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Monday, April 30, 2012

Truth, Goodness and Beauty in light of Common Grace (and Mario Puzo)

In discussions regarding Christ and culture the matter of how we are to approach literature is a must-consideration. Of course the extent of the fall and the idea of common grace (or as I prefer “common goodness”) must be considered in such an examination. A premise that arises, or is often assumed as axiomatic rather than one that is open for debate, is that unbelievers are actually capable of expressing “the true, the good and the beautiful.” This idea is closely related to the questions of whether fallen man is created in the "image of God" and what that phrase actually means.

Certainly there are some distinctions that all Reformed Christians draw with respect to how conversion impinges upon man as God’s “image bearer.” 1 Corinthians 11:7 declares that a man ought not to have his head covered since he is the image and glory of God. James informs us that men are made in God’s likeness. James 3:9 Notwithstanding, Scripture also informs that unconverted men have their minds blinded by the god of this world, which renders them not only incapable of seeing the light of the gospel but also blind to the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. It is Christ who is the image of God, and as Ephesians 4:24 teaches, it is through being re-created in Christ, the Second Adam, that man is restored as God’s witness to this glory. Man in Christ by the Spirit participates in true righteousness, holiness, and truth (as opposed to falsehood). Accordingly, the need to be restored in Christ presupposes, at least in some sense, fatal loss of the image Adam enjoyed. (I'm indebted to Robert Letham for these insights.) This radical antithesis is the basis for Van Til's insight, that although even the most mundane predication can resemble formal agreement between believer and unbeliever, there can be no agreement in principle. In principle, believer and unbeliever disagree over 1+1=2.

Christianity is too often considered only in soteriological terms. How can man be “saved?” To have such a narrow view of redemption is to pay precious little attention to the idea that Christ is not just the way back to the Father but the way back to the Father’s world. In this larger context we may ask - in what sense does the unbeliever, who does not embrace the Bible’s depiction of creation, providence and grace, communicate what the Bible has to say about truth, goodness and beauty? What does it actually mean that a fallen unbeliever is able to communicate the true, the good and the beautiful? For instance, is goodness merely a matter of external endeavor? Is to follow a set of rules, even the correct ones, sufficient for goodness, or does motive play a part (and if so, what quality of motive is in view)? Or, does all so-called “good” behavior accuse and condemn every man outside Christ? If so, then why? Is salvation judicial only, or does redemption include radical transformation, without which all good deeds remain filthy rags? Isaiah 64:6

In an effort to preempt a common objection I readily acknowledge that all of the believer’s works are tainted by sin. Notwithstanding, the Bible’s testimony is that only those who are converted by grace can attain unto any true virtue, which will always be a reality in the experience of the believer. Philippians 1:6; 2:13 Consequently, it is simply false to reduce man's ability to reflect truth, goodness and beauty to a matter of degree with respect to what the believer can mirror compared to the unbeliever. The gulf that exists between the two is as far reaching as earth and heaven, dust and glory.

Does the unbeliever have “half an orange” (Francis Schaeffer) or does he have an entire, rotten orange (Reformed view of the effects of the fall)? It is precisely because he only has the latter that believers often add to, rearrange and try to improve upon any secular attempt to communicate truth, goodness and beauty. This is why it is often said that “we must watch this play, or read that literary work, from a distinctly Christian perspective of redemption etc.” But after the story has been critiqued through the lens of Scripture, does it really resemble truth, goodness or beauty ? No, because the story itself needs to be redeemed from faulty notions and presuppositions. When the story is examined from a Biblical perspective, it should include the observation that what was depicted as good was actually a counterfeit good (all things considered), or a “counterfeit atonement” as was recently pointed out in my hearing. I am not suggesting that secular stories ought to be revised in the minds of believers but rather they be received and recognized for what they are and not something else. Any analogy to God's revealed truth must be seen as a false analogy. How, for instance, can biblical redemption be mirrored in the thoughts of an unbeliever?

In a last ditch effort one might wish to truncate a secular message pertaining to virtue by making such a qualification: "as far as the story goes, truth, goodness and beauty is portrayed." Yet such a caveat is aimed to abstract virtue from any biblical notion, portraying it as a standalone product without need of divine source or origin. What's more, it is to bear false witness against the story itself! It is to communicate things about truth, goodness and beauty that are not only the furthest things from the author’s mind but something he vehemently would oppose. So much for allowing the author's work to communicate the author's intent. After all, certainly the secularist rejects any notion that true virtue comes from God alone and that it can only be mirrored in man through the redeeming power of the gospel. For instance, in what sense does the Christian agree with Vito Corleone when in speaking with Johnny Fontane he instructs Sonny with these words on being a faithful husband and father, "A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man"? What is it to "spend time" and to be a "real man"? There can be formal agreement over the words while there is disagreement over principle regarding what would constitute a real man.

