Like a Man Among Grasshoppers
Tonight, Professor of Philosophy Dan Bonevac spoke on the topic of John Calvin’s philosophy to a group of grad students with whom I am involved. He showed how Calvin developed a dual philosophy on the nature of humanity, one based on how we were created pre-Fall, and one to describe how we are different post-Fall.
One of the characteristics of his post-Fall philosophy is that humanity’s ability to discern accurately vertical attributes (those about God) were all but destroyed, and those that are horizontal (interactions between humans and between us and Creation) were twisted, weakened, and diminished. To the extent we can make any good choices, it is solely due to the grace from God, perhaps through the concept of common grace, like the rain or other blessings that all can enjoy whether they know God or not (although the common grace aspect was not discussed explicitly).
As I sat listening to the talk on this topic, the picture came to my mind of fallen humanity as the stubble of a mown hayfield with God having the stature of a Himalayan mountain. I started thinking then of how our understanding of morality is so limited and how easily we can find ourselves in moral conundrums where godly people can logically and scripturally come to very different, and even opposite conclusions (i.e.—pacifist versus just war theorist versus some other variation).
Some months back, I posted several times on the theme of the untamed wildness of God’s goodness, of Lewis’ description of Aslan (Jesus) being good, but not safe, of God Himself reminding us that His ways are not our ways, and so on. I thought of all the different commands that God gave in Scripture that on the surface appear contradictory, or against what we would normally think of as the moral, good, or holy thing to do, yet Scripture is pointedly clear on God’s moral perfection.
Thus, if Calvin is to any extent correct in his description of our moral discernment post-Fall, then it becomes abundantly clear that God’s morality is far more complex and dynamic that we can hope to explain or justify or even condemn. Scripture says as much, yet it is hard for us as humans to not look at what He tells us to do or not do, then look at what He does and has done, and at the very least, not sit there scratching our heads.
The skeptic responds that we are copping out with some deus ex machina justification that sweeps God’s hypocrisy under the rug, and I am sympathetic to that explanation on the surface. However, it seems just as reasonable to attribute this justification to Him as we would to a parent telling a small child not to play with fireworks, while sitting there lighting off Roman candles. The problem the skeptic has is that of thinking higher of one’s wisdom and understanding relative to God’s than we ought. Well does it seem that we are teenagers who think we’ve got the world figured out, so anything inconsistent in a parent’s behaviour is hypocrisy rather than remaining gaps in our understanding.
There is an opposite danger in advancing this explanation. It is possible therefore for people to claim that outlandish or even reprehensible actions on their part that are in violation of laws and acceptable behaviour are due to God’s specific instruction in accordance with His “higher morality.” You know, the “God told me to do it” defense.
As we cannot exclude the possibility that He did tell them to do it, we are also under little or no obligation to assume that He did, and it is appropriate to investigate the incident and even find the person guilty of breaking the law and punish them. Often in the Bible people were punished by authority for doing God’s will, and sometimes even, to the best of their ability, the authorities were honestly acting within the God-given authority of their office. Sometimes God chose to exonerate His agents, and sometimes not. Therefore, unless a judge or community can be convinced that God really did command a person to do a normally bad action, authorities are right and just to condemn the act and punish the person, and trust that if they are wrong in doing so, God will deliver the person from the normal consequences. And the person committing the acts in God's name should realize this is the case and be prepared for punishment, as the Biblical saints often were.
So, I am led to conclude that because our moral faculties were damaged in the Fall, and because we are inherently finite beings at the best of times, because the nature of God demand He have moral perfection, then when God doesn’t make sense it is most logical to assume that it is our understanding that is lacking, not Him failing to be true to Himself.
It is uncomfortable because we are easily impressed with our own sophistication. However, a three-inch high piece of stubble thinking itself tall compared to a one-inch piece of stubble keeps forgetting that the standard of height is not an uncut haystalk, but a mountain 7 miles high. It is the skeptic who is anthropomorphizing God into his image, not the biblical Christian.