Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Chosen but free?-1

Norman Geisler has authored a sustained attack on Calvinism, entitled Chosen But Free (Bethany 2001). His treatment enjoys certain virtues. It is well-organized. It is written in a clear style. It does a good job of covering many of the major bases.

To some extent, these virtues are weaknesses as well. By writing in a popular style, and covering so much ground, the work a rather superficial at just the point where it needs to be more rigorous and detailed. But that’s the trade-off. There is also a certain amount of redundancy and zigzagging, due, in part, to all the appendices in the second addition.

Because Geisler is such a prolific and influential writer, his critique merits a response. I will ignore most of the exegetical arguments, not because exegesis is unimportant, but because I’ve addressed that aspect in other essays.

Geisler places a great stock in rational arguments for his own position, and rational arguments against Calvinism. That will be the focal point of my own review.

In his review of The Potter’s Freedom by James White, Geisler singles out some logical fallacies, as he regards them, in White’s critique. These including "poisoning the well," "strawmen," and "false disjunctives." As I read through Chosen But Free, Geisler's own work is a textbook of informal fallacies, beginning with the subtitle: A Balanced View of Election.

This is a prejudicial way of framing the debate. For, by implication, the opposing position is unbalanced. But that begs the question of whether this is one of those issues in which the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Actually, nothing can be more unbalanced than the prior assumption that we must strike a balance between opposing positions. Imagine if Geisler were to take a mediating position on any number of other issues, such as sola fide, same-sex marriage, abortion, evolution, Purgatory, inerrancy, the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, hell, &c.

Since Geisler thinks that his position is true, he has a right to entitle his book accordingly, but the reader needs to keep in mind that the title is itself a preemptive strike, intended to create an unfavorable first impression of Calvinism before the reader ever cracks the covers.

Reinforcing this rhetorical ploy is his habitual way of labeling the opposing position as "extreme" Calvinism. But what he is pleased to dub as "extreme" is, in reality, mainstream Calvinism—the belief-system of the Westminster Confession, the Three Forms of Unity, and the London Baptist Confession of Faith.

He takes umbrage when his own position is branded as Arminian, but, of course, the Remonstrants also claimed to be true sons of Calvin.

It is generally liberals who characterize the opposing position as "extreme." Why does Geisler pander to this ploy?

The only justification he offers for this usage is his claim that Calvin subscribed to universal atonement. And he backs up his claim by appealing to R. T. Kendall. He is aware of rebuttals to Kendall by Helm, Rainbow, and Nicole. His response is to say that "Kendall’s view is not only one of a noted Calvinist, it is squarely based in the texts of Calvin and not a theological attempt to make Calvin consistent with one’s preconceived concept of ‘Calvinism’" (160, n.1).

But this begs the question every step of the way. Is Kendall a Calvinist? Do Helm, Rainbow, and Nicole not interact with the Calvinian witness as well? Is Kendall innocent of a theological agenda of his own? And let us remember that Beza, whom Geisler dubs an "extreme" Calvinist, was Calvin’s handpicked successor. Indeed, if you read Michael Thomas on The Extent of the Atonement (Paternoster 1997), you'll see that Calvin even acceded to Beza's supralapsarian scheme.

And even if there were, at this point, a difference between Calvin and his successors, how does that render their position "extreme?" Pretribers are a distant offshoot of historic premils. Would Geisler thereby brand his own eschatology as "extreme?"

An especially egregious example is the way he smuggles in his antinomian version of eternity security under the rubric of "moderate" Calvinism. But, traditionally, even those who upheld the universality of the atonement (e.g., Usher, Baxter, Davenant, Amyraut) were not antinomians. And this from a man who belittles election as the "frozen chosen."

However, he uses this as a pretext to trot out the old canard that Calvinism is injurious to the assurance of salvation. But if this is a problem for Calvinism, it is not only a problem for Calvinism. Every theological tradition which makes allowance for a distinction between nominal and genuine believers is susceptible to this charge. The short answer turns on the burden of proof. Absent evidence to the contrary, we have no reason to doubt our state of grace.

