Saturday, January 28, 2012

Culturebound moral intuitions

After sketching this basic view, Peter van Inwagen [philosophy prof. at Notre Dame] says:

Critics of the morality of the God of the Hebrews rarely ask themselves what the source of the morality from whose perspective they present their criticism is. A few years ago, I watched with great pleasure the HBO production called ‘Rome’. The final disk of the DVD version of ‘Rome’ includes interviews with some of the people involved in the production of the program. In one interview, someone or other was asked in what ways he thought the Romans were like us and unlike us. He replied that they were remarkably like us in most ways, but that there was one way in which they were very different from us: in their extreme brutality—in both their willingness to commit brutal acts and in their indifference to the pervasive, entrenched brutality of their world. When he was asked whether he could explain why we and the Romans were so different in this respect, he did not quite answer by saying ‘Christianity is what made the difference’—I don’t think he could have brought himself to say that—but he did identify ‘Judeo-Christian morality’ as the source of the difference. And that was a very good answer. The morality of almost everyone in Western Europe and the anglophone countries today (if that person is not a criminal or a sociopath) is either the morality that the Hebrew Bible was tending toward or some revised, edited version of that morality. Almost every atheist (in Western Europe and the anglophone countries), however committed he or she may be to atheism, accepts some modified version of what Judeao-Christian morality teaches about how human beings ought to treat other human beings. And even the modifications are generally achieved by using one part of that morality to attack some other part. (For example, by attempting to turn the principle ‘don’t make other people unhappy’ against Judeo-Christian sexual morality.)


I'm sure I speak for the entire Triablogue team in expressing our condolences to Ben Witherington in his time of sorrow.

Terrorist alert: code pink

How to Spot a Gay Terrorist

Godly Arminians is worth considering whether the character of God as entailed in Calvinism contributes to anger and harshness toward others among *some* Calvinists. Certainly there are many humble and loving Calvinists. But could it be that there is something in the Calvinist view of God that encourages harshness with the result that, while many Calvinists resist the temptation to be harsh because of the Holy Spirit and Scripture, many are led into harshness by the Calvinist view of God? Is it mere coincidence that one of Arminianism's major criticisms of Calvinism is that it logically entails a harsh view of God, and that even Calvinist leaders have been noting a special problem with Calvinists being harsh? To put it simply, could there be a connection along these lines: harsh God --> harsh Calvinists?

This is a popular meme which Arminians are trying to promote. Of course, it’s a totally partisan characterization.

But suppose we turn it around. If Calvinists take after the Calvinist God, what would it mean for Arminians to take after the Arminian God? If Arminian behavior mirrored the behavior of the Arminian God, how would Arminians conduct themselves?

If an Arminian was walking along the beach, and saw a man beating up his girlfriend, the Arminian wouldn’t interfere. For if he tried to restrain the abusive boyfriend, that would infringe on the man’s freedom choice. For a man to truly love his girlfriend, he must free to beat her to a bloody pulp.

By the same token, an Arminian could never be a policeman, for his job would require him to constantly infringe on the freedom of criminals. Likewise, they'd never intervene in epidemics or natural disasters. 

The Michael I never knew

I primarily know of Michael Sudduth from his essay "The Transcendental Argument for God's Existence."He's worked with Greg Bahnsen, and used to run a blog with another person (don't remember the name). 

He seems to be confusing Michael Sudduth with Michael Butler (and Tim Harris). 

Different Approaches to Scripture between Protestants and Roman Catholics

Regarding Jesus’s conversation with the rich young man (Matt 19:16:22), Philip writes:

Here we have what may superficially be deemed “works salvation.” However, the Lord goes on to say, upon the laments of the disciples that such perfection is exceedingly difficult, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Without the grace of God, the kingdom of heaven is inaccessible.

You have to step back here and look at what’s really going on. Here’s an approach, which shows the fundamental difference in approach to the Scriptures. It is what Roman Catholics do not do. And what the Protestant Reformers did.

You have to start with God. Ask, “What is God doing in the world?”