Now of course, it almost goes without saying that I have benefited all my life from the heathen’s efforts and I marvel, though surely not enough, at the mystery of providence in this regard. However, the benefits of what is commonly called "common grace" should not preclude one from recognizing the limits of such divine goodness as it pertains to what can be communicated in the arts in general and literature in particular. Again, there is no need to rewrite stories penned by fallen men to whom much has been given, but there is need, I do believe, to receive such works for what they truly are, recognizing in the process fallen man's unquenchable desire to be the would-be autonomous author of all that is true, good and beautiful. Recognize the ramifications of the curse as you digest man's efforts in the entertainment and stimulation it provides.

Van Til on Rome's influence:

An excerpt from Common Grace, by Cornelius Van Til, warns against the Roman communion’s notion of autonomous reasoning and its effect on Protestant, Reformed thinking as it pertains to conflating natural revelation with things pertaining to natural theology. 

 “If we are to witness to the God of Scripture we cannot afford to deny common grace. For, as noted, common grace is an element of the general responsibility of man, a part of the picture in which God, the God of unmerited favor, meets men everywhere. But neither can we afford to construct a theory in which it is implicitly allowed that the natural man, in terms of his adopted principles, can truly interpret any aspect of history. He seeks for meaning in the facts of this world without regarding these facts as carrying in them the revelation and therewith the claims of God….Now surely, you say, no Reformed person would have any commerce with any such view as that. Well, I do not think that any Reformed person purposely adopts such a view. But we know how the Roman Catholic conception of natural theology did creep into the thinking of Reformed theologians in the past. And the essence of this natural theology is that it attributes to the natural man the power of interpreting some aspect of the world [such as pertaining to “Truth, Goodness and Beauty?!”] without basic error… The Christians and non-Christians have, on this basis, a certain area of interpretation in common. They have common ideas in the sense that they agree on certain meanings without any difference… It is not merely that men are, all of them together, made in the image of God…. [or] as Kuyper stressed, all men have to think according to the rules of logic…All these things are true and important to maintain. But it is when in addition to these it is said there are common notions, common reactions, about God and man and the world to all this speech of God, on which there is no basic difference between Christians and non-Christians, that natural theology is confused with natural revelation.” Bold and bracketed emphasis mine. 
If one wants to maintain that fallen man is created in the image of God because he retains the faculty of choice and the innate ability to reason, then fine. I can allow for such semantic distinction. It's quite another thing to conflate the provisions men have through natural revelation with the possibility of an autonomous construct of any true, natural theology (one that would allow natural man to evaluate virtue, for instance). Truth, beauty and goodness are ideas with theological import; and sin corrupts man’s “notions” of what constitutes these things, which is part-and-parcel to the want of any “common reaction" between the two races of men to such qualities.

Now for some quotes from the Godfather trilogy, true literature worthy of man's consideration and deep reflection. 

"A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man."

"Fredo, you're my older brother, and I love you. But don't ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever." 

Michael: "My father is no different than any other powerful man -- any man who's responsible for other people, like a senator or president." Kay: "You know how naive you sound...senators and presidents don't have men killed." Michael: "Oh, who's being naive, Kay?"

"Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again."

"Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But uh, until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter's wedding day."

"...and if I ever need any guidance, who's a better consiglieri than my father?"

Godfather 2

"My father taught me many things ... keep your friends close, but your enemies closer."

"If anything in this life is certain; If history has taught us anything, it's that you can kill anyone."  

"To you she's beautiful. For me, there's only my wife..."

 "I don't--I never knew no godfather. I got my own family, senator"

"Whatcha go to college to get stupid? You're really stupid!"

"Don't you know that I would use all of my power to prevent something like that from happening?"

"Your father did business with Hyman Roth; Your father respected Hyman Roth; But your father never trusted Hyman Roth"

"We're all part of the same hypocrisy, Senator. But never think it applies to my family."

"Good health is the most important thing. More than success, more than money, more than power."

"Every time I put the line down I would say a Hail Mary, and every time I said a Hail Mary, I would catch a fish."

"Hail Mary, full of grace...." BAM! Fredo gets it.

"I didn't ask who gave the order, because it had nothing to do with business."

Godfather 3 

"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. [Our true enemy has not yet shown his face.]"

"Neri, take a train to Rome. Light a candle for the archbishop."

"All my life I kept trying to go up in society. Where everything higher up was legal. But the higher I go, the crookeder it becomes. Where does it end?"

"No, I don't hate you. I dread you."

