Friday, April 22, 2005

Is God the author of sin?-2

Secondly, the psychological distinction shades into a teleological distinction, for rational agents are goal-oriented. This is not to say that the ends justify any means whatsoever, but the consequences of an action are another necessary element in the moral valuation of an action. Teleological ethics may not be an all-sufficient system of ethics, but it does draw attention to a further precondition of ethical action.

To put a sharper point on this, it devolves a distinction between first and second-order goods, where the greater good is a second-order good, internally related to the first-order good. Scriptural support for this line of reasoning can be found in such verses as Jn 9:3,39; Rom 7:13; 8:28; 9:17,22-23; 11:32 & Gal 3:22.

Such a theodicy has received succinct expression from a number of Reformed theologians:

“The fact that from the race of man—and of them equal fallen and involved in guilt and depravity—God of his good pleasure had predestinated some men to everlasting life, and passed by the rest and left them to perish in their sins…supplies, in the purpose to save some men with an everlasting salvation, a new and most impressive manifestation of the divine character and moral government, which could not, so far as we can see, have been furnished in any other way,” W. Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (Banner of Truth 1967), 577-73.

“How could it be permissible to create these moral beings and put them in this probationary economy, with the knowledge, not that they might possibly fall, but that they certainly would fall? The only tenable ground here is the Calvinistic ground that such action on God’s part involves the divine intention, in this sense, of the fall—that is, its predestination. And the only conceivable direction in which to look for a theodicy is in that of an end great and glorious enough to justify the incidental evil arising from this course,” B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings (P&R 1980), 2:112.

“It is not within the power of omnipotence, for example, to secure a manifestation of the divine justice and grace without objects of such kind that upon them justice and grace may be secured. These things do not belong in the sphere of ‘power.’ The reason why God is supposed not to attain that better thing which is attained by the presence of sin in the universe, without sin, is not, then, because he is supposed to lack in power, but because the attainment of this end in itself requires sin as its condition…[So] it does not follow that the very idea of a theodicy derived from the use of sin as a means to a glorious end otherwise obtainable is inconsistent with the conception of an omnipotent God,” B. Warfield, Works (Baker 2003),10:153.

“Not only is mankind subject to logic, God is as well. As it is impossible for a person to be forgiven who has not committed a fault, it is impossible for God to forgive, to show mercy, in a universe in which there is no fault. If one supposes that it is a good thing for God to display his mercy and grace, and that both the universe and its creator benefit if God manifests his forgiveness and grace, then this also provides a reason for permitting evil. That is, any Christian theodicy must not only have a manward emphasis but also, and perhaps predominantly, a God-ward aspect as well. In the permission of moral evil lies the prospect of God’s own character being revealed in ways which, but for the evil, it could not be,” P. Helm, The Providence of God (IVP 1994), 215.

Not only does this line reasoning strike me as lucidly logical at a general level, but it dovetails quite nicely with the Reformed doctrine of God. So this is not a stopgap to paper over internal tensions in Reformed theology, but rather, a solution to the problem of evil which issues from the inner logic of Reformed theology.

Although Alvin Plantinga is not a Calvinist, and has, indeed, been the leader in formulating a freewill defense, he does come out of the Dutch-Reformed tradition, and it is striking that he has, of late, embraced a supralapsarian theodicy, which represents the logical apex of Reformed theology:


Granted, the atheological arguments are unsuccessful; but how should Christians think about evil? I therefore want to suggest still another response, or rather I want to reinvent the wheel and propose for further consideration a response that has been with us for a long time.

You can't have a world whose value exceeds L without sin and evil; sin and evil is a necessary condition of the value of every really good possible world. O Felix Culpa indeed! But then this gives us a very straightforward and simple response to the question: "Why is there evil in the world?" The response is that God wanted to create a highly eligible world, wanted to actualize one of the best of all possible worlds; all those worlds contain atonement, hence they all contain sin and evil. I've claimed elsewhere that theodicies are unsuccessful: "And here I must say that most attempts to explain why God permits evil--theodicies, as we may call them--strike me as tepid, shallow, and ultimately frivolous [Profiles, p35]." But doesn't the above furnish us with an answer to the question "Why does God permit evil?" The answer is: because he wanted to actualize a possible world whose value was greater than L; but all those possible worlds contain incarnation and atonement; hence all those worlds contain evil. So if a theodicy is an attempt to explain why God permits evil, what we have here is a theodicy--and, if I'm right, a successful theodicy.

And as a bonus, we get a clear resolution of the Supra/Infra debate: the Supras are right. God's fundamental and first intention is to actualize an extremely good possible world, one whose value exceeds L; but all those worlds contain incarnation and atonement and hence also sin and evil; so the decree to provide incarnation and atonement and hence salvation is prior to the decree to permit fall into sin. The priority in question isn't temporal, and isn't exactly logical either; it is a matter, rather, of ultimate aim as opposed to proximate aim. God's ultimate aim, here, is to create a world of a certain level of value. That aim requires that he aim to create a world in which there is incarnation and atonement--which, in turn, requires that there be sin and evil. So there is a clear sense in which the decree to provide salvation precedes the decree to permit sin; but there is no comparable sense in which the decree to permit sin precedes the decree to permit evil.

Alvin Plantinga, "Supralapsarianism, or 'O Felix Culpa,'" Christian Faith & The Problem of Evil, P. van Inwagen, ed. (Eerdmans 2004), 5,12-13.


3. Is God the primary or necessary cause of sin?

Question 3 is related to question 2. Question 2 draws a distinction between divine and human intent. And the metaphysical basis for this distinction is, in turn, embedded in the difference and the interrelation between primary and secondary causality, or necessary and sufficient conditions.

Scriptural support for this distinction, with special reference to sin, would include such verses as Judges 9:23; 1 Kg 22:20-22; Ezk 14:9, Acts 2:23; 4:27-28 & 2 Thes 2:11.

The Westminster Confession offers a couple of classic expressions of this position:

“God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of his creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (3:1).

“Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently” (5:2).

This is, of course, in the nature of a claim rather than a demonstration. Is it consistent with Calvinism? On the one hand, it coheres well with the Reformed accent on divine transcendence—often expressed as the Creator/creature distinction.

On the other hand, a critic might object that all the Confession does here is to repackage the original problem by sticking two things side by side and positing their mutual congruence, just as we can talk about square circles, yet to do so is to predicate incompatible properties of the same object or relation. In particular, is free agency at odds with predestination and providence?

This question intersects with the general debate over determinism and indeterminism, as well as the specific debate between compatibilism and incompatibilism. In fact, a distinction between primary and secondary causality would supply the metaphysical framework for compatibilism.

Obviously, this is a book-length question. But to address the immediate objection at hand, I’ll content myself with a few observations:

i) The decree, taken by itself, is not an efficient cause of anything. Predestination brings nothing into being, but is only the blueprint. It is still up to God, by his creative fiat, to instantiate the decree.

ii) Although Reformed theology is committed to a doctrine of God’s general and particular providence, it does not offer an exhaustive and positive paradigm of how God, in fact, executes his decree. There are anecdotal examples in Scripture. And there are special restrictions on human freedom, due to original sin. But we’re moving into the field of philosophical theology, where any causal model will be underdetermined by the exegetical data.

iii) It is often felt that the fall of a sinless agent into sin (e.g., Adam, Lucifer) presents a special difficulty. But, speaking for myself, I don’t quite see why it should. To be a sinless agent, one must know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. So even a sinless agent can entertain a thought of sin, without entertaining a sinful thought.

A sinless agent can also conceive of alternative goods to a comparative or superlative degree--lesser and greater, better and best. And by that same token, he can imagine himself even better off than he already is—by seizing some additional, illicit good.

The question, then, is whether some extra factor is needed to account for his acting on that knowledge, should he choose to do so; or rather, if some extra factor is needed to prevent him from so acting. If the latter, then the fall of Adam or Lucifer demands no special explanation, as if God had to push them over the edge. For the absence of restraint is a privative condition.

iii) Historically, this debate has swirled around the intuitive assumption that the freedom to do otherwise (which is, of itself, susceptible to more than one definition) is a precondition of moral incumbency.

It is worth noting, though, that moral intuitions lack the same compelling force as logical intuitions. In ethics, we often find ourselves saddled with conflicting intuitions due to what seem to be conflicting obligations. A simple blocking move is to introduce an exception or counter-example that challenges our original intuition.

