Reviewing “Why God Became Man” by Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm was a Benedictine monk, a philosopher, and a theologian. He served as the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109 AD. His work Cur Deus Homo, or Why God Became Man, covered Christian teachings of central importance: the incarnation, the sin of men, Christology, redemption by Christ, the doctrine of election etc. It answered the question why God had to become man for the salvation of the elects. The teaching was discussed through the dialogues between Anselm and Boso (one of Anselm’s students). There are two books for this work. While the first answered, with clear logic, how men sin, and why men’s sins are so great that they need Christ’s salvation, the second answered why it is Christ, with a perfect divine nature and a perfect human nature, who carried out the act of redemption of the human race.

In Book 1, Anselm and Boso started their conversations by defining which questions unbelievers have in general, including the irrationality of God descending into a woman’s womb, bearing the life of a man who suffered on earth, and being crucified on the cross. Then Anselm started explaining the necessity of all these for the redemption of the human race by a divine person. He first argued that it is the will of God that the death of a just man, Christ, happened. It is not that God is not omnipotent, as if Christ had to die out of obligation. He died voluntarily although His obedience did not demand it. A few verses were cited. (Phil. 2:8, Phil. 2:9, John 6:38, Rom. 8:32, and Matt. 26:39) Anselm wrote this in response to the Muslims (who believe God can forgive as He wishes), and the Jews (why the incarnation). This work is also believed to be a projection of hierarchical submission in the feudal society in the Middle Ages onto theology.

Then they spent an extended discussion regarding man’s sins and the recompense for them. Anselm defined that “to sin is nothing other than not to give God what is owed to him.” (page 283) And the debt which the human race ought to pay back to God is “all the will of a rational creature ought to be subject to the will of God.” (page 283) Just as men who sinned took away what God deserves, they are “under an obligation to repay to God an honor which he has violently taken from him,” (page 283) which is satisfactory to God. Then can God simply cancel the debt, or forgive the sins, out of mercy alone? Anselm explained that it does not fit God to do that. Canceling sins without any punishments would make sinners and non-sinners before God. This would make sinfulness in a position of greater freedom than righteousness. However, it does not fit God who is righteous and just. (pages 284-285) Hence, there ought to be a punishment for sinners, even though God is willing to forgive the sinners.

Anselm and Boso then turned their discussion about the fallen angels. Some angels fell because of their sins. Fallen angels were unable to reconcile with God because God did not give them perseverance. They came to the conclusions that the places of these bad angels have to be filled up from the human race. They even concluded that the human elect will not be less than the number of fallen angels. Although it is not clear these teachings about angels have scriptural basis, Anselm spent a considerable amount of effort to explain the necessity of electing human elects into the places of bad angels, thus requiring redeeming some people. And as good angels do not sin, the elects who replace the bad angels should be sinless as well. Therefore, the elected men have to be saved for the recompense for sin. (pages 289-301) However, in my opinion, without the angelology, the whole framework of Anselm’s teaching does not fall apart because God is willing to save men to restore the original purpose of creation, which will be covered in Book 2.

To fill the places of fallen angels, or to simply put humans back to the original places, Anselm argued that they have to be sinless. Anselm told an analogy that a rich man holds a precious pearl, which is knocked out of his hand into the mud by some others. Although the man can pick it up, he wants the pearl to be perfectly clean, without dirts. (page 301) It is the case that men needs to be saved before God can restore them into the place. This is another explanation why God cannot simply forgive men out of mercy alone, because it does not fit His characters.

Knowing that the recompense is necessary, it is logical to figure out how much it takes for men to repay God for what they have owed. It is agreed that “the recompense should be proportional to the size of the sin.” (page 303) Moreover, unfortunately, in addition to our own being and all that we are capable of, there are things needed to recompense that we could not pay for because our sins are heavy: we sin as our actions contradict the will of God so seriously that the whole universe needs to perish. The sin started in the Garden, when man was created without sins. He was placed there as God’s deputy (Gen. 1:28-30) and was able to overcome the devil. However, he chose to commit sin, despite his greater strength and his immortality. As a result, he is weak and mortal. He is responsible for the sin committed, and “needs to conquer the devil through the difficulty of sin.” (page 308) From many perspectives, it is concluded that the human race is unable to restore to the state of pure righteousness.

Then, it is tempting to say, “a merciful God remits the debt of anyone who begs forgiveness on the ground that he is incapable of making repayment,” (page 311) but this kind of mercy contradicts God’s justice, as Anselm argued. However, given that God is willing to forgive men, it follows as a necessary consequence that mankind is saved by Christ, which is the main theme of Book 2.

In Book 2, Anselm and Boso continued the conversation, but turned their focus on biblical theology. Anselm recalled the creation of man at the beginning that “the nature of rational beings was created by God righteous in order that, through rejoicing in him, it might be blessedly happy… It is rational… in order that it may distinguish between right and wrong, and between the greater good and the lesser good.” (page 315) And man was so perfect that “if he had not sinned, he would never die… If man is to be restored in perfection, he ought to be reconstituted as the sort of being he would have been if he had not sinned.” (page 316) For this, God has two options: completing what God has begun, and destroying the current sinful human race to raise a new one. However, it has to be the former because among His creation, there is nothing more precious than man. Therefore, a redemption of the human race is needed.

