Friday, September 24, 2004

Frodo lives!

Almost everyone has an opinion about LOTR, so I might as well weigh in. Some films are important, not because they're great movies, but because their popularity says something about the state of the general culture. The LOTR trilogy will likely attain at least the same iconic status in the general culture as Star Trek and Star Wars. Tolkien already enjoyed a cult following, and the cinematic popularization of his literary magnum opus will only serve to expand and enhance that profile. Finally, many members of the Christian community across a wide confessional spectrum have embraced both the books and movies as an artistic touchstone of the Christian worldview.

Jackson's adaptation is remarkably successful in winning both critical and popular acclaim. Many movies score big at the box office, but are panned by the critics. Yet the LOTR is about as popular with the critics as it is with the general public.

There is a dispute over which is the best of the three. In my opinion, The Fellowship of the Ring is the best, because it has a lean and clean storyline. Once the fellowship disbands, we lose some of the narrative cohesion. This, of course, is true of most movies, but most movies don't begin with this unifying principle, so its loss is more keenly felt.

To be sure, it is more than possible to make a virtue of parallel storylines. The Odyssey is the paradigm-case. However, Homer was working backwards from multiple points of separation to a steady convergence. So his technique had its own elegant progression. But the scene changes in the Two Towers and Return of the King are an exercise in patchwork quilting. What this means, though, is that the parts are greater than the whole.

The three installments share common virtues. Like Frank Lloyd Wright's "Fallingwater," you have a perfect marriage of nature and technology, as the FX blends in seamlessly with the stunning New Zealand landscape.

Visuals are not enough to make a great movie, but they're enough, or almost enough, to make a great movie-viewing experience; for film, although a multiple artistic medium, is distinctively visual, and the visual dimension is what first catches your eye (pardon the pun). David Lean got a lot of mileage out of sheer, sensuous visuals.

Aside from the large-scale effects, there are also some arresting shots on a more intimate scale, such as the sight of elves crossing the bridge by lamplight, or Gandalf whistling for his steed, or the lighting of the fire-beacons cross the mountain range.

The orcs are suitably beastly, and the scene of haunted swamplands is like something out of Dante.

In addition, the movie is a showcase of fine acting—dominated as it is by actors who honed their craft on the English stage.

One advantage of the transfer from word to image is that most of Tolkien's Prince Valiant diction is mercifully cut out. Conversely, Twin Towers has a generous sampling of Elvish, which falls more graceful on the ear than his lead-footed English prose or poetry.

To some extent, though, these very virtues can turn into vices. There is a feeling of dupli-cation as we go from the Twin Towers to the Return of the King. More of the same, only bigger and badder. More battles, more monsters, more to-ing and fro-ing.

To be subjected to American actors like Elijah Wood faking an Oxbridge accent is a grating detail. I'm not quite sure why Jackson insisted on this. It is to impose stylistic uniformity? It is because an English accent sounds classier? Is it because Tolkien was an Englishmen? But Middle Earth is not modern England.

Gandalf is expertly acted, but in Twin Towers and Return of the King he has no particular use for his wizardry. For the most part he's just another generic warrior, using his magic staff as a blunt instrument. This a waste of thespian talent, for McKellen is a seasoned Shakespearean actor who knows every trick in the book.

Aragorn is played by a wonderfully sympathetic actor with an iconically Christ-like look. What with his gladiatorial exploits in the first installment, Aragorn had already established himself as a great warrior. But once his military credentials are a matter of public record, where do you go from there? The Two Towers and Return of the King pile up ever more medals in his war chest, but they don't advance our understanding of the character. One wonders what such an actor could do with a real role that gave full play to his expressive range.

Many reviewers find Elijah Wood ideal for the part. But given that the hobbits typify English countryfolk—sturdy peasants and sensible gentlemen farmers, it's hard to visualize Elijah Wood, what with his cherubic face, porcelain complexion, Joan Crawford eyes, and girlish demeanor, as someone who ever spent much time in a barnyard. He looks more like a kid who never ventured outside a shopping mall.

And the way Wood and Astin gaze into each other's eyes is less like a normal pair of buddy boys and more like boyfriend/girlfriend. I wonder if this is a play to the current queer/transgender fad.

Things are even worse in the Return of the King. I've not seen so much blubber since Moby-Dick. The Hobbits constantly dissolve into tears like little girls weeping over a dead kitten. This seems to be yet another example of imposing an androgynous agenda on the characters and audience alike.

Weaving, with his Mandarin aspect, has naturally elfish, not to say impish looks, but I find him rather stiff and studied. Indeed, the elves in general have a Vulcan like austerity and severity.

I'm not quite sure what to make of Galadriel. She seems a bit unhinged to me—more witchy than bewitching; but, then, my personal acquaintance with elves is admittedly limited, so what do I know? She doesn't strike me as pretty enough for the part. Blanchett is not a classic beauty, yet the role is clearly intended to represent a feminine ideal. And in that respect she doesn't rise to our expectations.

Here I think Jackson was confronted with a compromise. He needed an actress young enough to portray an ageless elf, but with enough gravitas to portray a queen. Still, Blanchett's nasal faux-Shakespearean accent doesn't quite do it for me.

This is also a bit of a problem for Arwen--one part Amazon to two parts princess. Liv Tyler is better looking than Blanchett, but in Hollywood, good-looking women are a dime a dozen. Hollywood as spoiled us for nothing less than perfection. A woman who would be the prom queen or even a fashion mode is just another pretty face up on the screen. It takes something truly outstanding to stand out from among the competition.

Likewise, Tyler doesn't seem quite womanly enough to be a natural match for Aragorn. More like a daughter than a wife.

Another problem, for me at least, is that Arwen and Galadriel are Aryan ice-princesses. The casting is authentic to Tolkien's Nordic sensibilities. But I would prefer a breath of Mediterranean warmth to thaw the ice-water running through their veins. Indeed, this applies to the landscape as well.

On the other hand, she's much too lady-like to be a convincing Amazon, even though she's made to mix it up with the male combatants. Jackson tries to expand the role of women into superheroines (Arwen, the Shieldmaiden of Rohan). But the effort is just that—effortful. It also violates the nature of a period piece. The problem is twofold: (i) LOTR is situated in a warrior culture, and a warrior culture selects for masculine virtues; (ii) LOTR belongs to the quest genre, and this, again, selects for male camaraderie and gallantry.

It is possible for women to occupy a central role in a medieval epic. Sigrid Unset has shown the way. And that might translate well into a mini-series. But it doesn't work as well for an action flick--where brute force is a survival advantage. You end up with mannish female leads and effeminate male leads.

Even Aragon is indecisive compared with the women. Is this just the old theme of the reluctant warrior? Or is it yet another nod to feminism--softening the man to strengthen the woman?

One of the standing ironies of women's liberation is that we no longer have actresses like Crawford, Heburn, Davis, and Stanwyck or West who have the stage-presence to command the screen. The women are getting smaller at the very time they are taking on male roles. How do we account for this? I'd suggest two reasons:

First of all, the Hollywood queens of the thirties and forties, precisely because they had to make it in a man's world, rose to the top through sheer force of personality. They were able to project it on screen because they were able to project it off-screen.

Second, teenage girls have far more buying-power than in the past. Movie studios target this demographic group. As a consequence, we have a shifted from the womanly female lead to a female lead who is, by turns, mannish, girlish--or even sluttish. This is equally true on TV (Dark Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mutant X, Space Above and Beyond) and music videos (Britney Spears). In this company, an actress with Sophia Loren's full, womanly largesse is an embarrassment of riches. Even the sex symbols are no longer the product of natural endowment and sexual maturation, but amount to an anorexic adolescent with silicon implants.

And it is not limited to the choice of an actress. To take one recent example, the Trojan War was cast with Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom in the lead roles. Now, it's easy to poke fun at old action stars like Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and Charlton Heston, but they brought a natural manliness and unmistakable maturity to their tough guy roles that make their contemporary counterparts looks like High school freshmen in Malibu. They may not have been great actors, but then, they were not starring in great movies. And they could fill out the parts a lot better than the current crop.

Our aspirations are rewarded, not in the flesh-and-bone of real people, but in the computer generated fantasies of Rivendell, Lothlorien, Parth Galen, and Minas Tirinth--like a dream come true; for the power of computer animation lies in giving palpable form to our wildest flights of imagination.

As to Gollum, well, a little Gollum goes a long way. This is a potentially tragic and even sympathetic figure, but the acting is a parody of Peter Lorre in his waning days—or Yoda gone over to the dark side. And he's is almost every scene. There's no escaping him. I suppose one belated advantage is that it gives the audience a chance to cheer when he goes over the edge of Mt. Doom. But I'm getting ahead of the story.

Wormtongue is another juicy villain—played to the hilt in the scenery-chewing tradition of great villains. Speaking of which, Christopher Lee, reprising his part, is a magnificent ham, perfectly cast in the role of the wicked wizard. He brings to his role the same relish as Ricardo Montalban as Khan. But by the same token, it raises the question of tone. How seriously are we supposed to take the story?