Rome, through the centuries, was fascinated by, enamored with, its own history. It’s as if they’re saying, “God has made us great … He has given us authority, and by golly, we deserve it. We are the See of Peter, we go back into the 300’s with this authority”, etc. It has a pile of doctrines and dogmas that it accreted. And it has to account for and justify these. This is how Rome primarily uses the Scriptures.

On the other hand, if you are to be able to really understand who God is, what He’s doing in the world, you have to start with the beginning of God’s revelation to us: His written Word. The Old Testament is very explicit about who God is, and what he’s doing in the world.

The Reformers were among the first who were able to do this – they were able to take the broad sweep of the Hebrew OT and the Greek New Testament, to look at the broad sweep of what is called “salvation history” – think of Stephen’s speech in Acts 7; think of Irenaeus “The Preaching of the Apostles”.

You need the Old Testament as an anchor for the New. And in this regard, the Reformers were able to go back and look at this, and build their theologies upon an understanding of the Character of God, and not on Rome’s infatuation with its own authority.

Quoting from George Eldon Ladd, “A Theology of the New Testament”:

Although Matthew contains some texts that seem to suggest a rigorous advocacy of law-keeping on the part of Christians, other texts give a different impression, notably 11:28-30 and 17:24-27. In the first of these texts Jesus invites people to take on his easy and light yoke. In the second, the curious story of the temple tax, Jesus speaks of the “sons of the kingdom” being “free”; the language used here is quite Pauline with its references to “freedom” and “not causing offense.” Given such Matthean texts, it is not at all obvious that Matthew is a legal rigorist….”

Ladd notes here, “Paul and Matthew have much in common”.

Here is the difference: Rome looks at a verse of Scripture and says, “how can we use this as a proof-text for our system of doctrine?” And they say, “Oh, well, we are all of grace up to Baptism, then the Catholic must be on the “sacramental treadmill” all his life. The Catholic has gotta get the sacraments, gotta get to confession” and all the “gotta-do’s” fit nicely with a “works-righteousness” interpretation of a verse like this. The Protestant looks at the Scripture and says, “how does this fit into God’s overall Revelation?”

In a way, this passage about this wealthy young man is an extension of the Sermon on the Mount material – it is not at all a kind of “works righteousness”. It is saying, “you can’t be righteous enough. You need your righteousness from another source.”

R.T. France notes the concept of “perfect” in Matthew (5:48): it s “a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20). But perfection is, according to that verse, the characteristic of God, who has just been declared in v. 17 to be the only one who is truly “good.” The young man’s request for some “good thing” to do has brought him face to face with goodness at a level which will prove too high for him. The “goodness” of keeping commandments is, as v. 17 has reminded us, always relative; Jesus now replaces it with a demand which is absolute, the demand of the kingdom of heaven” (The Gospel of Matthew”, pg 734).

Here we are back at Paul and Romans 3:9: “There is no one righteous, not even one.”  

Friday, January 27, 2012

Crystal ball foreknowledge

On the one hand, an Arminian commenter over at Scot McKnight’s blog assures us that there’s a profound moral difference between predestination and permission:

I know that some internet Calvinists think there is no real difference between allowing something and unconditionally decreeing it or irresistibly causing it, but I think most people do, and that it is quite obvious and undeniable. But we may have to just agree to disagree about that. The concept of “allowance” is not logically compatible with Calvinism (precisely because of its determinism), whereas it is with Arminianism, leaving Calvinism with no ground to say God allows evil for a greater purpose, while such grounding is part and parcel of Arminianism (God allows evil because free will is necessary for genuine relationship, love, and for glorifying God {who is love} most {more than lack of free will does, in which all that happens is actually God’s will in a fairly robust sense, and there effectively ends up being only one will in the universe}.)