Even Geisler’s antinomian alternative does not remove an element of uncertainty. For faith is subjective. Faith is subject to doubt. And faith may be heretical, in whole or in part. Faith in whom? Faith in what? What degree of faith? Can a true believer die an unbeliever? What does that mean?

Good works are not a cause of salvation, but a consequence of the Holy Spirit’s work. Without good works, the Holy Spirit is not at work in the sanctification of the believer. And, absent the indwelling presence and ministry of the Spirit, the believer is only a nominal believer--unregenerate, if not reprobate.

There is a malign consistency in Geisler’s position. For him, the difference between a believer and unbeliever is a difference of degree, rather than kind. The unbeliever is free to believe; the believer is free to disbelieve. Like Schrödinger’s cat, Geisler’s version of fallen man can't quite exist in real time and space. It’s there as long as you aren't looking its way, but as soon as you look, it isn’t there!

Yet another instance of poisoning the well is the tendentious way he glosses every prooftext for his own position as the "plain meaning" of the verse in question. This is before the reader ever gets to his interpretation. And on this tactic, a couple of brief observations are in order:

i) If anyone has a corner on the "plain meaning" of universal expressions, it is the universalist. And this is not a bare hypothetical, for we have writers like Thomas Talbott who capitalize on these very verses. So it is not as though these verses broker the debate between Geisler and his Reformed opponents.

ii) Plain to whom? Is this an exercise in reader-response criticism? Geisler acts as though the Bible were directly addressed to a 21C American who speaks English as his mother tongue. Like so many writers who favor the Arminian interpretation of these verses, he never turns to any standard work of Biblical lexicography to justify the "plain meaning" of kosmos, but blusters behind his thin-air pronouncements. What do the reference works say on the subject?

1. J. Louw & E. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (UBS 1989), 2:146:

Kosmos, ou. m.

i) universe
ii) earth
iii) world-system
iv) people
v) adorning
vi) adornment
vii) tremendous amount
kosmos: unit
aion tou kosmou toutou: supernatural power

2. P. Cottrell & M. Turner, Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation (IVP 1989), 176:

i) the whole created universe: earth, heavens, heavenly bodies, &c.,
ii) "earth" as opposed to heaven, or the heavens,
iii) "mankind"; i.e. the 'world' of people,
iv) the condition of mortal life; 'life in the world,'
v) the beings (human and supernatural) in rebellion against God, together with the systems under their control, viewed as opposed to God,
vi) the system of earthly and social structures (including its joys, possessions, and cares),
vii) "adornment" or adorning."

3. W. Bauer et al., eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago Press 1979): 445-47:

kosmos, ou, ho

i) adornment, adorning
ii) the world as the sum total of everything here and now; the (orderly) universe.
iii) the world as the sum total of all beings above the level of the animals.
iv) the world as the earth, the planet upon which we live.
a) generally…In rhetorical exaggeration…In this line of development, kosmos alone serve to designate the pagan world.
b) the world as the habitation of mankind
c) earth, world in contrast to heaven—especially when mention is made of the preexistent Christ, who came from the other world into the kosmos. So, above all, in John.
d) the world outside in contrast to one's home.
v) The world as mankind
a) generally, all the world, everybody
b) of all mankind, but especially of believers, as the object of God's love
vi) the world as the scene of earthly joys, possessions, cares, sufferings.
vii) The world, and everything that belongs to it, appears as that which is hostile to God, i.e. lost in sin, wholly at odds with anything divine, ruined and depraved. The use of kosmos in this sense is even further developed in John. The kosmos stands in opposition to God (1 Jn 2:15f.) and hence is incapable of knowing God (Jn 17:25); cf. 1 Jn 4:5), and excluded from Christ's intercession (Jn 17:9). Neither Christ himself (17:14,16; 14:27), nor his own (15:19; 17:14,16; 1 Jn 3:1) belong in any way to the world. Rather, Christ has chosen them "out of the world" (Jn 15:19), even though for the present they must still live "in the world" (17:11; cf. vv15,18). All the trouble that they must undergo because of this (16:33) means nothing compared with the victorious conviction that Christ (and the believers with him) has overcome "the world" (v33; 1 Jn 5:4f.), and that it is doomed to pass away (2:17).
viii) Totality; sum total.