The next question becomes how this redemption is brought about, and why it has to be acted by someone who is God and man. Anselm argued that it has to be God because to pay back the property of God, it has to be God himself; and it has to be man, because it is man who ought to repay the debt that he owed. (page 320) This person has to be perfect God and perfect Man, with two distinct natures in one Person, unlike what the Nestorians or the Monophysites claimed. This God-man came from God who assumed a human nature from the race of Adam and from a virgin woman. This man belongs to the race of Adam, instead of a newly created sinless man, so that it is appropriate for this man to pay recompense for the race of Adam. And why it is from a virgin woman? Anselm raised two points: first, to show God’s competence, as He had not made a man from a woman without a man (but He did from a man and a woman together as in usual practice, from neither a man nor a woman as in Adam’s creation, and from a man without a woman as in Eve’s creation); and second, the cause of human’s first sin originated from a woman, so that it is appropriate that “the medicine of sin and the cause of salvation should be born of a woman.” (page 323)

Another question is why it has to be the Second Person of the Trinity to incarnate. Anselm pointed out that it is more appropriate for the Son to make supplication to the Father than other Persons. And the Son, as the Person of the Word, is the Person that the men had sinned most specifically against.

Then Anselm and Boso returned back to the question whether Christ died voluntarily. The discussion brought about the important idea that Christ, as a perfect man, is immortal, but capable of committing sin just like Adam. However, He maintained righteousness while “being capable of abandoning it.” (page 327) Anselm eloquently stated “all capability is consequent upon will.” (page 326) Christ was capable of not dying (because of His righteousness), but He chose to die. His volunteer to do this is undoubtable. He died out of His own free will. And it is of His own power that He died, and rose again, as he is omnipotent, an attribute of His divine nature.

Christ assumed a human nature from the race of Adam and a virgin, He shared our discomforts and other weaknesses. However, out of the weaknesses we have, He did not take ignorance because ignorance is “never useful, always detrimental.” (page 333) Being the God-man, even though He took up the human nature, He is still fully divine: He still possesses the identity of God.

The human race had to die because of our sins, as Anselm and Boso had already argued earlier. And now they argued how Christ’s death is sufficient to outweigh the magnitude of all sins of the human race, committed both in the past and the future. As the sins of the human race have been directed against the Son, it is the Son, who need to be paid in order to pay for the debt due to our sins. It is the death of the Word through whom the Universe was created that the created Universe can be restored. If it were not this man dying, the whole Universe would be cursed to perish. And it is worth noting that this same death destroyed the sins of those who put Christ to death, because, as Apostle Paul wrote, that if they knew it, they would not crucify their God. (1 Cor. 2:8) Their sins were committed out of ignorance.

It is worth noting that the God-man was produced sinless out of the sinful human race in order to restore the creation. This restoration of creation is more miraculous than the creation itself. (page 337) Boso mentioned that it is undoubtable that Adam and Eve had a connection with the act of redemption although the Bible is not clear about it, (page 340) but this statement cannot be easily discerned.

At this point, it has been proved that man’s sins are so great that man cannot repay it themselves, and God cannot forgive man without recompense due to its righteousness, but God is willing to restore the human race back to the originally perfect human nature by redemption, by becoming man, assuming human nature in the same race of Adam, and giving himself to God to pay recompense to God Himself for the sin of the human race. While it does not fit God to simply cancel our debts without any punishment, God shows His mercy by becoming man to save us. This way of redemption does not make mercy and just mutually exclusive, but come together as God’s attributes in harmony.

As God adopt the human nature of Adam to carry out the redemption, devil, the fallen angel, cannot be saved through this way because there is no angel-God that is like man-God to perform this. (page 354-355) Anselm concluded by saying that all these are scriptural based.

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Thomas Aquinas on Original Sin

Thomas Aquinas was an Italian friar, a Catholic priest, and the Doctor of the Church in the 13th century. He was one of the best theologians in Western Europe in the Medieval Ages. His work titled Summa Theologiae highlighted the accomplishment of theology of the period. A lot of his teachings, especially sacraments and grace, are controversial, but on original sin, it is good. His answer to Question 82, Prima Secundæ Partis (First Part of the Second Part), Summa Theologiae, concerning the original sin, is summarized.

Question 1: Is original sin a habit?

According to Aquinas, original sin is a habit.

He explained that habit is two-fold. The first kind of habit is one’s inclination to act, like our framework of knowledge or worldview (“science”) and virtues are habits. Original sin, as a lack of original righteousness, is not a habit in this sense. The second kind is “the disposition of a complex nature.” Original sins, as the lack of original justice, means the souls have been spiritually corrupted, and being impossible not to sin. This impossibility not to sin is the disposition of the corrupted souls, and from this point of view, original sin is a habit. This answered the Objection 1 he listed.

