Saturday, August 28, 2004

Calvin or Wesley?-2

Moving ahead, I think that your chapter (5) on Calvinism & consistency is the best chapter in the book. You mention a debate between Thomas Talbott and John Piper. Talbot says that a mother could not regard God as worthy of worship unless he saved her daughter from hell. Piper demurs.

I find it very curious that you introduce this debate, on more than one occasion (161-62, 219), in objection to Calvinism. How does the Arminian position present a point of contrast to Talbott's critique of Calvinism? In Arminian theology, no less than in Calvinism, the daughter may be damned. The only difference is that in Reformed theology, her fate is indexed to the will of God, whereas in Arminian theology, he fate is indexed to the will of man--her own.

And in what sense, moreover, is this a logical inconcinnity in Calvinism? Suppose the daughter murdered another mother's daughter? The mother of the murderer will feel differently about her own daughter than the mother of the murdered daughter. And the prosecutor will not feel the same way about the murderer as her own mother does.

Point being: the fact that in this life my attitude towards one of my own family members may not be identical with God's attitude towards the same is not logically inconsistent or morally relevant. It doesn't differentiate Calvinism from Arminianism. And it's just as much of a problem for universalism inasmuch as you will still have conflicting attitudes between the victim's family and the victimizer's.

All a Calvinist can say is that heaven has its compensations, and that there we will see things as God's sees them. What does the Arminian have to say?

You next attempt to drive a wedge between to different formulations of effectual calling in the WCF. Among other interpretive options, you explore the suggestion that 'it's not enough for God to make us willing to do right; he must also enable us to act rightly. For willingness doesn't imply ability any more than ability implies willingness' (167); 'the ability is still lacking and must be added once willingness is established' (167).

To me, the two different formulations are complementary, and their relation is pretty obvious. Enablement is a necessary, but insufficient condition. We cannot be willing to believe unless we are able to believe. Hence, we cannot be willing to believe unless we are enabled to believe. Willingness implies ability, but not vice versa. Why you either reverse the relation or outright deny any relation is quite counterintuitive.

Owing to the fall, the unregenerate suffer from spiritual inability: a moral and psychological indisposition to repent of their sins and believe the Gospel. Regeneration removes the spiritual impediment. But in order for the calling to be an 'effectual' calling, it must not merely enable our belief-forming mechanism, but effect the formation of evangelical faith and repentance. There is not the slightest degree of inconsistency in this dual formulation.

You need to keep in mind that the WCF is a Puritan document: the Puritans took great interest in schematizing the process of conversion. The Confession is simply breaking this down into logical stages for clarity and completeness of analysis. It doesn't even follow that these are distinct phases in real time.

The Confession is also attempting to coordinate Johannine and Pauline categories of conversion. Regeneration is a Johannine category, whereas effectual calling is a Pauline category. Calling is inclusive of regeneration. Regeneration is one-half of conversion (as it were). In regeneration, the human subject is passive, is acted upon. But the effect of regenerate is to activate or reactivate the human subject. A consequence of regeneration is that the human subject becomes a spiritual agent. The act of faith is the other half of conversion (as it were), the reflexive response to God's grace. The relation is one of cause-and-effect, the human reaction to a divine action. To be sure, Arminian theology has a different model of conversion, but you're critique was concerned with the coherence of the Reformed model.

In your next three sections you take on Packer, Piper, and Sproul. Here I think you drew blood. This is the most cogent part of the book. But the wounds are only flesh wounds.

You discuss Packer in relation to the offer of the Gospel. I think your criticisms hit home. But that is only because you've chosen Packer as your representative. If, instead, you had chosen, let us say, Roger Nicole, your objections would have missed the mark. Cf. R. Nicole, 'Covenant, Universal Call and Definite Atonement,' Standing Forth (CFP 2002), 331-43.

The only thing that makes an offer a bona fide offer is that if anyone meets the terms of the offer, he gets what was offered.

For you to stipulate, as an additional condition, that everyone must be able, or enabled, to meet the terms of the offer (171-73) is highly artificial. By that standard, a store cannot, in good faith, advertise any product unless it also provides free transportation or interest-free financing or removes any other obstacle that might otherwise impede a prospective customer from taking the store up on its offer.

In effect you are saying that an offer is only a genuine offer if the party making the offer supplies and satisfies all of the necessary conditions on behalf of and instead of the second-party. How is such a very vicarious model of responsibility consistent with the Arminian axiom of individual responsibility?

