Thursday, May 01, 2008

Faith, fact, or fiction

Victor Reppert continues his critique of Calvinism. The fundamental problem I have with Reppert’s critique is that his theological method is completely different than mine. Reppert takes a far more theoretical approach to theology than I do. My theology is rooted in historical revelation.

I distinguish between Christian theology and Christian apologetics. For me, Christian theology drives Christian apologetics, but for Reppert, Christian apologetics is driving Christian theology.

I think that Reppert’s orientation may have two or three potential sources:

1.Plantinga, in fielding the logical argument from evil, established the strategy of responding with a *possible* alternative explanation. And when you’re deading with the *logical* argument from evil, a merely *possible* alternative is sufficient to invalidate the logical argument from evil.

I also think there’s nothing wrong with that move. He was answering the unbeliever on his own terms.

However, while that’s a good way to do apologetics, that’s no way to do theology. For in theology, we want to build on revealed truths, not pure conjectures.

2.Reppert seems to be operating with a version of natural theology in which you must validate certain theistic claims apart from revelation in order validate revelatory claims.

3.Likewise, there’s a theological tradition in which Christian faith falls short of knowledge. It’s a defeasible belief, like any other belief.

Apropos (2)-(3), my own religious experience is not that detached or compartmentalized. My faith in God and God’s word is more spontaneous and irrepressible. It’s not a seesaw in which I put the arguments on one side, the counterarguments on the other side, then stand back and see if the arguments outweigh the counterarguments, or vice versa.

Although I can argue for my faith, my faith is not reducible to my arguments. There’s an underlying religious experience which isn’t captured by formal arguments. What Newman called the illative sense and Polanyi called tacit knowledge.

Likewise, my religious impressions are more holistic than treating religious faith like staircase or ladder in which we can only graduate from one religious belief to another in a certain order, one rung at a time. My faith doesn’t have this unilinear, stepwise structure to it.

For me, there is not hiatus between revelation and providence. Between what I read and what I see. So I find Reppert’s framework quite artificial. I can relate to it at the level of critical sympathy, but at a personal level I don’t identify with his theological method.

I suspect there’s a third reason that Reppert tends to brush off exegetical appeals. That’s an argument from authority. And he may feel that such an appeal doesn’t afford a genuine explanation.

To that I’d say the following: I don’t appeal to Scripture because it’s the pious thing to do. I appeal to Scripture because it’s the practical thing to do.

How the hell would I know why God willed the occurrence of evil unless he tells me? If you want to know why God did something, the logical person to ask is God. I turn to Scripture because the Bible gives me God’s interpretation of his own actions. If I can’t find the answer in the Bible, then there’s no alternative source of information.

Put another way, I don’t think that Reppert’s speculations count as genuine explanations. There are so many conjectures to choose from.

Given a choice, I’d rather have a true answer that falls short of a complete explanation than a speculative explanation that falls short of truth.

Reppert invokes the specter of the Cartesian demon to blunt the appeal to revelation. But there are several problems with that maneuver:

i) Once you uncork the bottle and release the Cartesian genie, you can’t get it back into the bottle. You can’t *selectively* appeal to Cartesian demons. Invoking a Cartesian demon to undercut Calvinism or Reformed exegesis doesn’t do anything to justify an alternative like universalism or Arminianism or atheism or natural theology. For the “Omnipotent Fiend” lies behind each and every one of these alternative explanations.

ii) If there were a Cartesian demon, why would he blow his cover by planting the idea of a Cartesian demon in my mind? Wouldn’t his deception be more convincing if I didn’t suspect the existence of the Cartesian demon?

iii) The hypothetical is otiose. If there were a Cartesian demon, there’s nothing I could to thwart this global illusion, so invoking that hypothetical entity gives me no reason to prefer your position over mine. If the hypothetical were true, then nothing I believe or disbelieve makes any difference. There is no escape, whether into Calvinism or Arminianism or atheism or Hinduism or Buddhism or monadology or natural theology. Every apparent alternative is a mask for the Cartesian demon. So that maneuver confers no advantage on your own position.

Moving on to the specifics,

“There are difficulties with every position. You have to pick the position with the fewest difficulties.”

Actually, I don’t. I’d rather pick a true position, even if it has more difficulties, than a conjectural position with fewer difficulties.

I’ve also found that real life is very complicated.

“But the ‘illustration’ could have been accomplished in any number of less harmful ways.”

What does that have to do with real life? God could have delivered the Israelites by a less harmful means than the Ten Plagues. Your objection doesn’t constitute a factual rebuttal.

“Most study of the problem of evil suggests that with respect to a portion of human suffering, we can come up with possible scenarios according to which we can see why God would permit it. With other suffering, we aren't in a position to see why it occurs, but we are nevertheless entitle to believe that there is an answer even if we can't see it. With respect to some evils, it seems possible and in some cases easy to see why God permits them. With others, there is considerably more mystery.”

i) I’ve already pointed out the limitations with this theodicean strategy. It’s a valid move in apologetics, but I don’t base my theology on mere conjecture.

ii) I can offer a general explanation for evil, but I don’t presume to offer a specific explanation for why the Lord ordains any evil in particular—except where he has revealed him ulterior motives.

“Let's take the evil of everlasting suffering in hell. On a free will view I can see how someone might end up permanently in rebellion against God and unable (because they are unwilling to serve) to receive the joys of heaven.”

Why is that explanation limited to a libertarian? In Calvinism, one reason a sinner remains in hell is because he remains a sinner. His rebellion never comes to an end.

“Read The Great Divorce for how that goes.”

But, of course, The Great Divorce is fictitious.

“The first answer for the Calvinists has to be that they are sinners and deserve it.”