It is true that with the definition of the first kind, evil habits have to be acquired through a wicked act. It contradicts that the original sin is not something we acquire. However, using the definition of the second kind of habit, we are inborn with evil habits because of the original sins. Aquinas thus disputed the Objection 3.

Then Aquinas discussed about the Objection 2 regarding the original sin and the actual sin. While an actual sin is an act beyond a permissible limit, the original sin is basically a disposition, passed on from Adam and Eve, to perform an actual sin. Even if one is asleep, he is regarded as being sinful, unlike what the Objection 2 claims.

Question 2: Are there several original sins in one man? How does Aquinas defend himself?

According to Aquinas, there is only one, instead of many, original sin in one man.

Aquinas cited from John 1:29, where John the Baptist said, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The “sin” here refers to the original sin, and it is clearly singular, not plural. Objection 1 quoted a verse in Psalm: “Behold I was conceived in iniquities, and in sins did my mother conceive me.” But these sins are actual sins like pride, disobedience etc., instead of the original sin. He thus disputed Objection 1.

Aquinas explained it with the cause and essence of it. The cause of the original sin is the first sin committed by Adam and Eve, and the sinful state was then passed on to us. Therefore, there is only one original sin. For the essence of it, the original sin refers to the disposition of a corrupted human nature. This disposition is numerically one. He illustrated with the sickness analogy: the original sin is like the cause of of the sickness, and various symptoms like the various actual sins. In this way, he disputed Objection 2, because the various sins in one man stem from one original sin; and he also replied to Objection 3, because it is this numerically one original sin infects different parts of the soul, which does not make this original sin to be plural.

Question 3: Is original sin the same thing as concupiscence?

According to Aquinas, the original sin is materially concupiscence, but formally the lack of original justice. Given that the original sin is the lack of original justice, man is no longer submitting to the will of God, but pursue the cause of things other than God, or “mutable good” according to him. This desire for other things other than God is concupiscence, or spiritual lust. This makes the original sin materially concupiscence. From the context, Aquinas’ concupiscence is not limited to inappropriate sexual desires.

Objection 1 argued that concupiscence is natural to man so that it cannot be of the original sin which is contrary to the human nature. But Aquinas stated that the act of concupiscence is beyond the permissible boundary, as in the corrupted human nature, and thus it is of the original sin.

Objection 2 argued that the sins are of a wide diversity besides concupiscence, but Aquinas added that these sins stem all from concupiscence, the pursuit of things other than God. The original sin, as the misplaced passion because of the lack of original justice, is therefore concupiscence.

Aquinas argued in a previous question (Question 77) that man is motivated by a strong passion instead of intellect. The corrupted nature of human being made man pursue inappropriate passion, even though his intellect should not have led him to. Original sin is thus concupiscence, although it comprises of ignorance. Hence, he disputed Objection 3.

Question 4: Is original sin equally in all of us?

According to Aquinas, original sin is equally in all of us.

Aquinas explained that as the original sin is simply the lack of original justice, there is no degree of it, as it is just the entire righteousness was removed. In addition, since all of our original sin is equally related to the sin of Adam and Eve, it is evident that no one’s original sin is greater than the other. This disputed Objection 1, which argued acts of concupiscence can be of various degrees, that this concupiscence is not something of continuous degree, but simply the lack of righteousness (a value of a binary variable). It similarly disputed Objection 2, because as in the sickness analogy, while the severity of the sickness is continuous, the cause of sickness is one.

Objection 3 cited Augustine’s quote: “lust transmits the original sin to the child.” And this lust, believably sexual in nature, is of various degrees, implying that the original sin is not equal in all of us. However, Aquinas disputed this objection that the original sin is transmitted to children even without lust.

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Threefold Way of Divine Naming

Due to our finitude, our language cannot completely describe God comprehensively. However, due to our likeness to God (Gen. 1:27), there are certain qualities of creatures that reflect His attributes. Therefore, the Bible uses anthropomorphic language to describe God. Ironically, it is so tricky that men fall into the trap of idolatry because of anthropomorphism. Idolatry does not only mean worshipping false gods, but also mean “worshipping Yahweh through visible symbols,” (ISBE, Idolatry) (Hos. 8:5-6, 10:5) or “think that the divine being is… an image formed by art and imagination of man” (Acts 17:29). This states the danger of idolatry using anthropomorphic language about God.

The threefold way (way of causation, way of negation, and way of eminence) helps us avoid idolatry. In the way of causation, God is the source of all creaturely perfection, for example, “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119:105) God is like human and other creaturely being that a creature object is helpful to name Him. But we can easily depict God as if He were the created object literally in this anthropomorphic language, instead focusing on the real attributes these names really point to. Then we need the way of negation.

In the way of negation, God is described in a negative way because he is set apart from all creaturely modes of perfection. Some of God’s names and attributes cannot be possibly described positively in human languages or with any creaturely objects, making us name God as “being not something.” Examples include God is immutable, meaning “the Lord do not change.” (Mal. 3:6) However, naming God in a negative way does not reveal any new knowledge about God. But by using negation, we mean to affirm attributes of God that are not incommunicable, and that are not found in humans. This points to the way of eminence of divine naming.