Indeed, the tonal shifts are jarring. The towering trolls, dragons, and heffalumps are like stuffed animals plucked from a child's playbox. This would suggest that the picture is a kiddy flick. But then you have the love scenes between Aragorn and Arwen, which suggests that it's really pitched for grown-ups.

Worse yet is when Legolas and his dwarfish comrade-in-arms are joking over who dis-patched more orcs. This is right after a massive battle in which many of archer's elfish cobelligerents were slaughtered. The juvenile humor undercuts naturally moving moments like the death of Theoden.

Indeed, it's all too obvious that these cutesy scenes are sandwiched in-between the battle scenes to afford comic relief. This takes the patronizing view that an average moviegoer can't stand too much heroism. But, in fairness, this is not all the director's fault. Tolkien himself had a heavy-handed sense of humor.

I suppose we could call this a movie for children of all ages, as the saying goes. And the tonal shifts might be defended on the grounds that great art can play on different levels, to different members of the audience. Maybe so, but there are more skillful ways of doing this. In Dante you have a spare, transparent storyline with an inexhaustible subtext.

I also think it's questionable artistic judgment for Jackson to preview Mt. Doom. Much of the appeal of a movie like this lies in the momentum of mounting curiosity as we wonder what lies behind the next door. By showing us the destination at the very outset, the des-tination is inevitability something of an anticlimax when we finally arrive. A certain sense of let-down is unavoidable in this sort of film, but it should at least reflect the natural release of tension after the suspenseful build-up.

There are also times when Jackson is unable to rise above his raw material. Sauron's evil eye is a clinker on the printed page, and the film medium has a way of magnifying the flaws of the original.

Another practical problem is that the average moviegoer is fairly shockproof. We've been plastered with so many horror films that the conventions of the genre leave us unmoved. It takes something really unexpected to send a shiver up our spine. LOTR is rarely able to pierce our thick-skinned scar-tissue.

The Twin Towers lacks the narrative cohesion of the Fellowship, becoming quite frag-mented, with a surfeit of subplots. One consequence is that it loses the natural rhythm of a road trip and gets bogged down in detours.

Again, this is not necessarily a fault of the director, for Jackson is at the mercy of his material. Tolkien's plot is a ramshackle affair. And Jackson tried to tighten it up as best he could, but he can't give a lean, linear form to a fundamentally shapeless storyline.

The soundtrack is no match for the visuals. It needs a lush, sweeping, folk musical score along the lines of Vaughan Williams to do it full justice. Of course, Vaughan Williams is dead, but selections or adaptations of his music could have been worked into the score. What we get instead is a very thin and repetitive series of leitmotivs.

The special effects are stunning. Computer generated FX is something of a trade-off. On the one hand, it's now possible to stage displays that Cecil B. DeMille could only dream of. On the other hand, the viewer is a tad too aware that such unrealistic effects are…well…unreal. The distinctive power of the cinematic medium lies in its illusion of reality, and too much FX strains the willing suspension of belief.

Along the same lines, the viewer is regularly exposed to the spectator of Aragorn or Legolas outnumbered 20-1 in hand-to-hand combat. Now it only stands to reason, with so many swords and spears and arrows on every side, that at some point their luck would run out. The fact that they always come out on top against overwhelming odds strains credulity. And this comes on top of all the close calls and narrow escapes for Frodo and Samwise.

Now, if LOTR has a sturdy doctrine of divine providence, then this would be made more plausible. But that brings us to the controversial issue of the work's worldview. Many Christian readers and viewers insist that the work in someway assumes or illustrates a profoundly Christian worldview.

In order to address this question, we have to separate the film from the book. In the most persuasive discussion I've read on this subject, Anna Mathie suggests that the Christian complexion of the book lies not in theology, but ethics, as the cardinal virtues are trans-muted into the theological virtues.

There's a sense in which this does carry over to the screen adaptation. In that respect, LOTR moves in the chivalric tradition of The Song of Roland rather than the epic tradition of the Iliad.

But from a Christian standpoint, there are some really obvious things amiss. There are no houses of worship. The heroes never pray, not even on the eve of battle. In this respect it departs from the chivalric tradition.

At one point, Gandalf hints at the afterlife, but the conception is generic rather than Christian.

I'm of two minds as to whether I should comment on some glaring incongruities in the film. How come Frodo and Samwise are not incinerated by the heat of Mt. Doom? How can ghosts do battle with flesh-and-blood?

Maybe questions like these take the movie too seriously. But that depends on whether we rank this as great movie-making.

Jackson wraps up the epic by having the good guys literally sail into the sunset. At one level, it is tempting to wince at the shopworn cliché. Yet there is a reason for cliches. They tap into something deep. This is a master metaphor, and although it seems too good to be true in the real world, yet in the world of Middle Earth, it has the ring of truth. Or does it?

There's something monumentally silly about the underlying material. This is essentially a bedtime story run amok. It is story with high moral purpose, but that runs the risk of un-intended comedy if the execution undercuts the aim. LOTR is better the less you think about it. Is this a kiddy-flick with delusions of grandeur, or the reverse? On the scale of epic morality plays, I prefer Heston doing battle with the Moors in El Cid--not counting the lus-cious Sophia Loren as his love interest!

Thursday, September 23, 2004


Star Trek: Nemesis affords a natural occasion to reflect on the Star Trek franchise, the SF genre, and the definition of drama.

I suppose that like almost any American male who came of age during the second half of the 20C, I enjoy the SF genre. I’m old enough to have seen the classic Trek series in its premier broadcast. And I’ve monitored the franchise in its films and sequels. I’m not a fan, much less a Trekkie. To me it was never more than dumb fun. I’m now older than the lead actors were when they began the franchise or its sequels, and even the entertainment value has worn rather thin for me.

Star Trek achieved iconic status in the pop culture long ago. That is one reason it’s worth reflecting on. But one question is how deep that runs. Is it limited to bumper stickers and a sub-cult following?

Star Trek acquired its niche by riding on the crest of the counterculture. Roddenberry’s vision of the future was very much in sync with the Summer of Love. Drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll would usher in the Aquarian Age of love, peace, and brotherhood, baby.

It seems hopelessly naive, now, but there were many back then who took this quite seriously. That was, in part, because the counterculture was youth-oriented, and the young tend to be idealistic.

This may seem to be all very nostalgic and passe, but the fact is that many people still share Roddenberry’s vision. All they’ve done is to substitute the UN or the EU for the Federation. They think that education, international law, and the welfare state will reap the Millennium.

They think that nurture trumps nature; folks are not born to hate; no, they learn to hate, so that they can be taught not to hate. And even if this were ingrained, they believe that sooner or later science will reprogram human nature. Between social engineering and genetic reengineering, utopia lies ahead.

Another variant on this optimism is the hope that first contact with an alien species will civilize our Darwinianly-challeged humanity. ETs shall be our guardian angels and savior gods.

Let us now turn to Nemesis. It isn’t the best of the Star Trek movies or the worst. But I found the film distractingly flawed. There were to many inconsistencies, or artificial consistencies, or arbitrary assumptions.

One problem is that Nemesis is a spinoff of the TV series. As such it feels the need to carry over the same cast members. Now, when you start a new TV series, you don’t know in advance which characters and actors will click. In the final shakedown, Data and Picard were the principals.

La Forge was a token, Troi and Crusher were decorative, Worf supplied comic relief, while Riker was a cardboard cutout.

Nemesis is cluttered by the felt need on the part of producers to give everyone in the original cast a little piece of the action. There are even distracting cameo appearances as Wheaton, Mulgrew, and Goldberg cycle in for their Kodak moment.

This weighs down the drama. It means nothing to the uninitiated, and, frankly, I wonder how much it means to the devotees. It would be better to either kill off the secondary cast members or promote them to off-stage positions. Then the director and screenwriter could concentrate on the more interesting characters.

The cast is getting to old and out of shape. Star Fleet is a quasi-military institution, but Riker, for one, left his battle trim several candy bars behind.

Picard is also too old. Isn’t there a mandatory retirement age for Star Fleet captains? Realism is not augmented when we see Picard in a fistfight with his younger self. Gee, who would win that tussle—Grampa or his twenty-something clone?

Of course, this is a necessary compromise in the sense that the franchise is committed to Stewart. But it would have been more plausible if Star Fleet has taken Picard out of retirement for a special mission.

The screenwriters try to make a virtue of necessity by making this a sort of swan song in which Picard confronts his own mortality. Even so, the underlying incongruity remains.

But the problem is not just that Stewart is looking rather long of tooth. He sounds tired. To judge by this performance, Stewart is at that point in life where he can no longer summon the vital energy to project his character. It is a wonderfully mellow performance, but not a commanding performance. Too grandfatherly by half.

There is a similar problem with Data. An android is ageless, but Spiner is not. Jowly, baggy-eyes, sagging neckline. He should have gotten a face lift before reprising his role.

