Friday, April 25, 2008

Enslaved to passion

In his recent diatribe against Calvinism, Victor Reppert has done a wonderful job of illustrating the Humean adage that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”

It becomes increasingly clear that, at least where theology is concerned, Reppert uses his philosophical acumen to justify positions which he arrived at on purely emotional grounds.

“Where does Romans mention anyone’s eternal destiny? Where? Even where individuals are mentioned (Jacob and Esau, and Pharoah) they are elected for historic roles, not for heaven or hell.”

Manata has already pointed Reppert to Douglas Moo’s discussion of Pauline judgment.

Beyond that, I’d make a different, if complementary, point. Reppert seems to think that Paul was a universalist. But universalism is a soteriological thesis. Yet if Reppert is going to reject a soteriological reading of Romans, then he can’t very well quote Rom 5:18 or 11:32 to prove universal salvation.

“It’s just that I am more certain that it is wrong to inflict pain on little children for your own amusement than I am that the “world” in John 3: 16 refers to the elect and not to all persons.”

Who says that Jn 3:16 refers to the elect? I understand this verse in a qualitative rather than quantitative sense. As Andrew Lincoln explains in his recent commentary on John:

“Some argue that the term ‘world’ here simply has neutral connotations—the created human world. But the characteristic use of ‘the world’ (ho kosmos) elsewhere in the narrative is with negative overtones—the world in its alienation from and hostility to its creator’s purposes. It makes better sense in a soteriological context to see the latter notion as in view. God loves that which has become hostile to God. The force is not, then, that the world is so vast that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it, but rather that the world has become so alienated from God that it takes an exceedingly great kind of love to love it at all” (154).

“Calvinism attributes to God actions which in any parallel human context would be considered wrong by anyone.”

i) I can’t help noticing that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens say exactly the same thing about Yahweh. The OT attributes to Yahweh actions which in any parallel human context would be considered wrong by anyone. And they don’t think the NT is any improvement.

ii) I don’t know which actions Reppert is referring to. Lately he’s been attacking Calvinism because it subscribes to the traditional doctrine of hell. But damnation is hardly a Reformed distinctive.

If that’s what he has in mind, then it’s not merely Calvinism which attributes this action to God. Traditional Catholicism, Lutheranism, Evangelical Arminianism, Evangelical Anglicanism, and so on and so forth, all adhere to the doctrine of eternal punishment.

iii) Or is he referring to reprobation? Is his objection to damnation—or predamnation? But I’ve never seen the moral relevance of the distinction. As William Cunningham noted long ago, “whatever God does in time he resolved from eternity to do.”

iv) I freely admit that Calvinism has some harsh edges. But so does Scripture. Calvinism isn’t any harsher than many parts of the Bible—parts of the Bible which, for that very reason, infidels have always seized up to pummel the Christian faith.

v) For that matter, Calvinism isn’t any harsher than the world we live in. That’s one of the things I admire about Calvinism. One of the things that attracts me to Calvinism. Its realism. Calvinism is realistic in the same way that Scripture is realistic.

Calvinism is theology for grownups, while Arminianism or universalism is theology for preschoolers. Calvinism is hated for its frank, unyielding honesty.

vi) I take it that Reppert is a universalist. He also appeals to intuition as his deal breaker.

Fine. Let’s apply intuition to universalism. If you were a universalist, and you were God, is this the sort of world that you would design? Would you expect a divine universalist to engineer the sort of world we live in?

Does universalism entail the massive savagery and wonton cruelty we observe? Does universalism entail the extreme disparities of indulgence and deprivation that we observe? Couldn’t a divine universalist save everyone at a lower cost to life and limb?

When I look out the window, the world I see looks far more like a world designed by a Calvinist than a universalist.

Of course, universalism tries to justify the wretchedness of life here-below by the compensatory payoff of the life to come. I don’t know. Is that intuitively compelling? It’s rather like offering a victim of gang-rape a lollipop to make it all better.

More to the point, the universalist wouldn’t need to invoke this eschatological compensation in the first place if life here below wasn’t so horrendous. So how does the eschatological compensation justify the status quo? That sidesteps the question of why things are so bad in this life that only universal salvation can make up for all the pain and suffering in the here and now.