Comment by Arminian — December 26, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

On the other hand, the very same Arminian, just one comment later, adds the following:

Perhaps I should add that the argument that God knowing what would happen and creating anyway means he is responsible for what happens does not work against the simple foreknowledge Arminian position. For God’s foreknowledge cannot be wrong. It simply mirrors what will happen. That in no way conflicts with the freedom of the agents. Yet it also means that he cannot decide not to create someone based on knowing what they will do, since his foreknowledge is based on the fact that they will do that and not creating them would make his foreknowledge wrong, and additionally, not creating them would take away the basis of the decision not to create them in the first place.

Comment by Arminian — December 26, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

So God can’t stop anything from happening. All he can do is gaze into his crystal ball and watch the inevitable before it comes to pass.

But how can God permit what he cannot prevent? If the future is unavoidable, if what will be will be, then God isn’t allowing it to happen. You can only let something happen if you’re in a position to block it. At best, the Arminian God can only assume an attitude to Stoic resignation in the face of the inexorable denouement.

Arminians substitute irresistible fate for irresistible grace.

5 boilerplate objections to Calvinism

Scot McKnight has posted five boilerplate objections to Calvinism by Roger Olson:

 Less interesting than the objections are some of the comments:

While these are legitimate problems for Calvinism, Olson’s Arminianism faces the same problems. If an all-powerful, all-knowing God created this particular world knowing the end result from the beginning, it makes no difference whether we speak of that end result as ordained (a causal determinism) or foreknown (an epistemic determinism). Divine infallible foreknowledge is simply determinism with the appearance of softer edges.
Comment by John — December 26, 2011 @ 6:50 am

Like profanefaith says, Arminianism has all the same problems with these questions that Calvinism does. Just change “will” to “allow”. Either way, from a finite human perspective, his character would appear to be no less impugned. He’s either the rapist or the cop who stands there watching. That is of course unless we, when confronted with the problems of sovereignty (limited or absolute), would be fools to think we can judge the character of our creator.
Comment by Jeremy — December 26, 2011 @ 11:23 am

If you believe in the omnipotence and omniscience of God (in the classical senses), then you believe in a form of determinism. To flesh that out: if God is omnipotent and omniscient, then every event in the history of the universe is either caused by God or permitted by God. And because God is omniscient, He knows exactly how His decisions to cause, prevent, and permit events will shape the course of history. Therefore, God knows the exact Universe that His own actions will result in, and so every single event in the history of the Universe, down to the proverbial “fall of a sparrow”, is in a sense “caused”, “decreed”, or “ordained” by God. Ephesians 1:11 seems to support this conclusion.
Within this framework, the decisions of agents are in a sense predetermined. Since God has complete knowledge of the psychology of all agents and has complete control over all the factors that influence a given decision, He can manipulate the Universe in order to determine the outcome of the decision. There are numerous suggestions throughout the Bible that God is sovereign over human decisions, from the classic example of the hardening of Pharoah to the many mentions in the Prophets of God “raising up nations” to do His bidding.
If I am correct in all of this so far, then classical Arminianism does not solve the essential problem of God desiring all people to be saved and yet not saving all people. Open Theism, which modifies the traditional understanding of God’s omniscience, is the only way to preserve truly libertarian free will. Otherwise, we must choose between either pure determinism or a form of compatiblism that appeals to antinomy. Due to the Scriptural emphasis on human responsibility, I opt for the latter.
Comment by Stephen Hesed — December 27, 2011 @ 7:03 pm

An atheist on Sudduth

Fabricated evidence

Peter Pike of CalvinDude has raised an issue regarding Conversions and Deconversions as a result of thinking about the deconversion (or apostasy) of former Calvinist Philosopher Michael Sudduth. Peter begins:
It does bring to mind other conversions, however. I have read comments from some of the Arminians at SEA [the Society of Evangelical Arminians] who have said that any new convert to Christianity who reads the Bible will automatically find Arminianism. Arminianism can be read in Scripture, they say, while Calvinism must be taught.
What Arminians mean is that if converts are given a Bible, and they begin to read the scriptures, they typically do not conclude with any semblance of Calvinism. This is very telling, in that, when a convert, without certain theological presuppositions already in place, concludes with Arminianism in some form, there appears to be an evidence of objectivity that is missing from how most people come to believe in Calvinism, a system which must be taught to believers, as the majority of Calvinist converts will admit. 