I’m not being supercilious about this. Actresses do it all the time. If betrays an unprofessional indifference to the part that Spiner doesn’t go under the blade to look the part.

Because Picard and Data are the fan favorites, they’re given essentially separate storylines. Picard has a double (Shinzon) and so does Data (B4). This is too pat to be plausible. And it is also awkward to make parallel plots converge. Why does the Enterprise go to Romulus? We are given two reasons: Star Fleet ordered the trip at the invitation of the Romulans; B4 was bait to lure the Enterprise to Romulus. But surely one reason would suffice. The redundancy only exists as a clumsy way of reconnecting Data’s story with Picard’s.

Why does the Reman Viceroy commit a telepathic rape of Troi? This seems to be a set up so that Troi can later reverse the process and detect the cloaked ship. Okay, but the telepathic rape makes no dramatic sense on its own.

And, while we’re on the subject, how does telepathy enable the Enterprise to track the Scimitar? How does telepathy interface with technology?

Shinzon’s character seems to be the product of a committee. He looks too soft, full-lipped, and doll-like to be a warrior. And the effect is not diminished by his uniform, which looks a bit too much like something from Liberace’s wardrobe. The same goes for his uppercrust accent. Did he pick that up in the Dilithium mines as well?

Another, rather effeminate moment, is when he rebuffs the advances of Donatra. What normal man would be offended by a female of her attributes stroking his cheek? Is Shinzon a hypochondriac? Oo! Girl's germs! Girl's germs!

Actually, as the product of a germ-free lab, our clone might well be a hypochondriac. There are some dramatic possibilities here. But it hardly fits with his career as a soldier. There is nothing especially antiseptic about hand-to-hand combat. The only reason he rebuffs her is, I guess, to establish that he’s a real mean dude—and maybe explain why she changes sides.

Now, the producers are committed to this antagonist because the character is the alter-ego of the protagonist (Picard), so he must look and sound like a youthful version of Stewart. But, again, that doesn’t relieve the underlying incongruity.

Why, exactly, does Shinzon want to destroy Picard? The reaction seems out of all proportion to the provocation. What is so unbearable about being a clone? Does a twin feel this way about his brother? Does a twin feel it necessary to kill his own brother in order to assert his own individuality? Seems sort of extreme to me. How common is fratricide among twins, anyway? Surely Shinzon can make a name for himself regardless of Picard’s reputation.

Shinzon is naturally curious about Picard. Okay, so why be in such a hurry to polish him off? And why does he never go through with the blood transfusion?

Why, exactly, does Shinzon want to annihilate life on earth? We seem to be given two reasons. This is another rejection of his humanity as he bonds with the Remans. But we’re also told that it strikes a mortal blow at the heart of the Federation, paving the way for the conquest of the entire quadrant. But why do we need two reasons when one would do the job?

For that matter, how would the destruction of the earth destroy the Federation? Surely the remaining members of the Federation could muster enough military might to defeat the Scimitar or even the whole Romulan fleet.

One also wonders what the need is for a new Doomsday weapon. Don’t you suppose that 24C military technology already had many ways of committing genocide? How much high technology does it really take to wipe out a biological organism or entire species? We could have done it to ourselves with 20C (nuclear) technology.

We’re told that Shinzon was exiled to die in the Dilithium mines for fear the Federation would uncover plot and instigate a war. Really? Would the peace-loving Federation wage war against the Romulans if it discovered a defunct espionage plot involving a clone of Picard? Doesn’t sound much like the Federation I grew up with.

On another note, why do so many of the space craft look like the paper airplanes I made in grade school—complete with wings and cool-looking tail-fins? And why do they operate with jet propulsion? Is aerodynamic design important in a vacuum? What are those back burners pushing up against? What is holding the Enterprise in place while the Scimitar pulls away?

Of course, these common sense objections could be leveled against many SF films. But, that itself, is a question. Why is it that in movie after movie after movie, including high budget films, that no matter how often these elementary blunders are pointed out by critics as well as the fan base, nothing every changes? Why don’t producers respect their core constituency and develop a few simple conventions that don’t constantly overtax the willing suspension of belief?

There are many movie genres which are perfectly coherent. For example, many SF films merely resituate the Western genre. Yet the Western genre is rarely counterintuitive. So what is it about SF that seems to invite chronic incoherence?

Let’s finish our review with a couple of other cavils before I try to draw some broader lessons. Why the ubiquitous fire fight battle in outer space? It also gets to be unspeakably tedious to have these split-second narrow escapes. How many times have we seen the clock literally ticking down to the last nanosecond before the hero rides in right in the nick of time to avert disaster and save the crew for the sequel? The shields are down, warp drive is off-line, and the fuse is within a hair’s-breadth of the bomb.

Yes, this time Data is finished for good, but, no, not really, because he lives on in B4. So his demise is emotionally risk-free.

Again, why do we so often end in a match up between the hero and the bad guy?

Now, in fairness to SF filmmakers, the critics often seem to be just as incoherent in their objections. On the one hand, you have the usual jibes about cowboys in outer space and glitzy
FX. On the other hand, critics are often quite hostile SF films that ponder existential questions and raise the intellectual level of the dialogue. They dismiss this as just so much pseudoprofound didacticism.

It is possible to offer some very banal explanations for some of these deficiencies. Producers make movies to make money. They punch up the action to sell tickets. They fall back on formulaic writing because they’re under time constraints. They make aliens looks like humans, and spacecraft look like racing cars and fighter jets, because it’s easier to stick with what’s familiar and not challenge the expectations of the audience.

Maybe, but that doesn’t explain everything, and even for what it does explain, I not sure that there isn’t a deeper answer.

A teleplay often resorts to stock dramatic devices because the screenwriter is facing such a tight deadline to hand in the script. Also, in an hour-long show (minus commercial breaks), you want to deliver the goods in a hurry.

But movies are a different beast. There’s plenty of time to write a good screenplay. One doesn’t have to reach for instant gratification and the most threadbare plot devices.

Unlike moviegoers in general, many SF viewers are quite literate in the genre, with a command of popular science as well, if not a major in the field. The same often holds true for the screenwriter, director, and producers.

So it isn’t clear, from a practical or commercial standpoint, why so many movies in this genre should be so careless about the illusion of consistency. And their core constituency likes to be challenged to imagine the unimaginable.

Moreover, the predictable formulas and obvious dramatic devices are boring and irritating rather than exciting. This is one reason so many high-budget movies bomb every year. So commercial success can’t be what is driving this from start to finish.

Having found the pat answers a little too thin, let’s consider a few other explanations. One concerns the definition of drama. It is a cliche to say that conflict is the essence of drama. More precisely, conflict resolution is held to be the essence of drama. So the dramatic arc sets up the conditions of conflict, and then relieves the conflict for better or worse.

That is why so many TV series constantly return, many times a year, year after year, to dramas about cops and robbers, private-eyes, doctors, lawyers, and firemen. The simple idea is to situate the story is a naturally dramatic setting, with life-and-death struggles and their attendant emotions. Before the advent of cinema, this was the stuff of grand opera and the penny dreadfuls.

That’s the reason that Nemesis resorts to the same dramatic devices. It isn’t just because that’s such a quick and easy way to write, or because it delivers a big emotional payload at the end. Rather, that’s the reigning definition of drama, of what makes a gripping story or page-turner. And the definition controls the product regardless of whether the formula actually works or not.

This suggests that the definition itself is defective. It is too stereotypical. The average viewer becomes emotionally numb. We can always see what’s coming next, so our feelings are not engaged.

C.S. Lewis once said that you can’t begin to really enjoy a good book until you read it the second time. The first time you read it you’re too curious about what’s going to happen next and how it all comes out, to really appreciate the quality of the writing. Only after your superficial curiosity is sated are you able to sit back and savor the book at a deeper level.

I would suggest that we need to revolutionize our definition of drama. It isn’t that the old definition is wrong, but that it is much too narrow and shallow.

And this isn’t a difference between the literary and cinematic medium. Why do film buffs have favorite films? Why do they watch the same film many times? It isn’t for the high-tension drama, because that depends on an element of suspense, which depends, in turn, on an element of surprise, that is lost after the very first viewing.

And there’s another reason we need to broaden our definition, because the old fashioned, operating definition is too proscriptive and prescriptive rather than descriptive of life. For drama, in the narrow sense, is only a small part of life, and often not the most important part of life.

Life dictates to art, art doesn’t dictate to life. Art is about experience, and not about winnowing down the raw materials to fit an a priori definition. Drama, if it is to be true to life, to be a true interpretation of life, ought to be open to a broader range of experience than the amusement park or circus act. Why not take life as it comes to us, touching it up a bit, but without radical surgery?

Another answer goes to limitations inherent in the SF genre. SF has certain conventions that lend it some flexibility, in terms of what it posits to be possible. But, by the same token, SF raises expectations that are hard for SF to satisfy. It imagines other worlds, but the only world that supplies the standard of comparison is, of course, the real world, and, in particular, the provincial little world we know on earth. So SF is literally a disguised version of an utterly mundane experience. Its extraordinary vision is only an extension or projection of ordinary sights and sounds. The aliens are never very alien.

