Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Grace, faith, & freewill-1

Dear Dr. Picirilli,

Over the years I’ve made an effort to read all the leading critics of Calvinism, viz., Cottrell, Craig, Duty, Douty, Erickson, Forster/Marston, Grider, Gromacki, Hodges, Hughes, Kendall, Klein, Leightner, Marshall, McNight, Osborne, Pinnock, Ryrie, Sailer, Scaer, Shank, Strehle.

More recently, I’ve read Geisler (Chosen but Free) and Walls (Why I am not a Calvinist). And now I’ve just finished your book: Grace, Faith, Freewill (Randall House 2002).

I don’t read this material because I’m Arminian. In fact, I’m a Calvinist. But I like to keep up with the competition. Of the recent entries, yours is the best. You also get bonus points for affirming the authenticity of 2 Peter.

Let me begin by saying that I appreciate the good faith effort you’ve made to understand and acquaint yourself with the opposing position. You’re better read than most.

Another strong point of you treatment is that you generally avoid the popularizers (a la Sproul), and focus your fire on the heavy-weights.

It is also nice to see someone who knows the difference between the Reformed doctrine of perseverance and the antinomian doctrine of eternal security (p193ff.).

For future reference, I would point out that you’ve overlooked a number of major spokesmen for the Reformed position, viz., Baugh, Beale, Carson, Cunningham, Edwards, Frame, Hoekema, Owen, Schreiner, Turretin, Vos, Ware.

I’d add that you give pretty short shrift to some of those whom you do cite (e.g., Helm, Murray, Piper, Warfield).

In generally, the older generation tend to be better at polemical and systematic theology, while the younger generation are better at exegetical theology.

I’ll confine my comments to what I regard as the most relevant portions of your book. I’ll ignore some arguments, not because they’re unimportant, but because I’ve addressed these points in the course of reviewing Geisler and Walls.

1. In chapter 3 you try to square freedom and foreknowledge by indexing certainty to futurity or factuality. I fail to see how this comes any distance towards solving the problem.

If the human agent is free in the libertarian sense, then he is the fact-maker. There is no fact to be known in advance of the fact. The human agent makes it happen. And if the choice is truly indeterminate, then it cannot be known before its eventuation, for it could go either way.

You have made God’s knowledge contingent on the choice of the human agent. God’s knowledge is the effect of the human agent’s decision. The future is only certain when the future moves into the past.

Incidentally, you assuming the A-theory of time. To make good on you case you’d also need to rebut the B-theory of time (a la Helm, Mellor, Le Poindevin).

On p55, you resort to the old Boethean compromise, popularized by C. S. Lewis. But if God’s foreknowledge is contingent on the creature, then God is, indeed, limited by time. God’s knowledge of free choice is contingent on its futurition. If the event is indeterminate, then the event cannot be known until it eventuates. So God is now enmeshed in the traditional divisions of time. This is hindsight rather than foresight.

If you were to confine your monograph to exegesis, you could avoid the philosophical complexities, but since, in chapter 3, you do delve into metaphysics, then this cannot be avoided.

Moving on to chapter 4, you say that Eph 1:4 is neutral on the question of whether election is conditional or unconditional. To the contrary, the very notion of predestination and eternal election takes it out of the temporal sphere of human action or reaction, and places it squarely within the sphere of divine action alone.

In addition, there is no discrepancy, in Eph 1, between the plan, execution, and application of the atonement. It is a seamless garment.

On p70, you confound the notion of conditional salvation and conditional election. These are not at all the same thing. To say that faith is a condition of salvation does not mean that faith is a condition of election.

We also need to distinguish between an objective and a subjective condition. There is quite a difference between saying that election is contingent on faith, and saying that faith is contingent on election.

To say that only believers are chosen (71) is fatally ambitious. Are they chosen because they are believers, or are they believers because they are chosen? You palter with a double sense.

Election is timeless, salvation--temporal. Salvation has its conditions, but conditions that are a consequence of the decree. Moreover, the sovereign grace of God supplies and satisfies the necessary and sufficient conditions of salvation with respect to the elect.

Of course, you may disagree, but that is a coherent cause-effect model, whereas your alternative is a muddle.

On Rom 9-11, you try to treat unbelief as the ultimate explanation. However, you anticipate a couple of objections: (i) the twins (9:11), and (ii) divine hardening (9:18; 11:7).

