What follows is an oblique contribution to a debate between my friends Doug Wilson and James Jordan. Doug has recently addressed an issue – regeneration – on which he and Jim have disagreed for a number of years. I hope that the brief discussion below will untangle the debate somewhat.
In my view, the question is not whether we can have personal assurance, but how. The question is not whether there are false sons in the church, but how to theologize about that reality and how to deal with them pastorally. The question is not whether God discriminates; everyone in the room is a high predestinarian. The differences are not unimportant, but they are not tests of orthodoxy or Reformed credentials.
Most centrally, the question in debate is not whether God makes individuals new creations, but how best to describe that. Jim emphasizes the personal and continuing role of the Spirit; there is no permanent “transubstantiation of the soul” in the elect, he argues. Rather, the difference between the elect and reprobate is that the Spirit persists in personally “wrestling” with the elect and does not with the reprobate. Doug says that Jim objects to the doctrine of the new birth on “philosophical” grounds (a debatable claim), and says that Jim questions “if we have such a thing as a ‘nature’ that admits of an ontological change into another kind of nature.” Both, however, insist that no sinner is saved unless he is transferred from a state of wrath to a state of grace, unless God works in the sinner to change him from a child of Satan to a child of God.
One way to enter the debate is to probe what we mean by “nature.” Doug is using common Reformed language when he speaks of regeneration as involving a “change of nature.”
The biblical sources for this are several: Paul says that “we are by nature (phusei) children of wrath just as the rest” and John quotes Jesus saying “that which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit.” I think Paul is actually talking about Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians, and if that’s true, then it’s an unusual way to use the word phusis since it refers to cultural/religious differences between Jews and Gentiles. But I’ll put that to the side. Given its ambiguity and its uses in the history of philosophy, I question the value of using “nature” language at all. Put that to the side too. I agree with what Jim has written on regeneration; but let’s put that to the side too.
Here I adopt what I think is Doug’s manner of speaking about these things. Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that the Bible says that a change of “nature” as an essential feature of salvation. Let’s stipulate too that “regeneration” is the name of this change of nature.
I use the scare quotes around “nature” for a reason. On any account, it’s a strange sort of nature. We typically think of “nature” as a set of characteristics that determine what kind of thing a thing is. Pigs have the nature of pigs, dogs the nature of dogs. Nature for Aristotle was a principle of development and change; it sets the trajectory for a thing’s actualization as the thing it is. Acorns grow to oaks because they have the nature of oakness. They don’t grow into maples because they don’t possess the inner principle, the nature, of mapleness. On this understanding, regeneration as a change of nature means that God gives a new inner principle of growth and maturation that leads to a different endpoint – transfiguration into the image of Christ.
Note: If our natures change when we are reborn of God, then we cannot say that human beings have a permanent, fixed “nature.” Human beings can have either fleshly nature or Spiritual nature. For the record, Nyssa (and no doubt others) already recognized that the Christian doctrine of creation disturbed the inherited notion of nature. For Aristotle, nature was a limit on what a thing could be, and that notion of limit, Nyssa thought, was inconsistent with the belief that God created all things and determined their natures and their limits.
At the same time, this change of “nature” takes place on the surface of something that remains permanent. After all, human beings who are made children of God are still human beings. Doug doesn’t believe that regeneration instills a principle of development and change whose telos is to make human beings into antelope or angels. Regeneration, however construed, does not involve the creation of a new species of creature. The change of “nature” means a new principle of human development. The old principle is still there; a regenerated person still grows and declines in the way human beings grow and decline. Regeneration instills a new way of being human. Thus, though God changes natures in one sense, in another sense we retain the nature that God gave us at our formation in the womb.
Perhaps we can specify more exactly what changes and what remains permanent. What remains fixed are features of human existence like being made in the image of God, being creative and linguistic beings, being rational, etc. What changes? It would seem that the change is in the orientation of these created gifts. When we are given a new nature, our reason is reoriented to think God’s thoughts after Him, our creativity and language use are put to righteous uses, we begin to image God not only in certain inherent capacities but in righteousness, holiness, and truth.
If that is the kind of thing meant by a “change of nature,” then “nature” appears to means something like “life-orientation” or even “relationship.” What changes is not the fact that we are human, but the fact that, staying human, our human capacities are given new direction – new goals, motives, standards, to use Van Til’s phrasing. If we insist on using “change of nature” to describe that, then we are using “nature” in something like a “relational” sense.
Push this back to the decree, which is what determines what “nature” a person will have – regenerate or unregenerate, elect or reprobate, pig-dog or person. Again, “nature” is of an odd sort because it doesn’t describe the inherent constituents of the person, but a particular determination of the life-history and orientation of the person. Elect and reprobate share the same human “nature,” and their “nature” as elect or reprobate something additional, freely determined by God. Again, we seem to have something close to a “relational” ontology: The being of different human persons is determined by how God regards them from eternity.
Reformed theologians who talk about a “change of nature” thus have to a) believe that human nature is not altogether fixed and therefore b) define “nature” and “ontology” in terms of relation and orientation to God.
To bring this back to the current debate: If Doug accepts option “b,” then his position looks a lot like Jim’s. Doug calls it an “ontological” change while Jim doesn’t, but neither is talking about a change from a human to something else and both are talking about a change in the sinner’s stance toward and relationship with God. Doug has often said that humans are not relations but in relation. Let me grant that; but if regeneration is a change of “nature,” it seems that the in-relation effects or even is a change of nature. Relations and natures are not impenetrably distinct, but, shall we say, perichoretically co-inhabiting.
There are still differences, which I think have mainly to do with Jim’s Rosenstockian insistence on thinking in temporal and not static, spatial categories, and Jim’s instinct to think in personal rather than substance categories. For him, the life of the newborn child of God is a life of constant, personal responsiveness to the life-giving Spirit. What maintains the Christian’s new life through life is not an inalienable deposit in the soul but the continuing, persistent, relentless work of the Spirit with the elect. Despite these differences, if the reasoning here is sound, then I don’t think my two friends are as distant from each other as it might appear.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Sunday, June 10, 2012 at 11:32 am
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