Saturday, October 31, 2015

Hard truths

1. Recently, the Society of Evangelical Arminians erupted with several indignant, faux incredulous posts regarding the following statement:

God . . . brings about all things in accordance with his will. In other words, it isn’t just that God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those who love him; it is rather that he himself brings about these evil aspects for his glory (see Ex. 9:13-16; John 9:3) and his people’s good (see Heb. 12:3-11; James 1:2-4). This includes—as incredible and as unacceptable as it may currently seem—God’s having even brought about the Nazis’ brutality at Birkenau and Auschwitz as well as the terrible killings of Dennis Rader and even the sexual abuse of a young child . . . 
— Mark R. Talbot, “’All the Good That Is Ours in Christ': Seeing God’s Gracious Hand in the Hurts Others Do to Us,” in John Piper and Justin Taylor (eds.), Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 31-77 (quote from p. 42).

SEA also linked to this statement by Piper:

He works all things according to the counsel of his will. This extends to the details of all existence. Matthew 10:29, “Not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from our Father in heaven.” Proverbs 16:33, “The lot, the dice, are cast in the lap and every decision is from the Lord.” In Reno, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, every dice rolled God decides what turns up. 

And SEA linked to a post by Leighton Flowers with the incendiary title "Does God Bring About the Abuse of Children for His Own Glory?"

There's a lot to sort out. 

2. SEA acts as if it discovered the smoking gun of Calvinism. I understand how this would be shocking or scandalous to uniformed Christians. But there's nothing new or surprising here. Calvinism doesn't conceal the fact that God has predestined everything that happens. 

In addition, I understand how this would be shocking to Christians who never read the Bible cover to cover. Yet Scripture frequently attributes the deeds of wicked men to God operating behind-the-scenes.

That's a hard truth. But, then, there are many things in Scripture that make me swallow hard. There are many things in the world that make me swallow hard. 

3. The statement that God brings about something "for his own glory" is misleading without further explanation. In Calvinism, God doesn't act for his own sake, but for the sake of the elect. God cannot benefit from what he brings about, for God is sufficient in himself, apart from his creation. 

4. Calvinism didn't create the problem of evil; rather, the problem of evil is created by the fact of evil. The problem of evil is generated by the conjunction of two propositions:

i) God exists

ii) Divinely preventable evil exists

To the extent that that's a theological problem, the challenge is hardly unique to Calvinism. It's a challenge for Molinism, Aminianism, universalism, Lutheranism, Thomism, Mormonism, Deism, open theism, &c. If Calvinism didn't exist, the problem of evil would still exist. 

Indeed, it's challenging for atheism. Atheism solves the problem by denying one of the two propositions, but that's a costly solution. It solves the problem of evil by making human life worthless. A tad self-defeating. Like an exterminator who eliminates a roach infestation by burning down the house with the homeowner inside. Effective, but a wee bit counterproductive. 

5. In addition, the Reformed position sounds shocking or scandalous to Christian ears that haven't bothered to think through the alternatives. You can't just assess the Reformed position in a vacuum. You need to consider that in relation to proposed alternatives. 

In freewill theism, God allows a pedophile to abuse children because there's something more important to God than preventing child abuse. Well, stop and think about that for a while. Let it sink it. After all the outrage directed at Calvinism, what could be more important than preventing child abuse? Yet a freewill theist is forced to admit that preventing child abuse is not a divine priority. After all, God could put a stop to that. 

In God's rating system, the prevention of child abuse is not God's paramount concern. A freewill theist must say that in God's estimation, there's something more valuable than preventing child molestation. Some other good that's better than the prevention of child abuse. 

So why isn't that shocking to freewill theists? Why isn't that outrageous? Yet the freewill theist is committed to that proposition. 

Suppose a teacher at a Christian school was accused of child molestation. Suppose, when interviewed, the principal said he knew the teacher was a convicted pedophile. He knew that hiring him was a risk. But he hired him anyway because some things are more important than preventing child abuse. 

You can just imagine the incensed reaction. But isn't the freewill theists forced to say the same thing about God?

6. To say everything event is predestined is to say that everything happens for a reason. Good things happen for a good reason, but even bad things happen for a good reason. Indeed, especially in the case of evil, we usually think an agent had better have a good reason for allowing (or causing) that to happen. If there's a prima facie obligation to prevent evil, then allowing (or causing) evil requires a special justification. 

Conversely, to say that God allows horrendous evils to occur for no purpose whatsoever is hardly exculpatory. "I just let it happen. Don't ask me why. There is no why."

7. Not surprisingly, freewill theists usually turn to some version of the freewill defense. For instance, they claim libertarian freedom is a prerequisite of moral responsibility. But is that an adequate response?

i) To begin with, one development in freewill theism is restrictivism. On Facebook, Alan Rhoda recently said that he and many libertarians espouse restrictivism. Take some examples:

Restrictivism is the claim that we have "precious little free will" insofar as there are "few occasions in life on which–at least after a little reflection and perhaps some investigation into facts–it isn't absolutely clear what to do." Kevin Timpe, Free Will in Philosophical Theology (Bloomsbury 2014), 24. 
Restrictivism is the view that we are rarely (directly)free, only sometimes, in somewhat unusual circumstances, so our choices and subsequent actions meet the conditions for direct metaphysical freedom. A libertarian restrictionism holds that it is a feature of directly free choices and actions that they were underdetermined by prior events or states of affairs. Daniel Cohen & Nick Trakakis, eds. Essays on Free Will and Moral Responsibility (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2008), 129. 
[Van Inwagen] appeals to similar resources in an argument for restrictionism, the view that…rarely, if ever, is anyone able to do otherwise than in fact he does." Joseph Keim Campbell, Free Will (John Wiley & Sons 2013), 52.

