Libertarians commonly charge that Calvinism renders the warnings of Scripture “meaningless.” There are a couple of initial problems with this charge. They don’t define their terms, and they don’t bother to mount an actual argument.
Instead, we’re treated to bare, blustery assertions. The critics don’t feel the need to convert this into an argument since their position is “obviously” true.
Of course, this is rather like a naive realist. Isn’t it obvious that objects are smaller at a distance? After all, they look smaller at a distance? So the most obvious explanation is that they seem smaller at a distance because they really are smaller at a distance.
1.What do they mean by “meaningless”? This is a word with more than one sense:
i)”Meaningless” could signify that something is unintelligible. Gibberish. The sentences make no sense.
Clearly, though, that is not what the critics have in mind. Rather, they think that Calvinism is clearly wrong. So they regard Reformed theology as presenting a set of intelligible propositions. Otherwise, the critics couldn’t even say that Calvinism is mistaken. You don’t say that gibberish is wrong. Gibberish has no truth-value. It doesn’t assert or deny anything. Only an intelligible proposition can be wrong.
2.”Meaningless” could also signify that something is pointless. It serves no purpose.
This seems to be what the critics have in mind. Notice, though, what this objection amounts to.
Many libertarians contend that Calvinism is unscriptural. The Bible “obviously” teaches libertarian freewill.
But if you’re going to say that, according to Calvinism, the warnings are pointless, then this is not, in fact, an exegetical objection, but a philosophical objection. So the libertarian is guilty of a bait-and-switch scam.
He begins by claiming that our position is unscriptural. We then defend our position on exegetical grounds. And, frankly, that should suffice for a Christian. There are only two necessary conditions for Calvinism to be true:
i) Scripture is true;
ii) Calvinism is Scriptural.
Calvinism is concerned with being faithful to the meaning of Scripture. When, by contrast, the libertarian says that Calvinism renders the warnings “meaningless” in the sense of “pointless,” that’s a backdoor admission that he’s lost the exegetical debate, and must downshift to a philosophical objection. He can’t take issue with our exegesis, so he can only take issue with the consequences of our exegesis.
3.For the sake of argument, let’s pursue the consequences. The argument goes something like this:
If it’s impossible for a Christian to commit apostasy, then the warnings serve no purpose. The libertarian regards this objection as intuitively compelling. But is it?
i) Suppose a bridge is washed out. The police place a barricade across the bridge, with a warning sign.
Suppose, as a result of the warning sign, no driver dares to cross the bridge. Wouldn’t it be quite counterintuitive to say the warning sign was pointless because it successfully deterred drivers from attempting to cross the bridge and drown in the river? To the contrary, wouldn’t that consequence show that the warning sign had, in fact, served its purpose?
ii) Suppose, though, the libertarian will object that while, as a matter of fact, no driver disregarded the sign, that unless a driver was free to disregard the sign, then the sign would be pointless.
But how does that follow in the least? Suppose the drivers have been brainwashed. Their psychological conditioning is so overpowering that every time they see a warning sign, they take the warning to heart. They are unable to resist their conditioning.
Even if, for the sake of argument, we assume that the warning sign has this coercively deterrent effect on the drivers, how would that render the stimulus pointless?
It is dangerous to drive across a washed out bridge. The police place a barricade across the bridge, along with a warning sign, knowing (let us say), that if a driver sees the warning, he will invariably heed the warning due to his psychological conditioning. He has been brainwashed to respond that way to that particular stimulus.
Even in that limiting case, the warning sign serves a purpose. Indeed, it serves the very purpose it was intended to serve. It successfully deters the driver from crossing the bridge. The fact that it cannot fail to succeed scarcely renders it pointless. To the contrary, what would be more purposeful than something that invariably performs its appointed function?
iii) And there’s nothing the least bit arbitrary about the sign. The sign effects a result which would not otherwise obtain apart from the sign. If there were no warning sign, some drivers would attempt to cross the bridge. Their cars would plunge into the river below, and they would drown.
So it does make a difference whether or not the sign is there. This isn’t fatalism. Absent the sign, you would have a different outcome. So the sign is instrumental in determining a particular outcome. If you take the sign seriously, then it will deter you from attempting to cross the bridge. And that’s what the sign is for. Its fundamental value is a deterrent value.
iv) So what, if anything, would render the sign pointless? Well, suppose that you drove through the barricade and magically transported over the gap where the missing span used to be to the other side of the riverbank.
Levitation would render the sign pointless. If you can flout the sign with impunity, if you can disregard the sign without suffering the stated consequences, then—indeed—the sign serves no purpose. In that event, the sign is simply false. But, of course, Calvinism doesn’t say that you can flout the warnings with impunity—quite the contrary.
v) Or, to consider another scenario, suppose a driver tried to crash the barricade, and discovered that the barricade was impenetrable. If it’s physically impossible to crash the barricade, does that render the barricade pointless?
Hardly. Isn’t the purpose of the barricade to impede traffic? If the barricade presents an impenetrable barrier, then it serves it’s purpose—does it not? It successfully prevented any foolhardy driver from attempting to cross the bridge. If the barricade is so strong that it’s impossible for any vehicle to crash the barricade, then the barricade is doing its job. It was designed to hinder access, and it does what it was design to do.
vi) Does the barricade make the sign superfluous? Depends on what you mean. Every analogy has its limitations. In this case, I’m introducing both the sign and the barricade to illustrate different kinds of impossibility. The sign illustrates psychological impossibility while the barricade represents physical or metaphysical impossibility. If each is sufficient to prevent a given outcome, their combination is a form of overkill. You don’t need both. But it’s useful to have both so that we can examine the libertarian objection from every angle.
vii) Even in this case, the sign is still meaningful. Indeed, what the sign says is true. If you were in a position to disregard the sign, and you did so, you would suffer the stated consequences. Conditional statements can be true statements, even if they’re counterfactual statements.
The fact that a hypothetical may never be realized hardly renders it either unintelligible or pointless. Indeed, counterfactuals are a basic feature of moral deliberation. It’s because a hypothetical course of action has certain consequences that we avoid it.
I’d add that libertarian schemes (e.g. Arminianism, Molinism, open theism) are up to their nostrils in hypotheticals and counterfactuals (e.g. sufficient grace, future contingents, potential universalism—via unlimited atonement]).
viii) So what we have here is a distinction between psychological possibility or impossibility and metaphysical possibility or impossibility. The fact that it is psychologically impossible for the regenerate to disregard the warnings and thereby commit apostasy doesn’t make the warnings the least bit pointless, for the aforementioned reasons.
What would make them pointless is if it was physically or metaphysically possible to disregard the warnings without suffering the consequences—which Calvinism denies.