Monday, November 07, 2016

"One of the most telling things about Calvinists"

On Facebook, Jerry Walls and I got into an impromptu debate. Here's a slightly edited version:

Jerry Walls 
One of the most telling things about Calvinists is that they take the meaning of passages that say God hates some people as literal, obvious and beyond dispute, but they go to great lengths to explain that passages that say God loves the world, or that Christ died for all, do not mean that he literally loves everyone (at least not in any robust sense of the word), or that Christ died for everyone. The former they take to be utterly clear and straightforward, while the latter require sophisticated interpretation.

Steve Hays
i) Is that a claim about Calvinists in general? What about Calvinists (e.g. William Young) who regard emotive language about God as anthropopathic? 

ii) A Calvinist needn't believe God "literally" hates the reprobate. Rather, he can take the position that "love/hate" language is rhetorical (i.e. antithetical parallelism). Likewise, that those are ancient Near Eastern legal synonyms for choosing and rejecting. 

iii) On the face of it, Jerry's comparison is equivocal. That's not about the meaning of "love" and "hate," but about the meaning of the Greek word kosmos in Johannine usage or the function of universal quantifiers ("every, all").

Jerry Walls  
[Calvinists] think the nature of divine sovereignty and divine hatred are more clear than the nature of divine love and goodness.

Steve Hays
Jerry, what is your evidence for that allegation? Do you mean they think that from their viewpoint or yours?

Jerry Walls 
To cite just one example, WC, 3:7 appeals to the "unsearchable counsel of his own will" in accounting for God's choice to extend or withhold mercy as he pleases. What is clear is the nature of "sovereign power over his creatures" but how this expresses love and goodness is far less clear.

Steve Hays 
Since you're quoting the Westminster Confession, what about this? "All those that are justified, God vouchsafeth, in and for his only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption: by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God; have his name put upon them; receive the Spirit of adoption; have access to the throne of grace with boldness; are enabled to cry, Abba, Father; are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by his as by a father; yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption, and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation" (WCF 12).

Now, that may not be how you define God's love and goodness, but to say Calvinists lack a clear concept of God's love and goodness on their own terms is demonstrably false. So are you attempting an internal critique or an external critique?

Jerry Walls 
Cf Calvin: "It therefore seems to them that men have reason to expostulate with God if they are predestined to eternal death solely by his decision, apart from their own merit. If thoughts of this sort ever occur to pious men, they will be sufficiently armed to break their force even by the one consideration that it is very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God’s will. . . . For God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous. When, therefore, one asks why God has so done, we must reply: because he has willed it." Sovereignty is clear, the nature of goodness and justice is not, and in fact, right is reduced to sovereignty.

Steve Hays 
i) Jerry, even in the snippet you quote, the context of Calvin's remark is the role of "merit" in salvation. So he's shadowboxing with Catholic synergism. Jerry, you do realize, do you not, that when you quote from theological polemics of the past, you need to take into account what they were opposing. 

ii) In addition, your quotation of Calvin is one-sided. He was a staunch critic of theological voluntarism. Have you read Paul Helm's analysis of Calvin's position on that point? Cf. P. Helm, John Calvin's Ideas (Oxford, 2004), chap. 11. 

So I'm just wondering why you leave that out. You're not intentionally trying to misrepresent his overall position, are you? 

iii) Furthermore, you continue to duck the question of whether you're attempting an internal or external critique. For instance, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitches deem it sufficient to disprove God's benevolence by quoting "offensive" OT passages. But, of course, OT writers didn't think those passages were incompatible with Yahweh's benevolence. Orthodox Jews don't think that. Bible-believing Christians don't think that.

So your tactic of simply quoting a passage from Calvin or the WCF, as if that ipso facto demonstrates your point, begs the question. Once again, are you judging Reformed theism to be unclear on God's love and goodness from your own viewpoint, or the viewpoint of Calvin, the Westminster Divines, &c.? Surely you appreciate that rudimentary hermeneutical distinction.

To take another obvious example, annihilationists consider adherents of everlasting punishment to have an unloving theology while universalists consider annihilationists to have an unloving theology. Arminians consider Calvinists to have an unloving theology while universalists consider Arminians to have an unloving theology. So, once again, Jerry, are you simply invoking your (idiosyncratic) brand of Arminianism as the standard of comparison? If so, each theological tradition can do that in relation to every other theological tradition. John Hick started out as a religious exclusivist. Then he decided that cast aspersions on the love and benevolence of God, so he became a religious inclusivist. Then he decided that that, too, cast aspersions on the love and benevolence of God, so he became a religious pluralistic, attacking the "myth of God Incarnate". 