That’s a morally sufficient reason for hell. Given that damnation is just, God is at liberty to damn sinners.

That, of itself, doesn’t necessarily explain why he chooses to damn anyone. It’s not a sufficient explanation in that respect. But it does mean that God is not mistreating a sinner by damning him. It supplies a necessary condition.

“This assumes a couple of things, first that a temporal sin can deserve an infinite amount and duration of punishment”

I don’t even know what “a n infinite amount of punishment” means. And the Biblical doctrine of hell isn’t predicated on inflicting an “infinite amount of punishment” on the sinner.

Whether the duration of hell is “infinite” depends on whether you are defining “infinite” in potential or actual terms. The duration of hell is always finite. An endless temporal succession is a potential infinite, not an actual infinite. Both the sin and its punishment are temporal or finite.

Conversely, guilt is qualitative, not quantitative. If I do something wrong, it will always be the case that I did something wrong. The lapse of time doesn’t make me any less guilty over time.

“And second that humans can deserve retributive punishment for actions that they are determined by another to perform. (This is a strong form of compatibilism. Many compatibilists are not retributivists about punishment. They argue, for instance, that even if determinism is true, you can still deter crime by punishing criminals.)”

i) Reppert is setting up a false dichotomy. A retributivist is not necessarily opposed to either deterrence or remediation. Those are not mutually exclusive alternatives.

ii) Hell can serve as a deterrent in this life, but it loses any deterrent value in the next life. And hell is not a form of remedial punishment. So even if Scripture didn’t explicitly justify hell on retributive grounds, that would be the default explanation—by process of elimination.

“But let's grant these highly counterintuitive claims for the sake of argument.”

But, as we’ve just seen, neither one is counterintuitive. Hence, they don’t create any presumption to the contrary which Calvinism must then overcome.

“The unanimous answer in Calvinist theology seems to be that God does it for his own glory.”

That supplies another necessary condition. Between them, the “first answer” and the second answer constitute a sufficient condition.

However, we need to define our terms with care (see below).

“This seems as little counterintuitive as well--people who cause others to suffer for their own glory here on earth are considered bad, not good.”

i) Some people deserve to suffer. Causing them to suffer is good, not bad.

ii) We’re still equivocating over what the glorification refers to (see below).

“But let's grant that counterintuitive claim also.”

Counterintuitive to whom? Reppert has a sly habit of making disputable claims as if these were indisputable, then using these to create a presumption against the opposing thesis.

“Glory, it seems to me, analytically requires that it be glory in the eyes of someone.”


“On the face of things, the way a God pursuing his own glory to achieve that goal would be to save everyone so that there could be as many people as possible praising Him forever.”

I don’t see that God is pursuing his own glory. Rather, God glorifies his people. But they are glorified because they glory is the glorious attributes of God, which he reveals in history.

God doesn’t need people to praise him. That’s not the point. It’s not for his own benefit. Rather, it’s for their own benefit to appreciate what is ultimately and truly praiseworthy.

“And my response is that God, as an omnipotent and completely sovereign being can decree into place any state of mind that he wants without having to use the means of damned souls to create this glory for himself.”

Meaning what? Creating an illusion? A state of mind that doesn’t correspond to a real world referent? Yes, God has the power to do that.

God could also create a virtual crucifixion. But how does Reppert think that a delusive simulation affords a morally sufficient alternative? Isn’t that rather Docetic?

“(Let's also put to the side any Kantian worries about using people as a mere means).”

Since I’m not a Kantian deontologist, I have no worries to set aside in that respect.

“So the instantiation of damned essences doesn't serve any conceivable greater good, because that good could be accomplished without the damnations.”

That’s a non sequitur. Reppert is now assuming that the greater good must be unique. That there can only be one greater good.

I don’t see how that follows. Why can’t there be alternative greater goods? Alternative second-order goods?

I can father a child without fathering a child with Down syndrome. Yet a child with Down syndrome represents a second-order good.

Is it wrong for God to create a child with Down syndrome? God could create a normal baby in his place. But it wouldn’t be the same baby. It wouldn’t be the same person. There’s a good that comes of this genetic defect (same with autism) that wouldn’t emerge without it. I don’t subscribe to Reppert’s eugenic theodicy.

“I am simply arguing that whatever glory God wants or needs he can accomplish without inflicting eternal punishment on anyone. Therefore, even granting several Calvinistic assumptions, eternal damnation remains an apparently gratuitous evil.”

Gratuitous in what sense? Unnecessary? Or pointless?

In Christian theology, it’s necessary that Christ die. Yet it’s not necessary that he die by any particular means. But that doesn’t mean the Cross was a gratuitous evil. It was purposeful. It served its purpose.

“If God makes me a sinner, there has to be some good that is brought out of it, if I am a reprobated sinner, then there must be something gained from my being a reprobated sinner.”

True. But the reprobate doesn’t have to be the beneficiary. Someone else can be the beneficiary (i.e. the elect).

“I argued that God has something to gain from saving us but nothing to gain from reprobating us, if it is strictly up to him.”

God has nothing to gain in either case. God is not doing himself a favor. Rather, he’s doing the elect a favor.


  1. It really comes down to what the Bible says God did, not asking what he could have done instead.

  2. Steve, while I haven't read all the posts here on Triablogue dealing with Reppert's arminianism, I will say that this is my favorite post.

    You've diagnosed that the two approaches are so fundamentally different... perhaps to the point where the two of you could be talking past one another. And probably are.

    Without agreement on the assumptions and presuppositions, Reppert is not going to move over towards Calvinism and you're not going to move over towards Arminianism.

    Anyways, isn't the monergistic vs. synergistic argument a more fundamental and foundational argument? Or is it encapsulated in the TULIP argument?

    Fwiw, I'm a monergist.