Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Van Gogh and Calvinism

Recently, Jerry Walls posted the following claim:


Every year IVP sends its authors a Christmas gift, including a copy of one of their recent titles. This year the book I got was "In Search of Deep Faith: A Pilgrimage into the Beauty, Goodness and Heart of Christianity" by Jim Belcher. I have been reading the book with enjoyment as part of my devotional reading. One of his chapters is an interesting discussion of the life of Vincent Van Gogh, and how his tortured life and art is a vivid display of "broken beauty." One passage in particular struck me in light of the fact that Belcher is a Reformed theologian who teaches at Knox seminary, a passage that seems rather at odds with the Calvinism he professes. Of course, this does not detract from the book at all. In fact, for me it enhances a book when Calvinists say things (which they almost invariably do) that suggest that deep down they don't believe their theology either. Here is the passage.

"Sadly, many discount his art because of his troubled life. I wonder if some dismiss his art because they don't like dealing with suffering--and Vincent really suffered. Some of it was self-inflicted--his cantankerous nature, his inability to forgive, his careless lifestyle--but much of it was caused by his illness (doctors were just starting to diagnose it as a nonseizure type of epilepsy), which led him to make bad choices for which no medicine existed at the time. Is it right to blame him for a reality that was often out of his control?"

Keep in mind that Walls is picking on a soft target. Jim Belcher isn't a philosophical sophisticate.

However, this devolved into an impromptu debate between Walls and Paul Manata. A debate which went badly for Walls. He was unable to defend his original claim. In the end he did the smart face-saving thing by fading into the crowd and letting his worshipful fans surround him for cover.

Maul Panata Dang it. I was hoping to find an inconsistency and I looked high and low and could not find it. I did find, however, what I take you think is an inconsistency.
January 13 at 2:28pm

Jerry Walls Well Maul, you are among the most elusive when it comes to these things!
January 13 at 2:32pm

Maul Panata The "not responsible for things outside of his control" remark by Belcher is what you took to be inconsistent since, presumably, you think he takes God's determining decrees to be outside our control too yet he thinks God, and others, can hold us responsible.
January 13 at 3:09pm

Jerry Walls Yep
January 13 at 3:10pm

Maul Panata Yep, but I don't think there's an inconsistency there. At least there need not be.
January 13 at 3:11pm

Jerry Walls PERHAPS need not be, but likely is.
January 13 at 3:14pm

Maul Panata Not likely, I don't think. The basic point here is that compatibilists have long recognized a relevant sort of "control" that removes MR and or FW, and a sort that doesn't. "Control", like "can", "able," etc., are multiply ambiguous. See e.g., Fischer and Ravizza's *Responsibility and Control," for some non-elusive spelling out of these points. :-) (Btw, I grant it may be inconsistent when assuming LFW, but I take it the kind of inconsistency you had in mind was internal.)
January 13 at 3:22pm

Jerry Walls Well yes, Maul, compatibilists have given us some interesting analyses of control, being able to do otherwise and so on. But if one is a thoroughgoing theological determinist, and holds that God caused van Gogh to have his mental illness, then certainly van Gogh had no control over that fact. And if one then suggests that van Gogh should not be blamed for his inability to act differently because of this illness, well, I think he is going to have a hard time sustaining moral responsibility in that case.
January 13 at 4:30pm

Maul Panata I don't think mentally ill (depending on the story we tell here) people who do "bad" things should be held responsible, even if God ultimately determines the have this. But, properly functioning people who do bad things, and have no excuse, justification, etc., can be responsible even though God determines them. Where's the "inconsistency"?
January 13 at 4:44pm

Jerry Walls Well, sin is a universal illness with which all are born and which prevents all people from functioning in the way humans were designed to function, for which the non-elect receive no medicine, (saving grace), yet they are still held to be fully responsible for their sins, indeed are punished eternally for them. Why less so in the case of mental illness?
January 13 at 4:48pm

Maul Panata Jerry, because we have the relevant control with one and lack it with the other. Other than that, that's thin gruel out of which to make the argument from analogy you need here. In fact, I don't even think you believe your argument, for you don't think the severely mentally ill are responsible yet you think we "normally" corrupt people are---yet we are, in your other sense, mentally sick with sin. You'd probably say we have LFW with respect to the latter but not the former. I'd say we have CFW with respect to the latter but not the former.
January 13 at 5:18pm

Jerry Walls Well Maul, I think we are responsible because God has given us prevenient grace, indeed, in my view optimal grace, which is the grace best suited to win a positive response from us in keeping with LFW. And God truly desires a positive response. Not so on Calvinism, so no, without such grace that enables a LFW positive response, I do NOT think we are responsible. Even less do I think God could be good in any meaningful sense, let alone perfectly good. Perfect goodness may entail optimal grace.
January 13 at 5:28pm