But in that event, even many freewill theists no longer think libertarian freedom is a necessary condition of moral responsibility. So that's not a given.

ii) But suppose, for the sake of argument, that we grant this contention. How would God stepping in to prevent a pedophile from molesting a child nullify moral responsibility? After all, divine intervention didn't override the pedophile's intention to molest a child. It didn't override his plan to molest a child. It didn't override his initial efforts to act on that plan. Rather, it's a last minute intervention that prevents him from executing his plan.  

So the pedophile is still culpable for his malicious intentions and designs and abortive actions. The fact that he was thwarted at the last minute hardly absolves him of guilt.

iii) But suppose, for the sake of argument, we grant that divine intervention nullifies his moral responsibility. So what? The problem here is that the freewill theist is attempting to justify God's inaction by making divine respect for moral responsibility a universal principle that supersedes any conflicting duty. But why should we grant the universality of that principle? 

Suppose we concede, for discussion purposes, that all things being equal, God should not infringe on our moral responsibility. Suppose, in many situations, that outranks other considerations. But if it's a choice between protecting a child and respecting moral responsibility, what makes moral responsibility a higher priority in that situation? In other words, unabridged moral responsibility might be good in general, but does that make it a greater good in every situation, to which any conflicting obligation must defer? 

8. Consider another principle: For love to be genuine, the agent must either be the ultimate source of his love and/or be free to withhold his love. But is that an adequate response?

i) For starters, isn't that empirically implausible? As a matter of human experience, is that a condition of genuine love? For instance, isn't parental love basically instinctive and irrepressible? Sure, there are terrible exceptions, but I'm countering a universal claim. 

Or take friendship. In my observation, when two or more people have to spend lots of time together, they either end up liking one another or disliking one another. Each person has a predisposition to either click with someone else or find them aggravating to be around. We may choose our friends, but we didn't choose what made them likable to us in the first place. 

ii) But suppose, for the sake of argument, that we grant the contention. If God steps in to prevent a pedophile from molesting a child, how does that infringe on the pedophile's freedom to love God? If a pedophile is allowed to molest children, doesn't that behavior make him morally hardened? Habitual evil reduces his ability to freely love God. Divine intervention would help to preserve the agent's ability to love God. 

iii) But suppose, for discussion purposes, we concede the contention. So what? Suppose repeated divine intervention somehow infringes on the pedophile's ability to freely love God. Why should that take precedence over the safety of an innocent child? 

Even if, as a general principle, it is good for agents to be at liberty to freely love God, how does that override all other goods, including the good of the child? Why should the wellbeing of the child take a backseat to the wellbeing of the molester? 

Suppose, all things being equal, God should not abridge the spontaneity of love. But as a universal principle, that loses plausibility precisely in cases like child abuse. 

9. Freewill theist William Alston said:

A perfectly good God would not wholly sacrifice the welfare of one of His intelligent creatures simply in order to achieve a good for others, or for Himself. This would be incompatible with His concern for the welfare of each of His creatures. "The inductive argument from evil and the human cognitive condition," D. Howard-Snyder, ed., The Evidential Argument from Evil (Indiana U. Press, 1996), 111. 

Seems to me that captures a fundamental principle and a priori intuition of freewill theists. Problem is, their a priori proscription collides with a posteriori reality. So freewill theists are forced to qualify their principles and intuitions in the harsh, unyielding glare of varcious kinds of evils that actually transpire.  

It becomes, in part, a question of theological method. Do we begin with the kinds of evils that actually take place, and reason back from that to inform our theological parameters? Or do we begin with a set of stimulative theological expectations, then adapt that as best we can to the kind of world in which we find ourselves? 


  1. More mind tricks from dirty, subversive Calvinists! Just ignore it, breathe deeply, and loudly recite John 3:16 (KJV of course) ten times with special stress on the word "whosoever"...then read Dave Hunt's blog to cap things off. Repeat as necessary until the cognitive dissonance fades.

  2. Job calls those foolish women questions.

    Then said his wife unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die [i.e. "what glory can come to a God who predestines Job to be attacked by Satan?/child molested/etc.."]. But he said unto her, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips.[Job 2:9,10]

    It's funny that most of their arguments are ironically arguments against their own position. For example they charge Calvinists to be fatalists(out of ignorance as usual not understanding determinism) yet believe in predetermined events (Christ death, burial, earthly kingdom, etc..) which no matter what people choose those events will come to pass making their free will illusionary being a death blow. The only way the free will theist can have a not so blatantly failure of a worldview full of inconsistencies trying to champion free will, is to embrace open theism where God is is reduced to a superhuman often wrong in his predictions. Sadly many do go that far in order to keep their golden calf.

    1. Not only that, but even Open Theism doesn't absolve God here, based on LFW morality. If you are a strong, healthy adult and you see a small child with a knife begin to stab another small child with a knife, then you have given no offense to anyone's freedom by immediately rushing into the situation, disarming the child, and forcing him to not hurt the other child. In fact, refraining from action is considered morally reprehensible.

      Yet the ratio of our power to that of a child is a pittance compared to the ratio of God's power to human ability, even granting everything else needed for LFW. There is simply no good reason, under LFW, for God not to intervene the moment He observes evil taking place, even if we grant the most extreme position that God is unable to see the future or to accurately predict human behavior.

  3. Great article. It made me think that possibly, the problem at the root of the "freewill defense" is pride. Accepting the "reformed" understanding of all of this forces us to come to terms with our own sin, and how, in the end, none of us are worthy of grace, and in our natural state, none of us are able to love God. Unless God gives us new life, we will never love Him.

    To the free-will theist, that is unacceptable. I wonder if it is because they think they never hated God?