Saturday, September 19, 2009

Investing in the pearl of great price

“How a Calvinistic God would reconcile me to the idea of reprobation in such a way as to permit me to worship him is difficult for me to comprehend.”

Well, one basic problem is that I don’t share Reppert’s intuitions. That’s why he has to resort to subversive hypotheticals.

A Reformed theodicy (which I equate with Bible history) operates on the principle of tradeoffs. On the one hand, you could have a world with lesser goods and lesser evils. On the other hand, you could have a world with greater goods and greater evils. God opted for the latter.

Let’s take an illustration. On the one hand you have an arranged marriage between a man and a woman, both of whom come from “good” families. Indeed, they each come from one of the “best” families in the land.

If they marry each other, they will enjoy a very lavish standard of living. While they don’t love each other, they like each other. Over time they may grow fond of each other. Care about each other. They may also have children whom they love.

There’s nothing wrong with a marriage like that. A marriage without highs or lows. A marriage devoid of passion.

On the other hand, you have an arranged marriage, but the rich young suitor has fallen in love with a “commoner.” Indeed, they’ve known each other for years. They take surreptitious walks in the park. Secluded picnics on his sailboat. Little things like that.

He longs for her. And when he looks into her eyes, he sees her yearning in return.

But his family disapproves of marriage to a commoner. Indeed, they’ll disown him if he presumes to marry someone below his station in life.

However, he throws caution to the wind, and takes her to be his wife. As a result, they have a rather meager standard of living. But they have each other, and they live happily ever after.

We see this type of tradeoff in the parable about the Pearl of Great Price (Mt 13:44-46). The man has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire something priceless. But he must sell everything he has to buy it.

He must forego all the lesser goods to acquire one incomparable good.

We also see this with C. S. Lewis. He married a woman with cancer. He knew the risk. As a result, he had a tragically brief, intense, bittersweet marriage.

Lewis was in a position to marry a different woman. A healthy woman. As an Oxford don, he was a very eligible bachelor. But he chose to roll the dice.

I had an uncle whose wife made him oatmeal for breakfast for every day of their marriage. For 60 years, he had oatmeal for breakfast. Like Reppert, my uncle was the mild-mannered academic type.

However, whenever he came to visit us, he wanted to us to taking him out to nice restaurants. The restaurants he could never take his wife to–because she wasn’t into romance or fine food or anything out of the ordinary.

In his little way, my uncle had an adventurous streak. But he chose a life of stability instead. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Now, it may be that Reppert is temperamentally incapable of relating to that type of mindset. Perhaps he’s a naturally cautious, sensible man who’d rather play it safe. He’ll forgo the highs to forgo the lows.

And if that’s the case, I don’t fault his priorities. But I do fault him for faulting the Bible if it doesn’t share his bland, timid priorities.

“I sympathize with Talbott's statement 'I will not worship such a God, and if such a God can send me to hell for not so worshipping him, then to hell I will go'.”

Of course, Talbott takes the position that unless God saves all of his loved ones, then God is unworthy of his love and adoration. And he extrapolates from his own case to everybody else–since just about everybody has loved ones.

Up to a point, I can appreciate his sentiments at a purely emotional level. But I also realize that that’s a purely emotional response which is completely divorced from justice or morality.

For all I know, John Gotti’s widow can’t bear the thought of spending eternity without her beloved husband by her side. But for me to say, on that account, that I won’t worship such a God, and if such a God can send me to hell for not so worshipping him, then to tell I will go, is not a rational or honorable or admirable sentiment. To the contrary, it’s profoundly evil and ungrateful.

Such a thankless, petulant, amoral attitude is, indeed, deserving of hell. I’m tempted to say it’s juvenile, which would be true-–but that tends to trivialize the egregious evil of the sentiment.

Reppert finds Calvinism outrageous, while I find Reppert’s outrage outrageous. It’s reprehensible to say that God is unworthy of your worship in case he punishes evildoers instead of saving them.

“But let's put it this way. Suppose I became convinced that I couldn't deny Calvinism without denying inerrancy, and also that I couldn't reject inerrancy without undermining Christianity. (This is a real hypothetical scenario, but let's go there for a minute). Then I would be left with my intuition that this sort of God was acting wrongly, and what would I do with that? Could my intuitions be in error?”

i) But that generates a dilemma. If your moral intuitions lead you to disbelieve in God, then where does that leave your moral intuitions? In a godless universe, your moral intuitions are the adventitious byproducts of your social conditioning and your evolutionary programming. Mere feelings–feelings which don’t correspond to right and wrong. For a godless world is amoral to the core.

