western doctrine of God.

What is the doctrine of analogy? Horton:

“When we assert certain predicates of God, based on God’s own self-revelation, we use them in one of three senses: univocally, analogically or equivocally. If we say that the predicate “gracious” means exactly the same thing, whether in God or in a creature, we are using “gracious” univocally. At the other end of the spectrum, if we say that by using that predicate we are ascribing something to God whose appropriateness is unknown to us, we are using it equivocally. If, however, God is said to be “gracious” in a way that is both similar and dissimilar to creatures, we say it is analogical. For instance, when we acknowledge that God is a “person,” do we really mean to say that he is a person in exactly the same sense as we are? When we follow Scripture in using male pronouns to refer to God, do we really believe that he is male? Unless we are willing to ascribe to God (in a univocal sense) all attributes of human personhood, predications must be analogical.”

Important to note is that we aren’t simply saying, for instance, that God is more gracious than a creature. God’s graciousness is qualitatively different, not just quantitatively different.

What does this have to do with our understanding of salvation and providence? Well, in the conversations I have on the topic, one of the objections that my Arminian/Molinist interlocutors advance is that, on the Reformed view, God is the author of sin. Once the ambiguities of that statement are cleared away, what they mean is that God is the only real cause of everything that happens and is therefore culpable for all evil. Secondary causes, such as human actions, don’t have any moral standing.

To illustrate the objection, suppose a man uses a pole to push a rock. The pole bears no responsibility for moving the rock; the man does. The argument is that if God ordains all that happens, we’re not much different than the pole. We can’t resist. We can’t do otherwise. We have no responsibility for our actions.

This betrays a univocal understanding of God as cause. In human experience, it is generally (though even here, not always) the case that increasing the amount of control one person has over a situation decreases the responsibility of others. However, if we recall the doctrine of analogy, God is a cause in a way that is both similar and dissimilar to us. One of the dissimilarities is that God can cause things such that a) the event certainly happens and b) creaturely freedom is not violated. It should be no surprise that God can ordain that Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, an obviously immoral act, while stilling holding Joseph’s brothers responsible for the sin. When God works providentially, He is operating on a totally different level from us.

It’s yet another mark against theologies built on a commitment to a libertarian account of free will that they lead one to adopt a heterodox view of God.

A Non-Accident of Birth

“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place… – Acts 17:26

“I can’t wait to get out of this rinky-dink little town!” How often have you heard some variation of this sentiment expressed? I know I’ve heard it too much, and I’m always saddened when I do. The attitude is one of dissatisfaction with and disdain for the place of one’s birth. Such an attitude might be alright1 if the proposition that “the place of a person’s birth is an ‘accident,'” is true. (“Accident” here means there isn’t a deliberate cause for the thing addressed.) In that case, a person was just unfortunately paired with a place that doesn’t match his personality, needs, or desires. Leaving is of no consequence, because there was never a reason to be there in the first place.

 A Christian, however, cannot hold that proposition as true. As the passage above says, the Lord fixes the “boundaries of our dwelling places.”2  He has “placed” us and given us a particular group of people to keep. If not even a sparrow can fall outside of God’s will, why do we think there are such things as “accidents of birth?”

This doesn’t mean providence should be read in an absolute sense. There may be very good reasons for moving from your home. What I want to highlight is simply this: If, in the course of deciding whether to leave or stay, you find yourself assuming that where you were born is an “accident,” start over. You may come to a different conclusion if you begin with the understanding that God is sovereign even over your birthplace.


[1] “Might” is the operative word here; I don’t think it is even if the truth of the proposition is granted.

[2] Yes, I know that is in reference to “nations.” How does God fix a nation’s dwelling place without fixing the dwelling places of individuals in the nation? Hint: He doesn’t. In this case, the proposed dichotomy between the “corporate” and “individual,” such as is often brought up in relation to election, is a false one.

