Friday, October 26, 2007

The big lollipop in the sky

Victor Reppert recently drew attention to a series by Tom Talbott. It begins here:

I comment on what I deem to be his major arguments:

“A generalization about religious belief to which there are, I believe, few exceptions is this: The more confident one is in one's religious beliefs, the more willing one is to subject those beliefs to careful scrutiny; the less confident one is in them--the more one unconsciously fears that they cannot withstand such scrutiny--the more eager one is to find a device that would appear to protect them from careful scrutiny. And, more often than not, such a protective device will include an assault upon human reason.”

i) Talbott says, “The more confident one is in one's religious beliefs, the more willing one is to subject those beliefs to careful scrutiny.”

How does the conclusion follow from the premise? The unspoken assumption seems to be that religious beliefs are objects of opinion rather than objects of knowledge; hence, they are subject to potential falsification on closer examination.

Certainly there are theological traditions that cast religious faith in such terms. But if that is Talbott’s operating assumption, then he needs to argue the point rather than taking it for granted.

For suppose we can actually know certain religious propositions to be true? To that extent our religious beliefs would not be falsifiable.

ii) It’s true that fideism can be a protective device. However, Talbott is indulging in a bit of well-poisoning. He is imputing fideistic motives to his opponents in order to discredit them in advance of any argument they may have to offer. The insinuation is that we can safely discount their arguments since their arguments are just a protective device to conceal and shield their intellectual insecurity.

But this betrays a level of insecurity in his own position. Why would he feel the need to resort to this tactic if he could make his case without the ad hominem projections?

iii) In addition, (i)-(ii) are at odds with his bedrock appeal to intuition. For why wouldn’t we apply his criterion to our moral intuitions? “The more confident one is in one's intuitive beliefs, the more willing one is to subject those intuitive beliefs to careful scrutiny.”

If he refuses to subject his moral intuitions to the same scrutiny, then this is a tacit admission that he harbors unconscious fears that they cannot withstand such scrutiny Hence, he is eager to find a device that would appear to protect them from careful scrutiny. And, more often than not, such a protective device will include an assault upon the unquestioning faith of Bible-believing Christians.


“A false prophet is someone who speaks falsely in the name of God, and here I shall be concerned with a particular kind of false prophet: one who, more often than not, comes in the name of orthodoxy. The false prophets I have in mind are those who use the Bible (or some other sacred text) as a weapon of fear, or as part of an assault upon reason and good sense…We find it easy today, perhaps, to appreciate the specious character of at least some of these appeals. But we can also imagine how easily such appeals might confuse a simple peasant farmer who believes fervently that he must bow before the Scriptures. There is perhaps no better way to confuse him and to persuade him to ignore his own conscience than to spout Scripture at him. For if God says something, he will reason, then it must be true, however morally repugnant or logically absurd it may appear to us as fallible human beings.”

Is Talbott suggesting that the conscience of a “simple peasant farmer” should be immune to scrutiny? Isn’t it possible for a “simple peasant farmer” to believe things or do things that Talbott finds morally repugnant? For example, vegans think that farming is immoral, due to its speciesistic use of livestock. I’m not saying that Talbott is a vegan. But I use that as an example.

And, of course, a “simple peasant farmer” might view many of the beliefs of the average college prof. as morally repugnant. So isn’t Talbott in danger of bleeding to death from self-inflicted wounds by wielding a double-bladed sword?


“In his effort to harmonize and systematize various passages in the Bible, John Calvin drew the inference that, according to the Bible as a whole, God restricts his love and mercy to a chosen few; indeed, even before the foundation of the world, God had already predestined some persons to eternal perdition. Calvin calls this the doctrine of reprobation; and though his critics have always insisted that such a doctrine is inconsistent with God's love and justice, they have not always been up to the task of challenging his exegesis. That is particularly true of the Christian laity, who sometimes find themselves in a position similar to that of our peasant woman above: Lacking both the background and the learning to challenge Calvin's exegetical arguments, they nonetheless find his interpretations deeply disturbing; though not scholars, in other words, they can still recognize an injustice when they hear it. So how does Calvin reply to these earnest Christians who would dare to raise a question about divine justice?”

Of course, this objection is hardly limited to Calvinism. Many folks are also offended by hell, heteronormative ethics, penal substitution, the execution of the Canaanites, and so on and so forth.

At one level, Talbott is giving people an excuse to reject whatever they dislike in Scripture. Indeed, giving them license to repudiate the Christian faith—except in terms of a la carte Christianity. Pick and choose what you want to believe.


“From these assumptions it follows that God could will anything whatsoever, and whatever he wills would be righteous or just. It also follows, as Calvin himself acknowledges in the passages quoted above, that nothing in God's nature precludes his acting from genuine hatred for--that is, a desire ultimately to harm--some created persons. And from all of this it likewise follows that God could justly predestine some persons to eternal torment.”