Maul Panata Jerry, right, but now you've switched from an *internal* critique to an *external* one, but your charge in the OP was that Belcher was *internally* inconsistent. I'm arguing that on determinism—even theological determinism—there are responsibility-undermining ways of being "out of control" and there are also ways or senses of something's being "out of your control" that do not subvert responsibility. So, as I say, I don't see the problem for Belcher. You'd have to argue that compatibilists can't account for such distinctions, but they certainly can, it would seem. To be sure, you think their distinctions are *false* or "all wet," but that's weaker than you originally claimed. Of course, if you just *assume* LFW, then Belcher has problems, but that's dialectically uninteresting.
January 13 at 5:30pm

Jerry Walls Well again, I think he is likely inconsistent because I doubt there is a convincing way to blame someone for acts that flow from the sickness of sin but not ones that flow from mental illness, especially if you agree with Calvin that God determined the fall, and do not try to salvage everything with a single Edenic act of LFW. The sickness of sin is determined as much as mental illness, and out of our control. And the punishment for the non-elect is eternal misery! I doubt there is a convincing account of control that will hold for acts of sin but not for willing acts performed by the mentally ill. Moreover, I doubt that he intends the distinctions you deploy. So yes, I think it is likely he is internally inconsistent, indeed, highly likely.
January 13 at 5:42pm

Jerry Walls And moreover, I switched to an external critique because you suggested above that I was inconsistent in blaming ordinary depraved Calvninsts but not the van Goghs of the world!
January 13 at 5:44pm

Maul Panata If one way of lacking control subverts responsibility and the other way doesn't, then what's the problem? Here's one way to get at it: (mundane) mental sickness undermines reasons responsiveness, sin-sickness doesn't. How does sin-sickness make one not relevantly responsive to reasons (in Fischer & Ravizza's sense)? Indeed, *I* am responsive to reasons! So, unless one really poisons the well and assumes some very particular, and nefarious, view of the noetic affects of sin, how would the argument go that the noetic affects of sin affects reasons responsiveness (again, in F&R's sense)? One problem with trying to advance such an argument is that we just don't know enough about the nature of the noetic affects of sin.

Here's another: (mundane) mental sickness removes one from the moral community by affecting her ability to understand and engage in a moral responsibility conversation, and thus by definition they cannot *be* morally responsible agents, or be *held* morally responsible (here I'm pulling from McKenna's latest book on this subject). From my many readings of the book and convos with the author, I can't see how a similar argument applies to "sin-sickness." a sickness we all share and does not, at least *on Calvinism*, impede our ability to know what is right or wrong, to have the reactive attitudes, to give excuses and justifications, etc. Indeed, on a broadly Strawsonian account of moral responsibility, we can easily see how mental illness undermines responsibility but I cannot see, and have seen no argument to this effect, that theological determinism undermines our having the general capacities needed to be and hold responsible.

There are several theories I could appeal to (and flesh out more fully outside of a Facebook thread) that, as far as I can see, we *know* ordinary mentally insane people can't be responsible and but we *don't* know how to make such a parity argument from the noetic effects of sin.

As for the "determined the fall remark," again, I can see why you'd say that on *libertarianism*, but how does the argument go against compatibilism? Yes, God determined the one "sickness", and I say it doesn't undermine responsibility (cf. above for various theories on which it doesn't seem to); and God determines (ordinary) mental illness too. One one we do acts for which we're responsible, on the other, we don't. What's the *argument* for the inconsistency here? For example, given McKenna's conversational account, I simply can't see how you'd make such an argument.

(Btw, when you switched to the external critique, I was not claiming you were inconsistent by blaming Calvinists but not Van Goghs. I was claiming that even you recognized the being mentally ill in one sense doesn't undermine responsibility but it does in the other. That's because you think in the one the person has the relevant control needed and in the other you think they lack it. Well, that's what I think! You think LFW supplies the control, I think CFW does. So we're *internally* on a par here).
January 13 at 6:47pm

Jerry Walls A person who is not elect CANNOT respond positively to the gospel and believe even if it is presented with the best reasoning and argument. The non-elect sinner's responsiveness to reason goes only so far. And God has chosen not to give him the grace with which he COULD and WOULD respond positively to the gospel. And the sinner will be eternally punished by the very One who has determined that CANNOT respond positively to the gospel. I find the senses in which he allegedly can utterly specious.

And what is the common moral community of the elect and the non-elect? The elect are determined to accept Christ and please God and the non-elect are determined not to. Can the non-elect really understand the beauty of the gospel. Can they see the glory of incarnation and the atonement? Can they appreciate the beauty of divine love and how it requires a response of love and obedience in return?

The non-elect on this score are FAR more removed from the moral community of the elect than mentally ill people are from "normal" people. Indeed, mentally ill people often recover, they often have islands of clarity from which sanity and mental health can be restored, and thus retain some contact with moral reason.

