Sunday, May 29, 2011

Our Intuitions and Mark 8:27-33

In debates with Calvinists, Arminians and Universalists often, though not necessarily always, start with moral intuitions and seemings of human reason to point out the immoral and unreasonable implications of the Calvinist system. Also, they will start with an assumption of what God is like. For example, if God is revealed as loving, this will be glossed in a manner believed to best fit with our intuitions of what a loving God must be like. They also start, often enough, with these intuitions and seemings only then to go looking for Scriptural support for their own position. I'll provide several quotes that I think evince this tendency.
"I knew instinctively that I could never worship a God who is less kind, less merciful, less loving than my own parents, but that is just what I seemed to encounter in the mainstream of Western theology: a God who, though gracious (after a fashion) to some (the elect), refuses to will the good for others (the non-elect). And I could not imagine my parents refusing to will the good for anyone.


In church I had been taught that the Bible is the final authority on everything, but in my home I was experiencing the true meaning of love. I was the second born in a large family of six children, and in our family it was unthinkable that our parents might favor one of us over another. There were no favorites, period; we were all equal objects of our parents’ love and equally precious to them. So it is perhaps not surprising that I should find myself unable to worship a God who, unlike my parents, was quite prepared to play favorites.”

-- Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 8-9

"Faced with what I take to be a strong Calvinist exegetical argument from, say, James White about Romans, alongside a deeply held moral conviction that a God who behaves like a Calvinistic God does would not be good, why am I obligated to follow the exegetical argument instead of the evidence of my moral intuitions? I might change my moral convictions if I think the case is very strong. I might start doubting God's goodness. Or I might conclude that there has to be something wrong with the interpretation. Because of the fallibility of exegetes, however, a general rule that the intuitions must give way seems to me to be unjustified."

-- Victor Reppert

“But instead of concluding, as they should, that a loving God, who understands our limitations better than we do, would never require more of human reason than it can deliver, they draw a very different moral: namely, that we must set aside our critical faculties altogether and blindly accept some proposition that, according to the best judgment we can muster at the time, seems unworthy of human belief or perhaps even morally repugnant. In an effort to get us to accept such a proposition, they may also identify a humble submission to God with an uncritical submission to some tradition or some sacred text that either endorses, or appears to endorse, the proposition in question. But only a false prophet, I want to suggest, would ask us to accept some proposition, however true, despite the fact that it seems to us, for whatever reason, to be unworthy of human belief”

-- Thomas Talbott

“There is, of course, a way in which even a simple peasant could have undermined all of Nivlac's pretensions. Suppose that a peasant woman should have approached him and have said something like this: "Look, Nivlac, I love Morg with all my heart, and I believe that the Book of Morg is indeed his holy Word. And I don't know what to say about your fancy arguments that seem to imply such awful things about Morg. But I do know this. No holy or just or loving Creator like Morg, no Creator of the kind that I worship, could possibly hate this little albino child of mine that I love so much. Indeed, if he loves me, as you say he does, then he must also love my baby. So if you are right about the meaning of these verses – mind you, I'm not saying you are right – but IF you are right, then these verses are just wrong; they are not a true revelation from Morg.

-- Talbott, ibid, a parable about Traditionalists

“The argument opens with an examination of the philosophical problems with traditional Christian teachings on hell. It was here that my own doubts about the tradition began . . .

According to the traditional doctrine, hell is everlasting, conscious torment. What possible crime is a finite human capable of committing that would be justly be punished in this way? Many find the idea absurd, because it is hard to see how even the most hideous crimes humans commit could be balanced by the traditional eternal punishing.

-- Robin Parry, The Evangelical Universalist, 7, 11

“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 being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, then to hell I will go.”

-- John Stuart Mill, Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy, p. 103

“[B]ut [the Bible’s] teachings can’t so fundamentally grate against our rational or moral deliverances that our belief is rendered simply irrational or immoral . . . If the Bible did indeed teach [unconditional election], wouldn’t it be more rational to believe that it’s not morally reliable?”