As to (i), you say that this disproves the principle of election by works. True, but it does more than that. It also disproves the principle of election by faith. The unborn twins could no more exercise personal faith than they could do good works.

In addition, you are assuming that Paul’s faith/works antithesis will hold up under an Arminian theory of faith. But if the act of faith is a merely human act, the product of our freewill, then faith is just another manmade work. The faith/works antithesis is only tenable along as it is expressive of the more fundamental grace/works antithesis. Faith is a token of grace. When, however, faith is elevated to the status of an autonomous factor rather the reflexive effect of a divine dynamic, then faith is parallel to works rather than grace. Synergism returns with a vengeance.

As to (ii), the problem which this poses for conditional election is that hardening is a divine impediment to faith. God hardens Pharaoh so that he cannot repent. God hardens Israel so that she cannot repent (Isa 6).

All you say to this is that hardening is the absence of mercy rather than the presence of some positive impediment.

But, to begin with, that hardly does justice to the hardening of Pharaoh. According to the narrative, there were occasions when Pharaoh, if left to his own devices, would have relented under the pressure of the plagues, but God stiffened his resistance, in the furtherance of a long-range objective (Rom 9:17; Exod 9:16; 14:4,17-18).

Likewise, God hardened Israel to precipitate the Exile, in the furtherance of another long-range objective (6:9-13). Israel’s repentance would be premature at this point, serving to frustrate rather than facilitate God’s overarching goal.

And this carries over to Rom 9-11, with its doctrine of the remnant and in-grafting of the Gentiles. Sorry, but your shallow analysis misses the big picture.

Incidentally, I think that you are talking at cross purposes with Piper. Spiritual inability has reference to evangelical repentance. In this sense, “nothing more active is necessary.” The unregenerate may be left in their unregenerate state.

It does not follow, however, that the unregenerate are incapable of repenting of a course of action that, left unchecked, will result in a temporal chastisement or catastrophe.

At the same time, there is some degree of coordination between grace and the means of grace. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” If a people-group are cut-off from the mainstream of redemptive history (e.g., Mal 1:1-4; Isa 35:5,9ff.; Ezk 35:9; Obadiah 10,18; Jn 4:24; Eph 2:12), then that has the preemptive effect of severing any spiritual opportunities and advantages that they might otherwise enjoy.

The atonement is a double-edged sword. It is not merely a means of salvation, but also an instrument of condemnation by exposing the inexcusable character of unbelief and even aggravating the guilt of the unbeliever (Jn 9:39; 12:37-40; 15:22). The atonement is a polarizing event (Lk 12:51f. Jn 3:19-21; 6:60-71). Christ was destined for the downfall of many (Lk 2:34). The reprobate were set up for the fall (1 Pet 2:8), while Christ was set out to trip them up (2:6f.). God will display the folly of the proud through the stumbling block of Calvary (1 Cor 1:18-29; 2:6-8).

On Rom 8:28-30, it’s true that Pauline usage is not strictly parallel to dogmatic usage. In Reformed dogmatics, predestination is inclusive of election, whereas in Rom 8:29, “predestination” is instrumental to “election” (proginosko=to choose beforehand).

That, however, doesn’t invalidate the Reformed construction. It just means that we need to distinguish between words and concepts, and pair them up at their equitable level of abstraction.

In 8:28, proginosko is an idiomatic expression for prior choice. It carries a predestinarian force. For its part, proorizein carries a teleological force. They are chosen--chosen for what? To what end? To be conformed to the image of Christ.

So they didn’t choose themselves, and they didn’t choose God. God did the choosing. And God chose them, not for the sake of choosing, and left it at that, as if election were an end in itself, but in order to bless them with a particular destiny. Election is a precondition for something else. Election is instrumental to a certain destiny, and predestination is instrumental to election as a means of attaining that end. “In the second step he uses proorizein, which means ‘decide beforehand, predestine’ (BAGD, 709a), referring to God’s gratuitous election (to the status to be described in the next phrase,” J. Fitzmyer, Romans (Doubleday 1993), 525.

Moving on to 1 Pet 1:1-2, you ask, “Foreknowledge of what?” (78). But this is a prejudicial way of framing the question, for it presupposes the answer. If we render proginosko as “foreknowledge,” then that naturally invites the question, “Foreknowledge of what.” But such a rendering begs the question. On the next page you run through four different semantic options, but the way you’ve have chosen to cast the question on p78 tilts the playing field in advance of the game.