A wretched world might justify a better world to come, but how does a better world to come justify a wretched world? Why is the universalist entitled to take evil for granted?

Universalism can’t help itself to the freewill defense, for there’s a deterministic quality to universalism. How can the outcome be open-ended if everyone ends up in the same place?

vii) As a matter of fact, God does enjoy certain prerogatives which human beings do not—just as parents enjoy certain prerogatives which little children do not.

This doesn’t mean that God is free to do anything whatsoever, but it’s not as if we have to choose from either total continuity or total discontinuity between divine and human virtue.

vii) Reppert’s assertion begs the question. Indeed, his logic is reversible. As a practical matter, I don’t have the prerogative, as a human being, to damn anyone. But if damnation is just, then I don’t see that it would be intrinsically wrong for a human being to damn the wicked. If the wicked merit everlasting punishment, then, in principle, it would not be wrong for a human judge to damn them to hell. I don’t see where the parallel breaks down.

“We are not entitled to use the term ‘God’ unless the being in question is good in some sense that is continuous with the use of the term ‘good’ as it is used in ordinary language.”

That’s an assertion, not an argument. And it’s pretty obvious that “good” is both person-variable and culturally variable. Does “good” retain the same meaning in Upper Manhattan that it does for the Nebraska Amish?

“The supreme good, according to Calvinism, is God’s glory. I still don’t know what that means. It looks to me like this theory of the good is just a blank check to justify whatever you think God has done. If God had chosen to save everyone or damn everyone, we would say it was for His glory if we wanted to. So the theory doesn’t explain anything, since it could be used to explain everything.”

This isn’t a *theory*. It’s Biblical teaching. It’s not like a scientific hypothesis.

“There’s no uncertainty about predestination so long as you focus on certain passages. If you focus on others, you come out an Arminian or a universalist. In Romans is says whoever believes and confesses is saved, in Philippians it says that eventually every knee shall bow and every tongue confess. Put those two verses together and you get a case for universalism. Of course you can read these passages in the light of the doctrine of everlasting punishment, but can’t you equally read passages about hell in the light of the doctrine of universal salvation?”

Let’s take a concrete example, shall we?

“From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD” (Isa 66:23).

Sounds like a prooftext for universal salvation. What does the very next verse have to say?

“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh."

Clearly, “all flesh” in v24 is less than fully inclusive. Hence, “all flesh” in v23 is less than fully inclusive. But if you took v23 isolation, you would misconstrue the scope of intended referent. Cf. B. Childs, Isaiah (WJK 2001), 542.

“’Eternal’ on this system of exegesis means age-long rather than absolutely eternal.”

One of the problems with that semantic move is that it results, not in universal salvation, but universal annihilation. If “eternal” merely means age-long rather than everlasting, then the “eternal” life of the redeemed will eventually come to an end.

“What does it mean to say that God is good? Is it just a way of saying ‘God is bigger than you are, and can beat you up forever if you don’t obey him?’ If that’s what it means, then the term just doesn’t mean anything.”

This is not a serious attempt to accurately represent the doctrine of everlasting punishment. Reppert acts like a little child who makes a scene at the checkout stand because his Mom won’t buy him all those candy bars.

In Biblical ethics, God’s goodness is largely defined by his judicial role in the Final Judgment. Exacting retributive justice on the wicked is a paradigmatic example of divine goodness. And I’d add that this dovetails with my own moral intuitions.

“Are things right just because the most powerful being in the universe has commanded it. I can imagine an Omnipotent Fiend. If theological voluntarism is true, there cannot, by definition, be an Omnipotent Fiend.”