See also the highly inflected treatment of "kosmos" in the Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, H. Balz & G. Schneider, eds. (Eerdmans 2000), 2:309-13.

This tabulation should put the kibosh on any simple-minded notion that kosmos has only one, self-evident meaning. It has, rather, a wide semantic range, and which meaning we plug into any particular occurrence is less a question of semantics than exegesis.

Not only does his ignorance of the original Greek vitiate his appeal to the cosmic passages, but his ignorance of the original Hebrew spoils another argument as well. What does he think is the Biblical basis for freewill? "One of the things God gave his good creatures was a good power called freewill. God said to Adam: ‘You are free...’ (Gen 2:16).

Unfortunately for Geisler, that is not what God said to Adam. The original employs a Hebrew idiom (using the same word for verb and adverb), which is literally rendered, "eating, you may eat." This is an idiomatic way of expressing certainly. An idiomatic English rendering would be: "You may surely eat."

In addition, this constitutes a bit of wordplay, for it sets up a parallel between eating (v16) and dying (v17) inasmuch as v17 employs the same idiomatic construction: "dying, you will die," meaning, "You shall surely die."

Geisler goes on to cite Eccl 7:29, which is both a general allusion to Gen 1-3, and a specific allusion to Gen 6:5. However, it ought to be obvious that Eccl 7:29 does not posit a formal theory of the will. It simply states something that God did (in creation), followed by something that man did (in the fall and thereafter). Geisler also plucks this verse out of Ecclesiastes without regard to the theology of Ecclesiastes, in spite of its predestinarian doctrine of the right time (3:1-14).

This illustrates the systemic weakness of what passes for exegesis in so much of Geisler’s case, which is a failure to recognize the role of unspoken presuppositions. Consider some of his further efforts to prove freewill.

He says that "the power of free choice is part of mankind being created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). Adam and Eve were commanded: (1) to multiply their kind (1:28) and (2) to refrain from eating the forbidden fruit (2:16). Both of these responsibilities imply the ability to respond. As noted above, the fact that they ought to obey these commands implied that they could obey them" (32).

Many readers may find this line of reasoning to be persuasive. But let’s break it down. How does procreation flow from the imago Dei? After all, the other plants and animals reproduce as well. Does that imply that they are also made in the image of God?

Maybe Geisler would say that it is not procreation, per se, but the command to procreate that flows from the imago Dei? But does the text draw that distinction? The question is how we relate v27 to v28. All that Geisler has done is to assume that the two verses are related in a certain way without showing them to be so related.

Likewise, where do 2:16-17 ground the prohibition in the imago Dei? Or is the connection, not with the imago Dei, but with his axiom that ability limits liability? Is he deducing his conclusions from the imago Dei, or from his axiom about ability and responsibility?

And what was the argument for the latter? He says "sound reason demands that there is no responsibility where there is no ability to respond" (29). But notice that this is not an exegetical argument. Indeed, it is not even an argument. It is merely an assertion.

On the next page he offers a supporting argument: "What we ought to do implies that we can do it. Otherwise, we have to assume that the Moral lawgiver is prescribing the irrational. Commanding that we do what is literally impossible for us to do" (30).

