Saturday, May 22, 2004

Somewhere over the rainbow-3

Talbott goes on to say,
"It is hard to avoid the conclusion that those Christians who would restrict God's love and mercy to a chosen few really have no clear idea of what to do with 1 Jn 4:8,16…If this expresses a truth about the essence of God, then it is logically impossible that the person who is God should fail to love someone" (113).

By way of reply:
i) At most, this would not be a question of what is logically impossible, but ethically or ontologically impossible.
ii) By this "logic," if a man is naturally loving, then he must make love to every woman he meets. Is Talbott a loving or unloving man? If loving, is he a polygamist? Does he maintain a harem?
After all, it's not enough, on Talbott's score, to be merely loving. You must be equally loving.
iii) Isn't marital love an exclusive love? And isn't marital love an exemplum of divine love (Isa 54; Ezk 16; Hosea; Eph 5; Rev 19-22)?.
iv) If essential love means that God must love everyone, then does essential omnipotence mean that God must do everything?
v) Isn't there a logical relationship between loving good and hating evil, or loving evil and hating good? If we love one thing, is it not natural to hate its antithesis?
vi) In the Johannine epistles, love is a closed circle: the Trinity loves itself, the Trinity loves the elect, the elect love each other, the elect love the Trinity. It is not a love that breaks out of the exclusive circle. It is not love of the world. Love of the world is antithetical to Johannine love.
vii) Talbott deliberately omits the oft-repeated faith-condition, as well as the emphatic dualism, in 1 John.
If Talbott is going to stake his claim in the Johannine epistles, then he has chosen hardpan for planting the seeds of universalism.

Talbott also tries to sneak Heb 12:29 into his brief, as though that were a prooftext for universalism: "If God is love and his purifying love, like a consuming fire (see Heb 12:29), destroys all that is false within us…" (118). Now Talbott has done nothing whatsoever to lay the foundation for this equation.

I assume he brings in Heb 12 by this sideways maneuver because it is a powerful passage of judgment, and so he has to do something with it to deflect its force. And he is evidently unable to presents a serious exegetical finding. And so he slips it in under the cover of a common metaphor, with the innuendo that if one writer writes about fire, and another writer writes about fire, then they both mean the same thing, and they both mean just what the universalist means. Of course, this inferential chain breaks down at so many points that it's hardly surprising if Talbott declined to lay out, much less weld together, each little link. But if he has so little confidence in his own argument, why should we have any higher confidence?

In addition, to foist a universalistic spin on the eschatological threats in the Book of Hebrews ill-accords with the author's a fortiori style of argument, in which the postmortem punishment awaiting unbelievers is even more unremitting than their premortem punishment.

Moving on to Mal 1:1, Talbott regards the love/hate language as anthropomorphic. I agree with him. However, it is a vivid way of expressing election and reprobation, which are quite literal.

Talbott tries to dodge this by laying stress on the reconciliation of the two brothers. But that's beside the point. Talbott is reading narrative theology against the grain of the intertextual commentary supplied by Malachi and Paul.

To say that "the remnant is always a pledge on behalf of the whole" (121) suffers from a fatal equivocation. There is a collective remnant distributively represented in every generation. But that is not identical with the entire mass of humanity. As one theologian has said, commenting on Isa 6:9-13,
"He has the promise of a remnant, a remnant which will in turn be eaten away, but of which the holy seed shall be the substance. In other words, the real object here is the remnant and that holy seed. But precisely for the sake of the salvation of that holy seed the preaching of Isaiah must serve for the blinding and hardening of the reprobate shell. If you keep in mind the organic idea, you will understand this very well. There come times in Israel's history when the ungodly segment of the nation gets the power and has the upper hand; times when it becomes well-nigh impossible for the elect kernel to exist within reprobate shell. In such times judgement must come upon Israel: Israel must be eaten away, precisely in order to save it from the domination of the ungodly. However, if this is to happen, if a portion of that reprobate shell is to fall away, then it must first become ripe for judgment. And Isaiah's preaching must serve exactly to accomplish that ripening process. Then the tenth part will be preserved, and the remnant of which the holy seed shall be the substance," H. Hoeksema, Believers & Their Seed (RFPA, 1977), 129-30.

