I was over recently at the Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference run by Rutherford House, this year’s theme being sanctification.
Apart from Edinburgh being effortlessly the best city in the UK and Ireland, if not in much of Europe, it was an enjoyable, educational and stretching couple of days in the splendid surroundings of New College.
IMHO the conference has improved significantly in structure, with plenty of shorter papers over a wide variety of related topics complementing the plenary speakers who included Oliver O’Donovan, Michael Horton, Richard Lints, Henri Blocher and others (very american feel in input and attendees). It was also nice to meet up with my ex-PhD supervisor Derek Tidball who opened the conference by preaching and who’s also our current external examiner at IBI.
The ethos tends to be Reformed, systematic, heavily academic – and while not a way of doing theology that I naturally feel at home with (I much prefer a biblical theology that unfolds the narrative(s) of Scripture as this is what the Bible itself is doing all the time; and I get lost in the sometimes labyrinthine detail of what this and that Reformed theologian thought), I’m glad to learn a huge amount from scholars in this tradition.
I thought I’d give a flavour of a couple of the papers in a couple of posts.
Michael Horton is one of the pre-eminent Reformed theologians around today. Here’s a little bit of what he had to say (in a long and very engaging paper) on divine and human agency in sanctification
Christ died for us, but he does not repent and believe for us. He is the life-giving vine, but we are truly fruit-bearing branches. Our good works arise from our union with Christ, but they really are our good works. It is not the Spirit who is believing and obeying in our place. The Spirit works within us, not for us, so that we are the ones who are “..bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1.10).
Now that sounds at first blush that we ‘co-operate’ with God in our sanctification. In other words, synergism, where some of our spiritual progress is due to God and some to us.
But Horton rejects any form of synergism.
What he wants to hold together here is that sanctification as well as justification is an act of God, appropriated through faith. How do this without making sanctification synergistic between man and God?
(These are my words not his incase I misrepresent things). The key is union with Christ. God’s grace is so poured out into the life of the believer that he/she is liberated from the old nature to be freed to live, through the power of the Spirit, a new life pleasing to God. Our response to God’s grace is ours, but even that assent does not derive from us, but is a work of the Spirit.
And Horton used Herman Bavinck to reinforce this point. The ‘covenant of grace’ is unilateral – it all derives from God. But it is ‘destined to become bilateral, to be consciously and voluntarily kept by humans in the power of God’.
How convincing is this distinction between ‘bilateral’ and ‘synergistic’ to you? Is Horton (and Calvinism) seeking to have his cake and eat it? Or is it a vital distinction to maintain?
How you view Horton’s insistence on monergism (sanctification as well as justification is all a saving work of God’s grace alone) versus synergism (where God and man in some way co-operate, I’m skipping over important details here) – will map out an answer of whether you are of an Arminian or a Calvinist disposition …..
Comments, as ever, welcome.