Like Calvin, Owen, and others, I reject theological voluntarism. At the same time, this is an issue with many moral and theological subtleties:

“We can, and do, bend and grow our conception of goodness in the light of Scripture. But what do we do when we encounter a reading of Scripture that breaks our ordinary moral conceptions, rather than just bend it?”

i) Several issues. Reppert keeps appealing to intuition, but intuition can mean different things:

a) A synonym for tacit knowledge.

b) A euphemism for emotion, often in the form of willful sentimentality.

c) A product of social conditioning.

d) A snap judgment.

ii) There are certain things in Scripture that make me wince. But that’s because the Bible is realistic. Many things in real life make me wince. If you live in a fallen world, that goes with the terrain.

iii) There are certain things in Scripture that have challenged my mral preconceptions. But, on further reflection, I find them wise and reasonable.

“Or we might ask, what makes Scripture Scripture? Remember, there are lots of candidates out there. The Qu’ran, the Book of Mormon, the Hebrew Scriptures without the NT, the Bhagavad-Gita.”

That’s specious.

i) The Koran and the Book of Mormon are the product of Christian heresies. Not a genuine alternative, but a patent counterfeit.

ii) Hinduism, which is pantheistic, can’t even underwrite a doctrine of divine revelation, for that presupposes a personal agent.

iii) The question is whether the OT is fulfilled in the NT. And the God of the NT isn’t at odds with the God of the OT.

“A connections with my own conceptions of good what makes the Christian God and Scripture valid for me.”

This is a euphemistic way of admitting that Reppert’s faith is nothing more than a designer religion—made to order according to his personal specifications. By definition, his theology corresponds, not to reality, but to his prejudice and predilection. That’s how Scripture defines idolatry. Imaginary gods.

“It is the apparent teaching of passages in Deuteronomy and Proverbs that the righteous will prosper on earth and the wicked will suffer on earth. Are those passages lies?”

Notice that Reppert’s grasp of Biblical hermeneutics is no better than a hillbilly. But at least the hillbilly is trying to be faithful to the message—as he understands it.

“One question I might now ask is in virtue of what is the "God" of Scripture, as understood by Calvinists, thought of as good, if not His power.”

His wisdom, mercy, grace, justice, and fidelity—for starters.

“What characteristics does the Omnipotent One have that we should worship him. Of course Scripture says that Omnipotent One is good. But, of course, if Scripture is the word of the Omnipotent One, that is precisely what we should expect. It's just the Almighty's spin machine. The Almighty says He is good, and Clinton said he was telling the truth. What else is new? We need some characteristics of the Omnipotent One that provide us with grounds that we are not dealing with an Omnipotent Fiend.”

If Reppert is going to resort to this tactic, then it cuts both ways. The Cartesian demon could be feeding him false moral intuitions. Reppert’s preconception of goodness is the product of Cartesian demonic brainwashing. He was conditioned to think that universalism is better than Calvinism. And he can’t shake his programming.

“Now, let's suppose that a thorough study of Scripture reveals to me that Calvinism is in fact true, that is, the being in charge of the universe is indeed a Calvinistic God who has predestined some to eternal life and some to everlasting punishment. The Omnipotent One does exist, and God is a reprobator. At first, as I discover this, I ask myself if I might be mistaken in thinking that this reprobating deity would not be good. However, depressingly for me, my intuitions don't budge. It seems true all right that the Omnipotent One has predestined some to heaven and some to hell, but I find that I can't worship Him.”

If you find that you can’t worship him, then that’s a mark of reprobation.

“As John Stuart Mill puts it: ‘I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures; and if such a creature can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go’.”

That clench-fisted defiance illustrates to perfection the essential justice of hell.

“Given the fact that I have now agreed that Calvinism has the facts right, how do you now persuade me that this is right.”

That’s not my job. As a matter of fact, Calvinism often has this clarifying effect. Calvinism eschews the facile evasions of Arminian theology. It wipes the dusty window clean so that you can see the alternatives with stark clarity of mind.

“I am consistently told that I shouldn't lift my moral intuitions up above the Word of God. This works so long as I remain convinced that God is good. Dispelling doubts about God's goodness by appealing to Scripture seems blatantly question-begging.So my question is this: if we assume that predestination is true, on what basis do we believe that the Predestinator is a good being? If we pose the question that way, it looks as if appeals to Scripture are going to beg the question..”

i) Any debate over conflicting intuitions may well be headed for stalemate. We can try to a challenge a man’s intuition by appealing to another intuition that he also shares. Show him that he is neglecting some counterexamples. That his intuitive appeal has oversimplified the issue. By pushing one intuition to a logical extreme, that puts it at odds with another one of his intuitions. But if he sticks to his guns, there’s nothing more to say.