Talbott tries to reduce Rom 9-11 to an ad hominem debate over Jewish exclusivity. But the problem in Rom 9-11 is not the inclusion of the Gentiles, but the exclusion of the Jews. It is the problem of Jewish unbelief. How could God's chosen people reject God's chosen Messiah? Does their rejection of him imply his reject of them? And how does that comport with his promises to Israel? Has God gone back on his word? That's the problem. And Paul's answer is found in double-predestination, which he traces all the way back through the prophets and the patriarchs. There is an inner elect.

Talbott makes the very odd statement that Exod 33:19 "is an idiomatic expression that stresses not the indeterminacy of God's mercy, as some Augustinians have supposed, but rather its intensity and assuredness" (126).

To begin with, what Augustinian every construed it along indeterminist lines? Does Talbott know what he's talking about? The question is not whether it's determinate, but whether it's discriminate rather than indiscriminate. Does God enjoy sovereign discretion over the objects of mercy. Paul says "yes," Talbott says "no."

In the next chapter, Talbott tries to generate the paradox of exclusivism. God cannot love me unless he loves my loved ones, and I cannot love God unless he loves my loves ones, otherwise I'd be torn in two opposing directions.

This calls for several comments:
i) It reeks of emotional blackmail. A sinner is hardly in a position to extort concessions from God, as though he'd be doing God a big favor by allowing God to love and save him. This is just another instance of Talbott's petulant and prideful self-absorption.
ii) There is some truth to what he says, but its logic is reversible. Sometimes it does come down to a choice of opposing loves and ultimate loyalties.
iii) Nothing is more striking, in this regard, than the complete omission of Mt 10:21,34-37 to Talbott's discussion.
If Talbott had his way, Abraham would never have left Ur since, in so doing, he undoubtedly left many kinfolk behind. Ruth should have stayed behind with Orpah rather than left with Naomi.

And while we're on the subject of dominical omissions, on several occasions the author employs the phrase "chosen few" as an invidious characterization of Calvinism. But there are a couple of problems with this tactic.
i) The notion of a chosen few that are saved goes directly back to the words of our Lord (Mt 7:14; 20:16; 22:14). So to whom does the odium belong—Calvin or Christ?
ii) There is no official position within Calvinism on the proportion of the damned in relation to the redeemed. That turns on separate questions, such as eschatology (amil/postmil) and the salvation or not of all who die before the age of discretion.
iii) Even if only a faction of humanity is ultimately to be saved, a fraction of a multiple billions is still a large absolute number.

As to the question of how heaven will be heaven without all of our loves ones, Talbott is indulging in a diabolical game in which it puts the reader to the test and tempts him to defy God.

This may be a natural enough question to ask, but a Christian is under no obligation to answer it. We simply entrust the matter to God's surpassing wisdom and leave it there.

But one can venture a couple of comments. Whatever good we find in others is but a shadow of God's goodness, and in heaven we will see the sun in all its glory.

Many believers have found that the family of God took the place of their natural family. It is not that they rejected their family, but their family rejected them. And the company of the like-minded is the final foundation of love and fellowship.

Talbott anticipates and endeavors to answer an obvious objection to this "paradox." "At this point, however, one might begin to wonder about those who are not our loved ones…If my capacity for love is not yet perfected…and God wants me to experience supreme happiness, then he must continue to teach me the lessons of love until it is perfected" (138-39).

Talbott says more than this, but you get the point. Although this way of putting the matter represents a skillful modulation from one key to another, it is not a natural modification or logical extension of his original premise. To the contrary, it represents a flat contradiction, but conceals the sleight-of-hand like a deft magician.

The original principle was the so-called paradox of exclusivism, according to which heaven would not be heaven for me unless all my loved ones join me there. Now he addresses the question of whether heaven would be heaven if those who are not my loved ones were missing.

Now, on the face of it, it seems pretty obvious that this is a completely different question with a completely different answer. And he has disguised the difference by putting it so blandly. But let's rip of the mask.

It isn't just a question of those I don't love. What about those I positively despise? We can upend his whole paradox and ask if heaven would be heaven if a rape victim finds her rapist in heaven. And one can multiply many other examples of the kind.

At a merely intuitive level, what makes heaven heavenly is the company we keep, not merely who is there, but who is not. That's a traditional difference between heaven and hell, is it not?

Talbott papers over the contradiction by saying that God makes us more loving, and makes our enemies more loving in return, so that, eventually, even our enemies are our loved ones, and vice versa.

And I don't deny that this sometimes happens. In heaven, there will sometimes be the victim and victimizer side by side, owing to the miracle of grace and redemption.