In relation to the compatibilist/incompatibilist debate, these are known as Frankfurt-type cases, inspired by a classic essay of Harry Frankfurt’s. He constructed a simple thought-experiment, involving a failsafe device that deprives the agent of his freedom to do otherwise. Yet in his hypotheticals, the failsafe is never activated; hence, it has no affect on the outcome. To quote from Frankfurt:


Suppose someone Black, let us say — wants Jones to perform a certain action. Black is prepared to go to considerable lengths to get his way, but he prefers to avoid showing his hand unnecessarily.

What steps will Black take, if he believes he must take steps, in order to ensure that Jones decides and acts as be wishes? Anyone with a theory concerning what "could have done otherwise" means may answer this question for himself by describing whatever measures he would regard as sufficient to guarantee that, in the relevant sense, Jones cannot do otherwise…Let Black give Jones a potion, or put him under hypnosis, and in some such way as these generate in Jones an irresistible inner compulsion to perform the act Black wants performed and to avoid others. Or let Black manipulate the minute processes of Jones’s brain and nervous system in some more direct way, so that causal forces running in and out of his synapses and along the poor man’s nerves determine that he chooses to act and that he does act in the one way and not in any other. Given any conditions under which it will be maintained that Jones cannot do otherwise, in other words, let Black bring it about that those conditions prevail. The structure of the example is flexible enough, I think, to find a way around any charge of irrelevance by accommodating the doctrine on which the charge is based.

Now suppose that Black never has to show his hand because Jones, for reasons of his own, decides to perform and does perform the very action Black wants him to perform. In that case, it seems clear, Jones will bear precisely the same moral responsibility for what he does as he would have borne if Black had not been ready to take steps to ensure that he do it. It would be quite unreasonable to excuse Jones for his action, or to withhold the praise to which it would normally entitle him, on the basis of the fact that he could not have done otherwise. This fact played no role at all in leading him to act as he did. He would have acted the same even if it had not been a fact. Indeed, everything happened just as it would have happened without Black’s presence in the situation and without his readiness to intrude into it.

In this example there are sufficient conditions for Jones’s performing the action in question. What action he performs is not up to him. Of course it is in a way up to him whether he acts on his own or as a result of Black’s intervention. That depends upon what action he himself is inclined to perform. But whether he finally acts on his own or as a result of Black’s intervention, he performs the same action- He has no alternative but to do what Black wants him to do. If he does it on his own, however, his moral responsibility for doing it is not affected by the fact that Black was lurking in the background with sinister intent since this intent never comes into play.


iv) William Hasker has said that “one reason” for believing in freewill, “certainly a weighty one for many libertarians, lies in the very experience of choice…This experience seems to carry with it the strong conviction that the various alternatives are indeed within our power—that there is nothing at all which prevents us from choosing one way or the other,” Metaphysics (IVP 1983), 45.

To this, several comments in order:

a) “The freedom to do otherwise” is ambiguous. It can either mean the freedom to do otherwise had I wanted to do otherwise (compatibilism), or the freedom to do otherwise under the very same circumstances (incompatibilism).

b) As to the experience of freedom, we feel most free when we feel an inevitability to our actions, in terms of our duty, or the logic of a situation, or the creative process.

c) To be a self-conscious agent means that we can mentally abstract ourselves from the stream of action. But the ability to “objectify” our situation is, of course, something of an illusion, for the agent is not, in fact, a closed-system--in isolation to his surroundings or his subliminal thought-process.

This experience is analogous to our sense of time. We can mentally detach ourselves from time as though we were standing still, while time is passing us by. But the ability to mentally insulate ourselves from time is another illusion, albeit a useful illusion. For the ego remains in time all the while it entertains this thought-experiment.

d) Brand Blanshard wrote a great deal on the experience of introspection, and how, upon reflection, our seemingly spontaneous choices are constrained by prior reasons. As he once put it, in response to Hartshorne’s view that necessity applies to the past, but not the future:


I cannot accept this view of causality. It seems to say that, looking back from the present, I can see that this present is determined, but that looking forward from it, I can see that my future is not determined. But if, when I look back an hour later, I can see that the apparently free decision and the events that followed it were determined, I am left with a contradiction on my hands. Retrospective determination and prospective freedom are not both possible if applied to the same events. I cannot accept both accounts, and if I must choose, it is surely the determinist account based on memory that is the better informed, since both causes and effects are there laid out before me, while in looking forward from the present, so much is veiled. It may be recalled that Sir Francis Galton once noted…in his diary decisions that at the time of making felt perfectly free, and then after a short interval (perhaps at the end of each day), tried to recapture the situation that had existed just before each decision. It was so easy to bring to light pressures of which he took no conscious thought in making the decisions that he adopted a determinist conclusion. Of course determinism, like indeterminism, admits no empirically proof, but the conclusion becomes harder to resist the more the empirical evidence is studied.

The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard, P. Schilpp, ed. (Open Court 1980), 637.


v) There are philosophers who regard the notion of freewill, not as a precondition of personal responsibility, but irresponsibility. And it isn’t only the Calvinist to takes this view. As A. J. Ayer put it,
“They require not only that men be often free to do what they have chosen, but also that their choices themselves be free. But what are we to understand by this? That sometimes men’s choices are causally inexplicable? That they do not always have reasons for choosing as they do? The first of these propositions must be held to be doubtful; the second may well be true. But even if they are both true, what is that to the purpose? Do we really want to conclude that men are responsible agents just to the extent that their actions are inexplicable?…What sort of responsibility is it that is conferred only by chance?” Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (Vintage Books 1984), 17.

vi) Some secular philosophers deny freewill on the grounds that if the actual world is all there is, then there is no remaining place for alternative possibilities to inhere. By definition, counterfactuals can’t be true of this world, and since there is no other world, they have no truth-value, period.

Of course, a Christian philosopher has ontological resources denied to the secular philosopher. For him, the possible is indexed to the absolute power of God. But by that same token, it is up to God what possibilities will eventuate.

vii) Finally, Paul Helm has offered a two-step argument for divine compatibilism:


The debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists is a perennial one, as is the wider debate between determinists and indeterminists. The model we are considering does not attempt to settle that debate, but takes one side of it, in the belief that it is not unreasonable to assume the truth of one side of an issue which is perennially debated. What it then proceeds to argue is that the fact of divine agency does not pose an additional difficulty for compatibilism (hence “divine compatibilism”).

The champion of this view among the theologians has undoubtedly been Jonathan Edwards. In his book The Freedom of the Will, he takes the view that the human will is the outcome of motives:

“Let the person come by his volition or choice how he will, yet, if he is able, and there is nothing in the way to hinder his pursuing and executing his will, the man is fully and perfectly free, according to the primary and common notion of freedom.”

There is no denying the plausibility of the view that, if one person causes another person to act voluntarily, then that person bears some of the responsibility for what occurs. But this by itself is not sufficient to rule out the compatibility of the “no-risk” view of providence and human responsibility, since it is evident that God does bear some responsibility for what happens in the universe that he has created. We may even say that God bears ultimate responsibility for it, since everything that occurs is ultimately due to him. This is true on any orthodox theistic view of God’s relation as creator to the universe, whether deterministic or not.

There is thus good reason to conclude that the “no-risk” view of divine providence assumed in this discussion (because it best accords with the classical view of divine providence) creates no additional problems for the issue of freewill and responsibility that are not already raised by determinism in general.

P. Helm, The Providence of God (IVP 1994), 174,176,177.


Is God the author of sin?-1

I. Is God the author of sin?

“And this is the decision of reprobation, which does not at all make God the author of sin (a blasphemous thought!), but rather its fearful, irreproachable, just judge and avenger “ (Canons of Dordt, article 15).

“The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in his providence, that it extendeth even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with its a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering and governing them, in a manifold dispensation to his most holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin” (WCF 5:4).

“The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in his providence, that his determinate counsel extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sinful actions both of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, which also he most wisely and powerfully boundeth, and otherwise ordereth and governeth, in a manifold dispensation to his most holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness of their acts proceedeth only from the creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin” (LBCF 5:4).

II. Semantics & Dogmatics

Calvinism must often defend itself against the charge of making God the author of sin.