Notice, again, that this is not an exegetical argument. Rather, it is an intuitive argument. What Geisler is doing is to stipulate the preconditions of moral responsibility. He does not derive these from the text of Scripture. Rather, he brings these to the text of Scripture. He appears to be doing exegesis, but he is not, for the text itself (Gen 1:27-28; 2:16-17) is quite silent on the necessary and sufficient conditions of incumbency.

And I’d add that even on its own grounds, his conclusion hardly follows. To begin with, impossibility is not all of a kind. There are many different kinds of impossibility: logical, psychological, physical, metaphysical, &c.

I myself don’t find it at all difficult to think of situations in which one could reasonably issue an imperative without assuming that the recipient was able to comply. For example, I might dare someone to do something as a way of calling his bluff. The best way to expose an idle boast or empty threat is to challenge it. "If you say you can do it, then do it!"

I’m not saying that this is what motivates every injunction. But for Geisler to lay down, as a universal and self-evident proposition, that it would be irrational to tell someone to do something unless he could do it is a reckless overgeneralization that ignores any number of counterexamples.

Geisler also says that reward and punishment imply freedom of choice: "Why eulogize Mother Teresa and vilify Hitler, if they could not help doing what they did? Why blame Adolf Eichmann and praise Martin Luther King, if they had no free choice in the matter?" (31).

Again, though, this is not an exegetical question. Rather, Geisler is postulating what he regards as a prerequisite for the assignment of reward and punishment. Although he goes on to quote Rom 2:6, this verse merely says that God will render to each man according to his works. Nowhere does the verse lay down the preconditions under which some works are praiseworthy and others blameworthy. Geisler is either reading this into the verse or assuming that the verse would make no sense unless we assume a libertarian theory of the will.

Incidentally, this is a theologically treacherous claim. For if the freedom to do otherwise is a condition of praiseworthy action, then God is not a praiseworthy agent unless God is able to be or to do evil.

Okay, this is what Geisler appeals to in order to justify his interpretation of Gen 1:27-28 and 2:16-17. But you see that none of that has anything to do with the actual exegesis of the text.

Moving ahead, Geisler goes on to say that "the text narrates their choice" (32). He then cites Gen 3:6,11,13. This, however, is another non-sequitur. The point at issue is not whether Adam and Eve and other human beings make choices. For the point which Geisler wishes to prove is not the bare fact, but the prior conditions which make the fact at all possible or morally significant.

For Scripture to describe a course of action is not for Scripture to teach a particular theory of the will. There is an obvious difference between a specific action and a specific action-theory. The one does not entail the other. There are, indeed, many different theories of the will. So there is no one-to-one correspondence between a particular theory and a particular description. At best, Geisler's chosen theory is underdetermined by the very verses he adduces in its defense. At worst, he also ignores many verses that undermine his theory of the will.

Geisler says a little later that "God is not a cosmic B. F. Skinner" (48). Well, let us play along with this example. When you put a lab rat in a maze, you have given your rat a number of choices. And since he is confronted with a number of choices, he must make a number of choices. He can turn right or left. He can move forward or backward. He can stay put. He can nibble the cheese or disdain the cheese. Maybe he prefers Port Salut to Kraft!

Now, if we were to apply Geisler-style logic to the situation, we’d have to devise a rodential version of libertarian freedom to account for the decision-making ability of lab rats. Indeed, we’d need to carry this line of analysis all the way down to level of the paramecium and ameba. Such an ontology would begin to resemble the panpsychism of Leibniz or the old-fashioned animism of wood-nymphs and water-gods. All these free agents, from mice to men, fleas and flagella!

It is true that the way in which the maze is configured will direct the rat to a foregone destination. In that respect, the experimental scientist is controlling the outcome by controlling the range of options available to the lab rat.

Suppose, though, we were to substitute a more natural environment for the laboratory. A big tree blows over and our friendly rat takes up residence in the tunnels bored by the old root-system. This, too, is like a maze, a natural maze. The only difference is that the tunnels are randomly distributed in a root-system.

