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Chapter XVI.

Piscator’s opinion of this controversy — How far we assent to it — Twisse’s arguments militate against it — How God punishes from a natural necessity — How God is a “consuming fire” — God’s right, of what kind — Its exercise necessary, from some thing supposed — Whence the obligation of God to exercise it arises — Other objections of Twisse discussed.

The consideration of what our justly celebrated antagonist hath advanced against Piscator,184184    A learned professor of divinity at Herborn. He was born at Strasburg 1546, and died 1626. He was the author of several commentaries, controversial treatises, and a translation of the Bible into German. — Ed. whom he declares to hold the first place among the theologians of the present day, and to shine as far superior to the rest as the moon doth to the lesser stars, shall put an end to this dispute. He has chosen Piscator’s notes upon his Collation of Vorstius,185185    “In Collationem Vorstii.” The translation is not very intelligible. Vorstius wrote work with this title, “Parasceue ad amicam collationem cum Jo. Piscatore,” and Owen refers to Piscator’s notes upon it. — Ed. as the subject of his consideration and discussion. In general we are inclined to give our voice in favour of the sentiments of Piscator; but as the disciples of Christ ought to call none on earth master in matters of religion, we by no means hold ourselves bound to support all the phrases, arguments, or reasons that he may have used in defence of his opinion. Setting aside, then, all anxious search after words, expressions, and the minutiæ of similes, which I could wish this distinguished writer had paid less attention to, we will endeavour to repel every charge brought against our common and principal cause, and to place this truth, which we have thus far defended, as we are now speedily hastening to a conclusion, beyond the reach of attacks and trouble from its adversaries.

The first argument, then, of Piscator, to which he replies, is taken from that comparison made in Heb. xii. 29, between God in respect of his vindicatory justice and a “consuming fire.” From this passage Piscator concludes, “That as fire, from the property of its nature, cannot but burn combustible matter when applied to it, and that by a natural necessity; so God, from the perfection of his justice, cannot but punish sin when committed, — that is, when presented before that justice.” What he asserts, with regard to a natural and absolute necessity, we do not admit; for God neither exerciseth nor can exercise any act towards objects without himself in a natural manner, or as an agent merely natural. He, indeed, is a fire, but rational and intelligent fire. Although, then, it be no less necessary to him to punish sins than it is to fire to bum the combustible matter applied to it, the same manner of operation, however, accords not to him as to fire, for he worketh as an intelligent agent; that is, with a concomitant liberty in the acts of his will, and a consistent liberty in the acts of his understanding. We agree, then, with Piscator in his conclusion, 604though not in his manner of leading his proof.186186    It is not Piscator’s reasoning, but the kind of necessity implied in the reasoning, to which Owen takes exception. The words “nature” and “natural” also occasion considerable ambiguity. Justice is natural and necessary, according to Owen, in so far as it is not an act of the will merely; but he does not hold it to be natural in Piscator’s sense, as operating by a blind and physical necessity, apart from the exercise of intelligence and volition, and the existence of an object requiring the manifestation of it. We might render the passage above as follows: “To this extent, then, I adopt Piscator’s conclusion, — namely, in so far as he maintains the existence of a necessity, but not as regards the mode or kind of it.” — Ed. The objections made to it by the learned Twisse we shall try by the standard of truth.

First, then, he maintains, and with many laboured arguments, that God doth not punish sin from a necessity of nature, which excludes every kind of liberty. But whom do these kinds of arguments affect? They apply not at all to us; for Piscator himself seems to have understood nothing else by a “natural necessity” than that necessity which we have so often discussed, particularly modified: for he says, that “God doth some things by a natural necessity, because by nature he cannot do otherwise.” That is, sin being supposed to exist, from the strict demands of that justice which is natural to him, he cannot but punish it, or act otherwise than punish it; although he may do this without any encroachment on his liberty, as his intellectual will is inclined to happiness by a natural inclination, yet wills happiness with a concomitant liberty; for it would not be a will should it act otherwise, as freedom of action is the very essence of the will. But the arguments of Twisse do not oppose this kind of necessity, but that only which belongs to inanimate, merely natural agents, which entirely excludes all sorts of liberty, properly so called.

Let us particularly examine some of this learned gentleman’s arguments: “If,” says he, “God must punish sin from a necessity of nature, he must punish it as soon as committed.” Granted, were he to act by such a necessity of nature as denotes a necessary principle and mode of acting; but not if by a necessity that is improperly so called, because it is supposed that his nature necessarily requires that he should so act. As, for instance: suppose that he wills to speak, he must, by necessity of his nature, speak truly, for God cannot lie; yet he speaks freely when he speaks truly.

Again: “If,” says he, “God punished from a necessity of nature, then, as often as he inflicted punishment, he would inflict it to the utmost of his power, as fire burns with all its force; but this cannot be said without blasphemy.”