But that has nothing to do with natural affections and the logic of internal relations. That is an extremely unnatural and counterintuitive state of affairs.

One more time, let us contrast the two questions and two answers. The original form of the paradox was predicated on the idea that I have a natural affection for some people, and that would come into conflict with my love of God God unless I was saved along with all my family and friends.

That is utterly different than saying that there are some people are not my loved ones, are people I dislike or intensely despise because they wronged me or my family or my friends, and that God must teach me how to love them.

What we have is not a paradox but a vicious circle. Heaven wouldn't be heaven unless everyone makes it to heaven. Why, because heaven wouldn't be heaven for you and me unless our loved ones were there. But what if my loved ones are not your loved ones? What if having your loved ones in heaven would make heaven a living hell for me? What if what makes heaven heavenly for me is having my loved ones, but not yours? Then God must make me love your loved ones as well. Instead of a preexistent condition generating the so-called paradox, the condition has to be generated to generate the paradox in the first place. Premise and conclusion trade places. But this is sheer sophistry.

His book has four more chapters, but I'll only review the next one because the remaining three involve quarrels between the Arminian, universalist, and Molinist which are of no immediate interest to me, seeing as all three positions are wrong and wrong-headed. They are more than welcome to attack one another's positions.

In his next chapter, Talbott begins by saying a couple of strange things. On the one hand, he regards the Scholastic doctrine of divine simplicity as incoherent. On the other hand, he endorses a doctrine of moral simplicity. And guess which moral attribute comes out on top? Love, or at least his pet definition thereof.

But there are a couple of problems with this. It isn't clear that one can affirm moral simplicity but deny metaphysical simplicity. Ultimately, all God's attributes are mental attributes, for God is a spirit.

In addition, what is the Scriptural warrant for ranking the divine attributes, and then reducing all the moral attributes to one, and then choosing love as the standard of reference. There are several steps in the process of abstraction, none of which Talbott tries to justify, either exegetically or philosophically.

As far as I'm concerned, each attribute characterizes every other attribute. I don't prioritize the divine attributes.

As is his wont, Talbott also parodies the opposing position. He suggests that the traditional view sets the justice and mercy of the Father is a state of tension, which the Son must relieve.

But this is no part of Calvinism. All the members of the Trinity share the same attributes. All were party to the plan of redemption. And different attributes take different objects: mercy takes the elect as its object while justice takes the reprobate as its object.

Talbott also claims, as he did once before, that the purpose of the atonement was not to change the attitude of God towards man, but man's attitude towards God (145). As usual, this distorts the opposing position. A Calvinist does not maintain that the atonement "changes" the attitude of God. Rather, the atonement supplies the judicial grounds for our justification with God. The atonement presupposes the love of God for the elect.

In addition, Talbott simply ignores all the standard exegetical literature in which redemption and propitiation are shown to have an objective aspect. Has he ever read Roger Nicole or Leon Morris on the subject? It reinforces the oft-repeated impression that Talbott is simply winging it to make everything else queue up behind the idol of universalism.

But this is just a warming up exercise. Talbott's target is the principle of retributive justice. In an opening volley, Talbott levels the following charge:
"If an action were so heinous, so dire in its consequences for others, that its perpetrator would deserve to suffer everlastingly in return, then a loving God would never permit it in the first place; his love for the potential victims would require him to protect them from such irreparable harm" (150).

Well, I don't wish to come across as ungenerous, but it seems pretty presumptuous for a universalist to get on his high horse about the problem of evil. His own theodicy tries to justify the existence of evil by the eschatological defeat of evil. But one of the primary problems with his theodicy is not only the way it relates the present to the future, but the present to the past. Why does the present need to be balanced off by the future?

The world we live in looks very much like the sort of world predicted by a Calvinist. It doesn't look very much like the world predicted by universalism. For if God is such a tenderhearted fellow as all that, surely he could and should and would intervene much more often than he does on behalf of the innocent.

Here we can turn universalist reasoning in on itself. There are many occasions when we would intervene if given the opportunity. How can we be so much more merciful than the God of universalism?

From the standpoint of a universalist, why must a little girl suffer at the hands of a child molester so that she can get a celestial lollipop in the world to come? Or share a celestial lollipop with her one-time rapist in the world to come? To repeat his own choice adjectives, would that "make amends, make up for, cancel out, undo the harm, and repair the damage" (157)?

How does this really square with Talbott's stated ideal of fatherhood? Would he stand by if his five-year-old daughter were ravished—as long as she'd be rewarded with a bigger birthday party in heaven?