To the libertarian, the Reformed denial is disingenuous. To be sure, a Calvinist will never say, in so many words, that God is the “author” of sin, but doesn’t his belief-system imply that God is the author of sin? If God foreordained the fall, and brought it to pass according to his providence, then does that not make him the author of sin? So how can a Calvinist, in all sincerity, deny the charge?

But what, exactly, is being affirmed or denied by the “authorship” of sin? What does this form of words even mean? And why does so much attention center on this particular form of words?

It is odd how often this charge is leveled against Reformed theology, and denied by Reformed theology, without either side defining its terms. It’s almost like one of those old idioms, such as “shooting the bull” or “skin of our teeth,” which everyone continues to use although no one remembers where it came from or what it originally meant.

This is not a simple question to answer. To begin with, at least three languages figure in the answer: English, Latin, and French. We might even thrown in Italian inasmuch as the debate was conducted, in part, between Italian Catholics (e.g. Bellarmine, Castillio) and Italian Calvinists (e.g. Turretin, Peter Martyr).

It also operates at several potential levels. There is the relation of contemporary English usage to historical English usage, as well as period French, Medieval Latin, and Classical Latin.

There are both direct and indirect sources of influence. You have Latin mediated into English via the Norman Conquest. You have Calvin, as a Frenchman, writing in French and Latin. Ditto: Beza. You have the impact of Calvin’s formulations on later Reformed usage. And although the Westminster Confession was written in English, it was written by men who read, wrote, and even spoke Latin.

In contemporary popular usage, an “author” is synonymous with a “writer.” Now, when modern-day libertarians say that Calvinism make God the “author” of sin, and when a contemporary Calvinist denies the charge, is the libertarian alleging that God is the “writer” of sin? And is the Calvinist denying that God is the “writer” of sin?

Literally speaking, it is nonsensical to characterize God as the “writer” of sin. Even for the sake of argument, that description would amount to a category error. So, presumably, the libertarian has something else in mind. And what could that be?

Well, contemporary usage also employs “author” as a metaphor for certain causal connections. The meaning is still literal (a “writer”), but the application is figurative. So is that what the libertarian has in mind?

But what is objectionable about this literary metaphor in application to God? After all, Scripture itself uses literary metaphors to describe God’s economic relations. God “spoke” the world into being (Gen 1; Ps 33:6). Jesus is the Logos (Jn 1:1,14). There is a book of life as well as a book of judgment (Ps 69:28; 139:16; Dan 7:10; 12:1; Rev 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12-13,15; 21:27). Natural revelation is analogous to divine speech (Ps 19:1-4; 147:15,18).

John Frame has outlined an authorial model of God’s relation to the world. Cf. The Doctrine of God (P&R 2002), 156-58; 179-80.

Perhaps, then, the operative sense goes back to some older meaning of the word. According to the OED, the etymology of the word traces its way back through modern French (“auteur”), Old French (“autor”), and Anglo-French (“autour”) to the Latin noun “auctor,” from the verb “augere.”

This is not to say that etymology governs the import. Indeed, the OED goes on to note a nodal point of semantic interference, due to “Medieval Latin confusion of ‘auctor’ and ‘actor’,” The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford 1971), 1:143.

The OED gives four basic meanings: (i) “a person who originates or gives existence to anything”; (ii) “one who begets; a father, an ancestor”; (iii) “one who sets forth the written statements; (iv) “the person on whose authority a statement is made.”

In context, (ii) and (iv) are inapplicable. So only (i) and (iii) would be in play. We’ve already discussed (iii).

Under (i), several semantic variants are listed: (b) “the Creator”; (c) “he who gives rise to or causes an action, event, circumstances, state, or condition of things”; (d) “he who authorizes or instigates; the prompter or mover.”

Since the OED drew attention to conflated connotations, it’s worth visiting the entry for “actor,” for which such senses are given as “agent or factor,” “a term in Roman law,” “one who acts, or performs any action, or takes part in any affair; a doer,” “one personates a character, or acts a part; a stage-player, or dramatic performer,” ibid. 24.

Of course, the entry is for the Latin derivative and not the original. Still, there is at least some degree of semantic association and area of overlap--especially as a direct carryover from Roman law. And, indeed, “attorney” is one of the denotations for “actor” in Medieval Latin. Cf. Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus (Leiden: Brill 1984), 14.

Incidentally, this branches off into such Latin derivatives as the Italian “atto” (“act, action, deed”) and the English word “attorney.”

Moving to Medieval Latin, “auctor” has several senses, including “the perpetrator of a crime,” and the “one who gives assent,” Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus (Leiden: Brill 1984), 69.

Shifting to French usage, “auteur” is a 12C load-word from the Latin “auctor.” Among other senses, it carries the meaning of the instigator or chief party (“instigateur, chef de parti”), as well as the person responsible for a choice, or the one who commits a reprehensible crime (“personne qui est responsable d’une chose, qui a commis un acte reprehensible”), Grand larousse de la langue francaise (Paris 1971), 1:320.

Of course, The Larousee is principally concerned with modern French usage. For period usage, such as we would find in Calvin or Beza, we turn to the entry in another reference work:

“Auteur” first occurs in the 12C (“apparu douzieme siecle”) where it is a load-word from the Latin “auctor” (“est un emprunt au latin auctor”), derived, in turn, from “augere” (“Le mot est derive du verbe augere”), Dictionnaire historique de la langue francaise (Paris 1992), 1:145.

The entry goes on to describe the original meaning of the word, first in sacred and later profane usage (“Le sens initial due latin, qui l’apparente a augur [>augure] serait religieux, ‘celui qui fait croitre’ [‘one who causes to grow’], puis social, ‘celui qui fonde et etablit” [‘one who functions as an authorized representative or founder’).

The final meaning of the Latin word, which is retained in French usage, comprises the Christian Latin sense of “auctor” to denote God, along with the associative sense of the agent or doer of the deed, by assimilating the Latin word with the French verb “agir” (“le mot a enfin pris les valeurs que le francais retiendra, y compris celle du latin chretien, ou auctor sert a designer Dieu, ce qui a pu entrainer de confusions avec actor, derive de agere ‘agir” [>acteaur, a acte]”), ibid. 145.

Although this semantic association is in the nature of a folk etymology, based on assonance, it figures, nonetheless, in how the word was understood and intended.

Turning to classical Latin, the standard reference work gives no fewer than 15 basic definitions for “auctor,” not including additional semantic variants under a given heading. Among the more relevant senses are: an authority-figure, or one who authorizes another; an advocate; a prime mover or agent, originator, initiator, cause, or source; the doer (of an action), performer, agent (in spec. contrast w. some person less directly concerned with it, or in contrast w. the action itself); the Author of our being, the Creator; a paragon; fundamental standard or basis. Cf. The Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford 1983), 204-206.

And under “actor,” the same reference work gives such definitions as “performer, doer, transactor, agent,” ibid. 30.

Sothen, based on comparative linguistics and semantic cross-pollenization, what might it mean to allege or deny that God is the author of sin?

1. The prime cause. The Creator. The agent who originates a state of affairs.

2. The agent or performer who does the deed, as in the commission of a crime.

3. The responsible agent or principal party.

4. An authority-figure who authorizes who either acts on his own authority, or deputizes another to act in his stead.

5. The instigator or chief party.

6. The exemplar.

Is a Calvinist being disingenuous when he denies that God is the author of sin in one or more of the above senses of the word? Keep in mind that there is more to this debate than the bare meaning of a word. No one word will describe a full-orbed concept God’s relation to the world. What we need for that is a causal model.

It is difficult, at this distance, to say just what exactly was the operative definition by early critics of Calvinism—a definition which was assumed by the Calvinist in his denial. And when it comes to modern-day critics who continued to reiterate this charge, it is hard to suppress the impression that they are handing down a traditional allegation without any clear cognizance of what the original allegation amounted to.

Perhaps, at this stage of the debate, the best we can do is to speak for ourselves. Some of these definitions are applicable to God in an absolute construction or a general sense, viz. God is an agent or responsible agent, Creator, authority-figure, exemplar, prime cause. But are they as suitable when modified in specific relation to “sin”?

A Calvinist would generally affirm (1). God is the prime cause of the world, and everything that happens therein. But implicit in this designation is the distinction between primary and secondary causality.

