Friday, October 14, 2011

Moral inability

Recently, Ponterites have attempted to deflect the arguments of Paul Manata and me by evoking the Edwardsean distinction between natural and moral ability. But this maneuver fails on multiple grounds.

i) To begin with, Ponterites equivocate over the definition of “sincerity.” They cite dictionaries like the OED, but then disregard the semantic range of “sincere” or “well-meant.”

Having cited the dictionaries, they immediately proceed to abandon the lexical data and dictate makeshift definitions which are custom-made to coincide with their position.

ii) Their contention is that special redemption renders the gospel offer insincere because redemption is a precondition of coming to Christ. Yet redemption is “unavailable” to the unredeemed. It is “impossible” for the unredeemed to come to Christ. God hasn’t make redemptive “provision” for the unredeemed. The words in quotation marks are words that Ponterites have used to frame the issue.

iii) Manata and I have responded by pointing out that this argument either proves too much or too little inasmuch as there are other preconditions which must be met for the lost to come to Christ–preconditions which even 4-pointers accept. Not only must the lost be redeemed, but they must be elected and regenerated.

iv) At this juncture the Ponterites try to block those counterexamples by evoking the distinction between natural and moral ability. However, that move fails on two grounds:

v) Moral or spiritual inability still renders it impossible for the unregenerate to come to Christ. You can say it’s a different kind of inability, but it doesn’t change the fact that God is still “inviting” or “commanding” a subset of sinners to accept the gospel offer even though a necessary precondition is unavailable to them. God hasn’t made provision for the satisfaction of a necessary condition in their case. So this distinction fails to salvage the “sincerity” of the “well-meant” offer even on Ponterite terms.

vi) In addition, this distinction is irrelevant to reprobation. Reprobation is a subdivision of predestination.

The distinction between natural ability and moral or spiritual ability has reference to the noetic effects of sin, especially original sin. This distinction represents an effort to explain how sinners can still be blameworthy for disbelief or disobedience even though they are in some way unable to believe or obey.

It is said that while they are “morally” or “spiritually” unable to respond, they remain “naturally” able to respond. Their “natural” faculties remain intact.

vii) However, that distinction has no bearing on predestination. The reprobate and the unregenerate are “naturally” or metaphysically unable to do other than what God decreed. Indeed, their residual natural ability is, itself, a predestined ability. A result of God’s decree. And the effect of a cause cannot negate the cause of the effect.

Sinners are both naturally and morally unable to do other than whatever God predestined them to do. Indeed, that inability applies to fallen and unfallen creatures alike. Unfallen Adam lacks the freedom to act contrary to God’s decree.

That’s just baseline Calvinism. While there’s more to Calvinism than predestination, there’s no less to Calvinism that predestination.

viii) Let’s also keep in mind that the natural/moral distinction has more to do with Reformed polemic theology than Reformed systematic or dogmatic theology. Original sin (as well as the noetic effects thereof) is a given in Reformed theology. But that generates prima facie theodicean difficulties. Hence, some Reformed theologians (e.g. Jonathan Edwards) draw an apologetic distinction between moral and spiritual ability to explain how the unregenerate can still be morally responsible and culpable.

However, Reformed theology doesn’t require that distinction. For Reformed theology, reprobation and original sin are revealed truths. These are truths regardless of whether we can successfully defend them on purely philosophical grounds. We have a precommitment to these revealed truths. The a priori of faith. If they are philosophically defensible by natural reason, so much the better. But apologetic distinctions don’t have the same dogmatic status or epistemic warrant as revealed truths. There’s a difference between what we are obligated to believe (on God’s authority), and how we go about defending those beliefs (by natural reason). 

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