Friday, August 28, 2009

A Critical Review of Gordon H. Clark's "God And Evil: The Problem Solved": Part V

I am journalling through Gordon H. Clark's "God and Evil: The Problem Solved". It is a bit grueling for me because I used to be a Calvinist, and was eventually convinced that my theological system was philosophically flawed and unbiblical. The conversion process was really long and painful, and I came out quite a passionate non-Calvinist on the other side. Thus the gruel. We all have the tendency to want to defend our current position ("confirmation bias"), and I suspect that having been through such an intense conversion significantly strengthens this bias in myself. But I would really like to labor for a position of neutrality. Firstly, I am interested in finding the truth more than I am interested in defending my worldview. Secondly, if my worldview happens to be on the right track, I am confident that it will hold up under scrutiny.

My efforts to keep an open mind so far include:

1. The reservation of the first read of each section in the book as uncritical and sympathetic (similar to how Russell describes we ought to read the ancient Greeks at first).
2. Constant prayer for a soft heart, humility, and a sympathetic/philosophically charitable understanding.
3. Talking through my understanding of each section with friends when possible.
4. Constantly reminding myself of these and others goals, and of the fact that simply going through the motions and praying about it doesn't automatically mean I've arrived.

But this hasn't completely neutralized me. My friend Brandon, who gave me this book, has been commenting on Part III, and I find in myself the impulse to read his comments with an eye to see where they err, rather than an eye to understand them thoroughly, first and foremost. Wanting to stay this impulse, I try to work through his comments and see why they were made and why they might seem right. This process is good, but I find myself wanting to hurry through it so that I can go back over the comments critically and begin forming my reply. Tonight, reading over some of my replies, I see places where I could have worded things more humbly or charitably. I still hold my non-Calvinist position, and I think for very good reasons, but my rhetoric still needs reformation. And I think our words are often indicative of our attitudes. Please pray that I will press into the Holy Spirit as I study, that I will be clear-minded, soft-hearted, and loving.

If you have any ideas about how I can practically keep an open mind and wrestle with the material with greater intellectual honesty, let me know. A wise man loves rebuke ;).

At any rate, the current section of Clark's book is entitled "Gill's Exegesis". John Gill wrote a book called "The Cause of God and Truth", the first part of which contains thorough exegetical treatments of about 100 verses commonly used to support Arminian doctrine. Clark believes the work is Biblically devastating to Arminianism.

Since it would be impractical to reproduce all 150 pages, Clark shares a sample with the reader: Gill's exegesis of Matthew 23:37. Gill says that the proper way to understand this passage is that the Scribes and Pharisees ("Jerusalem") prevented Jesus from gathering their followers (Jerusalem's "children"), and not that Jesus would have gathered all of mankind, but certain individuals resisted.

In order for this to entail all that the Arminians want it to, it has to show how God desires to gather every single human, and that the reason He doesn't is due to individual refusals.

After this Clark comments on how, though Gill's writings were important, there remains work to be done in defense of Calvinism and in application of it to POE.

Here are my honest reactions to this section:

• I would like to take a look at a copy of Gill's book. I am interested in his treatment of certain passages.

• If Gill's exegesis is correct, it might show that this passage is coherent with a Calvinist metaphysic.

• Even if Gill's exegesis is correct, it would not prove the truth of Calvinism.

• Actually, it just dawned on me that this entire book, so far, has comprised attempts at undercutting defeaters of Arminian doctrine, and not any positive arguments in favor of Calvinism. And I am still a bit surprised at the lack of scriptures, and of rigorous scriptural exegesis. I was kind of expecting this to be a positive, exegetical defense of Calvinism; instead I am so far getting a philosophical attack on Arminianism. But I have to keep in mind that this was originally only a single chapter in a larger treatise, that I'm not half-way through reading it yet, and that this section is a start on scriptural considerations.

• If Gill is correct, this verse seems like it could be construed to nevertheless pose problems for Calvinist doctrine. Even if it was the religious leaders who prevented Jesus from gathering the Jews, we still see an example of God's will being in some sense thwarted. Jesus Himself literally affirms the contrafactual conditional. He says that He would have but that Jerusalem would not. So whether it was the Jews themselves preventing Jesus from gathering them up, or their leaders who prevented them from being gathered, the passage still presents an example of something God would have done if it weren't for certain human actions.

I think the Calvinist way of understanding this is to distinguish between God's secret will, and His revealed will. But I've always found this to be an ad hoc philosophical injection into the scriptures, which makes God out to be deceitful, divided against Himself, and something of a schizophrenic. It's as if God is playing dolls with Himself, causes some of them to do the things He abhors while verbally telling them not to, mourns over it, and destroys them out of wrath. All the while causing others to first sin and later repent and receive eternal blessings. It just doesn't make any sense and it does not thematically or exegetically jive with the scriptural texts.

So whether "Jerusalem" represents an abstract entity and her "children" represent the individuals within, or "Jerusalem" represents the Scribes and Pharisees and her "children" represent their followers, this passage yet seems problematic for deterministic Calvinism.

• On top of all that, I still don't find myself convinced of Gill's exegesis. He doesn't actually handle any grammatical, lexical, or contextual issues. All he does is show how his understandings of the words used make sense out of the passage from a Calvinist perspective, and how this verse falls short of a complete affirmation of an Arminian soteriology.

