Atheist Delusions, the Good and the Beautiful from God, not Nature

Belief in the good, the bad and the ugly aren’t things that are simply inherent realities to the fabric of nature; such realities are things that are contingent upon certain unique belief structures. In other words, as atheists might surmise, we don’t simply read such moral proclivities off of the page of nature, instead these realities are those that come from something or someOne above, beyond, but lovingly and graciously from within the structures of nietzschecreation. In other words, the good, the bad and the ugly are not absolute realities in themselves, things that we can possess and manage through the proper education; instead their reality comes extra nos, from without us, as an alien thing bequeathed to us as creatures whose concreteness is also an ecstatic reality; a gift from some other ground than ourselves. This is one of the many points that David Bently Hart is making in his book Atheist Delusions:

What, however, we should never forget is where those larger notions of the moral good, to which even atheists can feel a devotion, come from, and this is no small matter. Compassion, pity, and charity, as we understand and cherish them, are not objects found in nature, like trees or butterflies or academic philosophers, but are historically contingent conventions of belief and practice, formed by cultural convictions that need never risen at all. Many societies have endured and indeed flourished quite well without them. It is laudable that Dennett is disposed (as I assume he is) to hate economic, civil, or judicial injustice, and that he believes we should not abandon our fellow human beings to poverty, tyranny, exploitation, or despair. Good manners, however, should oblige him and others like him to acknowledge that they are inheritors of a social conscience whose ethical grammar would have been very different had it not been shaped by Christianity’s moral premises: the ideals of justice for the oppressed the church took from Judaism, Christianity’s own special language of charity, its doctrine of God’s universal love, its exaltation of forgiveness over condemnation, and so on. And good sense should prompt them to acknowledge that absolutely nothing ensures that, once Christian beliefs have been finally and fully renounced, those values will not slowly dissolve, to be replaced by others that are coarser, colder, more pragmatic, and more “inhuman.” On this score, it would be foolish to feel especially sanguine; and there are good causes, as I shall discuss in the final part of this book, for apprehension. This one reason why the historical insight and intellectual honesty of Nietzsche were such precious things, and why their absence from so much contemporary antireligious polemic renders it so depressingly vapid. [David Bentley Hart,  Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 16.]

In this, one of Hart’s opening chapters, he is taking aim at what he considers to be a sad attempt of atheism and Christian antagonism nowadays. He has been referencing Richard Dawkins, Dennet, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Brown and others who seem to have the ear of popular culture when it comes to critiquing Christianity. But he shows how inane so much of what these authors actually is when taken to its logical and ugly conclusion.

Anyway, I liked the material point of what Hart is writing in the quote I provide from him. There is this naïve belief amongst pagan culture in general, that they have something better to offer. They seem to fail to recognize that they cannot simply sleuth in negation and criticism of something positive (and I mean by way of presentation) like Christianity; they actually, through their criticism betoken themselves with a severe burden of proof. That is, it is not enough to shoot the messenger, after they shoot the messenger they must offer another message, an alternative account, and explanatory motif that provides greater gusto and gravitas than say the Christian account has offered Western culture (and all cultures, in some regard) for millennia; no small task. And what Hart is suggesting, arguing, is that it really cannot be done; at least if the history of ideas have any meaning.

Something that should be noted; Hart is comparing and contrasting today’s antagonistic voices (to Christianity) with those offered by thinkers in the 19th century and further back. He is somewhat lamenting the fact that today’s antagonistic critics of Christianity are in fact like babies compared to their more mature an thoughtful and informed forbears. I think Hart thinks the media has a lot to do with the fact that the most prominent Christian critics today have any purchase at all; because to Hart’s point, they certainly don’t have resonance based upon their force of thought and commanding intellectual and rhetorical prowess when it comes to actual depth.


Silly Rabbit, Trix are for Kids: The Mythology of the Salvation-Atonement Distinction, ‘Sufficient for All, Efficient for the Elect’

Amongst the classically Reformed amongst us, it is common parlance to refer to a distinction, relative to the extent of the atonement of Jesus Christ (i.e. for whom did he die?, etc.), which goes like this: Christ’s death on the cross was sufficient to save and redeem the whole world, but in reality it is only efficient to save the elect; those whom God gratuitously chose to be saved from before the foundations of the world. So there is recognition of the fact that God’s life in Christ for us has the potential capacity and power to save all, but it only has the actual reach to affect salvation in those whom God particularly chose to reach. There is a somewhat devious (I think) conception of God, and his wills or acts that stands behind this kind of distinction between the ‘sufficiency’ of the atonement Versus its ‘efficiency’; maybe we will get into that at a later date.


Following is part of an argument and description of this ‘distinction’ provided by R. Scott Clark of Westminster Theological Seminary California’s faculty; he writes of this sufficient/efficient dichotomy:

In the midst of controversy over the nature of God’s sovereignty, Godescalc of Orbais defended Augustine vigorously and suffered for it. He taught that there are two “worlds,” that which Christ has purchased with his blood and that which he has not. Thus when Scripture says that Christ died for the “world” (e.g., John 3:16) it is extensive of all those Christ has actually redeemed, but it does not include everyone who has ever lived. 18 In the same way, those passages which seem to say that Christ died for all, in all times and places must but understood to refer to all the elect. Thus he saw 1 John 2:2 not as a problem passage, but a proof-text for definite atonement.19

The Lombard’s teaching on the atonement is most famous for his use of the distinction between the sufficiency of Christ’s death and its efficiency. Though they are not familiar to many of us today, from their publication in the late 12th century until the late 16th century, Peter’s Sentences were the most important theological text in the Latin-speaking world. Theological students even earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the Sentences.