Does Asbury Seminary measure up to so lofty a standard? When Asbury offers a degree program, does it also take any and all measures necessary to make it possible for anyone, anywhere, regardless of his financial status, or his academic record, to study at Asbury? How can you, in all sincerity, teach at an institution which falls so far short of the mark?

In a footnote (172, n21), you say that a Calvinist could sidestep the dilemma by a more nuanced statement of the offer, but this would mislead the uninitiated. I don't know the point of this criticism. The duty of an evangelist is to offer the Gospel on the terms in which it is offered in Scripture, viz., repent of your sins and believe in Christ.

Both the Arminian and the Calvinist believe that there are certain background conditions which must be met if the terms of the offer are to be met. But precisely because these conditions lie in the background, lie outside the control of either the evangelist or the audience, it is quite unnecessary for a minister of the Gospel to introduce these ulterior conditions into the evangelistic message itself. He may, if he chooses to, but that is not a fundamental feature of the offer itself.

Once again, it is unclear how Arminian theology presents a superior alternative. If the Arminian can fault the Calvinist for making an offer, knowing that it can't be accepted in every case, a universalist can fault an Arminian for making an offer, knowing that it won't be accepted in every case. The one is just as sincere or insincere as the other.

Indeed, this presents yet another parallel between Reformed and Arminian theology. Reformed theology limits the efficacy of the offer to the will of God; Arminian theology limits the efficacy of the offer to the will of man.

Incidentally, it is deeply disingenuous for an Arminian to even be bringing up this subject. For an Arminian doesn't believe that faith in Christ is a prerequisite of salvation. Billions and billions of men and women live and die outside the pale of the Gospel. Arminians believe that general redemption can channel the knowledge of salvation. In principle, anyone and everyone could be saved even if absolutely no one ever believed in the Gospel. That's the Arminian bottom-line, is it not?

On the one hand, Arminians believe that God loves everyone equally, desires the salvation of all alike, and has, in fact, made provision for the potential salvation of everyone: Christ died for everyone, and the Holy Spirit equips everyone with sufficient/prevenient grace.

On the other hand, everyone does not have access to the Gospel. If faith in Christ were a condition of salvation, then this would mean that everyone does not have an opportunity to be saved.

As a consequence, God must make it possible for someone to be saved apart from faith in Christ. Otherwise, God would be unloving and unfair to condemn someone who never had a chance.

Hence, the Arminian will say that someone can be saved if he's faithful to the light he's been given--to general revelation. He is still saved by the atonement of Christ, but ignorant of his Savior. In principle, then, no one has to believe in Christ to be saved.

BTW, I puzzled by your claim that most Calvinists believe that God offers everyone a genuine opportunity to be saved (216). Whatever is this based on?

Next, you go after Piper's contention that God wants to save the reprobate. There are two things to be said on this score. To begin with, this is just Piper's private opinion. It is popular in modern-day Calvinism. However, I'm unaware of any historic Reformed confession that canonizes this particular position. So there is no received opinion on this issue. For example, the official position of the OPC and CRC side with Piper, whereas the official position of the PRC takes the opposing side.

Remember how you chose to frame this debate at the outset. You began with a definition of Calvinism, drawn from the five-points of Calvinism. In order to make good on your claim, what you need to show is not that Piper's version is internally inconsistent, but that the five-points are internally inconsistent. For there is a very simply way of relieving the tension in Piper's position, and that is to deny that God wants to save the reprobate.

And there are Reformed theologians who do, indeed, deny Piper's contention. To cinch your argument, you would need to demonstrate that their denial is inconsistent with Reformed tradition or with the inner logic of Calvinism.

Second, you say that 'unlike many Calvinist exegetes, Piper does not attempt to circumvent the straightforward meaning of the texts' (174).

But this move is problematic on a couple of grounds:

i) It confirms the very point I made above. You admit at the outset that there is a division of opinion within Reformed circles on this particular point. In order for you to mount a sound argument, you would have to take a two-pronged approach by exposing an inner tension (a) not only in Piper's position, (b) but in the opposing position as well. But you leave the job half-done. How does that refute Calvinism?

ii) For you to say, without benefit of any supporting argument, that the opposing position tries to 'circumvent the straightforward meaning' of Ezk 18:23; 1 Tim 2:4 & 2 Pet 3:9 is flagrantly tendentious. This is not a reasoned argument; rather, this is only the naked assertion of your Arminian prejudice. And you are welcome to your interpretation, but you need to make a case for it. Otherwise you only assume what you ought to prove.