There is actually a long list of exegetes who interpret "Jerusalem" much like Gill says the "Arminians" do. Here are a quick three:
Lamentation over Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37–39)
Jesus spoke these words of lamentation as a sincere expression of His love for Jersualem, and His grief over the many opportunities for salvation that they had passed by. “Jerusalem” refers to the entire nation of Israel. The nation’s leaders had been guilty of repeated crimes as they rejected God’s messengers, and even killed some of them. But in His grace, Jesus came to gather the people and save them.

“I would have... ye would not” summarizes the tragedy of final rejection of the truth. There is no argument here about divine sovereignty and human responsibility, for both are included. God could not force His salvation on the people; neither could He change the consequences of their stubborn rejection. “You will not come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:40). [1]

In a final lament over the city of Jerusalem, Jesus stated His desire for that nation. Jerusalem, the capital, represented the entire nation, and people there had killed the prophets and stoned those sent to them (cf. Matt. 23:34; 21:35). He longed to gather the nation together much as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. The nation, unlike chicks that naturally run to their mother hen in times of danger, willfully refused (you were not willing) to turn to the Lord. They were responsible to make a choice and their choice brought condemnation. [2]

2. She refused and rejected Christ, and gospel offers. The former was a sin without remedy, this against the remedy. Here is, (1.) The wonderful grace and favour of Jesus Christ toward them; How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings! Thus kind and condescending are the offers of gospel grace, even to Jerusalem’s children, bad as she is, the inhabitants, the little ones not excepted.

[1.] The favour proposed was the gathering of them. Christ’s design is to gather poor souls, gather them in from their wanderings, gather them home to himself, as the Centre of unity; for to him must the gathering of the people be. He would have taken the whole body of the Jewish nation into the church, and so gathered them all (as the Jews used to speak of proselytes) under the wings of the Divine Majesty. It is here illustrated by a humble similitude; as a hen clucks her chickens together. Christ would have gathered them, First, With such a tenderness of affection as the hen does, which has, by instinct, a peculiar concern for her young ones. Christ’s gathering of souls, comes from his love, Jer. 31:3. Secondly, For the same end. The hen gathered her chickens under her wings, for protection and safety, and for warmth and comfort; poor souls have in Christ both refuge and refreshment. The chickens naturally run to the hen for shelter, when they are threatened by the birds of prey; perhaps Christ refers to that promise (Ps. 91:4), He shall cover thee with his feathers. There is healing under Christ’s wings (Mal. 4:2); that is more than the hen has for her chickens.

[2.] The forwardness of Christ to confer this favour. His offers are, First, Very free; I would have done it. Jesus Christ is truly willing to receive and save poor souls that come to him. He desires not their ruin, he delights in their repentance. Secondly, Very frequent; How often! Christ often came up to Jerusalem, preached, and wrought miracles there; and the meaning of all this, was, he would have gathered them. He keeps account how often his calls have been repeated. As often as we have heard the sound of the gospel, as often as we have felt the strivings of the Spirit, so often Christ would have gathered us.

[3.] Their wilful refusal of this grace and favour; Ye would not. How emphatically is their obstinacy opposed to Christ’s mercy! I would, and ye would not. He was willing to save them, but they were not willing to be saved by him. Note, It is wholly owing to the wicked wills of sinners, that they are not gathered under the wings of the Lord Jesus. They did not like the terms upon which Christ proposed to gather them; they loved their sins, and yet trusted to their righteousness; they would not submit either to the grace of Christ or to his government, and so the bargain broke off. [3]
Each of these comes from a longer and more detailed treatment than the one reproduced for us in Clark's book. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

It's just not as if a simple, scholarly exegesis of this text reads like Gill says it does. It's not as if the scholars all agree and it's only within the laity that we find people who read this like an Arminian. It's just not that easy.

• As for establishing that God desires all men to be gathered, there are a long list of scriptures embedded within whole movements of history recorded in the Bible that establish that. The prophets record a God who expresses the deepest and purest yearning a being could possibly exhibit that every wicked person turn and repent so that He doesn't have to destroy them. The New Testament commentaries on the gospels explain that God gave His Son to die to make repentance possible for all men, and that God desires that nobody should perish, but that all repent and have eternal life.

I am only too familiar with the Calvinist understandings of these passages. They're just wrong, is all I'm saying.

[1] Wiersbe, W. W. (1996, c1989). The Bible exposition commentary (Mt 23:37). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
[2] Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1983-c1985). The Bible knowledge commentary : An exposition of the scriptures (2:75). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
[3] Henry, M. (1996, c1991). Matthew Henry's commentary on the whole Bible : Complete and unabridged in one volume (Mt 23:34). Peabody: Hendrickson.


  1. You can read Gill's work here:
    (about half way down)

    It's just not as if a simple, scholarly exegesis of this text reads like Gill says it does. It's not as if the scholars all agree and it's only within the laity that we find people who read this like an Arminian. It's just not that easy.

    Gill wasn't responding to "the laity." He was responding to scholars. Is it your assumption that all scholars must agree on the interpretation of a passage in order for it to be valid?

  2. Thanks for the link.

    Is it your assumption that all scholars must agree on the interpretation of a passage in order for it to be valid?

    No, obviously not.


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