“The only problem is that his assumptions also undermine the Christian faith entirely, because they undermine the very possibility of trust in God. If God can ‘justly’ do anything whatsoever, including predestine some to eternal perdition, then he can also ‘justly’ engage in cruelty for its own sake, "justly" command that we torture babies or that we produce as much misery in the world as we can, and ‘justly’ punish acts of love and kindness. So why should we even care whether God is just or righteous if his righteousness excludes nothing at all? And on what grounds can we trust him? If, as Calvin claims, there is no answer to the question, ‘Why does God act from one set of motives (e.g. love) rather than from another (e.g., hatred or deceitfulness),’ then nothing in God's nature precludes him from lying or breaking promises or deceiving all Christians regarding the conditions of salvation. For all we know, therefore, perhaps God has deceived all Christians regarding the conditions of salvation in order that he might display the true nature of his righteousness.

This raises several issues:

i) Talbott is claiming that Calvin is a theological voluntarist. I believe that this identification is incorrect. Talbott should read “The Power Dialectic” in Paul Helm’s book on Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford 2004), chapter 11.

And this would be a serious mistake on Talbott’s part since it’s a crucial element in his argument against Calvinism.

ii) But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Calvin was a theological voluntarist. If so, then Calvin was wrong in that respect.

But this is a statement of historical theology. It is no reason for me to abandon Reformed theology if I subscribe to Reformed theology for exegetical reasons. Reformed theology is not conterminous with Calvin. It ultimately comes down to the Scriptural basis for Calvinism.


“So long as we can believe that it is God's very nature to love and that his love will eventually triumph, we can leave the rest to mystery. But if we cannot believe this--if we believe instead that it is entirely possible (and just as probable as not in the ultimate scheme of things) that God hates us--then we shall find ourselves in the same tortured position as those Calvinists who agonize over their own election, looking pitifully for signs of it in their own good works. For unless we can be confident that it is God's nature to love everyone, we can never have a well-grounded confidence that he in fact loves us.”

i) Needless to say, this objection isn’t limited to Calvinism. Rather, it’s applicable to any theological tradition short of universalism. So I don’t know why Talbott singles out Calvinism. Does he think Calvinism is easier to demagogue? Does he think that Calvinism presents the most logically consistent alternative to universalism?

ii)” Unless we can be confident that it is God's nature to love everyone, we can never have a well-grounded confidence that he in fact loves us.”

But how does the conclusion follow from the premise? For example, must I believe that my wife loves every other man to believe that she also loves me? Frankly, I don’t think that would make for a very stable marriage.


“Now I think it appropriate, at this point, to raise some rather basic questions. For suppose that Calvin's interpretation of the texts upon which he rests his doctrine of reprobation were exegetically correct. Would that not merely prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that these texts are something less than an infallible revelation from God? I fully appreciate how scandalous some contemporary Calvinists are apt to find such a suggestion. But why should anyone accept the authority of the Bible, or of some text within it, regardless of what the text teaches? Why should I accept the authority of Jesus or Paul, for example, regardless of what they say? If I exhibit such slavish devotion as that, then I ultimately demean the very authority I am seeking to honor; I say in effect that I would believe the Bible even if it were filled with bald faced lies.”

i) But this is an artificial dilemma. Of course you can dream up hypothetical defeaters to undermine our faith in Scripture. If the Bible were filled with bald-faced lies, it wouldn’t be the Bible.

ii) And why would Talbott resort to this hypothetical unless he knew that the Calvinist had the better of the exegetical argument?


“Many who accept the Bible as a religious authority do so because, as they see it, they have found within it something worthy of human belief; something that inspires the soul and elevates the mind; something that, though it may shatter their preconceptions on occasion, always does so in the lofty way Jesus does when he teaches that we must love our enemies as well as our friends (see Matthew 5:44). If Christians are entitled to regard a text as authoritative for such reasons as these, do they not also have a responsibility to question a text whose teaching seems morally repugnant or unworthy of human belief? Such questioning need not, of course, imply an outright rejection of the text in question. But it will rest upon an implicit disjuction: Either we have misunderstood the text in question, or its teaching is not an infallible revelation from God.”
i) Why would I accept the Bible as a religious authority because it contains something worthy of belief? There are many books which may contain something worthy of belief. I don’t elevate them to the status of a religious authority on that account, do I?

ii) In addition, what’s the connection between worthiness and truth? Many unworthy things are true. Is Talbott claiming that there can be no such thing as an unworthy truth?

“Lest some Christians should consider such questioning impious, I would also point out that certain texts in the New Testament itself seem to endorse this very kind of questioning. In I John 4:1 we read: ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.’ The injunction here seems to apply far beyond the immediate context in which it appears; it seems to apply to every spirit, every supposed prophet, every sacred text, and even to the letter of I John itself.”

Really? He thinks that 1 Jn 4:1 is self-referential? Well, that creates an interesting conundrum. Either 1 Jn 4:1 is true or false. If the injunction is false, then it isn’t true that we should test every spirit. The force of the injunction depends on its implicit self-exemption from the plethora of false prophets.