I think that proginosko bears the same elective sense here as it does in Rom 8:29 & 11:2. You reject this rendering on the grounds that it would be tautologous. But this objection is invalid on a couple of grounds:

i) Even if the construction were tautologous, that wouldn’t rule out the elective sense. The Bible is an emphatic book--given to a certain amount of redundancy to drive home the same point. In Eph 1-2, for example, Paul says the same thing in more than one way.

ii) It is not tautologous. For the compound form adds a conceptual element not present in the bare idea of choice, viz., “chosen according to the prior choice of God.” The two terms are not synonymous. Rather, proginosko advances the original thought. Christians are a chosen people. Not only so, but they were chosen beforehand. They own their favored status to divine initiative.

But another problem is the way in which you combine more than one sense: “prescience, with a hint of wise foreplanning” (79).

What justification do you offer for the idea that more than one sense is in play in the very same occurrence? Certain authors like James Joyce trade on polysemy, but this is rather artful and artificial. Except when a writer is deliberately indulging in a double entendre for ironic effect, I don’t see any linguistic grounds for asserting semantic simultaneity.

You seem to be falling into the semantic fallacy of treating words as though they had a primary meaning, which carries through all of their secondary and tertiary senses. Thus, the primary meaning is always operative, but one can layer on a secondary or tertiary sense.

That is not my conception of how a natural language works. A word may have more than one sense, but it doesn't’ have more than one sense in the same occurrence. Rather, it may have one meaning in one occurrence, and another in another, depending on which meaning is serviceable to the context at hand.

Again, when you talk about the “added notion of foresight,” you seem to be confounding the meaning of words with concepts. But a concept may be present where the word is not, or vice versa.

Let us not forget that 1:2 occurs in the same writing in which Peter presents a doctrine of double predestination. Election and reprobation stand side by side as correlative truths (2:6-9).

Moving on to Acts 2:23 & 4:28, you say that “If, in fact, those who crucified Jesus had to do so...then they were not free to do otherwise--could not do otherwise, and were therefore not responsible” (80).

There are two things wrong with this claim:

i) It assumes what it needs to prove. It appeals to a popular, common sense notion of justice. But it simply takes that for granted. No supporting argument is offered.

Now you, as an Arminian, can take this as a given if you like, but that is no way of persuading someone who is not already a card-carrying Arminian. Indeed, it is possible for someone to be theological indeterminist, but a philosophical determinist (e.g., John Locke). By ignoring all of the counterarguments, you beg the very question at issue.

ii) Your little gloss does not constitute an interpretation of Acts 2:23 or 4:28. What you’ve done is to superimpose on the text what you think to be a necessary condition of moral responsibility. Now even if you were right about that, the text itself has nothing at all to say about the necessary conditions of incumbency. Your claims do not arise from exegeting the text. You have read out of the text what you read into it. This is only convincing to the firmly convinced. But there is nothing in the text to generate your conclusion.

Moving on to Lk 7:30, you apparently cite this to show that grace is not irresistible. But you seem to be forgetting the position you’ve chosen to oppose.

The Pharisees rejected the prophetic preaching of John the Baptist. In this verse, “God’s will” is synonymous with John’s baptism of repentance. But Calvinism has never said that unregenerate men are unable to reject the preaching of the prophets, or Apostles, or missionaries, or what have you. Indeed, Calvinism affirms that unregenerate men naturally resist the Gospel unless they are graced with the gift of faith. This verse is entirely compatible with spiritual inability.

I’d add that even in the case of God’s preceptive will, even though it may be resisted, it may never be thwarted, for it serves to expose and aggravate the guilt of the unbeliever (Jer 7:16; 11:14; 18:11-12; Ezk 2:3-7; 20:25-27; Isa 6:1-13; 63:17; Jn 12; Rom 3:20; 5:20; 7:7,13; Heb 10:3). So at no level, whether decretive or preceptive, is the will of God ever frustrated by man’s intransigence.

Moving on to 2 Pet 3:9, the key issue here is not the force of the verb, but the object of the verb. It is odd that you quote Bauckham’s commentary on 2:18-22, but not on 3:9. As Bauckham explains, the language is stereotypical of OT usage with reference to the covenant community. Just as God was longsuffering towards stiff-necked Israel (for the sake of the remnant), so is he to backslidden believers under the New Covenant.