A Few Definitions

To continue the conversation on rootedness and place, I’d like to define a few of the terms I’m using. If any reader would like to contest the usage of a term or request the further explanation of one not defined here, please leave your critique in the comment section, and I’ll consider making any appropriate changes. (Also, this post is in the interest of clarity; I don’t mean it to sound patronizing.)

Place

Even though much of my writing on the topic is/will be against a near wholesale exchange of concrete goods for abstractions, abstractions are still good and useful things. Indeed, when I talk about “place” in these posts, I am using the term in an abstract way. A place, in this sense, is a particular location with more or less clear boundaries encompassing a reasonably small area. Places have particular, stable populations and local cultures. Importantly, by “place” I don’t want it thought that I am advocating only for a sort of semi-rural lifestyle, such as that of my upbringing. No, there are a variety of types of places: some rural, some urban.1 Each kind of place will have its own challenges and rewards.

Culture

Ken Myers of the Mars Hill Audio Journal has some short primers on culture, modernity, and the Church, one of which I’ll utilize:

“Most anthropologists and sociologists define a culture as a way of life informed by and perpetuating a set of assumptions or beliefs concerning life’s meaning

A culture is a system or network of abstractions (beliefs or attitudes) as well as specific things (e.g., books, songs, buildings, schools), which are sustained by conventional practices and institutions…”

I encourage you to read or listen to this in its entirety; it isn’t long.

The important thing I want to point out is that, according to the above definition, a culture preserves beliefs and ideas through its tangible goods.

Modernity

Modernity is our current, Western culture. Again, from Ken Myers:

“One of the defining characteristics of modern Western culture is that its artifacts, practices, and institutions convey the belief that there is no intrinsic meaning in the universe.”

This leads directly to a radical individualism. As Myers indicates:

“The reigning belief of modern culture is that each individual is the sovereign maker of meaning…

This organizing idea of modernity has several prominent cultural consequences. The most dramatic of these is the radical reorientation of the purpose of cultural institutions. Historically, cultural forms served to establish boundaries for belief and behavior based on assumptions about the nature of things. But since there is, for modern culture, no nature of things to guide us, cultural institutions now serve to equip each individual with as much freedom and power as possible so as to assert his or her own account of meaning. Premodern cultures were systems of restraint; modern culture is a system of liberation.”

Rod Dreher, summarizing anthropologist Paul Connerton, says that “modernity is a condition of deliberate forgetting, of choosing to deny the power of the past to affect our actions in the present.” If one is the maker of one’s own meaning, the past has nothing to teach. In fact, there is nothing which has the ability or right to teach. There is only consumption. (This begins to sound startlingly like Sauron and Saruman, no?)

Tradition

Tradition: it’s what keeps us from falling off roofs.

Tevye’s analogy really is apt; we’re all fiddlers on the roof. Life is complicated, it is unpredictable, and it is hard. It is also glorious. How do we make sense of the mix of the pleasant and the repugnant, the good and the evil, the joyful and the sad? Lest I descend into a digital soliloquy on its virtues, let me just say that I think tradition is a large part of how we make sense of life.

In the broad sense, G.K. Chesterton says that “tradition is the democracy of the dead.” In a singular sense, it is a belief or custom handed down to us from our fathers and mothers. As such it is the practical wisdom that our ancestors have developed in dealing with life’s complexities.

(I’m not so sure this section was actually helpful, so much as it was an opportunity to post the Fiddler on the Roof video.)

Providence

From the Westminster Confession, Chapter 5:

1. God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.

2. Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

This is the backbone of the Reformed doctrine of providence. I’ll be making use of it later, but even if you aren’t Reformed, don’t let this turn you from my larger argument.

Those are the major terms I wanted defined. Unless I note otherwise, when I use these going forward, these are the basic definitions I have in mind. I imagine I will expand upon these, so do follow.

If you are interested in what I’m fleshing out here, please follow and like my blog. If you do, you’ll shave a week off your time in purgatory.


[1] That said, some development patterns, like the one which produces sprawling suburbs, do seem to actively militate against against a rooted and “placed” life. I’ll address this later, though.