If you begin to question God on the basis of your morality, then you end by questioning your morality in the absence of God. Without God, your moral intuitions are illusory.

ii) I’d also add that I’m not the least bit inclined to answer Reppert’s subversive hypotheticals. Reppert’s whole line of questioning is positively diabolical. He’s reprising the role of the Tempter. But why should I humor Mephistopheles?

“I think I would pose the question as follows. Can Calvinism offer any reason for worshipping their God that is not a dressed-up version of the might-makes-right argument?”

Of course, I’ve answered that question on more than one occasion.

I’d add that I don’t share his voluntaristic view of saving faith. He seems to think we put the evidence for God in one column, and the counterevidence (as he sees it) in another column, then go with whichever column is longer.

But that confuses apologetics with how people come to know something. We don’t believe because of the arguments. Rather, the arguments are just a way of trying to articulate our tacit knowledge of God’s indubitable existence.

Underlying the arguments is our experience of God’s grace and providence. To the regenerate, faith in God is spontaneous and irrepressible. It’s not a light-switch that we flick on or off at will. Rather, it’s sunlight and moonlight–day and night.

“If no, then I'm with Tom Talbott. I won't worship on the basis of mere power alone.”

Actually, unbelievers do worship power. They live for power. Idolize power.

“Is there something better than a might-makes-right argument that can be made on behalf of a Calvinistic God? That would be the question.”

But, as we know, Reppert’s theological antipathies aren’t limited to Calvinism. He’s equally antagonistic to everlasting retribution. He’s equally antagonistic to certain OT commands. He uses Calvinism as a stalking horse to camouflage a far wider range of things in Scripture which offend his precious sensibilities.

And the Bible describes some very unpleasant events–past and future. It also contains some very unpleasant commands.

But that’s because the Bible is realistic. That’s the world we live in. A fallen world which is the theater of redemption is a world with some stark tradeoffs.

There’s a moral austerity to a supralapsarian theodicy. It’s rather angular. A high cost/benefit ratio.

There are possible worlds which lower the cost. But, by the same token, they lower the compensatory benefits. Fewer losses with fewer gains.

That, however, is not the world God chose to make. That’s not the world we inhabit. You and I don’t exist in those nice, safe, equitable, ouchless painless worlds. I exist in this world. My loved ones exist in this world. As such, I’m in no position to complain.

To take one example, suppose I’m the bastard son of an 18C nobleman. I carry a social stigma. My half-brothers shun me as a usurper.

That’s unfair. Unjust. But should I blame God? Well, if my dad hadn’t slept with his courtesan, I wouldn’t even be here. So, like Reppert, I can kick against the goads every step of the way, whining and bitching and bemoaning the injustice of it all. Or else I can thank God for the gift of life and make the most of my God-given opportunities.

“But we are a long way from this situation. I will repeat that the closest I ever came to atheism was when I started reading the Bible Calvinistically at the age of 19.”

For a card-carrying libertarian, Reppert has a fundamentally coercive criterion for love and friendship. For him, it boils down to a quid pro quo. I won’t do something for God unless God does something for me or my loved ones.

That’s why Reppert keeps resorting to emotional coercion. He dares God to damn him unless God behaves according to his specifications.

It’s highly ironic that a doctrinaire libertarian like Reppert regards coercive emotional appeals as the ultimate basis of love and friendship. But there you have it.


  1. That read about that parable was about as clear as it gets!

    Thanks and may God continue giving you His Blessed clarity of thought in written form when writing about His parables!

    More, more, more!

  2. "For all I know, John Gotti’s widow can’t bear the thought of spending eternity without her beloved husband by her side"

    It is true that familial loyalties may need to take a back seat to some greater moral good. However, I'm betting that Reppert doesn't place his dear aunt or cousin in the same moral sphere as mass murderer John Gotti.

    I don't know these relatives sufficiently to make that call, do you? In fact, I don't know them at all.

    True, they could have been amoral monsters and thugs, but there's an equal chance that they have/had more natural virtues than you or Reppert.

    Thus is, it seems a bit presumptuous to attack Reppert's moral character. For him, it is a matter of ethics to do justice to people whom he cares for.


    "It is true that familial loyalties may need to take a back seat to some greater moral good. However, I'm betting that Reppert doesn't place his dear aunt or cousin in the same moral sphere as mass murderer John Gotti."

    You're speaking out of ignorance. Reppert was endorsing Talbott's argument for universalism. Do you know his argument? Evidently not.

    To be worshipful, God must save all my loved ones. And, by extension, God must also save all your loved ones. So Talbott doesn't distinguish between nice loved ones and evil loved ones.

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