This is one reason that Star Trek is so banal. All the aliens are humanized. The Vulcans, Klingons, and androids are humanized. Space exploration becomes a cheesy version of an expedition or safari to some exotic locale on terra firma. Space explorers domesticate the headhunters and civilize the savages of other alien species.

Still another reason for the thinness of the SF genre is that, as a rule, it exemplifies a secular outlook on life. A stock theme in Star Trek is the exploration of our humanity. And how do we define the essence of humanity? In Star Trek, personal autonomy and individuality is the essence of humanity.

But even if we were agreed on this definition, where does that take us? What does it mean to be an individual? Is an individual self-defining, or does the pressure of other persons supply the mutual surfaces and shared boundaries of his own identity?

Again, what do we do with our freedom? Is freedom an end it itself, or a means to the end? In Nemesis, this is a quest to be more than we are, to be better than we are. But what is the frame of reference? What are we supposed to be reaching for? What supplies the vertical axis of aspiration along the horizontal axis of humanism? Gazing at a mirror doesn’t offer an ideal alternative—even if the ideal were obtainable.

SF is not so much a secular vision as it is a secularized vision of something else—a stripped down version, with pseudoscientific trappings, of apocalyptic eschatology—with a climactic battle between the Christ figure (e.g., Picard) and the Antichrist figure (the Borg queen, Shinzon, Khan), terminating in heaven-on-earth (the Federation) for the victors, and a lake of fire (flaming space ships) for the vanquished. The Star Wars saga follows the same pattern.

Therein lies both the dramatic power and the broken promise of the SF genre. The source of conflict and resolution is essentially religious in aspect, but in a suppressed and censored form.

The inspiration of Scripture

I. Self-Witness of Scripture:

Traditionally, the Church has confessed the plenary, verbal inspiration of Scripture. And many Christians still take this for granted. But ever since the 19C, that position has come under increasing attack from within the very ranks of the Church. So it is important to ask ourselves, what is the theology of inspiration? And are we committed to this doctrine, or is it a ball-and-chain that is holding us back?

A. Self-conception.

The Bible identifies itself with the word of God. For example, a number of the prophetic books begin with the following phrase: "the word of the Lord came to…" (Jer 1:2; Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1; Jonah 1:1; Micah 1:1; Zeph 1:1; Hag 1:1; Zech 1:1; Mal 1:1). This introductory and programmatic formula functions like a cover letter that applies to the internal contents of the entire collection so designated. It supplies the prophetic credentials. To take another example, the formula "thus says the Lord" occurs hundreds of times in the prophets.

B. The Prophetic Institution.

This characterization goes back to the institution of the prophetic vocation. In Deut 18:15-20 we have the formal institution of the prophetic calling. This is set over against false forms of divining God’s will (vv10-11,14). One difference is that, in pagan divination, man takes the initiative, whereas in prophecy it is God who takes the initiative by "raising" up the seer (vv15,18).

Deut 18:15-18 has both a collective and distributive aspect with reference to the prophetic guild in Israel as well as a personal and end-time aspect with reference to the Messiah. I have characterized this passage as bearing witness to the formal establishment of the prophetic vocation, for the phenomenon of prophetism antedates this institution. Noah’s malediction (Gen 9:25f.) and Jacob’s benediction (49:1 passim) were both prophetic. Abraham was also a prophet (20:7). But there are two differences:
a) To our knowledge, Moses and his successors mark the advent of a class of writing prophets. And so they serve a canonical function—among other things.
b) Israel was a theocratic nation-state with a divine law code regulating its religious and socio-political existence. The prophetic guild had an integral role in the life of the theocracy—alongside judges, monarchs and priests (cf. Deut 17:14-18:8).

In Deut 18:15-20 the prophetic institution is modeled on Moses, the paradigmatic prophet (vv.15,18-20). The basic qualification of a prophet is verbal inspiration (v18; cf. Isa 51:16a; 59:21; Jer 1:9; Ezk 3:4). A prophet is a divine mouthpiece. And it follows from this role that divine inspiration and divine initiation are correlative, for the former relies on the latter. Conversely, the corollary to a true prophet is a spokesman who presumes to speak for God without benefit of verbal inspiration (v20; cf. Jer 14:14; 23:16b,18,21,26; Ezk 13:6). A false prophet speaks without divine leave or unction. So the mark of a prophet is that he says everything God gave him to say, and only what God gave him to say. And that is what is meant by plenary verbal inspiration.

The same identification is made in the NT. An example is the citation formula employed by the author of Hebrews. He bypasses the human writer or speaker and attributes an OT statement directly to different members of the Trinity (1:5-13; 2:12-13; 3:7; 4:3-5,7; 5:5-6; 6:14; 7:21; 8:8; 10:5-7,30; 13:5). Whatever the Bible says equates with divine speech.

This sort of self-attribution is uncommon in the NT. What accounts for the contrast? There are two or three reasons:
a)The stereotypical formulae (i.e. "thus says the Lord"; "the word of the Lord came to so-and-so") were a literary convention of the prophetic genre, proper. Since only one book of the NT falls within that genre (the Apocalypse), we would not expect its systematic use elsewhere. Not coincidentally, the Apocalypse does employ prophetic formulae.
b)In some measure the NT is addressed to a Gentile audience. These literary conventions would be less meaningful to an alien audience.
c)Once the precedent has been established, verbal inspiration can be assumed. Even in the OT, not all of the prophetic books are prefaced with this formula.

Having said that, the NT has its own way of asserting inspiration. Paul goes out of his way attribute his Gospel to direct divine revelation (Gal 1-2). And he even paraphrases the traditional formula (1 Thes 2:13; cf. 1 Cor 2:13; 14:37).

But the NT also characterizes its own message by means of narrative and redemptive historical theology. When John the Baptist comes on the scene, this is quite dramatic because it marks the resumption of prophecy (Lk 1:15; 3:2; Jn 1:33)—after a hiatus of over 400 years. And when Jesus coordinates the work of the Spirit with the work of the Apostolate, this is a way of initiating his disciples into the prophetic tradition (Jn 14:26; 16:26-27; 16:12-13; 17:20; 20:21-22).

Jn 14-17 represent the NT counterpart to Deut 18:15-20. The Old Covenantal institution finds its antitypal fulfillment in the New Covenant (Acts 3:22-23), while Pentecost signals its actual inauguration (Acts 1:8). If, therefore, verbal inspiration defined the OT prophetic office, and such an institution foreshadowed the New Covenant, then that same unction can hardly apply with diminished vigor in the fullness of fulfillment.

C. Primacy of revelation.

God must take the initiative in the revelation of his nature and will. Even though redemptive events may take place in the public domain, their significance is not self-evident. It is due to the natural opacity of the divine degree that God established the prophetic guild (e.g. Isa 6:1ff.; Jer 23:18,22; Amos 3:7 ; Gal 1-2).

D. Providence.

Someone might object that my appeal is one-sided. For the Bible also identifies its message with the words of men (e.g. Jer 1:1; Amos 1:1). This is true. But we must guard against pitting the human effect against divine causality, as if these were cofactors which delimit each other. The relation is subordinate, not coordinate, for God not only forms the prophetic speech, but the prophetic speaker (Isa 49:1-5; Jer 1:5; Gal 1:15). It is true, then, that inspiration is mediate rather than immediate. The human agent is the proper object of inspiration. But that does not eliminate the principle of causal priority, for God is the author of the author. So the human side of Scripture is, itself, an expression of the divine side.

Not only so, but the whole of history is made to match up with God’s word. Predictive prophecy is a case in point (e.g. Isa 41:21-26; 42:9; 43:9; 44:6-8; 45:21; 46:10; 48:5-7). Inspiration is, itself, a subset of special providence, which is—in turn—a subset of general providence.

