Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Divine manipulation?

I see that Perry Robinson has been commenting on something that Evan May wrote.


Since Evan cross-posted his piece at Triablogue as well as his own blog, I’ll dip into this debate.

I’m not going to exegete Augustine, and I’m not going to exegete Evan May. I’ll just comment on what is of interest to me, and I reserve the right to recast the issues or reformulate the terms. For the outcome of the discussion is often controlled by how the issue is framed and the use of certain key terms.

According to Perry:

“If Jesus doesn’t choose contrary to the Father, then why does he say ‘not as I will?’ Matt 26:39.”

This question is fraught with crucial equivocations. Willing and choosing are not synonymous.

To will could simply mean that, all other things being equal, I’d prefer x, but since all other things are unequal, I shall opt for y.

In the garden, Christ is conflicted. All other things being equal, he’d prefer to avoid the cross. But his strongest desire is to do the will of his Father.

He does not “choose” contrary to the Father. His choice is to do the Father’s will. That is what he acts on.

But he wishes that it were avoidable. If it were avoidable, then he would avoid it. But since it is unavoidable, he does not evade his duty.

“Jesus says that even evil people know how to do good. (Matt 7:11) Augustine goes so far as to call the good works of unbelievers “virtues.” And if a depraved sinner won’t or can’t because of his “sinful nature”, then doesn’t it follow that someone with a perfectly just nature would or could never choose to sin? And yet Adam sinned. Hmm.”

i) Due to common grace, the average unbeliever retains a remnant of common decency. That doesn’t make it meritorious.

ii) Adam was sinless, but not impeccable. In my opinion, Christ is impeccable as well as sinless. Not only does he satisfy the negative condition of being without sin, but he is positively incapable of sinning.

“Second because, couldn’t God make known his glory without a fall? Couldn’t the blessed know his justice without a fall?”

There’s a difference between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. The experience of being a redeemed creature is irreducible to the abstract knowledge that an angel enjoys of the plan of salvation.

“As to the Passion, how do any of your questions answer mine? Jesus said he willed contrary to the Father. He says “not my I will.” That seems pretty clear that he willed not as the Father willed. Do you deny that Jesus so willed not to go to the cross?”

Once again, this is trading on certain equivocations.

If by “will,” we mean that an agent resolves to do something, and carries through with his intentions, then “will” is equivalent with “choice.”

But, in that sense, Christ did not will contrary to the Father. He did not “choose” otherwise than what the Father willed.

Rather, he had a conditional desire in tension with the Father’s will. His preference was to avoid the cross on condition that he could do so consistent with the Father’s will. But since that condition could not be met, his overriding desire was to do his Father’s will, and he acted accordingly.

He made a mental choice which translated into an outward action.

“What is the difference between compatibilism and manipulation? If I am determined to do some act by an agent, and that agent’s determining me so to do isn’t up to me, then it seems like I am being manipulated.”

“Manipulation” is a loaded word. In answering Perry’s question, it depends on which connotations are in play.

“Manipulation” has overtones of coercion, of acting against our will. It shades into fatalism. I’m acting at gunpoint. Left to my own devices, I’d do otherwise. So there’s a psychological tension between the manipulative agent and the manipulated agent.

As Perry knows, that is not how Calvinism frames freedom and determination. To be free is to be free of external coercion.

But there’s also a sense in which we are “manipulated” by our appetites. My hormones attract me to women. I cannot help myself. And, what is more, I happily resign myself to my genetic programming. I know I’m programmed to like woman. I didn’t choose to like women.

To some extent I could resist my programming. I can’t resist what I feel, but I can resist acting on what I’m feeling.

Yet most of us are content to be “manipulated” by our chemistry because it gives us pleasure, and the alternative isn’t any better, if as good.

“Determinism” is another ambiguous word. For there are varieties of determinism.

“Why do I need to state it in the form of an objection? It seems as if cases of compatibilism are at least co-extensive with some cases of manipulation. I never claimed that they in fact amounted to such, but I did state that they appear to be the same in a number of cases. Therefore I don’t bear the burden for an argument I didn’t make. I only bear the burden of showing that they seem the same and to do that I only have to report the way they seem to me. Besides, they have seemed that way to Libertarian and Compatibilist thinkers as well.”

Compatibilism is not the essence of Calvinism. Perry is confusing exegetical theology with polemical theology.

We believe that certain things are taught in Scripture. They are true irrespective of whether we can defend them against rationalistic objections.

If, however, there’s a version of action theory (compatibilism) consistent with the witness of Scripture, and we can deploy that theory to field certain philosophical objections, then we’re free to invoke compatibilism because this is a case of answering the critic at his own level. He has mounted a philosophical objection to our position, and we respond by mounting a philosophical counterargument.

“As for divine control, I think God wishes his creatures to be like him, free, and that the kind of freedom (though obviously not the same degree) precludes determinism. It is therefore not a question of “right” but of consistency.”

Consistency as in consistent pantheism? Erasing the categorical distinction between the creature and its Creator?

“If you think God makes people sin and sinners, then God is the cause of sin, correct? It won’t matter how many links we put in the causal chain between God as the cause and the sin as the effect. Since we ascribe praise and blame relative to the cause of an act, how then is God not blameworthy for the sin and the sinner excused?”

This fails to observe an elementary distinction between a necessary condition and a sufficient condition. God is not the only agent in the world. His agency is a necessary, but insufficient, condition of the Fall. Reformed theology has a doctrine of concurrence.

“This is why your second statement is irrelevant, because I wasn’t arguing that God is free because he can do other than he wants, but rather that he can want other than he does so want and therefore do other than he does. God isn’t free because he can always accomplish his desires and decisions, but because what he desires and decides is up to him.”

How does Perry happen to know that God can not only choose according to his desires, but choose his desires?

“We transform every discussing into Christology because Christ is the center and focus of all theology. A difference in one area of theology signals a difference in Christology, regardless of how subtle.”

i) This is an overstatement. It may be true of practical theology, but it isn’t true of systematic theology.

ii) Perry is also inferring the work of Christ from the person of Christ. So when he puts Christology front and center, he is working with a lopsided emphasis.

“How can man be the agent of sin if God is the cause of the act?…God on your view is the cause and the human being is just the instrument to bring about the effect.”

This objection is vitiated by the same simplistic formulation I noted above.

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