As for the parity of the fall and mental sickness. God determines the fall and universal sin sickness, and then determines countless people to eternal misery for acting out that sickness. I do not see any way a "good" God could do this that would not license blaming and eternally punishing a mentally ill person for acting out of his illness.

Indeed, a manipulation argument paralleling van Gogh and van Til might be most illuminating!
January 13 at 10:45pm

Maul Panata Jerry, right, I know you can't see how a good god can do those things. But that's an *external* criticism. You're supposed to be defending the charge of *internal* inconsistency. I have *two* ways that could go. One--reasons responsiveness--you didn't respond to, instead you responded to a classical compatibilist position I didn't raise (and in fact, the Fischer & Ravizza model denies the "specious" senses you speak of, as they're *semi*-compatibilists). But even here you didn't argue against classical compatibilism but said that with libertarian glasses on you think they're anslysis are specious. So this doesn't get your internal inconsistency charge.

On the other point, you seem to simply misunderstand some of the terms I'm using here. I'm speaking of a common moral community all humans belong to. I even gave a relevant example of what membership looks like, viz., knowing right and wrong, being able to interpret agent meaning, being able to give and respond to excuses, justifications, etc.

Your response to my remarks about the fall again tell us "you can't see how this works, but we knew that going in---you're a libertarian! This response is a slender reed on which to hang an inconsistency charge.

If you can run manipulation argument, do it :-)

Again, you don't blame mentally ill people yet you blame their spiritual analogues. How? Because you think mental illness rules out LFW but the spiritual analogue doesn't. Right, and I say the same thing but sub CFW for LFW. We're on a par here. Now, I note you don't like Belcher 'a Calvinism. I grant you don't think compatibilism is true. We know all that, but you're supposed to be defending an *inconsistency* charge, and I've offered several quick and dirty ways Belcher could easily avoid that charge. Your response seems to be that "you can't see how those work" or how it's consistent with "God's goodness", but again, these are charges of external consistency. Lastly, I should note that your entire response to me depends on a deeper analogy between the now tic effects of sin and ordinary mental illness. I think it's actually a *metaphor* and not and analogy, but moreover, we don't know enough about it's precise nature to make it analogous. In fact, draw the analogy too tight, we can't blame sinners for anything, on either CFW or LFW. Loosen it, you lose the connection needed for the argument.
January 14 at 4:22am


  1. I'm convinced that discussions (even debates) on this level are the kind we need to happen more often in public forums between Calvinists and Arminians because the prominent popularizers of Calvinism often lose the argument against the prominent popularizers of Arminianism like Olson and Walls (IMO). I'm not going to mention the names of the Calvinist popularizers I'm thinking of because respect them too much (and many of you can guess who I'm referring to). It's enough to point out that their strengths are Biblical exegesis and sometimes also knowledge of historical theology. But by themselves, those disciplines cannot answer the philosophical and logical challenges informed Arminians often make. I'm glad there are folks like Paul and Steve who can take on the philosophically sophisticated Arminians and actually win the argument.

    1. typo correction: "I'm not going to mention the names of the Calvinist popularizers I'm thinking of because [ I ] respect them too much..."

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. If all else fails in defending Calvinism, Calvinists can always approach it the way some Clarkians and Modified Clarkians do; by defining the problem away. I can accept the following solution as rationally permissible, but admittedly, it's not as philosophically and emotionally satisfying a solution as one could wish for.

      The solution I'm posting is a rephrasing of the one given from Vincent Cheung's book The Author of Sin (page 20 of the 2014 edition). I've also added a bit of commentary.

      1. Affirm absolute divine determinism.

      2. Deny all human freedom in relation to God. This allow for the reality of semi-compatibilism, but bypasses the need to appeal to it because we're here dealing with human freedom in relation to God. However, this premise might need a metaphysical theory that can account for how God can guarantee that His decree will come to pass inexorably. Cheung appeals to occasionalism (which seems to depend on the A-theory of time), but I prefer an appeal to the the implications of the B-theory of time and therefore a block view of the universe (though, I'm not dogmatic on B-theory). I suspect there are other possible metaphysical theories that can do the job.

      3. Base moral responsibility on God's sovereign decree to judge mankind (rather than on man's freedom).

      4. Answer almost all related logical and moral objections to Calvinism by doing the following:

      a. Affirm that God is good, kind, righteous, and just by definition. This renders all "problem of evil" and "author of sin" type of objections inapplicable.

      b. Deny the unjustified premise, "responsibility presupposes freedom." This renders human freedom irrelevant to the discussion.

  2. After you posted this, I just got 5,000 friend requests!

  3. I see that "I" wrote "now tic" effects of sin in my last response; that's supposed to be "noetic." I wrote the majority of the above on my iPhone. I guess that was the iPhone being "smart."