And I would also take issue with your assumption. I've already dealt with the Pastorals. As to Ezk 18:23, what is the context? To whom was it addressed? This was addressed to Israel, to backslidden Israel, to the covenant community--by virtue of God's national election. By what 'straightforward' reasoning do you reapply this to 'all persons without qualification'? When you talk about Rom 9, you lay great stress on the Jewish context. Why does that consideration suddenly desert you when you come to Ezekiel?

As to 2 Pet 3:9, this, too, has its background in OT usage. You quote from one of Bauckham's books, but I notice that you don't go quoting from his commentary on 2 Peter 3:9, where he explains that in Jewish thought, divine judgement is ordinarily delayed for the sake of the covenant community. Cf. R. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter (Word 1983), 312-13.

Finally, you accuse R. C. Sproul of oscillating between compatibilism and incompatibilism. Then you correlate the compatibilist/incompatibilist debate with the supra/infra debate. Then you contrast his position with Calvin's.

Now, suppose that everything you say against his position holds true. Where does that get you, exactly? At best, you've scored some points against Sproul and the infra position, but you've left Calvin and the supra view untouched. Indeed, you seem to imply that the view of Calvin and the supras is a coherent one.

If that is so, how does your critique constitute a critique of Calvinism, per se? I assume you view Calvin as an authentic exponent of Calvinism. In order to make your case you would have to eliminate each alternative in turn. Once more, you leave the job half-finished.

In addition, your analysis suffers from an equivocation over the nature of freedom. Calvinism doesn't deny that men make choices. It doesn't deny moral or rational deliberation. A man has many more abstract choices than an oyster, for a man has a faculty for abstract reasons--unlike a merely instinctual animal. We can imagine a wide variety of hypotheticals and their possible consequences.

But, as a practical matter, we can only act on one choice at a time, and by opting for one choice, we thereby eliminate opposing alternatives. I can either fold or call a bluff and play my hand. But I can't very well do both. If I place a bet or raise a bet, I cannot also fold. And I can only play the hand I'm dealt.

Calvinism does not deny, but delimits, human freedom. It denies that the unregenerate can believe the Gospel. And it denies that anyone can do otherwise than what God has decreed.

But the freedom to do otherwise is, itself, ambiguous. Does this mean the freedom to do otherwise if we want to do otherwise? Or the freedom to want to do otherwise?

Once more, there is a parallel between Reformed and Arminian theology. Both make way for the counterfactuals of freedom, but the difference is that Calvinism indexes future contingents to the will of God whereas Arminianism indexes future contingents to the will of man. And both these models entail a mutual adjustment. If you index counterfactual freedom to human agency, then a respective readjustment must be made in the sphere of divine agency; but if you index counterfactual freedom to divine agency, then a respective readjustment must be made in the sphere of human agency. Simply put, either we choose according to God's own choosing, or God chooses according to our own choosing.

Moving onto your chapter (6) on Calvinism & the Christian life, you raise four practical objections to Calvinism: evangelism, the fate of the unevangelized, Christian assurance, and the problem of evil.

Taking these in order, you say that 'On the surface, Calvinism appears to undermine motivation for evangelism. For if God has unconditionally chosen who will be saved and who will be left in their sins for eventual damnation, then surely the persons so chosen for salvation will in fact be saved. And if this is so, there is little reason for us to worry about evangelism--nothing we do or fail to do will in any way thwart God's sovereign purposes in election' (191).

I beg to differ. This only follows because you have offered a severely truncated statement of the Reformed position. God has chosen who will be saved, and he has chosen them to be saved by believing the Gospel. There is not even the appearance of inconsistency. Indeed, we could fill this out in ever more detailed. God has chosen who will believe. God has granted them the grace to believe. God has chosen the preachers who will bring the good news. All the moving parts conspire like clockwork. Would that undermine the incentive to wind my watch or consult a clock to tell the time?

Moving on to the second objection, you say that 'it remains practically difficult to both adore the purposes of God and let our hearts of compassion go out to persons he hasn't elect to save' (197).

And how does that follow? To begin with, these two things would only be in tension if we knew God's purposes in particular. Since Calvinism only maintains 'that' God has chosen who will and will not be saved, but has not revealed 'who' will and will not be saved, the abstract knowledge of the general proposition has no special bearing on how we treat anyone in particular--just as a Christian aid worker can have compassion on all the poor and needy even though he only has enough supplies to feed and medicate a fraction of the total.