In Book 3, distinction 20 he taught that Christ’s death was “sufficient” to redeem all (quantum ad pretii) but it is “efficient” only “for the elect” (pro electis).20 This distinction, though not followed by all Western theologians after Lombard, was adopted by most until the nominalist movement (e.g., William of Ockham, d. 1347) overturned the “Old School” (via antiqua).21

In his great work, Summa Theologiae, Thomas distinguished between God’s will considered as his antecedent will, by which he could be said to have willed the salvation of all; and his will considered as consequent, i.e., what he actually decreed to exist, i.e., that only the elect would be saved and that some will be reprobated (damned).22 Later, Protestant theologians would revise this distinction to refer to his revealed and hidden will. With respect to his revealed will, God is said to desire certain things (i.e., that none should perish). It is his revealed will that we should know the existence of a hidden decree (who will be saved and who will perish) but the content of that decree is part of his hidden will.

Thomas also made it very clear that he adopted Lombard’s sufficient/efficient distinction but also taught unambiguously that Christ died effectively only for the elect.23 [full argument available here]

So as we can see, this distinction is a reality in theological parlance, first articulated by the seminal Roman Catholic theologian, Peter Lombard, in his infamous Sentences (which were the basis for subsequent Medieval and Protestant Reformed theologies to follow); and as observed, continue to have conceptual force for contemporary classically Reformed historians and theologians like Scott Clark. I thought of highlighting this distinction because I came across a rebuttal of it by Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bently Hart as I have been reading (10 pages from completion now) Matthew Levering’s book Predestination. Reference is made to this ‘rebuttal’ of Hart by Levering in a footnote on the first page of the last chapter of the book. Let me share that now, and we will see what you think:

Hart, ‘Providence and Causality’, 47. Hart explains further: “This entire issue, of course, becomes far less involved if one does not presume real differentiations within God’s intention towards his creatures. For, surely, scripture is quite explicit on this point: God positively “wills” the salvation of “all human beings” (1 Tim. 2.4). That is, he does not merely generically desire that salvation, or formally allow it as a logical possibility, or will it antecedently but not consequently, or (most ridiculous of all) enable it “sufficiently” but not “efficaciously”. If God were really to supply saving grace sufficient for all, but to refuse to supply most persons with the necessary natural means of attaining that grace, it would mean that God does not will the salvation of all. If God’s will to save is truly universal, as the epistle proclaims, one simply cannot start from the assumption that God causes some to rise while willingly permitting others to fall; even if one dreads the spectre of universalism, one cat at most affirm that God causes all to rise, and permits all to fall, and imparts to all—the ability to consent to or to resist grace he extends while providentially ordering all things according to his universal will to salvation. Or, rather, perhaps one should say that God causes all to rise, but the nature of that cause necessarily involves a permission of the will’. [Cited by Matthew Levering, Predestination, 177-78 n. 2.]

I would like to elaborate further, especially on what Clark refers to as God’s antecedent and consequent will and how that relates to this soteriological distinction of ‘sufficient/efficient’. Hart, as you read his quotable, also refers to this supposed distinction between God’s ‘antecedent’ and ‘consequent’ will; apparently, and to be sure, it is this prior distinction, made by theologians, in God’s life that funds the conceptual hangers upon which these ‘theologians’ hang the ‘sufficient/efficient’ distinction relative to the extent of the atonement. Suffice it to say for now, to appeal to this sufficient/efficient distinction introduces a rupture or break into God’s life, into his will for us (I don’t like appealing to the language of ‘Will’, but I will for sake of discussion). The important thing, and this is what we as Evangelical Calvinists do, is to maintain a unity in God’s Triune life; so following Rahner, Barth, Torrance & co. the ontological Trinity is the economic Trinity (and vice versa)— or, there is a unity to God’s life. The ‘antecedent’ life of God is the ‘consequent’ life of God Self revealed in Jesus Christ—so then there is ‘no God behind the back of Jesus’! If we dispose of these ‘two-wills’ in God, then we dispose of the foundation upon which the sufficient/efficient distinction is built, where it lives, moves, and has its breath. And, if we follow Hart’s rebuttal of this distinction it is even more simply stated than I just did; i.e. it cannot be said that God genuinely wills the salvation of all, and at the same time hold that God only provides the means for some to be saved (unless you want to affirm prior to this discussion by logical priority, that God has such a thing as an ‘antecedent’ will and a ‘consequent’ wherein the former is somehow distinct from the latter—this has terrible problems, doctrine of God-wise for you–so I can understand why you want to fall back into a strict apophaticism and mystery at this point, but God’s Self-revelation in Christ won’t let you retreat so fast!). He either truly desires all to be saved or he doesn’t (pace the modal law of logic: e.g. the law of non-contradiction).

We should discuss, at a later date, this idea and impact of God’s singular will, and the fact that who he is, how he acts in his inner (some would use the language of eternal) life, is exactly, univocally the same way he acts in Christ and the Holy Spirit in his outer life revealed in salvation history for us. We will talk about this soon, I have written on this in the past; but I will revisit it in the near future. Suffice it to say, ‘you don’t really believe that the atonement is sufficient for all, but only efficient for the elect’, do you? Silly rabbit, trix are for kids.