And, indeed, John is obviously calling on his audience to use what he’s written in 1 John as a yardstick to measure other religious claims and claimants, in case they come up short. But if his own yardstick fails to measure up, then you can’t measure one unreliable yardstick by another unreliable yardstick.


“Must we not test all of these things, with whatever reason is available to us, to see whether they really are from God?”

But Scripture makes divine reason available to use.


“False prophets and demonic spirits will always, I want to suggest, reveal their true character in the end; they will do so, as many recent cult leaders have illustrated, by asking that we set aside our own better judgment and submit to an untested authority of some kind.”

This is true, but it also begs the question. What makes our own better judgment better? After all, how do cult members get drawn into a cult in the first place? Clearly their faculty for critical judgment wasn’t all that reliable to begin with.


“The question I have asked is this: Do we not have every right, perhaps even a solemn obligation, to follow our own reasoning and better judgment--that is, the best judgment we are capable of--as we test the spirits and the claims of various prophets?”

Well, yes and no. The statement is tendentious. Yes, you should follow your better judgment if you have a better judgment to follow. But what makes your judgment better or worse? Talbott keeps begging the question.


“Do we not have a solemn obligation to reject any doctrine that appears, the more carefully we examine it, morally repugnant to us? If we should happen to make a mistake and reject a true doctrine thereby, God can always reveal to us a perspective from which the doctrine will no longer appear morally repugnant. But if we try to accept a doctrine even though it deeply offends our moral sense, we then run the risk of jading our conscience and closing our hearts to the Spirit of God. And if we do that--if we close our hearts to the Spirit of God within--we are not likely, I should think, to find our cure in some external source, whether it be the Bible or any other set of religious documents.”

Several issues here:

i) I, for one, don’t find Calvinism morally repugnant.

ii) To a great extent, moral repugnance is person-variable. To some extent it’s socially conditioned. To some extent it’s conditioned by individual experience. And to some extent it’s innate.

There are doctors who abort babies in good conscience. There are doctors who euthanize patients in good conscience. There are soldiers who rape war captives in good conscience. You could go down the list.

Conscience is very adaptable. It has a way of accommodating our favorite sin.

iii) The Spirit of God is a Biblical category. Once you reject the Bible, you forfeit the right to invoke the Holy Spirit.

iv) The underlying assumption in Talbott’s appeal to our “solemn obligation” is that while we may believe the Bible to be true, we cannot know it to be true. Therefore, if we find something offensive in Scripture, then this goes to show, “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” that the Bible is not the word of God.

And this is logical if the only reason you believe the Bible is because it contains something “worthy” of belief. For Talbott, all truths are pretty truths. There are no ugly truths. If it’s offensive, it can’t possibly be true.

v) It’s as though his mom and dad locked him in his bedroom when he was growing up. A bedroom full of stuffed animals. Teddy bears and bunny rabbits. Soft and furry and smooth to the touch.

But how much reason has Talbott ever applied to universalism? On the face of it, this doesn’t look like a world in which God loves everyone, and wants the best for everyone. The world I see when I switch on the evening news appears to be decidedly Calvinistic. A world with a very inequitable distribution of blessing and bane.


“It all boils down, I believe, to what kind of God we believe in. If we truly believe in the infinite love and wisdom of our Creator, even as our peasant woman above did, then we will be as invulnerable to the deceptions of the false prophets as she was. We will no longer fear, for example, that our Creator might permit an honest mistake in theology to jeopardize our future. We will simply proceed in the confidence that he knows us from the inside out far better than we know ourselves; that he will appreciate the ambiguities, the confusions, and the perplexities we face far better than we do; and that he will understand the historical and cultural factors that shape our beliefs far better than any historian does. Such a Creator--loving, intimate, and wise--would know how to work with us in infinitely complex ways, how to shatter our illusions and transform our thinking when necessary, and how best to reveal himself to us in the end.”

I agree with Talbott that it all boils down to the kind of God we believe in. But I would also distinguish between knowing God and believing in God.

To all appearances, Talbott’s God is a make-believe God. A girly-girl God. Not the Lord of Saboath, but little Lord Fauntleroy? Too goody-goody to be true.

Has it ever occurred to him that universalism is synonymous with wishful thinking? Made to order to suit his specifications? Like wallpaper for a nursery.

1 comment:

  1. Good review, Steve.

    I find these two comments possibly inconsistent:

    1) "So long as we can believe that it is God's very nature to love and that his love will eventually triumph, we can leave the rest to mystery."

    2) " the less confident one is in them--the more one unconsciously fears that they cannot withstand such scrutiny--the more eager one is to find a device that would appear to protect them from careful scrutiny."

    It appears that with (1) he has "found a device" that "protects his beliefs from scrutiny." Thus the conjunction of (1) & (2) seem to imply that it is Talbott who is unconfident in his beliefs.