Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Arminian equivocations

Arminians like to brand Calvinism as fatalistic to play on the prejudice of the reader. However, the label is equivocal and double-edged.

1. Popular Fatalism

In popular usage, fatalism means that if something is fated to be, nothing you do or don’t do will make any difference.

Here’s an example:

Fatalism in this sense is compatible with libertarian freedom. The fated individual is free to do otherwise, free to take an alternate route, but all forking paths lead to the same destination. He is doomed one way or the other. Action, inaction–it all comes to the same thing.

When Arminians brand Calvinist as fatalistic, they are trading on the invidious connotations of fatalism in popular usage. The way fatalism is used in pulp horror films.

But the problem with this usage is that Calvinism is not fatalistic in that sense. Indeed, in this sense, Calvinism and fatalism are antonyms rather than synonyms. 

2. A Philosophical Definition

The popular definition also dovetails with one of the philosophical definitions of fatalism. Here are three examples:

Once again, Calvinism is not fatalistic according to this philosophical definition.

3. Another Philosophical Definition

Some philosophers (e.g. Fischer, van Inwagen) define fatalism to mean no one (or no “person”) is able to do otherwise than he in fact does.

Yet another variation takes fatalism to mean that whatever happens must happen, while nonevents are equally necessitated (Mark Bernstein).

Cf. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, pp65; 80n1.

Arminians like to apply this definition to Calvinism. There are, however, several problems with that move:

i) Calvinism doesn’t take the position that every event is necessary. Calvinism doesn’t take the position that “no one” (or no “person”) can do otherwise.

For Calvinism makes allowance for divine freedom. God was able to decree otherwise.

Likewise, Calvinism doesn’t take the position that whatever happens must happen, simpliciter. Rather, Calvinism takes the position that, given the decree, whatever happens must happen. But the decree is not a given from God’s standpoint. God was at liberty to decree otherwise.

Therefore, as applied to Calvinism, this definition is simplistic. It would, of course, be possible for Arminians to tweak the definition with ad hoc qualifications that exempt God. But that would be special pleading.

ii) Another problem is that Arminians are oscillating between two contrary definitions. They want to trade on the odium of the popular definition while they are actually operating with a contrary definition.

According to (1), an occurrence will happen no matter what else occurs (pace the grandfather paradox), whereas that’s not the case according to (3). Cf. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will (67).

iii) Finally, definition (3) also implicates classical Arminianism in fatalism. And that's because foreknowledge arguably entails logical fatalism or theological fatalism. Many ingenious, but unsuccessful efforts, have been devoted to avoiding this implication:

The upshot is that Arminian apologists can’t be trusted to honestly represent Calvinism. Although they complain about how Calvinists allegedly misrepresent Arminianism, Arminians generally lack the critical detachment to lead by example.

1 comment:

  1. I don't deny that there are popular as well as philosophical definitions (and notions) of "fatalism" that would not include Calvinism. But it seems to me that there *are* some definitions (especially popular ones) that *would* include Calvinism as "fatalistic" precisely because it is deterministic (whether it's hard or soft determinism et cetera; and regardless of the "mechanics" of how God ensures that what He has ordained actually does come to pass).

    The reason why I don't like it when people call Calvinism "fatalistic" is because it's a loaded word with various (usually negative) connotations.

    For example, I reject it's use because it can imply that an impersonal and non-rational force or power is what determines what shall happen. Whereas Calvinism teaches that an omniscient and omnisapient personal (& rational) God is the one who plans and determines what shall happen.

    Steve you might disagree with me here, but if I had to guess, I'd say that most people label Calvinism as fatalistic for reasons that are actually *TRUE* about Calvinism. Namely/specifically because the future is settled and determined by the decree of God. Where they sometimes err is in thinking that God determines that X shall happen apart from or regardless of what we choose or do (as you point out). Whereas in authentic Calvinism, God ordains both the ends AND MEANS such that our choices and actions do make a difference, contribute to, and affect the outcome (even if those choices and actions are THEMSELVES *also* determined by God). And so, while Calvinism affirms that our choices are real and contribute to and affect the unfolding of the future as God pre-determined it; Calvinism nevertheless denies that our choices/actions/prayers change the future that God pre-determined and foreordained shall be.

    The underlying reason (some or most) opponents of Calvinism label it "fatalistic" because the word universally (or nearly so) has a negative connotation because in our sinfulness, we want to preserve our sense of autonomy.

    So, I think we have to be careful not to reject the word "fatalism", and distance Calvinism from it for the wrong reasons. Otherwise we may end up contributing to people willing to embrace "Calvinism" and call themselves Calvinists who hold to views that are incompatible with Calvinism. For example, people who call themselves "Calvinists" and yet hold to a libertarian view of the (human/angelic/creaturely) will.

    iii) Finally, definition (3) also implicates classical Arminianism in fatalism. And that's because foreknowledge arguably entails logical fatalism or theological fatalism.