E. Unity of truth.

Someone might object that my appeal is selective. I have hitched my case to the prophetic institution. But we can’t generalize from that to other occupations and genres. But this objection is flawed:
i) Prophetic inspiration is not narrowly limited to forecasting the future. Moses is the prophetic paradigm. Yet precious little of the Pentateuch is prophetic in the predictive sense. Most of its contents are concerned with history and law. For that matter, Moses is also the prototypical Psalmist (Ps 90). Asaph, a lyric poet, is also called a prophet (2 Chron 29:30). Some prophets assumed the role of royal historian (e.g. Nathan, Gad, Samuel, Iddo, Ahijah, Isaiah, Shemaiah). Much of what we find in the "Prophetic" division of the OT canon is also occupied with history and law. Oracular inspiration does not, therefore, terminate on a particular literary genre or subject-matter. Direct revelation is a subdivision of inspiration. And as I’ve pointed out under (i), this institution extends to the NT as well—or rather, resumes and culminates with the NT.
ii) Prophetism was a charismatic calling and not a job description. You didn’t have to quit your day job to be a prophet. A judge (Deborah, Samuel), monarch (e.g. David), musician (Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun, Miriam), priest (e.g. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jahaziel), historian (e.g. Gad, Iddo, Ahijah, Isaiah, Shemaiah), statesman (Daniel) or lowly shepherd (Amos) could each receive the prophetic enduement. James classifies Job as a prophet (Jas 5:10-11). Indeed, the only professional prophets were the corrupt court prophets (e.g. Zedekiah, Hananiah). So it would commit a category error to limit oracular inspiration by genre, medium or subject-matter.
iii) Turning this around, the mark of a false prophet is not that he makes a false forecast. Such failure would, of course, brand him a false prophet. But the negative proposition doesn’t entail a positive principle, for a false prophet can venture a true prediction (Deut 13:1ff.). Rather, what makes for a false prophet is to speak for God when God has not spoken to him.
Now it would be hard to name any author of the Bible who doesn’t assume the role of a divine spokesman. Regardless of genre, they represent God’s will to the reader. So inspiration must be a general condition of any of the sacred writers.
iv) There is, in Scripture, a general correlation between what God says and what he does. God’s word interprets his work. Put another way, God reveals his nature and will in event-media as well as word-media. Various events are a form of sign-language, and you learn how to decipher the gestures by reading his Word. As such, we cannot compartmentalize redemptive history from the general narrative of Scripture. And by the same token, we cannot abstract away the historical context in order to isolate and identify an inspired core.
v) It is instructive to see what use our Lord makes of the OT to establish a point. He assumes the historicity of Abel (Mt 23:35), Adam & Eve (Mt 19:4-5), Lot’s wife (Lk 17:32), Jonah & the whale (Mt 12:40), the Flood (Mt 24:38-39), the manna (Jn 6), the miracles of Elijah and Elisha (Lk 4:25-27), &c., and builds on these precedential examples to validate his own argument. There is no effort to compartmentalize inspiration or historicity according to genre or subject-matter. His appeal roves widely over the whole OT, taking it to be a reliable record of real events.

F. Virtuous & vicious circularity:

But even if this is an accurate summary of inspiration in its wider web of theological relations, why credit these claims? Isn’t this appeal viciously circular?

Although a bare appeal to the self-witness of Scripture would be tendentious, this is a necessary, if insufficient, condition in the doctrine of Scripture; for unless the Bible laid claim to inspiration, there would be no claim to consider. Furthermore, the object of our affirmation or denial ought to be the self-witness of Scripture, for it would be nonsensical to frame a doctrine of Scripture that doesn’t take the self-witness of Scripture as its point of reference.

Even in a court of law it is perfectly proper for a defendant to take the witness stand. And it would be entirely unfair for the jury to dismiss his testimony in advance. A defendant may be innocent and be a very compelling witness in his own defense. And who, moreover, is in a better position to explain the psychological dynamics of inspiration than the very subject of inspiration? In the nature of the case, a prophet will have the inside track on this phenomenon.

G. Self-evidence of Scripture:

By way of positive evidence, I have offered a number of arguments in my essay on "Why I Believe."I would, for now, offer three lines of evidence:

II. Self-evidence:

The above lines of evidence supply internal evidence for the inspiration of Scripture. Such an appeal is not viciously circular, for it is not predicated on passages that lay claim to inspiration, but rather, to properties of Scripture that imply its inspiration. In this sense, the inspiration of the Bible is self-evidentiary. Self-evidence and internal evidence are correlative.

A. Self-evidence & persuasion:

A common error is to treat self-evidence and persuasion as correlative as well. But that counfounds the objectivity of the evidence with the receptive state of the subject. Persuasion is person-variable. An argument may be logically compelling without being psychologically compelling. Whether an otherwise compelling argument is convincing to the subject depends on the disposition and aptitude of the subject. Many things are self-evident to a chess prodigy or math whiz that are inevident to an ordinary mortal.

B. Self-evidence & apriorism

Another common error is to limit self-evidence to truths of reason as over against truths of fact. However, an existential proposition can also be a necessary truth. Take the proposition: "If Jesse is David’s father, then David is Jesse’s son." Since fatherhood and sonship are correlative, the conclusion follows by strict implication even though the premise is existential.

III. Internal & external evidence:

What is the relation of external to internal evidence? Are they coequal? Does one verify or falsify the other?

A. Evidentiary asymmetry:

It may be contended that if external evidence is capable of corroborating the internal evidence, it’s also able to disconfirm it. In that case, Scripture is open to falsification. But I would deny that symmetry:
i) If it were a case of having more of the same kind of evidence for one proposition over against a contrary proposition, then the conclusion would have something going for it. If the only way of verifying claims of Scripture were by way of external corroboration, and the extant evidence weighed more heavily against a Scriptural proposition than for it, then that would be disconfirmatory and leave Scripture open to falsification. But since the internal and external lines of evidence do not proceed from the same database, one can’t make a direct comparison. While they may implicate a common claim, they don’t implicate each other.
ii) The self-evidence of Scripture is cogent on its own grounds. Supporting evidence or secondary counter-evidence wouldn’t render the self-evidence any more or less evident than it already is. Opposing one type of evidence to another doesn’t, by itself, undermine either for the obvious reason that it doesn’t point us in any particular direction, but would—at most—leave us at an impasse.
iii) The self-evidence of Scripture is more compelling than any secondary counter-evidence.
iv) Luke is not falsified if he were to contradict Josephus or Tacitus at some point or another, for the Bible never staked its truth-claims on satisfying that sort of condition, and there is no reason why we should expect perfect correspondence between the two. Some claims have no initial presumption in their favor derived from self-evidence or internal evidence. So they live or die based on their degree of factual correspondence. But that’s not where Scripture enters the picture.
v) Even when we’re dealing with the same kind of evidence, I would not agree that corroborative evidence and secondary counter-evidence are on a par. It is much harder to explain factual agreement between two independent witnesses if one is unreliable than to explain a conflict consistent with the veracity of one or the other. The world at large didn’t take much direct interest in the Jews and the Christians, so the vast bulk of the ancient record, even if it had survived, wouldn’t touch on the history of God’s people. We have a few rare references, as well as some incidental information that implicated aspects of their common history. Only a fraction of a fraction of the collateral materials have survived, riddled with gaps in their chronology and geography. It is nothing short of phenomenal when we are able to fix on a synchrony between any secular record and a Biblical event. How could one possibly account for that correlation unless the event took place?

In other words, a lucky coincidence between two independent records is im- measurably less likely if one witness were unreliable than if both sources accurately preserve the memory of an actual event, whereas a discrepancy doesn’t impugn the credibility of either witness unless we have reason to take the one source as our standard of comparison. So when, time and again, we can match a Biblical referent to a secular source, this is inexplicable unless the Bible is trustworthy. But a mismatch doesn’t have to satisfy the same improbabilities. If a public event occurred, it’s not surprising that two independent sources would agree on its occurrence, assuming they mention it at all, and they both survived. But if it never happened, what was the originating cause of the correspondence?

Conversely, there are numerous reasons why secular history might at times conflict with Scripture without prejudice to the veracity of Scripture. The secular witness may be a hostile witness. Or he may not accurately recall certain details. Or his expectations may have skewed his perception of the incident. Or he may be filling in the gaps with guesswork. Or he may be relying on faulty second-hand information. Or he may be lying to further his personal ambitions—or those of his boss. Or our own collation of the evidence may pivot on a number of mutually adjustable variables (e.g. stratigraphy, typology, pedology, cross-dating, sequence-dating, ascension years, coregencies, and calendrical systems). So there is no probabilistic parity between a match and a mismatch. Therefore, an appeal to circumstantiation in no way detracts from the absolute authority of Scripture.

B. Advocacy & accuracy:

Christian apologists often avoid beginning with the Bible since the critic will charge that it is hardly a disinterested witness. And so they start with corroborative evidence. I have no objection to bringing in outside witnesses. But it lets the critic off the hook all too easily when we don’t force him to come to grips with the Bible’s self-witness.

Imagine if someone were to say, "Look here, if you want to learn about life in the death camps, you can’t start with a book by Elie Wiesel, for he’s got an axe to grind. You need to read an objective account. You need to read a Nazi instead of a Jew!" Yet that’s the attitude that liberals bring to the NT. They treat it as so much propaganda. But they wouldn’t treat Wiesel’s writing as propaganda. The key question is not whether a writer has his tendenz. The key question is, What is the origin of this tendenz? Wiesel has good reason for hating the Nazis. He lived under them. The NT writers are not neutral sources of information. But that’s because they to speak from experience. To admit a bias does not imply that you must have slanted the story. The NT writers tell us that their faith is based on sight—on eyewitness observation and eyewitness testimony.

It is invalid to drive a wedge between advocacy and accuracy. For it all depends on motives. Many people apply a different standard to the Bible because it’s a religious document. But the relevant question is not, Are these writers men of faith?—but what accounts for their faith? And what accounts for their devotion to this particular faith?

