Saturday, October 06, 2012

Saving the Canaanites

Suppose that God knew that unless he were to command the Israelites to wipe out their enemies, they themselves would be wiped out. And suppose further, as the Bible teaches, that Israel was God’s chosen vessel to provide a way of salvation to the world–including those very people wiped out in those genocidal attacks…So it is entirely possible that the conquest narratives are consistent with God’s doing all he can to save the Canaanites and to do what’s best for them in the long term…Moreover, according to Christian thought, the deaths of those Canaanites were partially instrumental in making possible the coming of Jesus through the preserved remnant of Israel.

D. Baggett & J. Walls, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (Oxford 2011), 138-40.

I think this argument has some promising features, although it also has some problematic features. I think it can be rehabilitated.

i) Their argument contains the gratuitous assumption that God ought to give every Canaanite a chance to be saved. For the moment, let’s bracket the special case of infant Canaanites. (By “infant,” I mean Canaanites who died before the age of discretion.)

In reference to adults (i.e. those above the age of discretion), God can justly punish them by executing them as well as damning them. In that respect, God’s command to wipe out the Canaanites doesn’t even present a prima facie problem. They are sinners. No special explanation is required to justify God exacting retributive judgment on the wicked. To the contrary, that’s what a just God is supposed to do. Punish evildoers. God would be unjust if he failed to requite iniquity.

ii) What some readers find objectionable is not the execution of the men, but the execution of noncombatants. As combatants, able-bodied men are fair game in time of war. But the women (and children) are a different story.

The immunity of noncombatants is very chivalrous, but morally irrelevant to the case at hand. Women are moral agents. Women can be just as sinful, just as guilty, as men.

This isn’t just a case of war, but holy war. God is judging the Canaanites for their iniquity.

In addition, Canaanite boys would grow up to be combatants.

iii) What many readers find especially objectionable is the execution of the kids. I’d note, in passing, that from a Biblical standpoint, even infants are guilty in Adam. That’s a controversial claim, and I’m not going to take the time to defend it in this post, but I think it’s both Biblical and defensible.

iv) Another question is how pagans can be saved. According to one theory, they can be saved by favorably responding to general revelation.

But according to Scripture, people can only be saved by favorably responding to special revelation. Indeed, that’s one of the distinctive privileges and advantages of the Chosen People. By special revelation, they enjoy a saving knowledge of the true God–in contrast to the heathen, who are sunk in idolatry.

By living in proximity to the Jews, it’s possible for Gentiles to be saved, if they become worshipers of the true God of Israel. If they convert to the true faith.

I could spend more time all (iii-iv). For now I’m just blocking out the issues.

v) Baggett and Walls apparently agree with me that access special revelation is a precondition for salvation. They get around this by postulating postmortem evangelism (139-40).

That postulate reflects the degree to which modern Arminianism increasingly deviates from Biblical orthodoxy. But I’m not going to argue the point here and now.

vi) The authors’ argument involves the counterintuitive assumption that the future can affect the past. But we normally think the past can affect the future, not vice versa. To make this work, we need to supply two subsidiary conditions:

a) If God is timeless, then God can confer a past benefit that’s contingent on the realization of a future condition. God’s viewpoint is ontologically independent of the temporal sequence.

b) If history unfolds according to God’s master plan, then God can arrange events so that a future event will affect a past event. The past is planned with a view to the future, and vice versa.

vii) Both (vi-a) and (b) are consistent with Calvinism. However, they present problems for Arminianism. For one thing, many modern Arminians deny God’s timeless eternality.

For instance, they think a genuine dialogue between God and men must take place in real time. In order for God to genuinely respond to human petitions, God must actually listen to the human speaker. Wait for the speaker to have his say.

If, by contrast, God is timeless, then this is a canned dialogue. It lacks the give-and-take of a genuine exchange.

If, however, God is conditioned by time, then God is in no position to confer a past benefit that’s contingent on the realization of a future condition. A temporal God lacks the transcendent perspective of take it all in at a glance.

viii) On a related note, some Arminians explicate divine foreknowledge to mean God knows the future by foreseeing what will happen. He’s on the receiving end of the process.

But in that event, God isn’t planning the outcome. God can’t orchestrate events so that a future event affects a past event. Rather, his foreknowledge is the effect of what will transpire. So God doesn’t control or coordinate the relationship between past and future events. For what will transpire is the cause of God’s foresight. God doesn’t make that happen. Rather, that happening makes God prescient.

One could spend more time unpacking (vii-viii). For now I’m presenting a thumbnail sketch of an argumentative strategy.

ix) What about Calvinism? Given Calvinism, it’s easier to see how God could save infant Canaanites. They’d be saved by regeneration in this life, and faith in the afterlife.

Since, moreover, God plans world history, and knows what he plans, God can orchestrate events to confer a retroactive benefit. Although the atonement is future in relation to infant Canaanites, they can be saved ahead of time.

x) I’m not taking a position on the salvation of Canaanite babies. Because Scripture says so little about the fate of those who die in infancy, there is no Reformed consensus on the issue. Any position will be speculative.

Some Calvinists believe in universal infant salvation. Some Calvinists believe the dying infants of believers are saved. Likewise, we can be open to the possibility that God saves infants of unbelieving parents. All these positions are coherent with Calvinism.

xi) So we could appropriate the argument of Baggett and Walls. Indeed, the argument works better when it’s adapted to Reformed presuppositions.

Given Calvinism, mass execution of the Canaanites could be God’s way of saving infant Canaanites. In order to save anyone, God must protect ancient Israel from her mortal enemies. For ancient Israel is the conduit of the Messiah.

But in principle, that can circle back to the benefit of the casualties. By protecting Israel at the immediate expense of her pagan enemies, that, in turn, could lay the groundwork for their subsequent redemption (of a subset thereof). They are harmed in the short-term, but restored in the long-term. And the former is a necessary precondition of the latter.

xii) An unbeliever might object that this is ingenious special pleading. The conquest narratives say nothing about the salvation of infant Canaanites. That's an anachronistic rationalization. Retrofitting the OT.

xiii) To that objection, I’d say several things:

a) The argument from silence cuts both ways. If Scripture is silent on the eternal fate of Canaanite infants, then unbelievers are in no position to say God wronged them by bringing about their premature demise. For the unbeliever is ignorant of how the story ultimately ends. (Not to mention other justificatory considerations.)

b) Scripture does say God blessed Israel with a view to blessing the Gentiles. That’s as old as the Abrahamic covenant. And that’s reiterated in the Prophets. God made provision for their eventual redemption from the outset.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean Gentiles who lived in the past would reap the benefits. But it’s consistent with that outcome–just as elect Jews who lived in the past would reap the benefits.

c) If a belief-system has the internal resources to address unanticipated objections, that’s to the credit of the belief-system. If, after the fact, unbelievers raise an objection that wasn’t on the radar back then, but Christian theology has the wherewithal to field that objection, then that illustrates the richness of Christian theology. Indeed, that’s something we’d expect if God inspired the Bible.

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