A couple weeks ago my colleague and office neighbor at Taylor Seminary, Jerry Shepherd, asked me whether he should comment in the blog or simply share his views directly. I opted for the blog exchange. You might think it is a bit strange for two colleagues to be blogging back and forth when their desks are ten feet apart (as the crow flies, if the crow could fly through cinderblock walls). But I believed this would be a fruitful exchange for many others as well. I am happy to see that belief vindicated.
This is the first part of Jerry’s latest comment responding to me:
As far as the “maximally” is concerned, I may not have read some of your previous posts carefully enough, so perhaps you can clarify for me why you have been referring to the concept of a “maximally loving” God, or a God who is “maximally glorified.” Are these terms used by Calvinists and you’re trying to show how in a Calvinistic system these states are not demonstrated as being achieved, or are these your own concepts and you yourself believe that God must be maximally loving and obtaining maximal glory for himself?
Yes, I believe God is necessarily maximally loving of his own nature. I also believe God acts of the necessity of his nature to maximize his own glory to his creation to the extent that this is something possible. (This is related to the problem of a greatest possible world. I believe that concept is incoherent in the same way that a highest possible number is incoherent. And I suspect the concept of a possible world where creatures possess a maximal perception of the divine glory is problematic for the same reason. Thus I don’t tie the concept of creation to the need for God to create that one world. Instead, God is of the necessity of his nature obliged to create a certain subset of the infinite set of possible worlds.)
But this isn’t about me, is it? The real question is whether the concept of necessity relative to the actualization of God’s glory is one familiar to Calvinists. And the short answer is: most surely yes.
Let’s begin briefly with a couple general observations from Calvin and Reformed Baptist John Gill. Calvin writes: “God uses means and instruments which he himself sees to be expedient, that all things may serve his glory, since he is Lord and Judge of all.” In this passage Calvin affirms that God acts to maximize his own glory. Gill concurs while applying that specifically to the decrees of election and reprobation: “Whereas we say that God’s ultimate end in these decrees is his own glory, the manifestation of the glory of his grace and mercy, together with his justice by the one, and the manifestation of the glory of his vindictive wrath and justice by the other…”
So now a question. If God acts to maximize his glory, and it is for this reason that he elects some and reprobates others, why doesn’t he elect all? After all, as I have repeatedly stressed, God is maximally loving. So if electing all to salvation were to be as self-glorifying as electing only some, then wouldn’t he have elected all? It is at this point that we consider the claim of Johnathan Edwards that saving all would not be as glorifying to God as damning some:
“It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth ; and for the same reason it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete ; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionally effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all ; for then the effulgence would not answer the reality. For the same reason it is not proper that one should be manifested exceedingly, and another but very little. It is highly proper that the effulgent glory of God should answer his real excellency ; that the splendour should be answerable to the real and essential glory, for the same reason that it is proper and excellent for God to glorify himself at all. Thus it is necessary, that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed ; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them ; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.
“And as it is necessary that there should be evil, because the display of the glory of God could not be imperfect and incomplete without it, so evil is necessary in order to the highest happiness of the creature and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world ; because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect ; and the happiness of the creature would be imperfect upon another account also ; for, as we have said, the sense of good is comparatively dull and flat, without the knowledge of evil.” (Edwards, “Micellaneous Remarks,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, 528).
I have chosen Edwards for three reasons. The first is that he is perhaps the greatest theologian America has ever produced. Second, while it is true that some of his positions are idiosyncratic (e.g. his apparent conflation of creatio continua with creatio ex nihilo), he has been enormously influential in the Reformed tradition, especially for his precision in articulating key concepts. Third, Edwards and his precise analysis have been very influential in the recent resurgence of Calvinism in John Piper and others. (See, for example, Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998).) So this is an important voice for articulating the logic of Reformed thinking and it is one that we ignore at our peril.
With that in mind, what is Edwards arguing in this passage? God’s “real excellency” is his objective exemplification of his great-making properties while his “effulgent glory” is the creature’s subjective perception of that real excellency. According to Edwards, evil is required for God’s effulgent glory to be perceived most fully among creatures. As he says (with a Manichaeistic ring, it must be said) that “it is necessary that there should be evil….” It is necessary because God must, of his nature, ensure that his effulgent glory fully manifests his real excellency to the degree that creatures are able to perceive it and this can only occur if there is evil and reprobation. This is a most extraordinary claim. In “Calvinism and the Contrast Effect” I was attempting to unpack the reasoning behind it.
So to answer Jerry’s question, my claim that according to Reformed theology God acts necessarily to maximize his own glory and this maximization of his glory requires the reprobation of some creatures is not my own projection. It is, rather, representative of the theology of Reformed thinkers from Edwards to Piper. (Indeed, it is to be found in Calvin as well, but that’s another blog post for another day.)