In the way of eminence, God is supreme in all perfection. For example, He is “steadfast love” (Ps. 51:1), and “the deliverer” (Ps. 18:2). But God is immanent, implying that these names in the way of eminence is meaningful if He is also the source of all creaturely perfection. This points back to the need of the way of causation.

By using the threefold way of divine naming, we can comprehensively cover the names that describe His being the source of all we need, and asserts attributes that are totally not human. This way of naming allows us to use the anthropomorphic language that is accommodated to human understanding; it is appropriate because all creatures are theomorphic: we are like Him as we were made in His image. (Gen. 1:27) This ensures that we are aware that some of the divine names reflect His holiness. Hence, we do not conceiving God in a naive creaturely ways as the Athenians did. (Acts 17:29)

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God of Psalm 51

1.   Introduction

Psalm 51 has been known as one of the seven “Penitential Psalms,” or Psalms of Confession. This is an accurate classification given to this psalm because the poet, King David, composed it after Nathan the prophet rebuked him as he committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. The emotion expressed by the poet, who was deeply troubled by his iniquity, was immense. Psalm 51 is undoubtedly a model psalm for confession, but the poet expressed a few incommunicable and communicable attributes of God, which I argue that they should have been emphasized more. In particular, God’s mercy is also explicitly demonstrated in this psalm.

God’s names and attributes in Psalm 51 are analyzed using the threefold way, namely negation, eminence, and causation.[1] As the transcendent God, He possesses attributes of infinitude, which can only be named in the way of negation. However, the way of negation alone reveals nothing new about God, and it presupposes the way of eminence, by seeing God as the source of all creaturely perfection. Attributes regarding the mercy and love of God stand out in this psalm, given the poet violated at least two of the Ten Commandments, namely murder (6th, Exod. 20:13), and adultery (7th, Exod. 20:14). His sins can be rephrased as, negatively, “forsaking God,” or positively, “seeking for oneself.”[2] (Jer. 2:13) Thus, the way of eminence is undeniably important to view God in this psalm. Last but not least, as the poet pleaded for God’s forgiveness, we shall see more about the immanence of God from the psalm, hence a lot of attributes exhibited are through the way of causation.

2.   Way of Negation

2.1 Immutability

Because Psalm 51 is a psalm of confession, the divine names indicating His infinitude are not explicitly present. Nevertheless, negative attributes of God are not absent. As a man after God’s heart, the poet knew God. At the moment he was reminded he had sinned, he immediately confessed and repented. (2 Sam. 12:13) It is an indication of God’s immutability in a few ways. First, the poet knew about God’s judgment, (Ps. 51:4) which has been God’s unchanging will.[3] Before King David, God had been judging the earth throughout the ancient times that the Israelites knew about, such as Noah’s flood (Gen. 6-8), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), the death of the Israelites who worshipped the golden calf (Exod. 32), the fall of the Israelites who committed adultery with the Moabites and Midianites, (Num. 25:1-9; 31:16) the repeated decline of Israel due to their national sins at the times of Judges (Judg. 2-21), and most recently, the decline of King Saul. (1 Sam. 15) He knew his act is not right in God’s eyes.

Second, the poet urged for pardoning of his sins. (Ps. 51:4) This presupposes that God forgives if men repent. (1 John 1:9) Although this teaching is more explicit in the New Testament, it is also well known in the Old Testament times. The institution of the feast of atonement (Lev. 16) was a “shadow” of this truth. (Heb. 9:23) The poet knew all these very well. God was willing not to destroy Sodom even if there were only ten righteous men. (Gen. 18:32) Although the Israelites in the desert repeatedly rebelled, God was willing to forgive them, and continued to guide them on the way to the promised land. J. I. Packer said, “God’s way does not change… His aims and principles of actions remain consistent.”[4] In forgiving the king that He chose, the poet was confident that God would forgive him.

Despite the Israelites’ sins, God still kept His promises because of the covenants He made with their father. “I the LORD do not change.” (Mal. 3:6) God, through Malachi, reassured them that they would not be “consumed.” Similarly, the poet knew God that even if he sinned, God kept the covenant with him. “God’s law witnesses His immutable attributes.”[5] He would not be destroyed, but he was deeply distressed by what he had done. His law does not change, so does His policy. This psalm of confession presupposes God’s immutability, which implies His faithfulness. As a man after God’s heart, the poet asked for God’s pardon.

3.   Way of Eminence

The way of eminence concerns the perspective of God as the source of all creaturely perfection. The psalm is full of emotional outpour, the begging of forgiveness, asking for delivery, and seeking for consolations because of the poet’s misery. God definitely has all the things the poet desperately sought. As the poet composed in another psalm: “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” (Ps. 16:2) Unlike the way of negation, divine names and attributes in the way of eminence are mostly God’s communicable attributes.