Arminians are promoting this urban legend. But I don't see them citing any polling data, any sociological studies, any scientific stats, to document this "very telling" claim. It's just Arminians quoting other Arminians quoting other Arminians. Yet that somehow morphs into a hard fact.

Fabricate the evidence you need. Is there something about Arminian theology that fosters this capacity for self-deception? 

Atheism in a nutshell

Of course, you only live one life, and you make all your mistakes, and learn what not to do, and that’s the end of you.

– Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Death of a Guru

Does the NT teach panentheism?

Tony Flood says he used to be a process theist, but has since returned to Christian orthodoxy. Yet over at James Anderson's blog he's been prooftexting panentheism from the NT and citing "orthodox" process theologians–a lovely oxymoron. So the leopard hasn't changed his spots.

Tony cites the locus classicus for panentheism: Acts 17:28. But this is ill-conceived:

i) Paul is quoting a pagan source. So one must make allowance for audience adaptation. It's not like Paul is quoting the OT. Paul clearly has a different worldview than the pagan source he quotes. Therefore, there's a certain equivocation in the way he appropriates and applies this foreign text to the issue at hand. Filtered through his Judaism, it would refer to God's all-encompassing creative and providential activity.

ii) Tony's inference is overly dependent on connotations of the English preposition we use to translate the Greek preposition. Why assume the locative sense ("in") rather than the instrumental sense ("by")?

iii) Even if it were locative, Scripture typically uses spatial metaphors.

I'll finish by quoting two commentators:

In any case, this is not a pantheistic formula, or one that expresses the immanence of human beings in God; it merely formulates the dependence of all human life on God and its proximity  to him. J. Fitzmyer, Acts of the Apostles, 610.
The Stoics connected life with movement (the Prime Mover being God) and movement with being.
The en is an obvious example of the meaning "in the power of"; cf. Sophocles, Oedipus Coloneus 1443, tauta d'en to daimoni, and other examples given by Liddell and Scott. Begs. translates, "By him we live and move and are."
God is not remote but accessible, so near as to constitute the environment in which we live, but in a personal sense. In Greek philosophical background the words will have had a pantheistic meaning, God being hardly anything other than our environment. The change is likely to have been made already in Jewish-Hellenistic use. G. K. Barrett, Commentary on Acts, 2:847-48.

Words for Grace in Hinduism


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Corduan on Sudduth

I have a lot of respect for Prof. Michael Sudduth and his philosophical work, but like many Christians I'm saddened to see him leave Christ for another love.

However I don't know much about Hinduism let alone the Hare Krishna movement. Hence I thought it'd be worthwhile to ask Prof. Win Corduan for his thoughts and comments. Among the many other hats he wears, Prof. Corduan has done a lot of work in the philosophy of religion, as well as comparative religion, and is knowledgeable about Hinduism. Prof. Corduan has kindly granted me permission to post his response, which I've done below.

I hope Prof. Sudduth will consider this post in the humble spirit in which it is given. I pray he'll return to Christ.

Moreover I pray this post helps others.
This is not intended to be a full response, but I don't want to leave you hanging. The group to which Professor Sudduth has converted to is, of course, ISCKON, commonly known as "Hare Krishna." Prior to its becoming publicly known in the West, it was often called Gaudya Vaishnava, where "Gaudya" is essentially a synonym for "Bengali" and "Vaishnavite" means "devotee of Vishnu." So, this is the Bengali version of Vishnava. Since Chaytanya in the early sixteenth century, it has focused on Krishna as the supreme personal godhead. This description entails that, in contrast with other forms of Hinduism, the highest form of God is personal, and that such conceptions of God as Brahman, an impersonal, pantheistic Reality, are subordinate to the personal theism of GV. In fact, adherents of ISKCON maintain that, in contrast to standard textbook descriptions, Vishnu is an avatar of Krishna, rather than the other way around.