Mainstream Calvinism affirms this, although there is an occasionalist strain in Edwards, Clark, and Guelincx.

The affirmation of (1) entails the denial of (2). The sinner is a secondary agent.

There is a sense in which a Calvinist would affirm (3). God is responsible for whatever happens in the world. But as per (1), God is not wholly or solely responsible for whatever happens; Hence, God can be responsible without being blamable.

(4) Is true of God—as is (6), though not in direct relation to sin. God is the exemplar of holiness, where sin represents a declension from that standard.

There’s a sense in which a Calvinist could affirm (5), although such an affirmation would come with various caveats attached.

Remember that, in this exercise, we are commenting on how the critic of Calvinism chooses to characterize our position. Can any acceptable sense be extracted from the critic’s usage? Up to a point, it can.

But, of course, this is not necessarily how a Calvinist would choose to characterize his own position, especially given the invidious connotations of “authorship.”

As I say, I doubt that any one word will adequately capture God's relation to sin. But in broaching an answer, we need to ask ourselves just what it is we want to affirm and what we want to deny in God’s relation to sin. I'd suggest three things:
i) Sin was predestined/decreed/foreordained by God.
ii) Sin is a means to a higher end.
iii) By virtue of creation/providence, God bears some causal relation to sin and evil, yet not in such a way as would make him blamable or the sinner blameless.

There is no one word which will satisfy all these conditions. I also don't think there are any words that cannot be abused or misconstrued by the ignorant and malicious. So the most we can hope for is some accurate terminology, which can be further explained. Here I propose a 3-point definition:

1. God is the ordainer of sin.

This answers to (i).

2. God is the final cause of sin.

This answers to (ii).

3. God is the primary cause of sin.

This answers to (iii).

III. God’s relation to sin.

At this point we now need to unpack the threefold definition.

1. Is God the ordainer of sin? For this there are two lines of evidence:

i) There is Scriptural attestation to the fact of predestination and providence in general. Sin would be a subset of this general framework. If the scope of predestination and providence take in every event whatsoever, then they take in evil events as well.

ii) There is Scriptural attestation to the fact of predestination and providence in relation to the Fall, and its aftermath, in particular. I will have more to say about (ii) under (3).

As for (i), a good place to begin is B. B. Warfield’s essay on “Predestination,” Works (Baker 2003), 3-67, where he marshals much of the Biblical evidence with his accustomed mastery of the materials.

2. Is God the final cause of sin?

i) There is a psychological distinction between divine and human motives in the issuance of sin. Scriptural instances would include: Gen 50:20; Exod 8:15 (cf. 4:21; 7:3); Josh 11:20; 1 Sam 2:25; 1 Kg 12:15; 2 Chron 10:15; 25:20; Isa 10:5-7.

The distinction between the sinner’s intent in the commission of sin, and the Lord’s intent in the foreordination of sin, has been elaborated by historic Reformed theologians.

For example, Calvin asks:

“How may we attribute this same work to God, to Satan, and to man as author, without either excusing Satan as associated with God, or making God the author of evil? Easily, if we consider first the end, and then the manner of acting…So great is the diversity of purpose that already strongly marks the deed. There is no less difference in the manner…Therefore we see no inconsistency in assigning the same deed to God, Satan, and man; but the distinction in purpose and manner causes God’s righteousness to shine forth blameless there, while the wickedness of Satan and of man betrays itself by its own disgrace,” Institutes 2.4.2.

Calvin’s distinction is elaborated by Edwards and Turretin. As Turretin puts it,
“Since his [God’s] will can have for its object nothing but good, it cannot will evil as evil, but as terminated on the permission of that which is good. God, therefore, properly does not will sin to be done, but only wills to permit it. And if at any time sin is called the means of illustrating God’s glory, it does not follow that God (who wills the end) ought also to will sin as such (which is the means to it). For it is called the means not so much causally and effectively (as if concurring finally to effect that end) as materially and objectively (because it is the occasion from which God illustrates his own glory). Again, it is not the means of itself because this rather obscures than illustrates the glory of God, but by accident from the wisdom of God (who elicits good from evil, as light from darkness). He who wills the end wills also the means, but not always by the same volition. If the means are of a diverse nature, he can will the end by an effective volition because the end is of itself good; but he wills the means only by a permissive e volition (if it is evil) not so much willing the means itself as the use of the means (to wit, the permission and ordination of sin itself,” Institutes (P&R 1992), 1:517.

Whatever we may make of the old Aristotelian categories, the drift of the argument is clear enough. It would be simple-minded to insist that God’s attitude towards sin qua sin is identical with his attitudes towards sin considered as instrumental to a greater good. Both the means and the ends are divinely intended, but with a view to the end.

Edwards has expressed this distinction even more crisply:
“They who object, that this doctrine makes God the author of sin, ought distinctly to explain what they mean by that phrase, ‘the author of sin.’ I know the phrase, as it is commonly used, signifies something very ill. If by ‘the author of sin,’ be meant ‘the sinner, the agent,’ or ‘actor of sin,’ or ‘the doer of a wicked thing’; so it would be a reproach and blasphemy, to suppose God to be the author of sin. In this sense, I utterly deny God to be the author of sin.

But if, by ‘the author of sin,’ is mean the permitter, or not a hinderer of sin; and, at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy, and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted or not hindered, will most certainly and infallibly follow: I say, if this be all that is meant, by being the author of sin, I do not deny that God is the author of sin (though I dislike and reject the phrase, as that which by use and custom is apt to carry another sense).

And, I do not deny, that God being thus the author of sin, follows from what I have laid down; and, I assert, that it equally follows from the doctrine which is maintained by most of the Arminian divines.

There is no inconsistence in supposing, that God may hate a thing as it is in itself, and considered simply as evil, and yet that it may be his will it should come to pass, considering all the consequences.

Men do will sin as sin, and so are the authors and actors of it: they love it as sin, and for evil ends and purposes. God does not will sin as sin, or for the sake of anything evil; though it be his pleasure so to order things, that, he permitting, sin will come to pass, for the sake of the great good that by his disposal shall be the consequence. His willing to order things so that evil should come to pass, for the sake of the contrary good, is no argument that he does not hate evil, as evil,” Works (Banner of Truth 1984), 1:76,78,79.

There are two intertwined aspects to this argument: one psychological, the other teleological. Psychologically speaking, there is the claim that motives figure in the moral valuation of an act. And it is, indeed, a commonplace of value theory that the character of intent has a bearing on the moral character of the deed. That may not be a sufficient condition of ethical action, but it is a necessary condition. When, therefore, Reformed theologians draw this distinction, they are not invoking some makeshift distinction to salvage their position, but rather, applying a generally accepted principle of ethics to this particular case.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Freelance Catholicism

Randy has responded once again:

"This is getting quite long and hard to follow. If I have trouble I can imagine anyone else. Not sure there is anyone else reading this but in theory it is possible. I will make a few more comments but we are coming to the end of usefulness anyway."

To judge by the daily site meter, plenty of folks are tuning in.

"First of all, you characterization of the RCC as drifting off into liberalism is totally against the facts."

No, the problem is that I repeatedly back up my characterization by specific examples from the Magisterium and its appointees. Randy, by contrast, replies with vacuous denials.

A denial is not a disproof. If someone has offered positive evidence, based on the opponent's own putative authority source, a mere denial in no way overcomes the contrary evidence.

All Randy does is to shut his eyes to the specific statements by high-placed Catholic authorities I've cited. And it's true that if you close your eyes to something you don't want to see, you will succeed in failing to see it.

"The RCC is the only major church that is standing firm with the truth. That is why the choice of Benedict XVI confused so many people. The story has always been that the liberal wing of the church wins. It isn't happening in the RCC. It is showing once again there is a fundamental differance between the RCC and every other church."

i) There are plenty of churches more conservative than the RCC, viz., the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Evangelical Synod, &c.

It is this elementary ignorance of the Evangelical landscape that is one reason why some "Evangelicals" cross the Tiber. They don't even know what they're leaving behind--much less what they're converting to.

ii) Liberal and conservative are relative terms. A conservative in a liberal denomination is a moderate in a conservative denomination, while a liberal in a conservative denomination is a moderate in a liberal denomination.

It isn't difficult to locate Ratzinger along this continuum. On the one hand you have the old school Catholics, a la Lefebvre, who want to turn the clock back to Trent and Pius IX.