IV. "Docetic" inspiration:

It is sometimes said that the high doctrine of Scripture commits the docetic heresy by virtually denying the human element in Scripture. This accusation amounts to a cute but careless comparison:
i) Our christology is only as good as the inspired source of our christology. So it is self-defeating to set christology over against inspiration.
ii) It is illicit to draw a point-by-point correspondence between the Incarnation and inspiration, for there are discontinuities between the two phenomena. The nature of redemption required the Son to assume a lowly status. He had to become a sympathetic high priest (Heb 4:15). He had to undergo abject anguish in order to consecrate himself for this office (5:8-9). He had to become subject to the liabilities of the law (Gal 3:13; 4:4-5; Phil 2:7-8). But all of this is inapposite to the purpose of revelation, which is to inform people of God’s acts, attributes and will, of the human condition and man’s duty before God, and the way of salvation. It informs not only by providing vital information that is otherwise unobtainable, as well as confirming some of our natural intuitions and observations, but also by correcting our faulty assumptions and conclusions. Not only is fallibility inessential to this informative role, but would clearly interfere with the precise purpose of Scripture.
iii) Even if, for the sake of argument, we granted a strict analogy, orthodox theology has always held Christ to be an infallible teacher, so if the comparison is to hold, the Bible must also be inerrable. Only if one subscribed to the kenotic theory would the premise (and conclusion) not obtain. But that would be a case of reacting to one christological heresy by embracing another christological heresy.
iv) When liberals frame their doctrine of Scripture in reaction to docetism, they’re committing the same offense which they (falsely) accuse conservatives of, inasmuch as they deduce their theory of inspiration from a dogmatic a priori. By contrast, the conservative doesn’t extrapolate his doctrine of inspiration from some fishy analogy but takes it straight from the self-witness of the source in question.
v) A sacred author doesn’t only get his inspiration from God; he also gets his humanity from God since he is a creature of God. And God doesn’t create him in a vacuum, but creates him in history. Creature and culture are coordinated. Our humanity and socialization can never be boundary conditions on inspiration, for the human side of Scripture is no less the product of divine agency than direct revelation. It’s all a matter of means.

V. Sources of Scripture:

A common objection to the inspiration of Scripture is the claim that Scripture can be deconstructed into a number of different sources. But problem with this claim is not that it is false, but that it attributes false sources to Scripture—by conjecturing all manner of made-up sources. We should take our cue from what the Bible has to say about its own sources of information and composition:

i) Eyewitness observation (e.g. Num 33:1-2; Jn 1:14; 19:35; 21:24; 1 Jn 1:1-3,5; Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16; 2 Pet 1:16-18).
ii) Eyewitness testimony (e.g. Lk 1:1-4; 1 Cor 15:3-7; Heb 2:3b).
iii) Special revelation (e.g. Exod 4:11-12,15-16; Deut 18:18-20; Isa 1:1; 6:1ff.; Jer 1:1ff.; Ezk 2:1f.; Hos 1;1f.; Joel 1:1; Amos 3:7-8; 7:14ff.; Obad 1:1; Mic 1:1; Nahum 1:1; Hab 1:1; Zeph 1:1; Hag 1:1; Zech 1:1,7; Mal 1:1; Gal 1:15-16; Rev 1:1,10,19; 4:2).
iv) General revelation (e.g. 1 Kgs 4:29,32-33).
v) Prior revelation (e.g. Dan 9:2; Zech 1:4-6; 7:7,12).
vi) Divine inscripturation (e.g. Exod 31:18).
vii) Divine dictation (e.g. Exod 33:11; Num 12:8a; Deut 34:10)
viii) Extra-canonical materials (e.g. Num 21:14,27-30 [cf. Jer 48:45-56]; Josh
10:13; 2 Sam 1:17-18; Heb 11:34ff.; Jude 9,14).
ix) Personal experience (e.g. Job 42:5a; Eccl 1:14; 9:13f. Hos 1:2; 3:1-3)

All of Scripture is inspired (2 Kg 17:37; Hos 8:12; Rom 3:2; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:19-21), but not all of Scripture is revealed. Direct revelation is a special case of inspiration, but inspiration is a special case of providence.

In addition, inspiration does not rule out all forms of editorial activity. But where the Bible specifies such activity, it is largely limited to a non-creative role: transcription (e.g. Jer 36:4,32; Rom 16:22; 2 Thes 2:2; 3:17; 1 Pet 5:12) and/or collation (Ps 72:20; Prov 25:1; Eccl 12:11).

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Chosen but free?-2

That’s the argument. It is easy to lose sight of this because Geisler moves so quickly and frequently between his Scriptural citations and his governing assumptions.

Another favorite objection of Geisler’s is that Calvinism denies the love of God as an essential attribute of God. For if God does not love everyone, then love cannot be an essential attribute of God. But there are several serious problems with this objection:

i) A universalist could deploy the same objection against Geisler’s own position. How can God be loving if he sends anyone to hell?

ii) If God is unloving unless our Lord made atonement for every fallen man, then God is unloving unless our Lord made atonement for every fallen angel.

iii) Geisler is assuming an extensive rather than intensive definition of love. What is more loving: to make salvation possible for more men, or to make salvation certain for fewer?

iv) Love implies hate. Love implies a loathing of love’s opposite. If you love a child, it is only natural to despise a child-molester.

v) Geisler destroys the gratuity of grace. He destroys the merciful nature of mercy. We’re not talking about the general attribute of divine love, but God’s love of the ungodly, of the antithesis of God. Grace is arbitrary. Mercy is discretionary. Were they necessary, they would cease to be gracious and merciful. The mystery is not that God doesn't love sinners, one and all, but that God would love any sinner at all.

Geisler tries to get around this by saying that the OT word for "mercy" means loving-kindness (88, n18). But this appeal is faulty on a couple of grounds:

a) It commits the word=concept fallacy. The point at issue is not the meaning of different words, but the meaning of different concepts.

b) In the OT, God’s mercy or loving-kindness has general reference to the covenant community.

vi) The fact that God has an attribute to a maximal degree does not entail that God must manifest an attribute to a maximal degree. God is just, but God does not exact justice on everyone; God is omnipotent, but God does not do everything of which he’s capable.

Geisler’s position resembles Neoplatonic emanationism. On this view, the world is the necessary efflux of the divine essence. And that, of course, is pantheistic.

vii) Frankly, it is hard to see how God is all-loving to the damned. Consigning sinners to hell is a paralogical expression of love, although it is a logical expression of justice.

Geisler uses "love" and "goodness" interchangeably, such that a restriction on divine love entails a restriction on divine goodness. But this commits a fallacy of equivocation. For goodness is a broader concept. There are many goods. Divine love is one, but so is the justice of God. Because "love" and "goodness" are not synonymous, a restriction on the former does not entail a restriction on the latter.

Geisler uses the illustration of a farmer who finds three boys drowning in a pond where he put a no-swimming sign. What would we think if the farmer let them drown?

But the question is whether this illustration is all that analogous to a sinner’s standing before God. In fact, the illustration is successful to the degree that it is subversive of justice. To begin with, I doubt a lot of readers regard it as sinful for a few boys to go swimming in the local pond, even if they’re trespassing on private property. This seems like good clean fun, a perfectly natural, all-American thing for boys to do. We would fault the farmer for being so small-minded and legalistic in the first place. We also expect adults to protect and defend the young.

But when we’re talking about a sinner’s relation to God, we generally have in mind a grown-up, not a child.

I’ll substitute a very different illustration. A few years ago there was a widely televised bank robbery. The robbers were attired in full-body armor with paramilitary rifles. They got into a full-scale shoot-out with the police. They had the cops out-gunned. Finally the police rearmed and took down both suspects. One bled to death at the scene. His family sued, accusing the police of letting the suspect bleed to death.

To judge by the footage, the police did, indeed, stall the clock until the suspect bled out. Speaking for myself, I regard that as poetic justice. He got exactly what he deserved. What goes around comes around, and he had it coming in spades. He had been firing away at policemen and innocent by-standers, trying to kill anyone who strayed between the cross-hairs. By all means let him bleed to death. His guilt was never in doubt. It was broadcast live. The whole world was his jury. He was not entitled to medical treatment. He died as he had tried to make others die. Let him who lives by the sword, die by the sword.

Geisler faults Calvinism for saying that "God does not do all he can do to save all. Thus, it cannot escape the conclusion that God is not even as good as a finite fallible human father who would do everything he could to save all his drowning children" (260).

This objection betrays an incapacity for self-criticism. For a universalist would say the same thing about Geisler’s God. Geisler believes in hell. So even on Geisler’s view, God does not do all he can do to save all.

What if his son were drowning because he jumped off a bridge? What if he were unwilling to be fished out of the water? What if he were suicidal? If his son were clinically depressed because his brain chemistry was out of whack, would Geisler not be prepared to have him committed, against his will--if need be--for treatment to restore the imbalance?

Geisler says that freedom cannot be forced, but he confuses freewill with ill-will. The sinner, by being a sinner, is out of his mind. He is not thinking straight. When God renews the will of the elect, he restores them to a right state of mind. Call it coercion if you choose, but this is reparative.