3.1 Mercy

The first attribute in the way of eminence is mercy, as stated in the first verse of this psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” (Ps. 51:1) “Mercy” is a divine attribute, as stated in Scripture, “a God merciful and gracious” (Exod. 34:6), and “for the LORD your God is a merciful God.” (Deut. 4:31) The word “mercy” in Psalm 51:1 is also translated as “gracious” in NASB.[6] It is known to be one of the God’s communicate attributes,[7] because Christ commanded us to be merciful in His Sermon on the Mount: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful,” (Luke 6:36) and as the mercy was also shown by the good Samaritan to robbed Jewish man. (Luke 10:37) The fact that the poet cried for mercy at the beginning of this psalm indicates that it is the most important attribute of God presented in this psalm.

What is mercy? Or what is being merciful? It was stated by à Brakel that “mercy, being the merciful God Himself, is an essential attribute whereby God is inclined to come to the aid of a creature in his misery.”[8] In other words, mercy is God’s goodness shown to the people in misery.[9] The poet cried for the mercy, because he was deeply distressed by his sins, and saw God’s judgement. (Ps. 51:4) While God actually took away the Holy Spirit from Saul, (1 Sam. 16:14) the poet asked God not to do so. (Ps. 51:11) He was in need of mercy because of the depth of his sins, which seems to be matched by the depth of his confession in this psalm.[10] He cried out for mercy, also because he had always known that God is a merciful God.

It is known that indeed God showed the mercy to the poet. Despite the depth of his sins, God forgave him. (2 Sam. 12:13) Moreover, interestingly, Solomon, his next son with the same woman, was loved, (2 Sam. 12:24) and chosen by God to be the successor to his throne. (1 Kings 1:30) It demonstrated that God’s mercy is indeed great, and beyond imagination.

3.2 Steadfast Love

Another attribute in the way of eminence closely related to God’s mercy is His steadfast love. (Ps. 51:1) “Steadfast love” is the ESV translation, but “lovingkindness” in NASB and KJV, and “unfailing love” in NIV. It is the kind of love that God had been showing to the poet. God has been walking with the poet through all the sufferings before the poet became the King of Judah and Israelites. God made a covenant with the poet. (2 Sam. 7:7-16) The poet knew very well about His steadfast love, which is covenantal in nature. Because of this attribute, God befriended the poet.[11] As the God of the steadfast love, He chose to forgive the poet, showing His mercy. Hence, it is not surprising that some biblical scholars suggest that mercy and steadfast love are virtually synonymous.[12]

3.3 Salvation

The third divine name in the way of eminence is salvation, which appears twice in this psalm. (Ps. 51:12, 14) The poet committed a few big sins, and he needed a deliverance from the punishment. In the psalm, he said, “deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation…” (Ps. 51:14) This salvation was not a literal deliverance from a physically dangerous situation, but the salvation in the theological sense: the salvation of the poet from the eternal wrath of God,[13] followed by the imputation of righteousness[14] to him. Besides the term “salvation,” the poet mentioned a lot about the salvation, for example, the cleaning of his sins using hyssop so that he could be “whiter than snow,” (Ps. 51:7) the creation of a new heart in the poet, (Ps. 51:10) the cancellation of all his iniquities, (Ps. 51:9) and making the poet capable of teaching people and praising God in the right way. (Ps. 51:13, 14) With God’s salvation, not only were his sins forgiven, but also was he able to stand in front of God on the judgement day. With God’s salvation, the poet enjoyed “the joy of salvation.” (Ps. 51:12)

4.   Way of Causation

The attributes of infinitude in the way of negation and that of fullness in the way of eminence account for two important aspects of God. However, without the way of causation which indicates His firstness, God has no dealings with the human being. Our God is an immanent God, who is deeply involved in human history.[15] God is the source of all creaturely perfection, and the poet experienced spirit renewal, (Ps. 51:10) and was taught His wisdom (Ps. 51:6) according to the psalm.

4.1 Renewal of Spirit

Because of his sins, the poet’s inward being had been crooked. The time between his going into Bathsheba and his repentance was, by reasonable estimation, approximately ten months, which is a long period of time. He intentionally committed to the sins until Nathan the Prophet rebuked him. During repentance, his heart needed to be renewed. It is unclear whether this spirit was the substance of soul of a man,[16] or the inner being of a man in general. However, it is clear that “renew a right spirit…” echos “create… a new heart” in Ps. 51:10.[17] This right spirit, renewed by God, restored the poet’s original vocation as a king leading out Israel’s troop.[18] This spirit has also to be a “disciplined” spirit, “of uprightness and integrity, in opposition to dissimulation and hypocrisy,”[19] but “prepared to do every good work.”[20] Even though the poet was a man after God’s heart, as a human being, he was weak as Jesus said to his disciples at Gethsemane, “the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt. 26:41)

4.2 Wisdom

While the spirit renewal regards the poet’s emotions and will, there is wisdom, (Ps. 51:6) another divine attribute in the way of eminence which regards his rationality and intellect. “Wisdom” in Hebrew literally means simple technical skills,[21] but when it comes to living, it means “following God’s design and thus avoiding moral pitfalls.”[22] Until the poet was rebuked by Nathan the Prophet, he thought everything had been a hidden secret. He might think he was clever in stealing Uriah’s wife, and plotted his death in a “smart” way. However, he was a fool as he obviously violated God’s commandments. The poet prayed that God taught him “wisdom in the secret heart.” These were all struggles in his inner life. But wisdom, as a divine power, changed his understanding.[23] If the poet was able to read the wisdom in Prov. 5 and Prov. 7, he might have more determination to say “no” to adultery, and avoiding being “the simple,” or the “young man lacking sense” in Prov. 7:7.