Historically speaking, the old school Catholics have much the better of the argument. What they don't have are the votes. At Vatican II, they lost and the modernists won.

On the other hand, you have the liberal wing, viz., Kung, Curran, Garry Wills, Andrew Sullivan, &c. They share the same generic outlook as theological liberals in comparable denominations.

Ratzinger is somewhere in the middle--to the left of the liberal Catholics and the right of the old school Catholics. He is trying to straddle the unstable, compromise position of Vatican II, which was a cautious, incremental victory for modernism. The direction is leftward leaning and leftward leading, but not the far left--at least, not all at once.

For his part, Randy is somewhere to the right of Ratzinger. Randy has crawled into the same airtight bubble as Hahn, Armstrong, and other such converts. They are the freelance Catholics. They view themselves as the real deal, but if you compare the amount of distance they put between themselves and whatever teaching trickles down that they disown, you can see that they are really freelancing their way through the RCC, picking and choosing what to believe or disbelieve. Theirs is a cult within a cult--with self-appointed cult-leaders like Armstrong. I don't doubt their sincerity, but one can be sincerely self-deluded.

"You can go through one billion catholics and find some bad apples."

This, again, is a willful misrepresentation of the evidence I presented. I went plucking my bad apples from the crown of the tree--the magisterium and its appointees. These are not rotten apples that fell from the tree.

Catholic converts like Randy refuse to stare the magisterium in the face. Instead, they read the pretty inspirational literature--like a mortician who dresses up the corpse for public viewing.

"Still it is getting harder and harder to find a protestant church that hasn't gone totally liberal."

This is a completely baseless allegation. There is no liberal trend in Protestant theology. Rather, the liberal/conservative fight has been going on for generations now. The property has changed hands several times, but the battle goes on.

There are, for example, Reformed and Lutheran denominations which still adhere quite strictly to their 16-17 creeds, whereas the RCC no longer adheres to Lateran or Trent with any semblance of fidelity to original intent.

"As far as the rest goes it is hard to tell where you are serious and where you are just playing dumb and missing the point for rhetorical effect.

He won't bother. Yes, I think that sums it up quite nicely. Couldn't have put it better myself.

"I will make one more try at the history thing. The reformation assumes the first 1500 years of church history were seriously disfunctional. If the Catholic theology of the eucharist is wrong then it is condemnable idolatry. If the popes and the bishops do not in fact have legitimate authority from God then them claiming they do is a major error. Similarly on salvation, purgetory, Mary, sacred tradition, etc. These are major issues that the Holy Spirit was supposed to be leading us into truth about(Jn 14:26). Somehow He seems to have failed miserably. The history doesn't fit. Especailly since most of these teachings go back to the very early days of christianity."

i) No, the Holy Spirit is not supposed to be leading "us" into the truth. Jn 14:26 is a promise to the Apostles, not to "us," or the bishops, or the Pope, or the Patriarch of Constantinople. And that promise was fulfilled in the writing of the NT. This is the John's way of telegraphing to the reader his own inspiration which, along with his eyewitness testimony, is what qualifies him to write the Fourth Gospel.

ii) Here you see the self-reinforcing quality of Catholicism. Because it subordinates Scripture to tradition, it fails to respect original intent. It lifts verses of Scripture out of context, and then appeals to that illicit practice as a prooftext for tradition. The vicious circle could not be the more impregnable.

"When you look at the life and piety of many of the people who lived in these times it REALLY doesn't fit. Why didn't Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Fransis of Assisi and hundreds of others speak out? They seem like they should have been in tune with the Holy Spirit."

No, they were fallible, uninspired men. Simple as that. There's a lot of good material in Augustine and Aquinas. But we must still winnow the wheat from the chaff--using Scripture as our winnowing-fan.

As to St. Francis, he was a sweet, pious guy--but a bit of a simpleton, to tell the truth. We may admire his sanctity, but going around barefoot in the snow and preaching to the birds is...well...frankly for the birds. Does Randy go around barefoot in the snow and preach to the birds?

"You add to that the biblical ideas of the church as the pillar and foundation of the truth(I Tim 3:15). And the idea of God's wisdom being made known though the church (Eph 3:10). Plus the concept of the church as a final appeal for differances amoung believers(Mat 18:17). You get a picture that does not correspond to the present day reality of 30,000 denominations with contradictory teachings on almost every issue."

No matter how often you point out his question-begging assumptions and equivocations, Randy just doesn't get it. To quote stray verses about the "church" proves absolutely nothing about the Church of Rome.

This, again, goes back to the self-reinforcing quality of Catholicism. Take his citation of 1 Tim 3:15. The first question a responsible exegete would ask is, to what church was 1 Timothy written? It was written to the church of Ephesus (1:3), not the church of Rome. There is no indication that this has any reference to the universal church rather than the local church. But like the veil that was over the eyes of the Jews (2 Cor 3:15), Catholics like Randy don't pay attention to the actual wording or Scripture, or the context or occasion. What they see is a montage of Catholicism superimposed on the original.

Or take his citation of Mt 18:17? To begin with, this has to do with a point of discipline, not doctrine.

Secondly, there is nothing in this verse about the priesthood, or episcopate, or papacy, or primacy of Rome. Yet Randy is so blinkered by his Catholic conditioning that he reads a totally anachronistic picture back into this innocent little verse.

As to the present-day reality of rival denominations, the RCC is just one more of the rival denominations. If Randy already had some compelling reason to believe that the RCC was in a class apart, he could set up this invidious contrast. But, once again, he is assuming the very point at issue. The vicious circle has once more come full circle.

The church within the church

Randy has responded yet again. His comments will be, as before, in quotation marks--except where otherwise noted.

"Asking you is not the standard. I could explain such "contradictions" but I am sure you know the explanations. You would just say "I don't buy it".
That is your choice based on your bias. I know because I used to have that bias as well. My point is every theology can be trashed like this."

Randy could explain, but he won't. That's the Armstrong bluff.

I would just say, "I don't buy it." Really? Anyone who bothers to read my weblog can see for himself that I don't just say "I don't buy it" to an opposing position. Rather, I explain why I don't buy it by examining the argument for the opposing position.

Yes, we all have a bias. The question, though, is whether we have a reasonable bias. What is our bias based on? Do the facts filter our bias, or does our bias filter the facts?

Trashed? All I did was to compare one set of magisterial pronouncements with another set of magisterial pronouncements. How is that an exercise in trashing theology? More to the point, what does it say about Randy's belief-system that it cannot survive an internal comparison and contrast of its own dogmatic teaching?

This is precisely the sort of thing that Randy should have been doing all along--he ought to compare Trent or Lateran with Vatican II.

"And there are not liberal protestants? I don't defend liberal Catholics. I defend the faith as passed down from the apostles through sacred tradition, scripture and the magesterium. These guys don't represent that. I don't read them so I don't even know what they say. I just know they are liberal by reputation."

Yes, there are liberal protestants. But there is nothing in the Protestant rule of faith (sola scriptura) which commits a Bible-believing protestant to regard liberal protestants as representative of protestant theology. To the contrary, the protestant rule of faith commits a Bible-believing protestant to regard liberal protestants as unrepresentative of protestant theology. Liberal protestants are nominal protestants who, at best, pay lip-service to the protestant rule of faith.

Randy's problem is that he has no right to say that liberal Catholics like Brown and Fitzmyer don't represent him. He has no right to drive a wedge between them and the magisterium, for they have been elevated by the magisterium to serve as official consultants to the magisterium (on the Pontifical Commission). One could say the same thing about Rahner, who was a peritus to Vatican II. And what, again, about Cardinal Koenig?

He has no right to avoid them and observe a studied ignorance of what they write, for what they write receives the Imprimatur, Imprimi Potest, and Nihil Obstat.

Randy, like Hahn and Armstrong and other conservative converts to Rome, is trying to carve out a little niche within the church. Theirs is a church within the church. This is not Roman Catholicism, but an inner schism--a homegrown chapel within the Church of Rome.

Instead of coming into the Church of Rome through the main entrance--via her scholars and theologians, they come in through a hole in the fence--the lay apologist or popularizer. This gives them a skewed and inauthentic view of what the RCC really stands for.