Notice, though, that our rat does not necessarily have any more choices in his natural environment than in the laboratory. He has freedom of opportunity, but he has no freedom over his opportunities. He can only go where the roots go.

So whether the twists and turns taken by an agent are more like a Skinner-box or a root-system make no quantitative or qualitative difference to our freedom of choice. I can only choose from the array of choices presented to me. I do not choose the framework; I choose within the framework.

What is more, it isn’t merely that the framework supplies and circumscribes my general range of options. For however many abstract options I have, yet I can only make one concrete choice at a time. So the many choices reduce to one choice. In that respect, if I choose not to turn right, then I don’t need the option of a right turn. To insist that freedom of opportunity, freedom to do otherwise, is a sine qua non of obligation or blame, is a practical illusion. This confuses reality with imagination.

But, of course, the difference between specified and randomized opportunities can make a great deal of difference to the outcome. A person who is lost in a maze may starve to death unless the maze is designed in such a way as to lead him out of the maze.

Suppose the world were a cosmic Skinner-box? That would be a model or metaphor for predestination. Suppose the world were an underground cave-system. That would be a model or metaphor for libertarian freedom. Both scenarios will present the agent with a variety of choices. But Geisler would rather be lost in a cave, at the risk of death by hunger or thirst, than live and move and have his being in a tunnel to heaven.

And that is not the half of it. The bare fact that folks can make choices does not imply that they are always free to choose otherwise. Just consider the nature of addiction. An alcoholic chooses to drink. A compulsive gambler chooses to bet. A junkie chooses to shoot up. In each case, this is an act the will. Yet it doesn’t follow that they are equally at liberty to refrain from their actions. That is what makes compulsive behavior compulsive.

There is a difference between external coercion and internal compulsion. No one is putting a gun to our head. And yet we may be unable to kick the habit. Sad to say, this is a commonplace of human experience. And addiction is a special case of sin.

Geisler wraps up this section by saying: "The NT references to Adam’s act make it plain that he made a free choice for which he was responsible. Rom 5 calls it ‘sin’ (16), an ‘offense’ (15, NKJV), and ‘disobedience’ (19). 1 Tim 2 refers to Adam’s act as a ‘transgression’ (14, NKJV). All these descriptions imply that it was a morally free and culpable act" (32).

But, of course, they do no such thing—not as Geisler uses words. This is yet another case where he interprets Scripture in light of certain extra-Scriptural assumptions regarding the requisite conditions of incumbency. Do they imply that Adam was responsible and culpable for his actions? Yes. Do they imply that Adam had libertarian freedom? No.

An implication cannot overdraw the premise. A conclusion can be less than the premise, but no more. You cannot infer something outside the text from something inside the text. To be valid, an implication must be contained within the scope of the premise, and the premise must be contained within the scope of the text. Otherwise, the inference is fallacious. Exegesis is a form of inference. That's the difference between exegesis and eisegesis.

This same chapter supplies as fine a specimen as any of Geisler’s scotch-tape style of exegesis:

"It is noteworthy that it [Lk 22:3; Jn 13:2,27] says that the devil ‘prompted,’ not forced, Judas to betray Christ. the act of Judas was free and uncoerced. This is evident from the use of the word ‘betray’ (Mt 26:16,21-23), for betrayal is a deliberate act (cf. Lk 6:16). And though the devil had put the idea into his heart (Jn 13:2), Judas performed the act freely, admitting later that he had ‘sinned’ (Mt 27:4). Jesus said to Judas, ‘What you are about to do, do quickly,’ Mark even says tat what Judas did he did ‘conveniently’ (Mk 14:10-11), (20, n.3).

What a ride! First of all, you have several instances in which Geisler overinterprets ordinary language, as though the writers were choosing technical terms to draw fine philosophical distinctions.