Here again this learned man draws absurd conclusions from a false supposition. The nature of God requires that he should punish as far as is just, not as far as he is able. It is necessary, sin being supposed to exist, that he should inflict punishment, — not the greatest that he is able to inflict, but as great as his right and justice require; for in inflicting punishment, he proceeds freely, according to the 605rule of these. It is necessary that the glory of the divine holiness, purity, and dominion should be vindicated; but in what manner, at what time, in what degree, or by what kind of punishment, belongs entirely to God, and we are not of his counsels. But I am fully confident that the arguments last urged by this learned gentleman may be answered in one word. I say, then, God punishes according to what is due to sin by the rule of his right, not to what extent he is able. As, for instance: God does not use his omnipotence from an absolute necessity of nature; but supposing that he wills to do any work without himself, he cannot act but omnipotently. Neither, however, doth it hence follow that God acts to the utmost extent of his power, for he might have created more worlds. We do not, then, affirm that God is so bound by the laws of an absolute necessity that, like an insensible and merely natural agent, it would be impossible for him, by his infinite wisdom, to assign, according to the rule and demand of his justice, degrees, modes, duration, and extension of punishment, according to the degrees of the demerit or circumstances of the sin, or even to transfer it upon the surety, who has voluntarily, and with his own approbation, substituted himself in the room of sinners: but we only affirm that his natural and essential justice indispensably requires that every sin should have its “just recompense of reward;” and were not this the case, a sinful creature might emancipate itself from the power of its Creator and Lord. This very learned man having, according to his usual custom, introduced these preliminary observations, at length advances his answers to Piscator’s argument, the nature and quality of which we shall particularly consider. That which he chiefly depends upon, which he forges from the Scripture, that asserts God, in respect of sin, to be a “consuming fire,” we have examined in the proof of our second argument, and have shown of how little weight it is to invalidate the force of our argument.

To that asseveration of Abraham, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” he thus answers, “He will do right certainly, but his own right, and will exercise it according to his own free appointment. But without the divine appointment I acknowledge no right to the exercise of which God can be influenced by any kind of necessity.”

Ans. That God exerciseth his right, or doeth right, according to his own free appointment, may be admitted in a sound sense; for in that exercise of his right he uses volition and understanding, or, more properly, he hath not appointed or determined so to act, for so to act is natural and essential to him concerning the things about which there is no free determination. It is, indeed, of the free determination of God that any right can be exercised, or any attribute manifested, for he freely decreed to create creatures, over which he hath a right, but he might not have decreed it so; and in every exercise of his right there are certain things, which we have mentioned before, 606which are not the objects of free determination. But that no right belongs to God without his divine appointment, to the exercise of which he is bound, is asserted without probability, and appears evidently false; for supposing that God willed to create rational creatures, does it depend upon his free determination that the right of dominion and the exercise of it should belong to him? If so, God might be neither the Lord nor God of his creatures, and a rational creature may be neither creature nor rational; for both its creation and reason suppose a dependence on and subjection to some Lord and Creator. If the right, then, of dominion depended on the free determination of God, then God might freely and justly determine that he would neither have nor exercise such right; for he might determine the contrary of that which he hath freely determined, without any injustice or any incongruity. From himself, then, and not from any one without himself, — that is, from his own nature, — he receives the obligation to exercise his right, both of dominion and of justice. Thus by nature he must speak truly, if he wills to speak.

“But I cannot,” says this renowned man, “sufficiently express my astonishment at this very grave divine’s assertion,187187    Namely, Piscator’s. — Tr. — namely, ‘That God, without injury to his justice, may will evil antecedently to whomsoever he pleases;’ for which I do not find fault with him, but that he does not assert that God, for the same or a better reason, might do good to a creature, notwithstanding its demerit, by pardoning its sin.”

If by “willing evil antecedently” be understood his willing to inflict evil without regard to the demerit of sin, it is a point too intricate for me to determine. If the evil refer to the infliction of it, I must differ from this learned doctor. If it refer to the willing, the assertion avails not his cause; for if we suppose that God, without doing injury to any one, without dishonouring any of his own attributes, without regard to sin, hath decreed to punish a creature for the sin that it was to commit, would it not thence follow that God might let sin pass unpunished, in despite both of his own glory, and to the entire destruction of the dependence of rational creatures.188188    Because if he punished a creature for sin merely because he willed or determined so to do, and not because the nature of sin necessarily so required, he might as easily will the contrary; and, consequently, the subordination of the creature would be entirely subverted. — Tr. Nor is the following comment of our celebrated opponent of any greater weight, — namely, “That God would not be omnipotent if he necessarily punished sin, for thence it would follow that God cannot annihilate a sinful creature which he created out of nothing; which,” says he, “is evidently contrary to omnipotence.”

But how many things are there which this learned gentleman himself acknowledges that God, with respect to his decree, cannot do, without any disparagement to his omnipotence! He could not break the bones of Christ; but the person must be deprived of reason 607who would assert that this is any diminution of the divine omnipotence. If, then, there be many things which God cannot do, without any the smallest detraction from his omnipotence, because by a free determination he hath decreed not to do them, is he to be thought less omnipotent, so to speak, because he cannot, on account of his justice, let sins committed pass unpunished? Is God not omnipotent because, on account of his nature, he cannot lie? Yea, he would not be omnipotent if he could renounce his right and justice; for to permit a sinful creature to shake off his natural dominion is not a mark of omnipotence but of impotence, than which nothing is more remote from God.

After having brought the dispute thus far, and accurately weighed what remains of Dr Twisse’s answer to Piscator, there seemed to me nothing that could occur to give any trouble to an intelligent reader. As there is no reason, then, either to give farther trouble to the reader or myself on this point, we here conclude the controversy; and this I do with entertaining the strongest hopes that no person of discretion, or who is unacquainted with the pernicious devices which almost everywhere abound, will impute it to me as a matter of blame, that I, a person of no consideration, and so very full, too, of employment, that I could devote only a few leisure hours to this disputation, should have attacked the theological digression of a man so very illustrious and renowned, not only among our own countrymen, but even in foreign nations, as the attack has been made in the cause of truth.

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