The Westminster Confession and Meaningless Suffering

Although I’m thoroughly Baptist by conviction, I rarely keep the Westminster Confession out of arm’s length. I do not agree with its covenant theology framework–no, that doesn’t automatically make me a dispensationalist–but individual chapters on the Confession are the most theologically wise and pastorally astute ever written. For example, I could have drawn upon Chapter 5, Section 2, in my previous discussion over Timothy Keller’s statement that the distinctive characteristic of the Christian view of suffering is that “contra secularism, suffering is meaningful.” My argument is that this does not give due weight to Romans 8:20, “For the creation was subjected to futility . . . because of Him who subjected it.” I argued the some Christian suffering is simply a result of our participation in the Fall, and therefore meaningless. Since I also want to affirm the comprehensive, meticulous providence of God, “He works ALL things according to the counsel of His will,” I took a stab at modifying Keller’s sentence to something like this, “For the Christian some suffering is meaningless, but all suffering is purposeful.” That proposition sounds too contradictory to be satisfying to anyone.

Here is the relevant section from the Westminster Confession of Faith, dealing with God’s providence and secondary causes. (The great Presbyterian writers, such as B.B. Warfield often wrestled with this topic.)

Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the First Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, contingently, or freely.

God is the First Cause, yet He also ordains second causes. I will call them secondary.

The Westminster Confession of Faith is a very careful summary of biblical evidence, sometimes affirming paradoxical truths at the same time. It bears meditating on earnestly, patiently, and deeply. We, especially, do not think often enough about the relation between secondary causes and the providence of God.

I plan to only illustrate the last two types of secondary causes by the use of two examples.

  • Contingent causes. Proverbs 6:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, But its every decision is from the LORD” (Pro 16:33 NASB, 1995 update). Casting a lot, rolling some dice, is a matter of pure chance. It is the paradigmatic contingent secondary cause, and yet this same verse asserts God’s absolute control over its outcome. Completely chance events are under the control of God. When physicists began to believe that chance was integral to the structure of the universe when looking at atoms individually, Einstein is said to have reacted vehemently by saying, “God does not throw dice!” But Christians who are comfortable with the doctrine of secondary causes need not have their faith shaken. Even at the most micro level, God determines the outcome of chance events.
  • Free causes. I would argue from John 1:12,13 and 3:1-6 that the act of regeneration, being born again, is solely the act of God. Human beings are totally passive. Nicodemus understood that Jesus’ demand to be born again meant there was nothing he could do to respond when he said, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb can he?” “What can I do? Nothing! A baby has no responsibility for being conceived!” So, being born again is solely the act of God, no cooperation from the human. And being born again precedes faith. Yet, I would also argue that faith and repentance are the first spontaneous, free acts of the new-born creature. Faith and repentance are the acts of human beings. They are the decision of a free agent, though this conversion is compelled by God’s preceding work.

To return to the issue of suffering. (The title of Timothy Keller’s book is, Walking with Christ in Suffering and Pain.) I contend that my own pain and weakness, my incurable autoimmune disorder that eats all my nerves except my spinal cord and brain*, is the result of a contingent secondary cause, an “accident,” as much a matter of chance as a roll of dice. It is also a result of God’s comprehensive, meticulous control. It is both the will of God and meaningless. It is a result of God’s subjecting creation to futility. My becoming ill at the very moment I was near to fulfilling a thirty-year long dream, and my consequent inability to fully use my gifts in God’s service is meaningless. Yet God has His very good purpose for me. His discipline, which this certainly is, is so that I “may share His holiness.”

I encourage my good pastor friends and those who aspire to the position to study their Westminster Confession of Faith carefully, while, of course, maintaining their Baptist distinctives. There’s incredible wisdom to be mined, especially, for example, in the section on the assurance of faith.

*There’s actually an outstanding question as to whether my Central Nervous System (CNS) has been compromised, too. Normally CIDP is characterized by slower reflexes, but mine have always remained quite brisk, which is more characteristic of Multiple Sclerosis, a comparable disorder of the CNS.

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