5. King David’s Plea and God’s Merciful Response

Given the threefold way of naming God, it can be clearly seen that His attributes exhibited in Psalm 51 by the poet. In addition to the verses, the evidences of these attributes can be supported by the historical narratives in the Old Testament. The poet was a man pleasing to God (1 Sam. 13:13-14, 1 Sam. 16:1-13), who was after God’s own heart, and knew who God is. He knew God was the one whom he asked for forgiveness for his iniquity with his “broken spirit” (Ps. 51:17). Hence, he was not “slow, ashamed, or afraid to voice out in prayer [his] own bitterness and lament before God.”[24] Christians should be quick and determined to confess their sins like the poet.

In fact, God did forgive the poet as we have seen from Scripture (2 Sam. 12:13), despite some negative consequences of his sins, including the death of his baby, (2 Sam. 12:14) and the chaos within his royal family. (2 Sam. 13-18) God did “create in [him] a clean heart,” and “renew a right spirit” (Ps. 51:10) and, evidently, did not take away the Holy Spirit, (Ps. 51:11) or the poet could not even compose the psalm.

6.   Conclusion

With the threefold way, the attributes of God are richly demonstrated in Psalm 51 by the poet, King David. As a psalm of confession, the poet poured out his emotion, as God did not despise a broken heart. (Ps. 51:17) It shows God’s mercy in the way of eminence, as God was good towards the poet in a miserable situation. God’s steadfast love, and salvation were also important attributes in the way of eminence too. God also renewed the spirit of the poet, and taught the poet wisdom, as, in the way of causation, God is the source of creaturely perfection. Lastly, what is really comforting is, in the way of negation, His immutability. As one confesses and repents, God forgives as He is faithful. (1 John 1:9)


[1] Timothy Smith, Thomas Aquinas’ Trinitarian Theology: A Study in Theological Method (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 204; Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 129.

[2] Timothy Lin, What is the Kingdom of Heaven in the Bible? The Truth of the Kingdom, ed. Karis Hui and Karen Li, trans. George Shen (Hong Kong: China Alliance Press, 2011), 165.

[3] Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Bartel Elshout (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications. 1992), 101.

[4] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Madison, WI: Intervarsity Press, 1977), 71.

[5] Zhiyong Wang, Modern Christian Covenantal Worldview (Taipei, Taiwan: Christian Arts Press, 2013), 102.

[6] In other parts of Scripture, “mercy” is also translated as “loving-kindness” or “compassionate” in other English translations. See: W. L. Walker, “Mercy; Merciful,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, accessed March 10, 2016,

[7] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Intervarsity, 1994), 200.

[8] à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1, 125; “a’ Brakel on General Mercy,” Calvin and Calvinism (WordPress), September 16, 2007, accessed Jun3 23, 2016,

[9] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, 213.

[10] Patrick D. Miller Jr., “Trouble and Woe: Interpreting the Biblical Laments,” Interpretation 31, no. 1 (1983): 37.

[11] Kenneth L. Barker, ed., [Pss. 6:4, 51:1] Zondervan NASB Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 746.

[12] W. L. Walker, “Lovingkindness,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, accessed April 26, 2016,

[13] R. C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian: an Introduction to Systematic Theology (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2014), 215.

[14] Burston Scott Easton, “Salvation,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, accessed March 30, 2016,

[15] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: a Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1987), 13-15.

[16] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 473-474.

[17] Stanley D. Walters, “I Talk of My Sin (to God) (and to You): Psalm 51, with David Speaking,” Calvin Theological Journal 50, no. 1 (2015): 102-103.

[18] Ibid., 102.

[19] John Gill, “Psalm 51:10,” John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible, accessed April 30, 2016,

[20] Ibid.

[21] Burston Scott Easton, “Wisdom,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, accessed March 30, 2016,

[22] Barker, ed., [Prov. 1:2] Zondervan NASB Study Bible, 894.

[23] Walters, “I Talk of My Sin (to God) (and to You),” 100.

[24] Gabriel Mendy, “The Theological Significance of the Psalms of Lament,” American Theological Inquiry 8, no. 21 (August 2015): 71.

Continue reading “God of Psalm 51”

What is Divine Providence?

The divine providence is the eternal work of God on the created universe. It started after God completed the creation of the Universe. It is a complicated doctrine, yet comforting. The triune God is the agent of providence. Providence is from the Latin word provideo.[1]

The Westminster Confession stated:

“God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.”[2]

Preservation, Concurrence, and Government

Providence consists of the following three perspectives: preservation, concurrence, and government.[3] Preservation refers to God’s work to maintain the existence of the created universe.