In addition, how is this an argument for the Arminian alternative? It would be easy to imagine a universalist deploy the same objection to Arminian theology, viz., 'it remains practically difficult to both adore the purposes of God and let our hearts of compassion go out to those he will consign to the everlasting bonfire.'

Moving on to the third objection, you say that 'Calvinism denies those struggling with their faith of the single most important resource: the confidence that God loves all of us with every kind of love we need to enable and encourage our eternal flourishing and well-being' (201).

The insinuation here is that Arminian theology does supply this resource. But it does nothing of the kind. Arminian love is broad because Arminian love is shallow. The God of Calvin is a lifeguard who plunges into the rip currents to save a drowning swimmer and brings him ashore. The God of Wesley is a distraught girlfriend who stands on the beach, jumping up and down, shrieking and shouting, weeping and waiving her arms as her boyfriend sinks under the waves.

True, a Reformed pastor cannot assure every doubter that he is a child of God, any more than a Christian counselor can assure every desperate drunk or hopeless junkie or compulsive gambler that he will overcome his addiction, or assure every manic-depressive that he will never succumb to suicide. It would be nice if we could tell everyone that everything will come up roses, but that would be a lie. No, the Calvinist cannot say that, and neither, I daresay, can the Arminian. The only one who can pretend to offer such assurance is a universalist, but we both agree that his assurance is false assurance.

Is this general connection you also ask how we ought to counsel a young believer who fears her father has gone to hell (214). How is this pertinent to the present debate? Her father either is or is not in hell. Traditional Wesleyan theology affirms that possibility no less than Calvinism. Her daughter either has or has not good reasons for her fear. Would an Arminian counselor give her different advice than a Calvinist? Will he hold a séance?

Moving on to the fourth and final objection, you say: 'We believe that a brake failure and the resulting crash that causes paralysis need not be understood as sent by God. Rather, the brake failure can be seen as a tragedy resulting from the fact that we live in a world operating by God-ordained natural law and that sometimes things designed by human beings fail' (209).

Well, that may be what you believe, but how is that any answer to the problem of evil? Instead of answering the problem of evil you've merely canonized it in a disguised description. If a tragedy is the result of a natural law, and God is the lawmaker, then to justify the result by appeal to natural law begs the very question at issue: Why would a good God institute natural laws in the first place that result in natural evils?

You go to say that this is 'essentially involved in living as embodied beings in a physical world' (209). How is that essential? Is the universe a doomsday machine that once the engineer flips the on-switch, can brook no further interference? Have Arminians ceased believing in miracles?

If you knew that the breaks were going to go out, would you let your wife drive the car? And if the brakes did fail, leaving your wife an invalid, would you console her by saying that you didn't interfere since the accident was a natural consequence of embodied existence?'

You second example is that 'we don't believe the sexual abuse of the young girl was planned by God. Far from it! Rather, this tragedy results from our God-given libertarian freedom, and we often choose to use that freedom in terrible ways…The web of human choice is such that we are interdependent, our decisions can profoundly affect others, both for good and evil' (210).

For starters, it would be helpful if you began with the candid admission that there is no nice, ouchless, painless answer to this sort of question. The Calvinist has none, but neither has the Arminian, or even the universalist. The pain resides in the event, not in the explanation.

No doubt the average Christian will balk at the suggestion that God had planned some atrocity. But he should balk at the alternative as well. Once again, all you've done is to paraphrase the original problem: to say that evil is a result of our freedom is no justification whatsoever, for the question at issue is whether the freedom of the victimizer ought to outweigh the infringement of the victim's freedom.

Which brings us to the next point, for your answer is not even coherent. Whose libertarian freedom? The victim's? Or the victimizer's? What is libertarian freedom if not the freedom to do otherwise? But the victimizer deprives the victim of her freedom to do otherwise. So your dogma of libertarian freedom is just a paper theory--a paper theory stained in the blood of the unwilling victim.

And, for that matter, why do you think it's permissible for a human agent to deprive another human agent of freedom of opportunity, but impermissible for God to do so? Why do you confer more power on one human agent over the life and welfare of another than you ascribe to God? And how is this any sort of solution to the problem of evil?

Next, you say: 'nothing that happens to us, either from the natural world or from human treachery, can defeat God's ultimate purpose for us. Off course, we can reject God's purpose for our lives and choose self-destruction. But nothing else in the entire universe can keep us from reaching the ultimate good that God desires for all humans' (210).

I love the way you sneak in the exclamation: 'of course!' It is interesting how often people will say 'of course!' when they really mean just the opposite, when they know that they are assuming the very thing they need to prove, so they hope to hustle by the bone of contention by momentarily distracting our attention with this reassuring exclamation.