"Politics and crime -- they're the same thing."

"This pope has very different ideas from the last one."

"Why was I so feared, and you were so loved?"

"Give me the order" [Michael:"You won't be able to go back... All my life I wanted out. I wanted my family out"] "Well, I don't want out. I want the power to preserve the Family. I'm asking for the order."

"Nephew, from this moment forward, call yourself Vincent Corleone."

 
 
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17 comments:

Deb W. said...

Hi Ron, Ref: "two races of men"

While R2Kers may well give fallen man too much credit for being able to understand, grasp, and perceive Truth, Goodness and Beauty, I think that many others in the Bahnsen-Theonomy camp do not acknowledge how pervasive remaining sin and corruption distorts this ability even with believers in Christ.

God gave mankind in general the ability to apprehend truth, goodness and beauty, which has been corrupted since the fall. Yet, we as Christians, who can perceive truth, goodness and beauty more plainly, have a higher call to steward that role as His ambassadors in this world.

My concern is that when we create such hard and fast distinctions between the regenerate and the unregenerate, as if WE have perfect knowledge and understanding and THEY have none, we truly are no longer either available or fit to engage the world in a relevant way. That's my $.02, for what it's worth.

Reformed Apologist said...

Hi Deb,

Thanks for stopping by.

Can you give some examples of how the “Bahnsen-Theonomy camp” (not quite sure what that label actually means) does not acknowledge the vestige of sin’s corruption on the mind and will of believers? Bahnsen spoke much about the corruption of sin in the believer and about progressive sanctification as it relates to one’s thinking and aspirations.

Also, I’m not sure how noting the antithesis that exists between the regenerate and the unregenerate implies that the regenerate somehow has perfect knowledge and understanding, let alone that unbelievers have no knowledge and understanding.

Finally, one way in which we can engage the world in a more relevant way is to appreciate the effects of the fall, both on the mind and will. Our view on the extent of the fall as it relates to man's depravity will greatly influence the apologetic method one employs. For instance, if I were an Arminian and believed that the unbeliever is not suppressing his knowledge of God in unrighteousness and that the unbeliever's problem wasn't moral but intellectual, I might be tempted to present brute-fact (allegedly neutral) evidence that supposedly demands a verdict. :)

Reformed Apologist said...

Deb, real quickly, from what you wrote you might be under the impression that I think that R2K folk give fallen men too much credit for being able to grasp truth, beauty and goodness. The idea that they might more than any other sample of theological persuasion has never even crossed my mine. It's something that Christians in general do from time to time, but I don't see it as something peculiar to R2K.

Anonymous said...

The biblical doctrine of Total Depravity has been soft peddled in the church for way too long. Maybe in part because most Christians don't understand the "noetic" effects on one's ability to reason and what it means to be really and truly spiritually dead. The unbeliever hates (yes HATES) *true* goodness, beauty and truth because he *hates* the One who IS these things. That a person can count to ten does not mean that he thinks he or number theory is not ultimate. You are correct. Sinful man, according to Van Til, “sought his ideals of truth, goodness and beauty somewhere beyond God, either directly within himself or in the universe about him. He tried to interpret everything with which he came into contact without reference to God. Instead of presupposing God’s revelation as the ultimate criterion of truth, the sinner presupposes (as Kant advocated so clearly and explicitly) that his own autonomy is the ultimate principle of being and knowledge. Thus fallen man stands in “antithesis” with God and with God’s people as well. In regeneration, the human consciousness “has in principle been restored to the position of the Adamic consciousness.” The qualification “in principle” implies that the “relatively evil” remains “in those who are absolutely good in principle.”The unbeliever interprets all the facts and all the laws that are presented to him in terms of his unbelieving assumptions.

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As you know this doesn't mean that an unbeliever cannot utter a true statement. It means that when you peel back the onion (or orange) :)there's no truth to be found. The unbelievr's discourse is a lie and his goodness is a sham.

Reformed Apologist said...

Good remarks. I might add that when one refers to "truth, goodness and beauty" or "the truth, the goodness..." they are speaking in terms of transcendent universals and typically are self-consciously trying to make a statement of intrinsic proportions specically about the thing in question without reference to anything else. The rose is beautiful (in and of itself). The act was good, without consideration to anything else, like motive. The disagreement is that the statement is supposed to be true no matter what else one believes, as if such propositions could be isolated from all others and cut off from their Source of being and pre-interpretation. It's an attempt to reduce something to its Prime Matter (Aristotle), but intelligibility (of the rose or anything else) requies an intelligible one and intelligible many, which in turn presupposes divine creation and providence, which requires a personal-transcendent God. All other attempts at finding truth etc. is idolaterous for it looks for truth, goodness etc. in things or in ourselves.