Concurrence is His work that the created things operate under His sovereignty. While God is the primary cause of all things, the things operate according to an order conferred by God, giving the significance of secondary causes. All things operate according to His will. By “all things,” it includes all places (Ps. 135:6), over all good and bad things (Lam. 3:37-38), all time (Isa. 46:9-10), all free human decisions of all men (Prov. 21:1-2, Gen. 50:20), the rise and fall of rulers (Isa. 40:23-24), and the operations of demons (Job 1).[4]

Government refers to His ultimate sovereignty that all things operate to achieve the goal intended by God. Upon creation, as a king over the whole created universe, God governs it. Everything in the universe is according to His will, for the praise of His own glory, as stated in the Epistles to the Ephesians:

“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.” (Eph. 1:11-12)

These three perspectives are not segregated; they are integrally connected.[5]

Providence and Theodicy

Providence is often discussed with theodicy because of the prevalence of evil and suffering in the world. However, God used the sinful to achieve His purpose. (Gen. 50:20) God is also the radiator of the common grace, “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt. 5:45) These sufferings are the consequences of the Fall, leading to the curse of the whole Universe. (Gen. 3) God is not the author of sins, which actually come from Satan and human fleshly desire. God simply wills them, (Job 1-2) but He hates sins. (Ps. 101:5) When Job hopelessly asked God about all the sufferings on himself, God did not answer him but simply asked: where were you when I created heaven and earth? (Job 38:1-40:2) However, Christians know God is the Governor of the Universe, and are guaranteed consolations in sufferings. Christians find the comfort because they know God loves them, and Apostle Paul wrote:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” (Rom. 8:35) And “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:37-39)

The doctrine of providence answers the questions with complicated situations and emotions, but it brings comfort to the elect.

Human Responsibility

The doctrine of divine providence does not even try to deny human responsibility, but says even human free decisions are within the sovereignty of God. In fact, Scripture repeatedly stresses that men are responsible for their sins, remarks, and deeds. For sins, Moses wrote, “the LORD will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me.” (Deut. 28:20) For good deeds in Christ, Apostle Paul wrote, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:13-14) People usually compartmentalize God’s will and human free decision, but they are actually perspectives of the same thing. J. I. Packer and Ting Lee described God’s will and human free decision figuratively as wave-particle duality in quantum mechanics.[6] Laws of nature, such as the law of gravity, are also within divine providence. Supernatural things are also within divine providence, but God does not need to change the laws of nature to make it happen.

Oppositions From Within: Occasionalism and Open Theism

There are a lot of oppositions against the doctrine of providence from within and outside the Christian churches. Many Reformed theologians such as Jonathan Edwards subscribed to occasionalism, which argues the created beings cannot be the efficient causes of events, but God is the only cause. However, this denial of secondary causes mean that creaturely causes are illusions, meaning virtually no laws and order that human can understand.

On the other hand, open theism, instead of proclaiming God’s sovereignty on all human free decisions, teaches that while God can influence human beings, men can make decisions on their own. The problem is that this view limits God’s sovereignty by denying His governance of our free will. The problem of evil and suffering, caused by human decision according to this view, is not comforting because we can no longer trust God that he will bring evils back to good.

Oppositions Outside: Pantheism and Deism

Outside the Christian churches, there are pantheism and deism. Pantheism asserts all nature actings are God’s acting, equating all secondary causes as the primary cause. All things happen in a mechanical way, leaving no room for miracles, free human decisions, prayers, sins etc. When talking about evil, it resorts to the pagan fate.[7]

Deism asserts that upon creation, God does not intervene any activities in the created universe. This denies the whole doctrine of providence, and the world operates on its own without God. Things happens according to the natural law. Proponents of deism resorts to pagan fate also when discussing about the problem of evil.[8]

Contemporary Slogans Alternative to Providence

Some contemporaries believe in the slogan: “We try our best. God do the rest.” This slogan needlessly divide God’s will and human responsibility. It denies God’s sovereignty, and takes away hope. Some say, “God blesses those who prepare.” This statement closely resembles open theism, and overemphasizes human responsibility. There is a Chinese proverb: “Try our best, but relies on fate.” This proverb is closer to the doctrine of providence. It approves both primary and secondary causes, but is silent about God’s sovereignty. It rightly encourages people to rely on God, but it removes the hope that God brings about good in whatever happened. It is also a taste of pagan fate.

[1] R. C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian: an Introduction to Systematic Theology (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2014), 78.

[2] “Of Providence”, In Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. V.I, accessed May 23, 2016,

[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 605.

[4] Scott Swain, “Lecture IV.2. The Works of God: the Doctrine of Providence,” unpublished class notes for ST 515 (Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington DC, Spring Semester, 2016), 1-2.

[5] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, 605.

[6] Ting W. Lee, The Renewing of Your Mind in a Postmodern World (E. Brunswick, NJ: Christian Renewal Ministries, 2006), 39; J. I. Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1961), 19.

[7] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, 559.

[8] Ibid., 603.

Continue reading “What is Divine Providence?”


Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? (Lamentations 3:37-38 ESV)

The doctrine of providence is a complex doctrine in a complex world; yet it is a comforting doctrine.