-- Jerry Walls, Good God, 76, 78

“This is the blasphemy clearly contained in the horrible decree of predestination! And here I fix my foot. On this I join issue with every assertor of it. You represent God as worse than the devil; more false, more cruel, more unjust. But you say you will prove it by scripture. Hold! What will you prove by Scripture? That God is worse than the devil? It cannot be. Whatever that Scripture proves, it never proved this; whatever its true meaning be. This cannot be its true meaning.”

-- John Wesley, sermon Free Grace

“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. I remain convinced that the creature can say to the creator ‘Why hast thou made me thus.’ Given the fact that I have now agreed that Calvinism has the facts right, how do you now persuade me that this is right. Yes, I am headed for a showdown with the Almighty in which I stick my finger in the Almighty's face and tell him that I won't worship him since I can't see him as good. Prudentially, I ought to change my mind. But if the world were ruled by an Omnipotent Fiend, then these same considerations would still be present.”

--Victor Reppert

“Our moral intuition agrees with this. “There is a powerful moral revulsion against the traditional doctrine of the nature of hell. Everlasting torture is intolerable from a moral point of view because it pictures God acting like a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for his enemies whom he does not even allow to die. How can one love a God like that?”

-- Clark Pinnock, Four Views on Hell, 149

I suppose that’s a sufficient sampling for our purposes. I’ve been aware of these quotes and argumentative tactics for quite some time, but a problem with the above attitude recently became more vivid to me while reading Mark 8, specifically

27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.
32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Though it will be difficult, I will refrain from making other objections (logical, philosophical, and theological) to the above quotes and simply focus on Mark 8.

I. Notice that what Jesus told Peter sounded both immoral and irrational to him.

First, everyone "just knew" that the Jewish Messiah could not suffer, be rejected, and die. So Peter faced a logical contradiction:

(1) The Christ cannot suffer and die.
(2) Jesus said I (we) was correct to call him the Christ.
(3) Jesus said he would suffer and die.
(4) Either he is not the Christ or he will not suffer and die.

This reasoning was rock solid to Peter. He’s being asked to embrace what he takes to be logically impossible.

Moreover, Jesus’ claim was immoral, for a good, sovereign, loving God would not allow his Christ to suffer and die. It is unthinkable and views God as some kind of moral monster who would allow the Christ to suffer and die. To be rejected and humiliated.

II. Note that the above quotes are apropos here, weighing in on Peter’s side. For example:

(i) If the Messiah were the son of Peter, he would not allow such a thing, and certainly his parents wouldn’t. Peter had grown up in a loving family, and that a father would allow his son to be killed and shamed is unthinkable. Peter could not worship a Messiah that presented a God that was less loving than Peter’s own parents.

(ii) So there had to be something wrong with the interpretation, Jesus needed correcting. No matter that Peter had seen Jesus perform miracles in front of him and teach with authority on several occasions, what he just said was so fundamentally off — both rationally and morally — that he needed to be corrected as to his interpretation of his Messianic role.

(iii) According to the best reasoning at the time, Peter was being asked to set aside these beliefs and embrace the rationally and morally repugnant [indeed, Mark indicates that the disciples would not understand, could not fully understand, until after Jesus died and resurrected again]. The idea was “absurd and hard to swallow.”

(iv) Peter certainly would not do this to the Messiah, and neither would his fellow man. Indeed, if his fellow man did do this to the Messiah, they would not be good, and so Peter could not call any being good who is not what he means when he calls his fellow man good.

(v) So what Jesus said can’t be true because this fundamentally grated against Peter’s rational and moral deliverances. But, IF what Jesus said were true, I say IF, then wouldn’t it be more rational for Peter to believe that Jesus was not the Messiah, or morally reliable?

(vi) Sure, Jesus could argue circles around Peter, but whatever the Old Testament proves, it never proves this.