I’d add that your allusion to Ezk 33:11 commits the same anachronism. To universalize an oracle that was addressed to the covenant community flies in the face of the context. Israel was not the world. Indeed, Israel went wrong whenever she lost her distinct identity and become indistinguishable from the world at large.

Moving on to 1 Tim 2:4, You say that “ the meaning of the ‘all’ is crucial to the interpretation of the verse, and it cannot be separated from the entire context (vv1-7),” (82). You also say that this passage makes the same point as 2 Pet 3:9. Really?

We need to administer several correctives:

i) The “meaning” of pantos is not at issue. The universal quantifier has a uniform, abstract meaning. That is not the sticking point between Arminian and Calvinist.

ii) Rather, the issue turns on the referent. Not: what does the word connote?; but, whom does the word denote?

iii) Actually, the “entire context” is broader than 2:1-7. The entire context must take into account the identity of Paul’s opponents. To judge by 1:4,7 (cf. Tit 1:10,14; 3:9), Paul is dealing with the perennial Judaizers, or even hyper-Judaizers. At best, a Gentile had to become a Jew before he could become at Christian; at worse, he could never convert because the New Covenant was limited, like the Old Covenant, to the seed of Abraham.

This, of course, is untrue, but it appears to represent the viewpoint of Paul’s opponents. So Paul’s universalism is ethnic rather than soteric. Salvation is not limited to Jews.

iv) So the passage does not make the same point as 2 Pet 3:9. They are giving different answers to different questions. You have plucked out a few isolated verses without regard to the concrete situation which occasioned these letters. Their respective circumstances are entirely diverse.

Turning to chapter 5, you say that although “limited atonement follows logically from the doctrine of unconditional election,” yet “teaching about the extent of the atonement should be determined by Biblical exegesis rather than by the logic of one’s system” (90).

Well, that all depends. If doctrine A is well-attested in Scripture, and doctrine B is directly deducible from doctrine A, then doctrine A does not demand independent attestation. I would say that special redemption enjoys both direct and indirect lines of support.

Next, you claim that when Christ is said to die for a particular group, this does not imply that he died for that group alone.

True, but only true at a very abstract level of discourse. For not all of the designations of Scripture are that generic and neutral-gray. Some designations have come, in OT usage, to denote the covenant community, such as “the sheep” (Jn 10:11; Acts 20:28), the “seed of Abraham” (Heb 2:16), the people of God (Mt 1:21; Tit 2:14; Heb 2:17; 9:15), the Diaspora (Jn 11:52), the “children of God” (Heb 2:13-14), as well as those that are called (9:15) and consecrated (Jn 17:19; Heb 10:14). This usage stands in implicit contrast to the world at large.

We need to read the NT through Jewish eyes and ears. And in some cases the contrast is even more explicit: “having loved his own who were in the world” (Jn 13:1); having laid down his life for the sheep (10:11)--as over against the goats (Jn 10:26); having laid down his life for his friends (15:13; cf. Isa 41:8; 2 Chron 20:7)--as over against his enemies (15:19).

BTW, notice that Jn 10:26 affirms unconditional rather than conditional election. The unbelievers are not his sheep because they disbelieve; rather, they disbelieve because they are not his sheep.

You drive a wedge between redemption accomplished and applied by saying that “in fact the Bible speaks of Christians as having lived under the wrath of God and in a state of estrangement from him before their conversion; see Eph 2:3,13, for example,” 94.

But this is a very careless reading of Eph 2:3. The contrast there is not between “then” and “now,” but between being “in Adam” and being “in Christ.” As all the standard commentaries point out (Bruce, Hoehner, Lincoln, O’Brien), the modifier (“by nature”) has reference to original sin. Put another way, the contrast is not temporal, but federal.

You next object that if the atonement is, in and of itself, a satisfaction for the sin of the elect only, then that denies the sufficiency of the atonement, contrary to the view of Nicole and others.

This objection calls for a number of comments:

1. The sufficient/efficient distinction is not a Reformed distinctive. Both Reformed and Arminian theologians deploy this distinction, although in different ways.

This is, at most, a supporting argument. It is not essential to Reformed theology. It is, rather, a Scholastic refinement which predates Calvin and postdates Augustine.