Adding insult to injury, Talbott faults the retributionist for his adherence to original sin. Now, let's be clear on this. Talbott appeals to Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15 to prove universalism. But, of course, each text is also a locus classicus of original sin. So what is his own position on original sin? Is this consistent or inconsistent with universalism?

Underlying his criticism is the apparent assumption, for which he offers no justification, that an Augustinian begins with an abstract theory of retributive justice, which he deploys to defend the doctrine of hell. Talbott then takes issue with what he regards as the nature of retribution, more by way of assertion than argument, in relation to other Augustinian doctrines.

But the truth is otherwise. An Augustinian derives his theory of retributive justice from the witness of Scripture, especially in relation to the doctrine of hell, as well as OT law (with its 18 capital crimes) and penal substitution. This is not an artificial construct, but one which takes the witness of Scripture as its building materials.

There is, then, no tension between an Augustinian doctrine of retribution, hell, or original sin, for they were all developed in tandem, taking their respective demands into account and making the necessary adjustments.

Retributive justice is not an intuitive theory, although it enjoys some intuitive support. Yet the principle of retribution does not stipulate the preconditions of retribution, but only its conditions. It is simply a principle according to which you should get what you deserve. It doesn't say what makes you deserving. It is neutral on action theory.

Of course, different theological traditions have different conceptions of what is fair, just, and equitable. But that goes beyond retributivism, per se. That is a separate debate, with is own supporting arguments and counterarguments.

Talbott is of the opinion that original sin would constitute a mitigating rather than aggravating offense. But although that enjoys a shallow, commonsense appeal, it is no part of Paul's argument. Paul does not treat original sin as an attenuating or exculpatory circumstance. Quite the contrary, he treats original sin as culpable.

And this goes to the burden of proof. For a Bible-believing Christian, he is justified in believing as he does if his belief is exegetically well-warranted. He needs no extra-canonical reason to justify his article of faith. Sola scriptura is the sufficient condition and necessary criterion.

It may be useful, in the field of apologetics, to have supporting arguments from natural reason. And some articles of faith are susceptible to rational defense. But arguments independent of Scripture are not necessary to verify the doctrine in question, or faith in said doctrine. If the Bible is divine revelation, then revealed truths are self-validating. The word of God is reason enough, for God is supreme reason.

Talbott's objection runs deeper than a theory of retribution, as such. Rather, he's raising all the stock Arminian objections to the Reformed doctrine of spiritual inability. Here the moves and countermoves are well-rehearsed. If he was interested in a serious debate, he could engage the Edwardian distinction between moral and spiritual ability. He could also field a libertarian theory of freewill against Edwardian objections.

But all his contention really boils down to boasting that "my intuitions are better than your intuitions"! This makes it difficult to rebut much of what he says in chap. 9, because he doesn't give the reader much to rebut. Much of what he says does not take the form of reasoned argument, but is nothing more than the venting of his personal feelings and tendentious opinions. There's nothing to disprove because there's nothing to prove.

For the moment, though, let us try to play the game by his own rules. Now Talbott seems to be extremely sure of his ethical reflexes. As a consequence, he is very sure of what he'd do in a given situation, such as how he'd deal with a wayward daughter.

So does his self-assurance undermine his freedom? If he knows in advance what he will do, is the future open or closed to him? Does his certainty rob his actions of moral meaning?

And if this first-order form of certainty is compatible with freedom or responsibility, why, then, should a second-order form of certainty be incompatible with freedom and morality as well? In other words, if his personal certitude is compatible with the above, then if God ensures his future actions, how would such supervenience undermine authentic freedom or moral incumbency? What difference does it make if second party renders the action of the first party to be certain, rather than the self-determination of the primary party? It doesn't differ at the level of the outcome. So wherein, if anywhere, lies the moral differential?

What is more striking, though, is the incongruous mix of moralizing and amorality in his defense of universalism. When he nominates Adolf Eichmamm, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer as his poster-boys for universalism, I rather doubt he'll be making many recruits to the cause. It is never survivors of the death camps who pen starry-eye books on universalism. Rather, it's pampered and protected elites like Talbott and Adams who deny the victims their justice, their outrage, and—yes—their vengeance. How many victims are looking for the love of Adolf Eichmann?

Nothing is more immoral than an incapacity for moral indignation. Nothing is more unjust and cruel than telling the victim that she must forgive her unforgiving assailant. Imagine Adams or Talbott as crisis counselors at a rape clinic or safe-house for battered women.