It appears to me that Prof. Sudduth overemphasizes the apparent inclusiveness of GV. This inclusiveness obtains only in the sense that all other forms of religion and conceptions of God are subsumed by Krishna. In other words, being a Christian will maybe help you accumulate some good karma, but will not release you from the bondage of reincarnation. For that, you have to become a devotee (which, btw, in English they pronounce with the accent on "vot," just as in the verb, "devote"), which entails following the yoga (rigorous practice) prescribed by Krishna. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is, at times described as extending his grace, and he says things like, "cling only to me, and I will release you" (paraphrase), but it all comes down to salvation by works.

The similarities between Krishna and Jesus are vastly exaggerated, to say the least. People point to his birth, children being slain at his birth, life's mission, and death, but the similarities vanish pretty quickly when you look at the details. The lofty description of the B.G. notwithstanding, Krishna as described everywhere else was an adulterous drunk (his adherents excuse these descriptions under the heading of this behavior being "transcendental," whatever the heck that means). Even though he was married to a number of other women, two of whom are understood to be different incarnations of the goddess Lakshmi, his true "love" was Radha, a human being who, like him, was married to another man. This is the woman with whom he is usually pictured, and that representation is called "Radhakrishna." I note that the professor refers to her as Radharani, lila of Srimad Bhagavatam, which means literally, "Queen Radha, the toy or plaything of the epic of the Lord." What follows in his paragraph is an absurd rationalization of Krishna's adultery. Personally--and I have said this in India to an audience of Christians and Hindus--I find the identification of Krishna and Jesus in general highly unconvincing, and on this point I am downright offended.

Anyway, I find the conversion of someone to ISKCON, professor or whatever, essentially a "dog-bites-man" story. He is neither the first, nor will he be the last, I'm afraid, who finds an idolatrous Eastern religion preferable to salvation from sin in Christ.

Let me direct you to a few writings of mine in relation to this topic. Obviously, ISKCON is included to a small extent in my survey book Neighboring Faiths. I discuss the nature of "grace" in Hinduism in the article "Words for Grace in Hinduism," which is currently parked at SCRIBD. I just noticed that my article "Jesus, the Avatar I Never Knew" is published on-line by, who want to charge me $50.00 a year to get access to it. I don't remember giving them the rights to do that. So, I'll give you a personal on-line version, which is a little rough, but has all the same content.

Obviously, there's a whole lot more that can and needs to be said on these issues, but I trust these will get you started.

Thanks for writing. Please feel free to pass this little bit of information on as you see fit.

Have a great day!

In Christ,


Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts

Philosophy — What’s the Use?

Think Regress

Failed feminism

The Children Parents Are Raising

Tim Challies just linked to a couple of pages that tell us a lot about our culture. Here's an infographic about Millennials, "American teens and twenty-somethings currently making the passage into adulthood". Here are some statistics on pornography and teenagers.

Punch & Judy

Before responding, notice Arminian priorities. A philosopher of religion, who’s been a professing Christian up until now, converts to the Hare Krishna cult. The Hindu convert makes a public case to justify his defection from Christianity, and conversion to the Hare Krishna cult.

How does the Arminian respond? Does he argue against the Hare Krishna cult? Does he critique the reasoning of the Hindu convert?

No. He launches an attack on...Calvinism.


However, I had detected in Steve’s comments a sense of *complaint* insomuch that people were lauding tolerance, instead of denouncing apostasy. So my question is, why the complaint all, even if we grant that such is made without emotion?

Assuming (arguendo) that my post amounted to a “complaint,” that’s perfectly consistent with predestination. On that view, God predestined my “complaint.”

So my question is, why the complaint all, even if we grant that such is made without emotion? In other words, if Michael is a divine puppet (which I discuss further in a moment), as well as everyone else being puppets, then to complain against God’s sock-puppetry is to complain against the divine sock-puppeteer.

i) Of course, I don’t grant the puppet metaphor.

ii) But even if I did play along with the puppet metaphor for the sake of argument, in puppet shows, puppets often complain about the conduct of their fellow puppets. They reflect the viewpoint of a puppet character, within the little world of their puppet stage. Their viewpoint well may be distinct from the viewpoint of the puppet master, who is not a puppet character sharing the same stage as his puppets.