The Gospels don’t say that the devil merely "prompted" Judas to betray Christ. True, they also don’t say that he forced the hand of Judas. They just don’t say one way or the other. To say one thing is not to negate it’s opposite. The text is non-committal on this distinction. The distinction is crucial to Geisler, but it is not crucial to Luke or John, otherwise they'd draw it for themselves.

Again, "to betray" simply means "to betray," nothing more than that. It does not deny or affirm a libertarian theory of the will. Why does Geisler appeal to Lk 6:16 to substantiate his overloaded claim? The only difference is that Mt 26:16,21-23 use the verb, but Lk 6:16 the noun.

Not only does the word not carry this supplementary concept, but neither does the concept of betrayal itself. For betrayal can certainly be coerced. A man may be blackmailed to betray another man.

The fact that betrayal may be a deliberate act does not imply that the word "betray" means "deliberate act." This confuses words with concepts. And even if this is a deliberate act, that does not entail a libertarian theory of the will.

Geisler then infers from Judas’ admission of guilt that he had acted freely. What Geisler is doing here is to assume that libertarian freedom is a condition of moral responsibility; hence, to sin or confess one’s sin is evidence of libertarian freedom.

But, of course, the text never specifies the conditions of moral responsibility. That is something which Geisler is reading right back into the text. Even if it were a precondition of guilt, you cannot derive that from mere exegesis.

In the meantime, Geisler manages to overlook the elephant in the room. What is the nature and effect of possession? Does a demoniac act of his own free will? Does he know what he’s doing at the time? Is he in his right mind? Do the Scriptural cases of possession support that contention? What is the essential character of possession if not the notion that a human host is taken over by an alien force? That his human personality is submerged and overpowered by the incubus? That he cannot act of his own volition, but is only a vehicle of another, superior agent?

Isn’t that the purpose of possession, especially in the Passion account? Judas does something by diabolical inducement which he would be unable to come up with or carry out of his own accord.

This also fits with Lucan and Johannine theology. Judas is just the pawn, the fall guy. The real contest is between Christ and Satan.

In terms of narrative theology, the primary purpose of Judas’ confession is not to indict Judas, but to acquit Christ; not to show that Judas was guilty, but to show that Christ was innocent, was falsely accused and railroaded.

This is not to deny that Judas was culpable for his sedition. He has his lucid moments, in-between his bouts of possession. A drunk driver or drug addict may kill someone under the influence, and yet be unable to remember his crime. But his blackouts do not clear him of guilt. He may both be in a condition of diminished responsibility, and responsible for being in that condition in the first place.

At the same time, I'm not at all sure that a demoniac is his own best character-witness. Geisler's rules of evidence are pretty credulous.

Geisler seizes on the personal pronoun ("you") as if that were intended to single out Judas in distinction to the devil. Is there some overriding reason why one cannot refer to a demoniac as "you"? Is this a breach of infernal etiquette? Should only honorific titles be used when addressing the Old Serpent?

And what’s the relevance of saying that Judas sought an opportune time to betray Jesus? How does that imply libertarian freedom? For one thing, this took place before he became possessed.

I hope the reader can begin to see a pattern here. Geisler appears to be doing exegesis. He quotes a lot of Bible verses. But he filters them through an interpretive grid that is not supplied by Scripture. It is important to keep this caveat in mind whenever you read his appeal to Scripture. Although he’s quoting from Scripture, he is not proving anything from Scripture. Rather, he’s assuming that this or that verse would make no sense unless you patch it into a libertarian theory of the will. The libertarian theory is not, in fact, derived from Scripture itself. Rather, he regards this as a necessary background condition, without which the claims of Scripture would lack moral significance.

It is not an exegetical argument, but a transcendental argument. The line of reasoning is not: libertarian freedom is true because the Bible says it is true; rather: Scripture is true because libertarian freedom is true; if libertarian freedom were false, then Scripture would be false--for the absence of libertarian freedom would falsify the moral claims of Scripture.


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