So it's hardly adequate for you to merely take your own position as the yardstick, as if that's a given. Anyone can do that. That's only persuasive to people who already agree with you. At some point you need to justify your standard of comparison. As a philosopher, surely you realize that.

To take yet another example, consider critics of penal substitution or vicarious atonement who brand that as "cosmic child abuse". For them, that's contrary to the love and benevolence of God.

Jerry Walls 
If the passages I cited do not illustrate that for Calvinists God' sovereignty is clear in his unconditional election, whereas his justice and goodness are mysterious, if not utterly inexplicable to us, well, I am pretty sure nothing else I might cite would help. So I will not waste any more of your time or mine.

Steve Hays 
Jerry, that's a patronizing and evasive reply. You are shirking your burden of proof. I hardly think it's asking too much that you, as a philosophy prof., present a supporting argument for your inferences. 

This is how it works. You make a claim. I explain why I think you fail to make good on your claim. The proper response from you is to either show, be reasoned argument, why my explanation is deficient, or withdraw your original claim. 

If you can't rise to the challenge, then that's a backdoor admission that your Arminianism is philosophically indefensible. It's something you merely assert to be the case. In that event, you're just an Arminian fideist. 

How is that any better than atheists who stipulate moral realism? Or that consciousness is an emergent property of matter?

Jerry Walls 
No, it is clear that Calvinists think they know what sovereignty means in election and predestination; and that justice and goodness are relatively mysterious, if not opaque to us. Indeed, Calvin tells us even to ask the question is impious. If you cannot see it, sorry.

Steve Hays 
He says it's impious to question God's justice. That isn't just Calvin. That's God speaking from the whirlwind in Job. By the same token, St. Paul says the same thing in Rom 9. Likewise, Paul appeals to God's mysterious providence in Rom 11. So are you saying St. Paul had a defective view of God's love and benevolence? Your snippy replies don't engage the issues.

Notice, btw, that I haven't appeal to mystery. I'm just responding to your quotes. Besides getting testy and condescending, do you have an actual rebuttal?

In the very section in question, Calvin says "We, however, give no countenance to the fiction of absolute power," Institutes 3:23.2. So he explicitly repudiates theological voluntarism.

Calvin presents a more detailed repudiation of theological voluntarism here: "That Sarbonic dogma, therefore, in the promulgation of which the Papal theologians so much pride themselves, “that the power of God is absolute and tyrannical,” I utterly abhor. For it would be easier to force away the light of the sun from his heat, or his heat from his fire, than to separate the power of God from His justice. Away, then, with all such monstrous speculations from godly minds, as that God can possibly do more, or otherwise, than He has done, or that He can do anything without the highest order and reason. For I do not receive that other dogma, “that God, as being free from all law Himself, may do anything without being subject to any blame for doing so.” For whosoever makes God without law, robs Him of the greatest part of His glory, because he spoils Him of His rectitude and justice. Not that God is, indeed, subject to any law, excepting in so far as He is a law unto Himself. But there is that inseparable connection and harmony between the power of God and His justice, that nothing can possibly be done by Him but what is moderate, legitimate, and according to the strictest rule of right. And most certainly, when the faithful speak of God as omnipotent, they acknowledge Him at the same time to be the Judge of the world, and always hold His power to be righteously tempered with equity and justice." The Secret Providence of God.

So Calvin rejects divine sovereignty as defined by sheer will. 

Why does Jerry ignore Reformed expositions of God's goodness, love, mercy, &c. in, say, Turretin's Institutes (1:241-44), or Bavinck's The Doctrine of God (Banner of Truth, 203-209), or Frame's exposition of God's love and goodness in The Doctrine of God (chap. 20), or Geerhardus Vos's detailed exposition:

Why does Walls engage in the subterfuge that Calvinists are shy about discussing God's love, goodness, mercy, &c., in the teeth of so much documentation to the contrary?

1 comment:

  1. Walls started by saying "One of the most telling things about Calvinists".

    I wonder what Calvinist apologists would say if they had to finish the statement, "One of the most telling things about [Free Will theists or Arminians]..."