Wednesday, January 25, 2012

So that no man may boast

I’m commenting on this post:

The problem, in brief, is this: Some theologies (e.g. traditional Calvinist ones) hold that God damns some sinners as a just punishment for sin, thereby repudiating sin clearly and forcefully. But by damning some persons as a punishment for sin, God is responding to the “affront” of sin by guaranteeing that this affront continue for eternity. But how is that supposed to repudiate sin? How can you repudiate something by guaranteeing that it never stop?
In a nutshell, Steve responds to this problem by denying that, on Calvinist theology, there is any meaningful sense in which sin as such is “intolerable” to God. What is intolerable is sin unrepudiated, sin for which just punishment has not been meted out. In other words, he takes it that the main challenge I’m raising in the Problem of Damned Sinners is this: By tolerating the never-ending sinfulness of the damned, the Calvinist God “tolerates the intolerable.” He then responds by saying that never-ending sinfulness as such isn’t intolerable, so long as it is fittingly punished.
But here, Steve is both misconstruing the main force of the Problem of Damned Sinners and, in responding to the misconstrued argument, relying on a premise I find highly implausible.

I was responding to what Reitan said on Rauser’s blog. Reitan is free to improve on what he said there, but my reply is not deficient if it fails to anticipate an argument which he failed to provide at the time.

Before making these points, I should stress something that my co-author, John Kronen, wants emphasized. The argument I presented first on Randal’s blog and then in the previous post—which I’ve dubbed “The Problem of Damned Sinners”—is adapted from an argument in God’s Final Victory and brought to bear on certain Calvinist claims. But it is not identical to that argument. In our book, the argument John and I develop is not premised on God’s finding sin intolerable, but on the premise that God would never will sin. We argue that by permanently casting the damned away from the only thing that can save them from their own sinfulness, God does end up willing sin. In the book, we consider and respond to a host of objections to this argument--both to the claim that God would never will sin and to the claim that God would be doing exactly that were He to impose eternal alienation as a punishment.
 According to Calvinism, God does will sin. He doesn’t will sin for its own sake. He doesn’t will sin in isolation. But he wills sin to achieve certain second-order goods.

In other words, as formulated in our book, the argument doesn’t even rely on the premise that Steve attacks. As such, Steve's rebuttal is irrelevant to the argument formulated in our book. That said, it may at least seem as if it is relevant to my formulation of the argument. In either formulation, however, the main focus of the argument is on whether imposing eternal damnation as a response to sin makes sense—whether this is a coherent “response” to sin, given what sin is to God (namely, something fundamentally opposed to God’s nature).

Notice that Reitan is shifting ground.

Even formulated in the terms I've used here and on Randal’s post, the argument isn’t reducible to the claim that, on Calvinist and similar theologies, God tolerates the intolerable. Rather, the focus is on the coherence of damnation as a response to sin. In terms of the tolerable and the intolerable, we might say that what the argument challenges is the idea that eternal damnation can make sin tolerable. In short, it doesn't quite capture my argument to say that sin is intolerable even if repudiated with just punishment. Rather, the argument is that you can’t properly repudiate sin with a response that guarantees its continuation.
Think of it this way. Even if Steve holds that punished sin is tolerable in a way that unpunished sin is not, to make sense of this position he has to hold that sin as such has a negative value that needs to be “erased” (if you will) through appropriate punishment. Thus, sin as such is bad, and what just punishment does is somehow “balance the scales” that have been set off kilter by sin. Steve himself uses this language of scale-balancing, which makes sense only on the assumption that sin in its own right throws things off balance.
In short, Steve and other Calvinists would be disingenuous if they claimed that, on Calvinist theology, sin weren’t deeply offensive in itself. Its profound negative value is what generates the demand for justice, the need to make things right.

Several problems with Reitan’s reply:

i) I wasn’t presenting a full-blown explanation for how sin functions in the plan of God. I was merely responding to Reitan on his own terms, based on the comment he left at Rauser’s blog.

ii) It’s not so much that sin has a negative value but an instrumental value. A part/whole, means/ends relation. For instance:

“But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal 3:22).
“Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure” (Rom 7:13).
“22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom 9:22-23).
“For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Rom 11:32).

Put another way, in order to hold that eternal damnation makes things right, you first have to hold that sin “makes things wrong.”

It doesn’t make everything wrong. It doesn’t make the plan of God wrong in planning sin in the furtherance of a higher end.

In short, Steve has to hold that sin has significant negative value. In fact, if sin is going to warrant endless punishment, that negative value would have to be very grave indeed. In fact, traditional Calvinists follow Anselm in explicitly embracing the view that sin is *infinitely* grave insofar as it affronts God’s infinite majesty. Sin—moral wickedness—is that in the created order which is most contrary to God, the gravest “turning away” of the creation from its creator.

Sin is contrary to the holiness of God, but it’s not contrary to the plan of God. Consider a novelist who creates a villainous character. A novelist who includes evil events in his story. A virtuous novelist can have a virtuous reason for depicting vice.