I said:

"In addition, conservative Evangelicals have devoted a lot of time and attention to harmonizing apparent discrepancies in Scripture. By contrast, Randy doesn't lift a finger to harmonize the examples (out of many) that I have given of conflicting magisterial traditions."

Randy replied:

"Lots of time and energy has been spent. I don't see a need to duplicate the effort."

Don't need to duplicate what effort? The fact that Evangelicals have done much to harmonize Scripture goes no distance towards the harmonization of "sacred tradition." Where is the parallel effort to harmonize sacred tradition? Can it be done? Show us how.

"Scripture comes from the sacred tradition of the church. When you deny tradition you remove the foundation of scripture. Why do you think the Dan Brown can destroy the credibility of scripture so easy. When you distrust the church it is easy to translate that to distrust of scripture. You just have to quote history. "

Scripture comes from sacred tradition? This is one of those empty, airy, ahistorical abstractions that has no basis in concrete fact. The Bible was written by individuals, not by the church. The Apostles often wrote to the church, and even against the church, not from within the church. The prophets often wrote to the religious establishment and even against the religious establishment, not from within the religious establishment.

This is one of the problems with being Roman Catholic. You stop reading what the Bible actually says about itself and substitute a just-so story of how it came to be.

As to Dan Brown, readers are taken in by his fictional conspiracy theories because they are ignorant of Scripture and church history alike.

And let us repeat the fact that a measure of distrust in Scripture is now officially sanctioned by the magisterium.

"I am just trying to show how so many problems go away when you look at history and the church from a catholic perspective. Scripture makes more sense. The many saints who embraced the church teachings make sense. The concept of the kingdom of God that Jesus keeps talking about makes sense."

Unfortunately for Randy, he is confusing the elementary distinction between showing and telling. He keeps telling us that Catholicism solves so many problems without ever showing us what problems it solves, and how it does so. Just saying something over and over against is not at all the same thing as showing us, by way of an actual demonstration, how that is so.

I said: "And let us keep in mind that contemporary Catholic scholarship is no longer committed to the proposition that Jesus said all the things attributed to him in the canonical Gospels. Consider the three-stage theory of composition issued by the Biblical Commission. Cf. J. Fitzmyer, A Christological Catechism, appendix. Or consider Ray Brown's five-stage model for the composition of the Fourth Gospel."

Randy replied: "Again, Catholic in name only."

Really? The members of the Biblical Commission, appointed by the papacy, are Catholic in name only? Once again, see how Randy and other "Evangelical" converts have created a church within a church. Their church is not the church authorized by the magisterium. They are merely camping out in the RCC.

He claims to submit to the magisterium ("Being Catholic is a surrender of your will to God"), but when push comes to shove he sits in judgment over the judgments of the magisterium. He and Hahn and Armstrong are spiritual amphibians with their head in sola Scriptura and their tail in the baptismal font of Catholicism.

The PBC is not some rogue agency. Just consider, for example, "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church," issued by the PBC in 1994, which comes with a preface by then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. And while we're on the subject, while don't we sample the document to get a flavor of its critical stance:


But one of the results of this method has been to demonstrate more clearly that the tradition recorded in the New Testament had its origin and found its basic shape within Christian community or early church, passing from the preaching of Jesus himself to that which proclaimed that Jesus is the Christ. Eventually, form criticism was supplemented by (redaction criticism), the "critical study of the process of editing." This sought to shed light upon the personal contribution of each evangelist and to uncover the theological tendencies which shaped his editorial work.

When this last method was brought into play, the whole series of different stages characteristic of the historical-critical method became complete: From textual criticism one progresses to literary criticism, with its work of dissection in the quest for sources; then one moves to a critical study of forms and, finally, to an analysis of the editorial process, which aims to be particularly attentive to the text as it has been put together. All this has made it possible to understand far more accurately the intention of the authors and editors of the Bible as well as the message which they addressed to their first readers. The achievement of these results has lent the historical-critical method an importance of the highest order.

Oriented in its origins toward source criticism and the history of religions, the method has managed to provide fresh access to the Bible. It has shown the Bible to be a collection of writings, which most often, especially in the case of the Old Testament, are not the creation of a single author, but which have had a long prehistory inextricably tied either to the history of Israel or to that of the early church. Previously, the Jewish or Christian interpretation of the Bible had no clear awareness of the concrete and diverse historical conditions in which the word of God took root among the people; of all this it had only a general and remote awareness.


Notice how this analysis has set aside the self-witness of Scripture to the circumstances of its own composition in favor of a hypothetical historical reconstruction. So the critical view of Scripture is now the official view of Scripture according to Rome.

And if we are no longer bound by the record of Scripture regarding the time, place, and reporter of the events so recorded, why would we be bound by the content of the record, especially when the report is often inseparable from the reporter?

"I didn't pick the church. Jesus did. Every other church was begun by somebody else. The real question is how can we be so arrogant as to have more than one church."

i) And which church did Jesus pick? Randy continues to equivocate and procrastinate. Even if, for the sake of argument, you believe that there is only one true visible church on earth, there are plenty of false churches competing for that title, so how does Randy know that his church is the true church and not one of the many false claimants? If, as Randy maintains, there are so many false claimants, then, just as a matter of the odds, he is much more likely to land in false church than the true one absent some independent criterion. What is his criterion? It can't very well be the church itself. That's the real question, Randy.

ii) Calvin didn't begin a church, he began a theological movement--just as Augustine began a theological movement, and Aquinas, and the Cappadocian Fathers, &c. Evangelicals don't equate "the church" with a particular manifestation of the church on earth. Randy is committing a semantic fallacy by equating words with concepts.

iii) BTW, the Reformed don't believe that the "church" began with the NT church. The NT church is an extension of the OT church (e.g. Acts 7:38). The church is the covenant community. So it all depends on how we define the church.

"The Watchtower is a good point. I studied them as a protestant. They claim infallibility and in a much shorter history have dozens of huge contradictions. As a protestant I was sure I would find much worse in the Catholic church. I didn't. Just a few issues that were easily explained if you understood the history. The Watchtower has more problems. They don't go back to Jesus. They contradict scripture. "

So what's the criterion? That they contradict Scripture? So is sola Scriptura Randy's criterion? Doesn't sound very Catholic to me!

Or is it history? "They don't go back to Jesus." But when it came to Dan Brown, Randy repudiated the historical criterion. Remember what he said? "Why do you think the Dan Brown can destroy the credibility of scripture so easy. When you distrust the church it is easy to translate that to distrust of scripture. You just have to quote history."

So Scripture is a valid criterion to falsify the Watchtower, but an invalid criterion to falsify the RCC. So history is a valid criterion to falsify The Da Vinci Code, but an invalid criterion to falsify the RCC. Am I the only one who sees a slight problem here?

I said: "Should we judge Joseph Smith or Brigham Young by the same standard as Randy applies to the RCC?"

Randy replied: "Yes. Do the Mormons go back to the first century? Is there any evidence of their claimed apostasy?"

i) No, this is not the same standard. Randy is shifting ground. Randy's aforesaid standard was: "It is very different from interpreting sacred tradition because the church is a living community. You can't say the church says x when the church is right there saying y."

And I asked Randy if he would apply that same standard to Mormonism or the Watchtower. Now, however, Randy suddenly throws that standard overboard like a killer ditching the murder weapon, and instead whips out his historical criterion.

ii) At the same time, Randy regards the historical standard as applicable to Joseph Smith, but inapplicable to Dan Brown. Go figure!

I said: "Notice how Jesus and the Apostles deal with Jewish tradition. They don't reject Jewish tradition in total. But neither do you hear them claim that, You can't say the Sanhedrin says x when the Sanhedrin is right there saying y. No, what Jesus and the Apostles do is to go back to Scripture, quoting from the OT."

Randy replied: "Jesus is claiming that the kingdom was taken away from the Jews."

This is a non-sequitur. To begin with, I didn't limit my appeal to what Jesus said. You also find this in Acts, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, &c.

But, in any event, the major point remains: conformity to the OT was the yardstick against which Jewish tradition was measured. Not the OT refracted through the lens of Jewish tradition, but a direct appeal to the OT apart from tradition and in judgment of tradition.

"Before that happened he said to do as they say and not as they do. In other words these guys are jerks but their authority from God is legit. (Mt23:1-4)"

Yes, they had a legitimate position of authority, but it was not unconditional or infallible. After all, they were wrong about the identity of the Messiah, which is no minor mistake, is it? And their position of authority did not prevent Jesus or the Apostles from challenging their interpretation of the Law on many points, did it?