Well, the decoy didn't do the trick--not for this reader, at least. What you position amounts to is this: 'God can save me from everything and everyone except myself!'

Oh, is that all? This is what is so unspeakably shallow and uncomprehending about Arminian theology. The weak link in this chain is the sinner himself. To say to a sinner that God is able to save him from everything except his own worst self is like offering a cancer patient a down pillow and lollypop in lieu of a cure.

What is more, I don't see how an Arminian is in any position to even offer your concessive assurance. To adapt your own example, suppose an elder abuses his own daughter. As a result of this experience, the abuse victim turns away from the faith, for the church of Christ, and the God of Scripture, are associated in her mind with her sexual abuse. Now surely this is more than just a bare hypothetical. Surely this actually happens. How can you, the Arminian, guarantee that this searing experience will not invincibly bias her heart and mind against the Gospel? Indeed, isn't it fair to say that this sort of thing has happened on more than one occasion? The victim is so embittered, so enveloped in hatred for her abuser, that she is unreachable.

Next, you say that 'O felix culpa makes sense if the greater good resulting from the Fall is made freely available to all persons in such a way that they are truly able to take advantage of it…But if many are far worse off, indeed infinitely worse off, as a result of the Fall--that is, if they are never given the grace needed to escape their misery--it is difficult to see how the Fall can be seen as a fortunate crime' (213).

The reasoning here is somewhat opaque. What, exactly, are you trying to say? Fortunate for whom? Good for what? Obviously it is not a greater good for the damned, but the very nature of a greater good defense is that it entails a trade-off between a lesser good for a greater number and a greater good for a lesser number.

The Arminian believes that grace is toxic in large doses. It must be administered with an eyedropper. The purpose of grace in Arminian theology is not to save anyone at all, but rather to render everyone equally savable or damnable.

Actually, there is a direct Arminian parallel to the Reformed theodicy. An Arminian offers a lesser grace for a greater number whereas a Calvinist offers a greater grace to a lesser number.

And how does Arminian theology solve the problem as you have chosen to frame it? What value is there in freedom of opportunity without freedom of outcome? Even on an Arminian construction, many are worse off, infinitely worse off, for many still end up in hell. Every objection an Arminian can level against Calvinism, a universalist can level against Arminianism.

Next, you say that 'if is most difficult to see how God could be good in any ordinary sense of the term if he ordained or allowed the Fall knowing that it would have such consequences' (213).

I find this puzzling. I thought you were a representative of classic Arminian theology, which denies divine foreordination, but affirms divine foreknowledge. But now you seem to make the same move as the open theist. Are you saying that the logical and ethical alternative to Calvinism is not, in fact, Arminianism, but open theism?

If this is what you mean, then I fail to see how it improves on the Reformed alternative. If a mother leaves a toddler unattended in a kitchen, and the kid scalds himself by reaching for a pot of boiling water, does this absolve the mother of blame? Even if she didn't know that this would happen, she knew that this could happen. Is that not blameworthy?

But if this is not what you mean, then what do you mean? And what, really, is the material difference between foreknowledge and foreordination at this juncture? Even on an Arminian construction, it is not merely that God knows what will happen; rather, God chooses to make a world in which that will happen. If he never made the world, that future would never transpire. So not only does he know what will happen, but he must intend it to happen, since that is a direct result of his own action—an action from which he was free to refrain.

Finally, you say that 'it is worth asking whether we would be considered good if we arranged things in such a way that many persons suffered greatly, even though we could have relieved their suffering. I think most persons would readily agree that we would not be good' (213).

Once again, if this is a problem, how is Arminian theology a solution? Couldn't a universalist turn this self-same objection back on your own position? In traditional Arminian theology, God did, in fact, arrange things in just such a way that many men, women and children suffer greatly, even though God could intervene, more often than he does, to relieve their pain and suffering. You may say that this is a necessary evil, but the notion of a necessary evil figures in a Reformed theodicy as well.

Are you going to say that this would infringe on human freedom? But, again, whose freedom? The victim's or the victimizer's?

Moreover, your statement fails to draw the most elementary moral distinction between innocence and guilt. What obligation am I under to relieve the suffering of the wicked? I, for one, would much rather see Joseph Mengele suffer for his sins than sun himself on the beaches of Rio.

In Calvinism, however unjustly we may suffer at the hands of our fellow man, no one suffers unjustly at the hands of our God.

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