I. God the great Creator of all things does uphold,[1] direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things,[2] from the greatest even to the least,[3] by His most wise and holy providence,[4] according to His infallible foreknowledge,[5] and the free and immutable counsel of His own will,[6] to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.[7]

II. Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly;[8] yet, by the same providence, He orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.[9]

III. God, in His ordinary providence, makes use of means,[10] yet is free to work without,[11] above,[12] and against them,[13] at His pleasure.

IV. The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in His providence, that it extends itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men;[14] and that not by a bare permission,[15] but such as has joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding,[16] and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends;[17] yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceeds only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.[18]

V. The most wise, righteous, and gracious God does oftentimes leave, for a season, His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled;[19]and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.[20]

VI. As for those wicked and ungodly men whom God, as a righteous Judge, for former sins, does blind and harden,[21] from them He not only withholds His grace whereby they might have been enlightened in their understandings, and wrought upon in their hearts;[22] but sometimes also withdraws the gifts which they had,[23]and exposes them to such objects as their corruption makes occasion of sin;[24] and, withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan,[25] whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, even under those means which God uses for the softening of others.[26]

— Ch. V: “Of Providence,” Westminster Confession of Faith


Knowing the Law and the Lawgiver: John Lennox speaking on “Science and God”

It is such an excitement that Dr. John Lennox came in town to speak about “Science and God” at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, MD, organized by C. S. Lewis Institute. Dr. Lennox is a professor at University of Oxford, United Kingdom. He is a pure mathematician and a philosopher. He is also a Christian apologist, responding to attacks on Christianity posed by other atheists, including Richard Dawkins, Peter Singer, and Stephen Hawking. Dr. Lennox is a clear thinker.

Scientists are not necessarily atheists and naturalists, although a majority of them are. Dr. Lennox rightly pointed out that what divides scientists regarding the issue is not science, but worldview. As a body of knowledge and a philosophical method, science can be nicely fit into both the frameworks of naturalism and theism. While some prominent scientists made statements to support naturalism, their statements are not necessarily scientific.

Being a scientist, hence, science and God are not mutually exclusive. In Dr. Lennox’s line of thought, scientists are given two choices: naturalism and theism. But he pointed out that when modern science started in Western Europe, people’s worldview were definitely theistic. Sir Isaac Newton was a theist. But after a few hundred years, scientists have turned to atheism and naturalism. Stephen Hawking, who also studies gravity like Newton, is an atheist. Not to mention the philosophical development in Western Europe, some people unfortunately turn from theism to atheism because of the church. However, given the two choices, Dr. Lennox still chooses theism because, as he cited C. S. Lewis:

“Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator.” — C. S. Lewis, Miracles

A passion about science is a passion about the law of nature, given by a supernatural lawgiver. A curiosity about the nature should lead to that about the One who imparted laws into it.

He also insightfully pointed out that scientists turned to atheism because of the false ideas of God, or a wrong/incomplete doctrine of God, such as a materialistic god (but God is a spirit), or an ancient god that has a jurisdiction (such as those gods in Greek mythologies). A lot of scientists forsake God because they do not appreciate the doctrine of God, that He is both transcendent and immanent, and He is triune.

On the other hand, people misunderstand the nature of science. Science is just finding a general description over something, but not to explain something. In fact, science explains nothing. Dr. Lennox cited Bertrand Russell who asserted the connection of the meaningfulness of things to its verifiability. He teased Russell’s idea of scientism as “scientific fundamentalism.”

Dr. Lennox spent some time talking about the reductionism in science. A lot of materialists and naturalists believe that they can reach the truth of the world through successive reductionism. He ridiculed reductionism as a means to a fundamental description, with an example of image recognition of our brain. He illustrated that recognizing a character with two strokes cannot be satisfactorily reduced to the meaning of the character with any existing theories. (But of course, nowadays, computer scientists can train models with neural network or deep learning algorithms that perform the recognition.) I submitted a question that Dr. Lennox didn’t reply at all: reductionism is not the only dominant approach in physics nowadays. Statistical description of various levels of science are meaningful if they are scientifically tested as well. Philip Anderson discussed a lot about it in his famous article in Science titled “More Is Different.” [Anderson, 1972] However, these statistical scientists are still atheists. How does he want to tackle with these ideas? I am not sure if John Polkinghorne said something about it as well.

He lastly mentioned about the creation of the Universe. Christians believe that God’s creation is ex nihilo, i.e., out of nothing. [Bavinck, 2003] Theologians such as Thomas Aquinas proved the existence of God with the cosmological argument. The naturalists tried to escape the cosmological argument by redefining the word “nothing.” They said that “nothing” is the “absence of something.” The law of gravity said that the Universe is created out of a quantum fluctuations, which implies there is something physical outside the Universe, which implies that there is something eternal other than God. We know all this is speculation if one has to look for an alternative description other than theism, instead of doing science. They want to do physics instead of metaphysics. This framework of knowledge is fascinating in some sense, but, as Dr. Lennox said, it does not take away pain and suffering (as a lot of atheists aim at while suppressing religions); instead, it takes away hope.

Continue reading “Knowing the Law and the Lawgiver: John Lennox speaking on “Science and God””