Talbott's attack also suffers from a simple-minded quality. For instance, he fails to distinguish between sins and crimes. A crime, to be a crime, generally has a victim. It assumes the infliction of harm in one form or another. And that, in turn, determines the nature and scope of the punishment.

In the case of property crimes, some form of financial restitution may be appropriate, as we see in the Mosaic law. This admits a quantitative penalty.

However, certain religious offenses and crimes of aggravated violence do not admit gradations of punishment. A financial loss is measurable in a way that, say, the loss of a child to murder is incommensurable.

Even this has exceptions. Under the Mosaic law, it was a crime to curse the deaf (Lev 19:14). Although no harm is done to the deaf—since he cannot hear the abuse—yet such an act is disrespectful.

But a sin, to be a sin, need not have a victim. Some sins are crimes, and some crimes are sins, but they are not coincident. God can suffer no harm, but God can be wronged.

So there is a difference between criminal guilt and sinful guilt. Like cursing the deaf, it dishonors the offended party.

And there are degrees of dishonor, for social obligations are concentric. I have fewer obligations to a stranger than a neighbor, fewer to a neighbor than a friend, fewer to a friend than a parent, sibling, or child, and fewer to family than to God.

Every child is not my child. Jeffrey Dahmer is not my child. And if he were, I'd disown him.

Degrees of dishonor imply escalating degrees of guilt. Cursing a deaf father is worse than cursing a deaf stranger. Cursing God is worse than cursing man.

Because social obligations are concentric, they are also asymmetrical. Although a father and son share some mutual obligations, they do not share identical obligations. The paternal role is not interchangeable with the filial role. The father owes nothing to the son, but the son owes everything to the father. But Talbott's paternal role-models seem to be drawn from the ranks of Eli and David—men who failed in their paternal duties by being so very weak, permissive and indulgent.

Talbott also overlooks a truism in ethics: one act may be more harmful, but less culpable; while another act may be more culpable, but less harmful. Intent is the deciding factor. This is what distinguishes murder from manslaughter.

Talbott cites 1 Jn 1:9 out of context (163). In this verse, forgiveness is predicated on several conditions:
i) The subject is a Christian
ii) The subject is contrite
iii) Christ has redeemed the Christian (2:2; 4:14).

To turn this into a prooftext for universalism is a willful misreading of the text. Likewise, he says that the imago Dei renders the sinner deserving of divine forgiveness (161). But this is yet another example of brazen Scripture-twisting, for the imago Dei is expressly made a condition of punishment, and not of forgiveness (Gen 9:6).

In attacking retribution, and with it, the doctrine of hell, he says that the sinner must "see clearly the choice of roads, the consequences of their actions, and the true nature of evil" (154).

This brings us to a fundamental divide between two different conceptions of sin, and along with that, two different types of religion. Is evil a result of ignorance or ill-will? Eastern religion attributes evil to ignorance. Hence, salvation is a matter, not of redemption, but illumination.

Evangelical religion attributes sin to ill-will, to a spiteful and malicious hatred of the good. Hence, salvation is a matter of redemption and regeneration. Rebirth may bring enlightenment, but enlightenment does not bring rebirth. And rebirth, alone, does not right the scales of justice.

To take the paradigm-case, Lucifer sinned against the light. There was nothing deficient in Lucifer's theology.

This is also a running theme in the Fourth Gospel. The reprobate sin, not in darkness, but in the full light of day. They turn to darkness by turning their back on the light of Christ. This is not what makes them sinners, but exposes the true nature of sin. If they are ignorant, it is not for lack of knowledge, but due to their culpable and invincible ignorance.

The difference between Calvinism and universalism is not a difference of eschatology, like the difference between amil, premil, and postmil. No, it's nothing less than the difference between one religion and another. Universalism may be a Christian heresy, but Christian it is not. Universalism is a soul-brother of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Classical ethics (Plato, Aristotle), in which evil is a result of ignorance, in which evil-doers are misguided do-gooders, in which no one wittingly chooses evil over good. By contrast, the Christian faith views the sinner, not as an innocent child, but as a proud and stubborn rebel. He sins, not from love of sin, but hatred of God. Although this is radically irrational, even to the point of criminal insanity, it is a common place of human experience. Hell merely makes of them more of what they already are. The gates of hell are locked from both the inside and the outside.

No comments:

Post a Comment