"This is the point. The Calvinist has no rational basis for protecting the core doctrines from question. They claim God never gave us a way to be sure of these things yet you say Calvinists agree it is needed. Did God fail to give the church the graces it needs to prevent heresy and schism?"

i) The Calvinist has the same basis as the Jews had. The covenant community in OT times had no magisterium. The patriarchs had no priesthood. And even when the priesthood was established under the Mosaic Code, the high priest was not a quasi-Pope who could speak ex cathedra. Nor were there ecumenical councils blessed with the unction of infallibility. When the covenant community went astray, this was not for lack of guidance, but lack of obedience to the revelation it already had.

ii) "They claim God never gave us a way to be sure of these things yet you say Calvinists agree it is needed." What is this assertion based on?

a) Randy is fallaciously assuming that unless God gave us a magisterium, then we have no source of religious assurance. How does that follow? The same hermeneutical issues arise with reference to tradition as they do with reference to Scripture. And adding another layer on top of Scripture only complicates rather than simplifies the interpretive process.

b) I never said that that Evangelicals can be certain of nothing. What I said is that we can discharge our duties to God without being equally certain of everything. Aside from the necessary and sufficient conditions of certainty, there are degrees of evidence and degrees of belief, as well as first and second-order beliefs.

The possibility of knowledge is up to God. It is for him to supply adequate evidence in tandem with adequate faculties. That presupposition demands no special proof, for that's the basis of all proof in general. Our duty is not to second-guess the preconditions of knowledge, but to apply our faculties to the evidence at hand. Randy is attempting to dodge the detailed questions of evidence and argument for which we are responsible by airing hypothetical doubts.

I'm all for religious certainty. But I'm all for finding such certainty where God has given us assurance, and not where he has not, in some false sense and some false source of security.

"Did God fail to give the church the graces it needs to prevent heresy and schism?" Why doesn't Randy begin by answering that question for himself. Did God give the Church of Rome the grace to prevent heresy and schism?

Well, we wouldn't be engaged in this debate were it not for the Reformation. So by Randy's own benchmark, God did not give the Church of Rome the grace to prevent heresy and schism. So when we apply Randy's yardstick to Randy's church, his church doesn't measure up. Thank you, Randy, for helping us clear up that issue!

BTW, notice that Randy is once again equivocating over the identity of the church. From a Reformed standpoint, the phenomenon of heresy and schism is a refining process, a way of separating the wheat from the tares. Such a threshing exercise is a good thing, not a bad thing: "Purge out the old leaven that you may be a new, unleavened loaf" (1 Cor 5:7).

"The Orthodox split is a different beast. They have valid apostolic succession."

So is there one church, or many? Which is it, Randy?

"Freedom is not only messy but it is unchristian. Where did this "free marketplace of ideas" come from? The bible? I don't think so."

What is the alternative? Back to the Inquisition?

Freedom can be used for good or ill. But what you have in the absence of freedom is outward conformity and inward hypocrisy. Without the freedom to be a heretic or a schismatic, there is no freedom to be other than a nominal Christian.

From a Reformed standpoint, not all schism is sin. Indeed, there are times when schism is a moral imperative whereas the sin would be to remain within an incurably corrupt body. And it isn't coincidental that the nations with a history of national churches are among the most unchurched nations in the world.

"All sides spilt a lot of blood. Often you saw protestants killing other protestants as well as Catholics."

I don't deny this. But if that's why you believe, then why did you paint with such a broad brush before?

"Yes, bad popes discredit the papacy. Still you should believe it because God guarantees it."

Guarantees what? The papacy? This is a lonely assertion bereft of a supporting argument.

"Still blaming Americas moral problems on Catholic immigration is ... interesting. To use a polite term."

I guess we need to set the record straight. Randy had blamed the "long downward moral spiral especially in Europe and North America."

I then point out as a matter of elementary historical chronology that American started out as an overwhelmingly Protestant country. The mass infusion of Catholicism came later.

It is always quite revealing when you call the opponent on his own argument, and then have him behave as though you've said something simply outlandish. This is your argument, Randy. I'm running with your own argument. If you don't like the logic of your own argument, then withdraw the argument.

I said: "What about the pedophile priesthood? What about the majority of American bishops who facilitated the pedophile priesthood? Indeed, they continue to stonewall to this day. And did the Vatican not know of those confidential, out-of-court, multimillion dollar settlements?"

Randy replied: "Pedophile priesthood? No pedophiles among protestants? I know some cases personally. They never hit the media.:

i) Are these comparable cases? Can Randy name even one Evangelical denomination with a homosexual subculture and a pattern of clerical pedophilia?

ii) And assuming, for the sake of argument, that there were such a parallel, is moral equivalence sufficient? If the RCC is, indeed, the one true church, then should it not be a cut above the Evangelical sects and denominations?

iv) Notice how Randy soft-pedals the magnitude of the problem. There was a pattern of pedophilia in the RCC. There was a pattern of bishops covering for pedophile priests. And what about the role of the Vatican in all this? Why is Randy not bothered by the pervasive indifference or corruption of the magisterium?

v) Is there any line the RCC can cross, anything so bad that it would cause Randy to reconsider his conversion to the RCC? And if the sex scandal doesn't reach that threshold, what would?

The real scandal of the sex scandal is not the clergy, but the laity--the acquiescence of the laity, the good men who make it possible for bad men go on by giving them a platform, the good men who stand by the system no matter what.

This is what happens when you believe in one true church on earth. It chains you to an abomination. Evangelicals would never put up with that sort of thing because we don't identify the church in any one visible institution. "Come out from among them and be ye separate, says the Lord. Touch not the unclean thing!" (2 Cor 6:17). John the Baptist was a schismatic. The whole Christian movement was schismatic (and heretical) in the eyes of the Jewish establishment. There are worse things than schism--far worse.

"Sure, Catholics are responsible for all evil in America. Whatever?"

Remember that it was Randy who tried to tar the Protestant Reformation with America's moral decline. But when I apply his mile-wide brush to equally obvious counterexamples in American Catholicism, he just shrugs it off.

"Sorry I missed the counter argument. You will have to connect it a little better. I will keep repeating this because it is my story. I met Jesus as a protestant. Becoming Catholic has connected me with Jesus through history. Historical Christianity is not protestant so protestants just jump from the new testament to the present day. That really made it hard to see how the new testament story is my story."

This is a Catholic caricature of the Protestant position. At the risk of stating the obvious, the present has its source in the past. Every modern-day phenomenon has a direct, linear, stepwise trajectory back into the past. This is no less true of Evangelicalism than it is of Roman Catholicism.

Randy's belief that the RCC has some special connection with the past is simply an artifact of his selection criteria. He buys into the claim that the RCC is this continuous entity, identical throughout its history.

But history of itself doesn't select for the segment of the church which branched off into Rome, and forked off into Trent, and sprung yet another offshoot at Vatican II.There is nothing in church history which selects for that particular stalk as over against the Orthodox or the Anglican or the Lutheran or the Reformed or the Anabaptist, &c. Modern Catholicism is just one more twig which goes back to a common trunk, along with all the rest.

If Randy really believes that the Church of Rome enjoys this unique chain of historical custody, then let him tell us who the true popes were between the death of Gregory XI and Martin V.

"The pope is ordained by God."

This is yet another orphaned assertion in search of a supporting argument.

"Calvin is ordained by Calvin."

Actually, there is no formal rite of ordination in the NT, so to cast the question in these terms is to beg the question.

"Besides the pope never makes up new doctrine. He only defends the faith given to the apostles."

This is not an argument. This is propaganda. And antiquated propaganda at that. That's how the RCC used to define tradition. Tradition was oral tradition, passed on by Christ to the Apostles. That's the Tridentine definition. But tradition was redefined at Vatican II. Tradition ain't what it used to be! Vatican II substituted a silly putty definition of tradition.

"So what do you see? There is no protestant theology of church that fits the scriptures. Jesus started one church. That is the one referred to in scripture. To start something new, call it a church, and then say it's not clear what church is referred to. That is saying you have the same right to start a church as Jesus does. I believe Jesus is Lord. He has the keys of the Kingdom. He gives them to whoever he pleases. We don't get to choose. He does."