Suppose I got into a debate with Josef Mengele over bioethics. Would there be enough common ground to break the impasse? I seriously doubt it.

ii) It also depends on whether someone finds the Bible believable or not. We can give him reasons to believe it. But we can’t make it believable to him. If, at the end of the day, he finds a Biblical doctrine incredible, despite our explanations, then there’s nothing more we can do or ought to do. I don’t have the power to change his mind, and it’s not incumbent on me to convince him otherwise. He’s not answerable to me, and I’m not answerable to him.


  1. As a side note, you said:

    "Hinduism, which is pantheistic, can’t even underwrite a doctrine of divine revelation, for that presupposes a personal agent"

    I've seen Bahnsen make this claim too, but I, not knowing much about Hinduism don't know where this comes from. The Bhagavad Gita after all, has Krishna "revealing" knowledge to Arjuna, which seems like an example of personal revelation to me. Is the pantheistic element perhaps a later development?

  2. Roughly speaking, folk Hinduism is polytheistic whereas Indian philosophy is pantheistic.

    You do have personal gods in Hindu mythology, but they are finite gods. They are not omniscient or omnipotent. So their revelations would be unreliable.

    There is also the question of how Hindus interpret Hindu mythology. Sophisticated Hindus regard their "gods" as psychological projections. As I recall, this goes all the way back to the Upanishads.

  3. “Some argue that the term ‘world’ here simply has neutral connotations—the created human world. But the characteristic use of ‘the world’ (ho kosmos) elsewhere in the narrative is with negative overtones—the world in its alienation from and hostility to its creator’s purposes. It makes better sense in a soteriological context to see the latter notion as in view. God loves that which has become hostile to God. The force is not, then, that the world is so vast that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it, but rather that the world has become so alienated from God that it takes an exceedingly great kind of love to love it at all”

    This text is on my list for posts this year.

    My take is right down the middle. I think the key to understanding this text is the preceding narrative about the cleansing of the Temple.

    In short, the use of "world" here is a reference to cosmic redemption, with the world as God's Temple.

    Jesus is the light of the world, the Shekinah that came down to fill the Temple.

    Jesus is the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. The image is that of the Temple sacrifice on the day of atonement and the consecrating sacrifice for the Temple itself.

    Jesus cleanses the temple. The sacrifice cleanses the temple.

    The cleansing of the temple leads the reader to wonder, "Does God love the Temple? The Jews' conceit was that God loved the Temple and consequently could not do without its keepers, the Jewish nation.

    John's answer is "Yes," God does love His Temple, but the Temple is not a building (John 4). It's nonspatial. Jesus is the True Temple, and yet so are His people.

    The world is not "the elect" it is, rather, the place God loves, the cosmos, which is His ultimate temple.

    Jesus in the cleansing of the Temple did not condemn the Temple. Rather, he chased out the moneychangers and told them that it was a house of prayer for all nations. He never denies God cares for His temple.

    So, in the same way, God loves the world. Jesus is chasing out the money changers in it by dying for all the ones believing (the true priesthood of the Temple). The Temple has become alienated from God on account of the riff raff in it in John 2, and so has the world due to sin (John 3). Jesus did not come to condemn the Temple in John 2, neither did He come to condemn the world. Rather He came to cleanse the Temple, and in John 3, He has come to do the same to the world. Moreover, the world is a house of prayer for all nations, not just the Jews, but Gentiles also.

    So, IMO, the world here, embraces all the views Calvinists generally offer, when properly understood in light of the narrative of the Temple's cleansing and John's overall theme of the replacement of the physical building of the Temple with Jesus, the Church under the Spirit's guidance, and, in Revelation, the coming of the final cosmic temple, ala Beale's thesis.

    Arminians, by isolating John 3:16 from the rest of the trajectory of the Gospel and by defining it as "everybody" miss all of this.