Now, you could say that God complains…

That’s not my argument.

In other words, with Determinism, with all things being scripted by God, the saying holds, ‘It’s all good.’

Once again, even if we play along with the puppet metaphor for the sake of argument, in a puppet show, some puppet characters play the hero or heroine while other puppet characters play the villain.

The play is good. The script is good. That doesn’t mean everything the characters do is good. It’s a question of how the villain functions in the story. If he’s a foil character, then his badness serves a good purpose.

How such a paradigm could avoid an impression of puppetry, I cannot fathom.

Depends on how you tweak the metaphor. In a puppet show, the puppets are mindless. Not conscious, deliberative agents.

To take another comparison, Arminians are also captivated by the robot metaphor. Indeed, they use the puppet/robot metaphors interchangeably. But in Asimov’s classic story (I, Robot), the robot is artificially intelligent. The accused robot is psychologically indistinguishable from a human being. So at that point the metaphor breaks down.

He scripted it, in order to have knowledge *of* it, in order to maintain omniscience.

Actually, Calvinism doesn’t say that God predestined the future in order to know the future. It’s true that God knows the future because he predestined the future. Which doesn’t mean that’s why he predestined the future.

The demonic realm relies upon God for its each and every successive thought, from eternity past to eternity future.

i) Demons don’t have an eternal past.

ii) According to Arminianism, the demonic realm relies on God’s providential collaboration with everything the demons do.

How does one distinguish the works of God from the works of the devil if the devil thinks only and precisely the complete set of thoughts that God gives him?

That’s simplistic. It confuses two distinct propositions:

i) The devil does whatever God intends him to do.

ii) The devil intentionally does whatever God intends him to do.

To take a comparison: suppose a terrorist courier is headed to a rendezvous with a terrorist leader. Suppose, unbeknownst to the courier, a counterterrorist agency plants a remote detonatable bomb on the courier. When the courier arrives at the hideout, the counterterrorist agency detonates the bomb, thereby killing the terrorist leader.

The courier unintentionally carries out what the counterterrorist agency intends him to do. The courier intends to deliver a message to the terrorist leader. He didn’t intend to do what the counterterrorist agency intended for him to do. He unwittingly does their bidding.

Nauseous universalism

I’ll comment on some statements in this post:

My God's Final Victory co-author, John Kronen, has been pushing me a bit on my arguments in this "Damned Sinners" series. Specifically, he's been stressing that there's an idea embraced by supralapsarian Calvinists (not by infralapsarian ones) that I don't seem to take seriously enough in these posts. And he's suggested that it's this failure to take that idea seriously that might've led someone like Steve Hays to think that the Problem of Damned Sinners could be so quickly dispensed with.
I think John has a point. You see, on supralapsarian Calvinism the ultimate purpose of creation is to display God's majesty, which is found both in God's merciful love and in His justice. But this theology assumes that God cannot fully display both together (an assumption that I think wreaks havoc on some of the most important and profound understandings of the Atonement, by the way, but I won't get into that here).

Actually, the double-edged design of Christ’s ministry is Biblical. For instance:

And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed” (Lk 2:34).
Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind” (Jn 9:39).

Back to Reitan:

Or, put another way, this theology takes it that the act of neutralizing the negative value of sin with a punitive response produces a meta-level good (the display of divine justice) that wouldn't have otherwise existed. On this theology, the problem of explaining why there is so much wickedness in a world created by a morally perfect God is answered as follows: God wants wicked people to be there, because only then can His justice be fully put on display through His smiting of them.

This summary is true up to a point, but one-sided. It’s not merely that sin is necessary to manifest the justice of God. Sin is also necessary to manifest the mercy of God.

At first blush that might seem counterintuitive. We associate judgment with justice rather than mercy. Conversely, we associate salvation with mercy rather than justice. However, grace and mercy, to be gracious and merciful, must be discretionary rather than obligatory. As Scripture puts it:

2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God…4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due (Rom 4:2,4).
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph 2:8-9).