One church? The one referred to in Scripture? Which one would that one be? When I turn to Scripture I see many churches referred to: Antioch, Asia, Bithynia, Caesarea, Cappadocia, Conchrea, Colossae, Corinth, Crete, Ephesus, Galatia, Jerusalem, Judea, Laodicea, Macedonia, Pergamos, Philadelphia, Philippi, Pontus, Rome, Sardis, Smyrna, Thyatira, Thessalonica, &c. These, and others, were all planted by the Apostles.

You do have a doctrine of the universal church in Ephesians, but this is never identified with any particular manifestation of the church on earth.

That's one of the many problems with being a Roman Catholic. You start to make claims about the Bible that are never found within the Bible. You indulge in these paper theories and fact-free abstractions.

"However God speaks he must have been speaking through all generations since Jesus. The idea that God has left this question unanswered seems indefensible to me."

God has spoken to use once and for all time in the Bible.

Monday, April 18, 2005

A faith at sea

Randy has responded to my reply.

"Thanks for replying. As far as consistent goes you will always find superfical contradictions."

I didn't cite "superficial" contradictions. I cited quite fundamental contradictions involving such elementary and elemental questions as Who is saved? What is tradition? Is Scripture inerrant? Can't get much more basic than redemption and revelation, if you ask me.

"People document long lists of biblical contradictions yet we believe scripture is inerrant."

i) "We"? Who is the "we"? This is true for conservative Evangelicals. It is no longer true for Catholic Bible scholars like Ray Brown and Joseph Fitzmyer.

ii) In addition, conservative Evangelicals have devoted a lot of time and attention to harmonizing apparent disprepancies in Scripture. By contrast, Randy doesn't lift a finger to harmonize the examples (out of many) that I have given of conflicting magisterial traditions.

"Why? Because of faith."

Faith in what? What kind of faith? We can exercise this sort of faith in Scripture because we have many good reasons for believing in the divine inspiration of Scripture. What argument does Randy offer that the RCC enjoys the same evidentiary bulwark as the Bible?

"Can we have this same faith that the Holy Spirit continues to lead his church into truth just as Jesus said he would? We can."

i) This begs the essential question by equivocating over the identity of the church. How does Randy know that the RCC is the very church which Jesus promised to lead by his Spirit?

ii) And let us keep in mind that contemporary Catholic scholarship is no longer committed to the proposition that Jesus said all the things attributed to him in the canonical Gospels. Consider the three-stage theory of composition issued by the Biblical Commission. Cf. J. Fitzmyer, A Christological Catechism, appendix. Or consider Ray Brown's five-stage model for the composition of the Fourth Gospel.

"The problem is then we can't pick our own doctines. Being catholic is a surrender of your will to God."

No, the problem is that we have more than one church out there competing for our allegiance. So, yes, we do have to make a choice. To be a Catholic is to choose Catholicism over rival claimants. Why did Randy pick that church?

"Am I a radical relativist? No. I believe it logically follows from Sola Scriptora. I reject both. You don't so I believe you are being illogical. It is very differant from interpeting sacred tradition because the church is a living community. You can't say the church says x when the church is right there saying y."

Suppose we were to apply this criterion to a Christian cult like the Watchtower. On the face of it, the Watchtower has issued a fair number of failed prophecies over the years. And the way the Watchtower saves face is to redefine the terms of the fulfillment. So what is to prevent a Jehovah's Witness from using this same line of defense to defend the discordant teachings of the Watchtower? The Watchtower is a living community. So you can't claim that the Watchtower says x when the Watchtower is right there saying y. Or can you?

The Mormons have their own magisterium, their own teaching office, their own living tradition, which conveniently abrogates embarrassing pronouncements from the past. Should we judge Joseph Smith or Brigham Young by the same standard as Randy applies to the RCC?

Why can't I observe that church says x when the church is right there saying y? When the church has spoken more than once on a subject, I can certainly read and compare two or more statements from the past, one more recent--the other more distant.

Notice how Jesus and the Apostles deal with Jewish tradition. They don't reject Jewish tradition in toto. But neither do you hear them claim that, You can't say the Sanhedrin says x when the Sanhedrin is right there saying y. No, what Jesus and the Apostles do is to go back to Scripture, quoting from the OT.

"As for accepting uncertainty, how much can you accept? There is a core of beliefs that we need certainty about. My experience is that the core is bigger than most think."

A Calvinist could agree with all this. How does that select for the RCC?

"The church needs to define that core and leave freedom about the rest."

Why? Why the church? Randy keeps assuming what he needs to prove, floating empty assertions in place of reasoned arguments.

"That is why we have dogma. If we lose certainty about critical things then we end up with the idea that absolute truth is unimportant, unknowable, or even an illusion."

Again, A Calvinist could agree with all that. How does this select for Catholicism?

Let us put aside the Protestant movement for a moment. Don't the Greek Orthodox say the very same thing? How is Randy's formula an argument for Roman Catholicism rather than Greek Orthodoxy?

"That idea is common today and it is the fruit of the reformation."

One would like to see something resembling a historical argument to back up this sweeping claim. There was a deep strain of scepticism that crept into Medieval nominalism (e.g., Ockham, Biel). That's pre-Catholic.

What about the Renaissance? Didn't that do a lot to shake up the Medieval synthesis? That was pre-Reformation.

What about the French Enlightenment (e.g., Voltaire, Diderot and other philosophes)? That took place in a Catholic country.

"If anything can be learned from the last 500 years it is that the reformation was a complete, total, and unconditional failure."

Nothing like a healthy dose of hyperbole to shore up a sagging case.

"It weakened the church by splitting into thousand of competing 'truths'."

i) As I've argued in my essay on "The Four-Door Labyrinth," the diversity boils down to how you answer four basic questions.

ii) I prefer a free market place of ideas to a monopoly on falsehood.

iii) Freedom is messy. Just as there are Russians who wax nostalgic for the golden age of Stalinist purges and Tsarist serfdom, there are Catholics who look longingly at a church built on patent fraud (e.g., the False Decretals).

"It caused much bloodshed."

i) Funny, I thought most of the blood was shed by Roman Catholic monarchs at the instigation of papacy, to stamp out the Protestant Reformation.

ii) And if Randy supposes that bloodshed discredits the claims of the Reformation, does Julius II discredit the claims of the papacy?

"It has created a long downward moral spiral especially in Europe and North America."

i) Randy has a rather backwards view of historical causation. Remember the Pilgrim Fathers? America was colonized by Puritans. It would make more sense to date the downward spiral to the mass influx of Catholic immigrants in the 19-20C.

ii) You also have to wonder why folks like Randy leave themselves wide open for obvious counterexamples. What about the pedophile priesthood? What about the majority of American bishops who facilitated the pedophile priesthood? Indeed, they continue to stonewall to this day. And did the Vatican not know of those confidential, out-of-court, multimillion dollar settlements?

What about Italian-American and other Roman Catholic directors in Hollywood and abroad who churn out all those R-rated movies? What about high profile Catholics like Sen. Kennedy, Gov. Cuomo, and Justice Brennan who have done so much to spearhead abortion-on-demand in America?

"It has removed the connection between us, Jesus, the scriptures, and the new testament church."

By my count, this is the third time that Randy has made that claim. I mounted a specific counter-argument against his claim in my last reply. You know, when someone gives you a reason for why he believes something, and you challenge that reason, and he continues to repeat himself without responding to the challenge, then is this a real reason, or does he say it because he feels the need to say something, and this is the only thing he can come up with? If he doesn't believe in his own reasons, why should anyone else?

"It's all rooted in 3 words: 'I am right'.

This, again, misses the point. Where people disagree, someone is right and someone else is wrong--unless both are mistaken. What's the difference between Calvin saying "I'm right" and the Pope saying "I'm right?"

"It is very hard to beleive that God could create a church that knows more than you do. We can believe the Red Sea and the resurection much easier."

Which church are we talking about, Randy? It's as though Randy has "Roman Catholic" etched on his spectacles, so that every time he reads a reference to the church in Scripture, he sees the RCC.

"We just need to get over our own egos and bow before God."

Once again, this sidesteps the essential question. Who speaks for God that we may bow before him? There is only one true God, but many false gods and many false prophets of the false gods. "Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 Jn 5:21).