One concise way to put all of this is as follows: sin is intolerable.
Now part of what Steve wants to say is that this way of putting things is misleading, since what might be intolerable all by itself needn’t be intolerable when combined with something else. Sin may be intolerable without a scale-balancing retributive response; but with such a response, justice has been done and the situation as a whole isn’t intolerable.
Even if Steve is right about this, I don’t think it solves the fundamental issue at stake in the Problem of Damned Sinners. But before making that point, I want to explain why I think Steve isn't right about this. Take the case of murder. We find murder to be such an “intolerable” crime that, as a society, we respond to it with the strongest punishments we consider intrinsically permissible (life imprisonment or capital punishment). Is it adequate to say that murder unpunished is intolerable, but murder justly punished is just fine since the scales of justice have been balanced?
Think of it this way: Suppose the murder rate in a country of 1 billion people is enormous: say one million murders every year. Does this become a tolerable situation if every murderer is caught and subjected to proportional punishment, but the murders continue unabated at the same rate? Is that state of affairs “just as good” as a society in which no murders happen? When confronted with a horrific offense, is it enough for the offense to be justly punished or does the horrific nature of the offense also entail that it should stop happening?
Intuitively, it seems we should go with the latter. Doesn’t it? Given that murders occur, we might agree that proportionately punished murder is better than murder going unpunished. But far better that no murders occur at all. And what would we think about a government that thinks the wrongness of murder is communicated most clearly in just punishment—and so, in order to demonstrate how bad murder is, enacts policies that magnify the murder rate so as to have more murders to justly punish? Do you really repudiate murder if you make sure more murders happen so as to have more murders to repudiate? Or is repudiation what you do in response to something that you think shouldn’t happen at all?
That depends. We normally think of murder as willfully and maliciously taking the life of the innocent. But suppose you had a country overrun by drug cartels. Suppose the drug cartels have the gov’t outmanned and outgunned. The gov’t lacks the necessary resources to defeat them directly.

However, a war develops between two rival drug lords. The gov’t doesn’t intervene to prevent the violence. For it’s better to let the rival drug cartels commit mutual annihilation.

In fact, it would be justifiable if the gov’t instigated that war, then withdrew and let events take their course. The country would be a safer place after members of rival drug cartels murdered one another into extinction. 

Put simply, if some behavior is so bad as to call for serious punishment, that’s a reason to want the behavior to be reduced or eliminated.

That’s simplistic insofar as it ignores the teleological function of evil in God’s plan.

As such, it seems you've got a distorted theory of retributive justice if you think there’s nothing wrong with the murder rate spiraling out of control so long as every murder is justly punished. In fact, I'd be so bold as to insist that any retributive theory that calls for the punitive repudiation of an act would also have to regard the act's non-occurrence as preferable to its occurrence. And if so, there’s something amiss in Steve’s claim that, for God, there’s nothing intolerable with sin as such, but only with unrepudiated sin.

I’m not suggesting that retribution is the sole explanation. That was a limited response to a comment Reitan left at Rauser’s blog.

The point I was making in my comment on Randal’s blog was simply this: It doesn’t make much sense to suppose that you can erase the negative value sin by acting so as to guarantee that it never stops happening. How do you erase the enormous negative value of sin by propagating it? It seems that you would then be magnifying the negative values that need to be erased, as opposed to erasing them.

I don’t agree with how Reitan frames the issue. Among other things, damnation illustrates the gratuity of grace. God is not obligated to save sinners. Reprobation is the flip side of election:

“8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9).

Among other things, hell is an object lesson in the discretionary nature of God’s mercy. 

Here’s the thing about eternal damnation: Its central feature is eternal exclusion from the beatific vision. Whatever other positive evils might be thought to accompany damnation, the heart of hell is that the damned are decisively cast out of God’s presence and cut off from God’s grace. But Calvinists (along with other Christians) hold that the only cure for sin is divine grace. Without grace, ongoing sinfulness is inevitable. On this theology, eternally withholding divine grace amounts to eternally withholding the necessary condition for not sinning…and as such guaranteeing that sin continue unabated. The essential feature of the state of damnation—exclusion from the grace of God—can thus be characterized as the act of making sure that a person’s sinful state never be overcome.

The fact that the damned continue to sin demonstrates how unworthy they are to be saved. And that, in turn, vindicates the gratuity of grace.

Reitan then illustrates his objection with some creative examples. But these piggyback on assumptions that I don’t share. 


Now maybe there is some way for the Calvinist to make sense of this. But it is a problem—a pretty big one. And I think the burden of proof lies on the shoulders of the Calvinist to resolve it. Otherwise, those of different theological persuasions have a right to be deeply skeptical. Simply asserting that, mysteriously, God depriving sinners of what they need in order to avoid sin somehow neutralizes sin’s negative value—well, that doesn’t cut it.

i) Everlasting punishment isn’t unique to Calvinism.

ii) Let’s not confuse apologetics with our religious duties. We are morally obligated to trust in God’s wisdom and justice whether or not we can defend that philosophically.

I have, in fact, defended my position in reply to Reitan, but it’s not incumbent on me to do so. 

1 comment:

  1. "Sin is contrary to the holiness of God, but it’s not contrary to the plan of God. Consider a novelist who creates a villainous character. A novelist who includes evil events in his story. A virtuous novelist can have a virtuous reason for depicting vice."

    That's quite insightful and also beautifully said.