(vii) His moral intuitions agree, there is a powerful moral revulsion against this teaching.

III. Jesus’ response is interesting. He doesn’t “understand” that Peter is faced with believing the morally and rationally absurd, and gently lead him like a child into knowledge or at least affirm him in his incredulity. Rather, Jesus calls him “satan” [an especially harsh remark, for surely Jesus knew that Peter was faced with both rational and moral absurdities that contradicted his intuitions!]. Jesus next says that Peter is looking at matters according to human intuitions. He has human concerns in mind. Human expectations of what God is like. Human expectations of what God must do if he is to be loving and just. Jesus knew that what seemed impossible for the disciples to believe would become clear to them in the future. They were blind at the time, and they had to walk by faith. What wasn’t an option for Jesus was that they could or should reject him because of what appeared rationally and morally absurd to them presently. However, according to the above quotes, Peter and the disicples had every rational and moral right to rebuke and correct Jesus, and he had no right to call Peter “satan” and dogmatically and authoritatively tell them that they needed to check their intuitions.

IV. I think Mark 8 provides some presuppositional framing to discussions regarding Arminianism and Universalism, and their use and heavy reliance on “moral intuitions” to dismiss Calvinist exegesis from the start.

No doubt, there’s more to say here, and there’s some distinctions that would be helpful to make. That’ll have to wait for another time. At the very least, though, according to the above quotes, it seems Peter was fully justified in rebuking Jesus, and even thinking he was morally and rationally untrustworthy. Peter would have been well within his rights to walk away from Jesus. Moreover, Jesus was unjustified in his harsh response to Peter's incredulity based on solid reasoning and moral intuitions.


  1. Really, quite excellent, Paul. I very much enjoyed that.

  2. Very Good Paul,

    Indeed, we ought to "check our intuitions" against MUCH stronger revelations.
    Or suffer a god of our own making.

  3. Well done. To the author who claimed his parents never played favourites amongst his siblings, he was not paying attention. Parents always play favourites.

    And to reduce his image/idea of God to the fallible efforts of human parents is truly quite remarkable because of the diminishing of God that is brought now into play.

  4. I will gladly use this in teaching that I do when the question of our intuitions and the meaning of Scripture comes up for discussion.

  5. Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaac is another excellent example you could use.

  6. Funny thing, those things that I previously held as intuitively unfair or unloving (namely predestination and the freedom of God over against my own relative lack of freedom) now seem to be to be so intuitively right and good and loving, as to be unquestionable.

    Do we imagine that our intuition comes from nowhere? Or the, in subjection to Scripture, it cannot be changed?

    Thank God it can.

    And thank God that I could not repent without his gift and permission.

  7. In discussions like this the issue of either God's fairness or God's perfection end up being set against each other.

    I know what I shall choose -- I want a God who is perfect not one that is supposed to be fair according to my flawed understanding being used as the measuring stick.

  8. Well done. To the author who claimed his parents never played favourites amongst his siblings, he was not paying attention. Parents always play favourites.

    And to reduce his image/idea of God to the fallible efforts of human parents is truly quite remarkable because of the diminishing of God that is brought now into play.

    That's the analogy that leapt out to me as well, GREV.

    Obviously the appeal to emotive well-poisoning tactics ought to serve as a red flag that eisegesis has entered the building...but that particular analogy cuts both ways.

    Asserting that the "real God" doesn't "play favorites in His family" while appealing to the allegedly unbiased love of one's own human family is certainly fallacious in that it brings God's love down to a human level, as GREV has rightly pointed out, but it's also deeply flawed in that the interlocutor failed to recognize his actual complaint was against how God "loves" those who are outside His family.

    Does Talbott upbraid his parents and reject them as being "unloving" because they didn't treat all children on earth without distinction in the same equally loving manner as they loved him and his siblings?

    I smell a double-standard.

    In Christ,