2. The distinction is somewhat misleading. For in philosophical usage, a sufficient condition is a condition which, if satisfied, invariably yields a certain result.

When theologians talk about the sufficiency of the atonement, what they have in mind is closer to the notion of a necessary condition rather than a sufficient condition.

3. Having said all that, I really don’t see the difficulty. Let us go back to the OT template of our redemptive terminology. If an Israelite went into debt, he could become an indentured servant for seven years to make amends to his creditors. However, a wealthy relative could intervene to pay the price of his manumission.

Suppose that several clansmen became indentured servants. The kinsman-redeemer might have sufficient funds to redeem them all. Yet his wealth is only efficient to redeem those, and only those, whom he intends to redeem, and chooses to redeem by paying the asking price for any given servant. It may be all or some or none.

On 2 Cor 5:18-19, you say that “only tortured exegesis...will give ‘world” a meaning that is as narrow as the elect” (95).

To the contrary, Paul’s range of reference is self-limiting. According to the symmetry of the v14, the first quantifier coincides with the second: Christ died for all who died in Christ. So the scope of each quantifier is limited to the union between the Redeemer and the redeemed. As F.F. Bruce remarks, in his commentary on 1-2 Cor, "One has died as the representative of all his people, and therefore all of them are deemed to have died in the person of their representative." This interpretation is confirmed by the non-imputation of sin in v19, which hardly applies to humanity as a whole.

You are lifting vv18-19 out of context. They need to be considered in relation to the whole flow of the argument.

In reply to the double jeopardy argument, you say that this “depends on seeing Christ’s redemptive work as actually accomplishing its intended results, for those it was designed for, without faith on their part” (97).

But you reply is inadequate on several grounds:

i) There is a difference between saying that faith is a condition of salvation, and saying that faith is a free variable. A Calvinist would readily grant that faith is an element in the application of the atonement. But if justification is contingent on faith, faith is contingent on grace--irresistible grace. It is one thing to distinguish between redemption accomplished and applied, quite another to drive a wedge between the two.

ii) To treat unbelief as the deal-breaker does nothing to defuse the double-jeopardy argument. If their sins were atoned for, then for what are they punished?

iii) It would be miscarriage of justice to the Redeemer as well as the redeemed if he did not get what he paid for.

To the contention that Christ could not have died to saved the damned, you reply that “this, too, is mere human logic, and poor logic at that. One may as quickly respond that when he died there were many already in heaven; did he die for them?” (99).

But this replies fails in several respects:

i) When, in chapter 3, you try to harmonize freedom and foreknowledge, and when, in chapter four, you stipulate the conditions of moral responsibility, you yourself resort to mere human logic.

ii) Actually, the Calvinist is not resorting to mere human logic. Rather, he is drawing an inference on the basis of several lines of Biblical data: When people die, they either go to heaven or hell; some people died before Christ came; some of the damned died before Christ came; faith in Christ is a prerequisite of salvation.

iii) The case of those in heaven is not at all analogous. It was possible for an Israelite to exercise saving faith in Christ by believing in the types and prophecies of Christ.

Indeed, there’s no qualitative difference between the faith of a Christian and the faith of pre-Christian Messianic Jew. For, in this life, both of us know Christ by description rather than acquaintance.

But it was not possible for a pagan, who lived and died outside the faith of Israel, to come to a saving knowledge of God.

iv) You can only get around this by either alleging that general revelation is sufficient for saving faith, in which event no one need ever believe in Christ to be saved; or else resorting to postmortem evangelism--which is inconsistent with the classic Arminian theology you espouse.

Next, you say: “the Arminian view is that Christ died to provide salvation for all, a provision that is effective only when applied to those who believe” (100).

But, to reiterate the prior objection, how is it possible for those who died outside the pale of the gospel to believe? There would not even be a faith to foresee, for they would lack an object of faith. So how is this a “live option” (106)?

Unless the provision of revelation is coincident with the provision of redemption, your claim comes apart at the seams. If you take refuge in general revelation, then we have a hiatus between Christian redemption and non-Christian revelation. The revelation in question is not a revelation of redemption.

This is your dilemma. Your commitment to universal atonement tugs in one direction, while your faith-condition tugs in the opposing direction. Want to talk about tortured exegesis? Your Arminian theology is drawn-and-quartered!

If you stick to your faith-condition, then the provision is only opportune for a subset of humanity--those that have been evangelized.≤


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