It is an abuse of language to say that it is morally "repugnant," to put something back in proper working order, so that it can function once again as it originally designed to function. You may have to force a broken lock. The key no longer works. The tumblers were jammed in place. But once you fix the lock, it turns without effort.

Geisler is guilty of indulging in a number of elementary misrepresentations of Calvinism:

i) He equates hyper-Calvinism with supralapsarianism. But there is no logical connection between the two. Hyper-Calvinism is the view that a preacher ought not urge the unregenerate to repent and believe, whereas the supra view assigns the reprobate a theodicean role inasmuch as God foreordained the fall to manifest his mercy and justice. An infra can be a Hyper-Calvinist. Or is his beef only with the supra version?

ii) He says that according to Calvinism, "God’s predetermination is done independently of his foreknowledge of human free acts. God operates with such unapproachable sovereignty that his choices are made with total disregard for the choices of mortal men...What is more...God determines to save whomever he wishes regardless of whether they choose to believe or not" (47).

This characterization is, at best, extremely misleading. For it can foster the misimpression that predestination keeps some believers out of heaven, as if there were a certain number of men who choose to believe in Christ, but God chooses to damn them irrespective of their foreseen faith.

But the true Reformed view is that, apart from grace, there would be no believers. There are no believers to foreknow apart from grace. There are only sinners.

Geisler goes on to say this, but first impressions stick, and if you distort a position at the outset, that is what many readers are likely to remember. You have built up such a bias in the reader’s mind that your parenthetical asides bounce right off.

ii) Geisler defines spiritual inability as "the elimination of all human ability to understand or respond to God" (57), and counters that "if depravity has destroyed man’s ability to know good from evil and to choose the good over the evil, then it would have destroyed man’s ability to sin" (62).

But this is an unrecognizable caricature of Calvinism. To begin with, Calvinism limits spiritual inability to the ability to do any spiritual good. That’s why it’s called "spiritual" inability.

Calvinism doesn’t deny, but rather affirms, that by virtue of common grace, God preserves a remnant of common sense and common decency in the reprobate and unregenerate.

Geisler also slurs over key distinctions: there’s a difference between knowing good and doing good, understanding and responding. An agent can know right, but do wrong.

The essential point of spiritual inability is that the reprobate and unregenerate are ill-disposed and indisposed to repent of their sin and believe in Christ. Trust is incompatible with fear and loathing. A sinner qua sinner cannot love a hanging Judge.

iii) Geisler denies unconditional election. But he accuses some Calvinists of inconsistency on this point. He deems it inconsistent from someone who affirms that salvation is by faith alone to stipulate certain conditions in order to be saved (68).

Yet what Calvinism affirms is not that salvation is unconditional, but election. Again, we are not saved by faith alone. We are justified by faith alone. Geisler is blurring distinct categories.

For his part, Geisler believes that "foreknowledge" is a factor in election. He appeals to Rom 8:29 and 1 Pet 1:2 to justify his view. He knows that a Calvinist will render "proginosko" as "to choose beforehand," but he denies this on the grounds that in many of its NT occurrences, "ginosko" doesn't mean "to choose," while in most of its OT occurrences, "yada" doesn’t mean "to choose." He also adds that the verb "to choose" is sometimes used of persons who are not of the elect.

But this whole line of argument is flawed on several grounds:

i) "Ginosko" and "proginosko" are not synonymous. There is a reason for the prefix. It is an idiomatic expression for prior choice.

ii) Ironically, Geisler is resorting to the same statistical analysis that homosexuals resort to when they try to prove that in asking Lot to let them "know" his house guests," the Sodomites were not talking about homosexual rape. Can't you just hear these fine, upstanding citizens explain their predicament to the two angels?

"Now, looky here. This has all been a big misunderstandin'. Don't take it personal. We knows ya did't git a whole lotta time to brush up on that thar conversational Hebrah afore ya come down to these them parts. But we was just a-trying to be right neighborly, that's all. Somethin' musta got lost in translation. "To know" just means "to know," ya know. We're powerful sorry if'n we ruffled yer feathers. Nuttin' to git so all fired up about.

It should be unnecessary to point out that usage is contextual. Just as "yada" means "to copulate" in sexual situations, "yada" means "to choose" in covenantal contexts (e.g., Gen 18:19; Exod 33:17; 1 Sam 2:12; Ps 1:6; 18:43; Prov 9:10; Jer 1:5; Hos 13:5; Amos 3:2), while proginosko means "to choose beforehand" (Acts 2:23; Rom 8:29; 11:2; 1 Peter 1:2,20).

iii) Again, no one is arguing that the verb "to choose" is a technical term for eternal election. That is a question of context, as well as a theological construct from a number of different lines of exegetical evidence. As a systematic theologian, Geisler ought to have enough sophistication to appreciate the nature of theological method.

Geisler cites some verses of Scripture to prove that grace is not irresistible. But this flounders on equivocation. There is a difference between words and concepts. There is also a difference between dogmatic usage and ordinary usage. The fact that the reprobate resist the preceptive will of God (e.g., Mt 23:37; Lk 7:30; Act 7:51) is perfectly consonant with irresistible grace. Geisler even seems to admit as much in a footnote (97, n36), yet he choose to disregard that distinction in the body of the text.

He goes on to allege that "what extreme [!] Calvinists want to do is to avoid the repugnant image of a reluctant candidate being forced into the fold or captured into the kingdom...The problem with the idea of irresistible that there is no informed consent for the treatment" (99).

Geisler sounds like an ACLU lawyer who thinks it is better for mentally ill street people to freeze to death rather than having their "rights" violated. By contrast, the Calvinist sees nothing wrong with having a deranged sinner involuntarily committed to the grace of God. A sinner is like mental patient off his meds, or a cancer patient with a brain tumor. What irresistible grace does is to restore him to a right frame of mind, to cure him of his religious paranoia and criminal insanity. How is that morally "repugnant?"

This is, indeed, where we come to a theological crossroads. For a Calvinist, the magnitude of God’s grace is manifest in the fact that God saves the unwilling, that God converts his worst enemies. A man who finds this "repugnant" has failed to take the full measure of the Gospel.

In chapter 8, Geisler levels a number of stock objections to Calvinism: it exculpates man, implicates God, invites universalism, undermines assurance, undermines evangelism, and undermines prayer. Of these, only the first two are at all impressive.

On these two points, a great deal could be said, but since Geisler doesn’t say very much, neither will I:

i) Calvinism derives its doctrine of God from the revelation of God. Only God can tell us what he’s like and what he does. So these arm-chair objections, whatever their intuitive force, are castles in the air.

ii) In adapting his own illustration of a Skinner-box, I think we have some idea of how an action can be both certain and uncoerced. At least, I have presented a model for my own position, unlike Geisler.

iii) Geisler has no coherent alternative, for he falls back on self-determinism, but self-determinism is only a pseudonym for character-determinism. The agent may choose according to his character-traits, but he doesn’t choose his character-traits.

Regarding universalism, Geisler says "it does not suffice to claim that God’s justice rightly condemns those who do not believe, since even faith is a gift from God that he could give to all if he wanted to do so" (139).

But this is a non-sequitur. It is not simply that they disbelieve. They disbelieve because they are sinners. Yes, it is within his power to make everyone believe, but he is just to withhold his grace, for they do not deserve his grace; indeed, they deserve his wrath. In saving some, but not all, he shows to all that salvation is by grace alone.

Regarding the love of God, he says that "any diminution of God’s love will sooner or later eat away at one’s confidence in God’s benevolence...A partially loving God is less than ultimately good...At first blush, one is impressed with a God that supposedly loves him more than others...But upon further reflection, one cannot help but wonder why, if this God is so loving, he does not so love the world...If one allows this to gnaw at his mind long enough, it can turn him from being a particularist into being a universalist" (140-41).

To begin with, is this a logical objection, or a psychological objection? For example, Geisler also says that hell has occasioned unbelief or even atheism (140, n.5). But is that a good reason for a Christian to deny the doctrine of hell?

More to the point, Geisler once again misses the mystery and magnitude of grace. The amazing thing is that God loves any sinner, not that he doesn’t love every sinner. Once again, a Christian who fails to take this to heart is still nibbling around the corners and edges of the Gospel. Geisler’s gospel is a marginal Gospel, a faith in the fringe, the trimmings, the tassels--the circumference, but not the center.

The difference between a Reformed Christian and every other kind of Christian is not that the Calvinist is a better Christian, but that he alone has a real appreciation for the quality of grace by which he and every other Christian is saved. If a Christian had only one lesson to learn in life, this would be it. He should spend as much time as it takes for this to really sink in. And then he should remind himself on a daily basis.

Regarding evangelism, Geisler says that the following propositions undermine evangelism: "First of all, God does not love the whole world in a redemptive sense, but only the elect; Second, Christ only died for the elect, not the world. Third, no one has the faith to believe unless God gives it to him. Fourth, God has willed to give faith only to a select few, 'the frozen chosen.' Fifth, when God’s power works on the hearts of the unbelievers he wants to save, there is absolutely nothing they can do to refuse it. God’s power is irresistible" (141).