Obviously one is not saying that an unbeliever cannot "utter" a true statement. Often times the discussion cannot get beyond that minor (obvious) point though. (So maybe it's not so obvious?) Indeed, there is a metaphysic of knowledge behind every utterance. :)

Keith said...

And all this time I thought being kind was a good thing.

Reformed Apologist said...

Hi Keith,

If someone brings a parched worker a cool glass of water on a hot summer day, does that constitute kindness? Or does kindness depend on more than just an external act? For example, if the water was brought to the worker in order to find favor for selfish gain, would the act of "kindness" be good or not good? If you say "good," then haven't you reduced goodness to physical movement? In which case, goodness could be derived from apparent randomness. If you acknowledge motive as relevant, then from a Christian perspective you must allow the premise that no one prior to conversion does good.

Thoughts?

Joshua Butcher said...

There is a distinction between ontology and epistemology. The fallen man and redeemed man who enjoy the beauty of the same sunset enjoy it upon separate grounds of understanding. The fallen man may attribute the beauty to the inanimate universe, or chance, or an abstract notion of deity and he may enjoy it for his own sense of awe or for the memories it stirs in him of pleasures or pains. But the redeemed man may attribute the beauty to the Triune God's bountiful and gracious pleasure and enjoy it for the communion with God that comes in contemplating His glory.

One man encounters true beauty and communes with himself. The other man encounters true beauty and communes with God. Can anyone still maintain that the former experience is identical to the latter? Is not the former but an empty husk, a shadow, a vestigial experience in comparison to the latter?

Reformed Apologist said...

Well stated, Josh.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this as much as the post:

I might add that when one refers to "truth, goodness and beauty" or "the truth, the goodness..." they are speaking in terms of transcendent universals and typically are self-consciously trying to make a statement of intrinsic proportions specically about the thing in question without reference to anything else. The rose is beautiful (in and of itself). The act was good, without consideration to anything else, like motive. The disagreement is that the statement is supposed to be true no matter what else one believes, as if such propositions could be isolated from all others and cut off from their Source of being and pre-interpretation. It's an attempt to reduce something to its Prime Matter (Aristotle), but intelligibility (of the rose or anything else) requires an intelligible one and intelligible many, which in turn presupposes divine creation and providence, which requires a personal-transcendent God. All other attempts at finding truth etc. is idolaterous for it looks for truth, goodness etc. in things or in ourselves.

Stephen said...

Ron, this was a helpful post. I realize how much more careful I need to be in discussing literature by unbelievers, instead of attempting to give them a "counterfeit baptism" in the name of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Joshua, your pithy comment was also very helpful in showing the contrast between the epistemology of the fallen man and that of the redeemed man. Thank you both.

Reformed Apologist said...

Steve, thanks for your encouraging words.
Warmly,
Ron

Semper Reformada said...

Ron,

Excellent post and very informative. My question is on differentiating betweem "common ideas" and "common notions" as Van Til does in the quote. I am struggling with the difference. Can you please expand?

Thanks.

Reformed Apologist said...

Good question. I think that question is best answered by keeping in mind that CVT thought that the believer and unbeliever can agree formally on many things but in principle not agree on anything. The "common ideas" he speaks of I take as things that there can be formal agreement on (like that man did a good thing - not a bad thing), but he warns agains the "common notion" that there is really agreement beneath the surface on the principle of goodness, or how such an idea can have meaning to begin with. Thoughts?

Semper Reformada said...

Okay, that makes a lot more sense. But wouldn't even the IDEA ("that man did a good thing by helping the old lady") be different since the MEANING of good is different? Or are you saying the agreement is purely formal and thus the two parties are using the same term, "good", equivocally? This is a tough subject to wrap my mind around. :)

Semper Reformada said...

Ron,

In response to your response to Deb, I agree that r2k'ers may not give any more credit to natural reason than, say, Arminians. But surely you would say they give much more credit than most Reformed folks, right?

Reformed Apologist said...

Formal agreement has to do with both parties being pleased with the external act and according to their respective worldviews they would both tag the act as good yet for different ultimate reasons. This, as you note, would entail an equivocation, in an ultimate sense that is, of what the meaning of good actually is. Formal agreement is surface agreement - but once we drill down we find no agreement whatsoever - i.e. in principle.

In response to your response to Deb, I agree that r2k'ers may not give any more credit to natural reason than, say, Arminians. But surely you would say they give much more credit than most Reformed folks, right?

Not sure I'm tracking. I'll say this though. I believe we do reason according to natural law. What I deny is that anyone can offer a robust justification for any reasoning without an appeal to Scripture.