Regarding objections one and two, this would only be a disincentive to evangelism if the elect were confined to a particular part of the world, if we knew which part that was, and if it had already been evangelized--once and for all time. But since the distribution of the elect is worldwide through space and time, we believe in global evangelism. Perfectly logical.

Regarding objections three through five, even Geisler, in opposition to the Pelagian heresy, believes that grace is a necessary precondition for faith. But why is resistible grace a greater incentive to evangelism than irresistible grace? Shouldn’t a missionary be encouraged by the fact that God has made an offer which at least some of his hearers cannot refuse?

Incidentally, Calvinism has no received position on the relative number of the select. So the business about a "chosen few" has no official standing. The fact that they use this as a term of abuse, even though it goes back to the very lips of our Lord says a lot about their character--and it isn't pretty.

Finally, Geisler says that "if we believe God will do these things even if we do not pray, then there is no need for prayer" (142). True enough. But seeing as Reformed theology exalts prayer as a divinely ordained means of grace, Geisler is drawing a valid conclusion from a false premise.

This is such an elementary misstatement of the opposing position that it introduces a note of intellectual frivolity into his treatment. Does he read Reformed theology with any real understanding? Or is he so hostile that his eyes move over the page without grasping the content?

In appendix four, Geisler defends the principle of self-determination against several objections.

To the charge that self-causation is inapplicable to a human agent, Geisler says that this objection only pushes the problem back a step, for by that line of reasoning would be equally inapplicable to God. But there are two problems with this reply:

i) It erases the Creator/creature distinction. What makes a creature a creature is that it is an object as well as subject of causation. Even secondary agents or second-causes have a primary cause, outside themselves. As a Thomist, you’d think that Geisler would have a handle on that distinction.

It does no good to distinguish between actor and action, for in the case of a creaturely agent, even though he may be the immediate source of his own actions, but he is not the source of his own nature or character-traits or faculties or social conditioning, from whence his actions arise. A lawn may be watered by a sprinkler, but a sprinkler is not a wellspring.

ii) The category of self-causation is, indeed, inapplicable to God. For God is a timeless and self-sufficient agent.

To the charge that self-determination undermines divine grace and foreknowledge, Geisler says that "the answer lies in the fact that God knows--for sure (infallibly) precisely how everyone will use his freedom" (184).

This doesn’t answer the question, but begs the question. It merely paraphrases the original problem. If the agent is free to do otherwise, in the libertarian sense, then how can his choice be known before it is consummated? What is there to know? If the outcome is truly indeterminate, then the answer could either be and equally be yes or no.

Geisler says that, by their own admission, the priority of regeneration to faith is more of a logical consequence of the Reformed belief-system than it is of direct exegesis. But this is misleading, and he quotes no one to that effect.

To begin with, it is possible to infer one doctrine from another. Even if, for the sake of argument, a doctrine had no direct Scriptural support, yet if it were logically deducible from another Biblically attested doctrine, then it, too, would be Biblical. Geisler, as one who puts such stock in human reason, is in no position to object.

Likewise, a doctrine may be a theological construct, deriving from several different lines of evidence. The Trinity is a classic case in point. So is the Hypostatic Union. The priority of regeneration to faith is, in part, an inference from the necessity of regeneration in the first place, which is, in turn, complementary to the Scriptural evidence of spiritual inability.

In an attempt to topple Calvinism with one blow, Geisler says that "at the root of extreme [!] Calvinism is a radical form of voluntarism, which affirms that something is right simply because God willed it, rather than God willing it because it is right in accordance with his own unchangeable nature" (244).

The first thing to take note of is that Geisler does not cite a single representative statement from any historic Reformed creed to back up his sweeping claim. He only quotes from one source, and that’s a popular contemporary writer. Even if his interpretation of Piper happened to be correct, it would not go any distance toward proving this to be the mainstream position in Reformed tradition, rather than the private opinion of one Calvinist in particular.

It is also fairly obvious that Geisler is misrepresenting the very source he quotes. Piper does not drive a wedge between God’s will and God’s moral attributes. Rather, Piper drives a wedge between the will of God and the will of sinners. Not only has Geisler failed to lay his axe at the root of the Reformed faith, he hasn’t even succeeded in trimming a few twigs.

Geisler also has an appendix (8) on the Canons of Dort. In his commentary he tries at every turn to split the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism. In this respect his method is more Romish than Reformed, and he might be more at home with the Canons of Trent.

He cues off by saying that the Canons of Dort are "widely considered to be a modern origin of extreme Calvinism" (220). I would love to see the documentation for this "widely" held belief.

He makes a number of revealing remarks along the way. We are told that the atonement was "necessitated" by the love of God (221). So man's will is free, but God's will is constrained. And here he keeps telling us that love cannot be coerced or forced. But, apparently, God has no choice in the matter.

He says that even though faith is a gift, it can be refused. I often wonder if this isn't colored by a misplaced metaphor. The opponent of Calvinism seems to have the mental image of grace as though it were a Christmas present or birthday gift that you could return to the store if it didn't fit. On this view, grace is a concrete thing, outside our body, like a bottle of medicine. We must open wide and swallow to get it inside us and start to do its thing. To think this way is to get carried away with the incidental implications of picture-language. You might suppose that someone with Geisler's background would be a bit more astute.

There is also something inherently twisted and vicious about protestations against the image of God "forcing" himself upon us, or doing us "violence." This is a pretty prickly and thankless attitude to take towards the saving grace of God--as though God must be kept at arms' length. Men like Geisler want as little of God as possible--just enough, but not too much. If God wanted as little do to with them as they want with him, they'd all be burning in hell.

Geisler next says that God's grace is only effective with the willing, but not with the unwilling. This is, of course, a disguised tautology. Grace is effective when it's effective, but ineffective the rest of the time. It works when it works, except when it doesn't And that reduces to the admission that grace is impotent, for grace does not effect a state of grace. At this point you wonder why it is that men like Geisler even bother to keep up appearances.

He also says that faith is "the means through which we receive his grace." Okay, so faith is not a gift of God after all. If faith is the means through which we receive the grace of God, then there is nothing gracious about faith itself. It is, at most, a natural means to a gracious end. But if you can run the race on your own steam, who needs a nudge of grace to cross the finish line? Once again, grace is just a cosmetic word, while faith is the deal-maker or deal-breaker. Man, not God, is in the driver's seat.

With reference of the offer of the Gospel, he says that God "would never hold persons responsible for actions they could not have avoided" (224). The persuasiveness of this claim depends on what mental image is triggered by the claim. It is especially plausible when our imagination conjures up some physical impediment.

But if we shift to a moral impediment, our intuitions begin to waver. Take the command, honor your father and mother. But suppose a child doesn't love his parents? Suppose he resents them? Supposed, despite their best efforts, he's a spoiled, spiteful brat. He can't bring himself to think well of them. If he were a better man, he'd treat them better, but that's the problem. Surely this is more than a bare hypothetical. We all know grown children just like this. Is an incorrigible ingrate not responsible for being ungrateful?

By Geisler's logic, the more hard-hearted you are, the less culpable you are. To be purely evil is to be purely innocent, for you are incapable of bettering yourself. The Devil must be a devoted disciple of Geisler's value-system!

Along the same lines, Geisler assures the reader that "a sincere promise to save all who believe implies that Christ died for all and that all are capable of believing this promise to be saved" (226).

"Implies" is a strong word. But where's the logic in saying that a sincere promise to save all who believe implies that Christ died for all?" All it implies, surely, is that all believers will be saved. How is it insincere to promise salvation to all who will believe except on condition that it also extends to all who will not believe? You call that logic? Did it take Norman Geisler two earned doctorates to come up with that equation?

Suppose a florist were to advertise a Mother's Day sale, or for Valentine's? Would his offer be insincere unless he not only stocked enough roses for every prospective customer, but for everyone who had no intention of taking him up on the offer?

But what about making the provision commensurate with the promise? Well, there is one class of men who will never buy flowers for a woman--whether their wife or mother or girlfriend. And that is the misogynist. Actually, it's highly unlikely that your average, all-American misogynist has a wife or girlfriend, although he might have a mother--unless he put a pillow over her nose to collect on the life insurance. Tell me, now. Is his offer only sincere if every misogynist is potentially amendable to buying a bouquet of roses for some woman or another? Or is it Geisler's view that no sweetheart should have a dozen roses unless every sweetheart has a dozen roses?

Remember, too, that according to Geisler, God cannot make anyone willing against his will. So our poor florist must hit upon some scheme to make every unwilling buyer "willable" without making him willing. Does that make a whole lot of sense to you? Perhaps, though, Dr. Geisler is working with some version of Buddhist logic. Maybe he should rename his good "Chosen, But Buddhist," or "Free and Footloose." That would better capture its libertarian humanism.

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.