Back to Reitan:

As such, damnation and reprobation don’t simply demonstrate the justice of God, but the grace of God. For salvation and damnation, election and reprobation, are correlative. Mutually interpretive. Each clarifies the nature of its counterpart–like light and darkness.
But here's the thing: this theology strikes me as so morally awful that the thought that there are people out there who really embrace it at a fundamental level (not just playing pious lip service to it out of communal allegiance) makes me spiritually nauseous. I think that if I could get myself to really believe that deep down anyone wholeheartedly embraced this idea, I'd be pushed in the direction of a species of supralapsarian Calvinism in which God created supralapsarian Calvinists so as to have vessels of wrath on which he could heap his just outrage against people who harbor such awful convictions.
I'm kidding of course. I'd remain a universalist even if I could be convinced that anyone wholeheartedly embraced supralapsarian Calvinism. Really. My point is that since my aversion to this theology is so potent, part of me doesn't believe that there are people who honestly think it's right; and so I find myself developing my arguments as if there were no such people--and this means that some of what I say may end up begging the question in relation to anyone who really does embrace this theology deep down.

Reitan is a universalist. Universalism is superficially appealing. But think about it for a moment. You can only be found if you are lost. Assuming that God saves everyone, why does anyone need to be saved in the first place? If the God of universalism has the power to save all the lost, does he not have the power to keep them from losing their way in the first place? Why does he put them through hell to get them to heaven?

Is this justified by a soul-building theodicy, in which a fallen world where everyone is saved is better than an unfallen world where no one is lost or doomed? Is so, then the universalist thinks God wills sin for a meta-level good. To cultivate certain virtues or insights unobtainable apart from evil.

Even so, that’s a pretty ruthless process to achieve the desired end. It takes the sheen off universalism. God’s creatures literally take a hell of a beating (albeit a purgatorial hell) to achieve enlightenment.

One answer I anticipate runs something along the following lines: "It's a mystery we can't understand, but we know it's true because of divine revelation in Scripture." But even if you grant a high view of Scripture according to which Paul's use of the "vessels of mercy/vessels of wrath" language (Romans 9:22) was God-inspired…

I don’t regard that as an appeal to mystery. Rather, Paul is giving a rationale.

In Romans 11, the "hardening" of Israel against God, and the concomitant divine repudiation, is described as a stage in a process aimed at saving both "the full number of the Gentiles" and "all Israel" (vs. 25-26). This chapter ends with the striking claim that "For God has bound over all men to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all" (vs. 32). This starts to sound as if, on Paul's view of things, each of us is both a vessel of wrath and a vessel of mercy, albeit at different stages in our moral and spiritual evolution--and it sounds as if serving as a vessel of wrath is always in the service of the ultimate goal of mercy being shown to all.

But, of course, at other points it doesn't sound as if he's saying this at all. Limiting ourselves to Paul's epistle to the Romans, sometimes Paul sounds like an outright and blatant universalist (e.g. Romans 5:18-19 and elsewhere)…

That has some traction for Arminians, who generally share the same semantic approach to universal quantifiers. But, of course, Calvinists don’t construe universal quantifiers that way, so that’s not a starting point we share in common with Reitan and his ilk.

The attempt to read the whole, to understand the parts in light of the whole, and to extract from such a complicated text a coherent theology that does justice to the whole given the apparent tensions and conflicts--that task isn't easy. And it seems to me that part of what Christians who pursue such a task need is to recognizing when a particular interpretive effort has, for example, implications that clash with the voice of conscience, or produces internal problems that raise concerns about consistency.

i) Reprobation doesn’t clash with my conscience.

ii) Even if it did, my conscience is only as good as the God who produced it. As such, conscience has limited value as a theological criterion, for the appeal is ultimately circular. At best, a God-given conscience mirrors the God who gave it. But what if the Calvinist God gave me my conscience? 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Night lights

Till ye be left as a beacon upon the top of a mountain, and as an ensign on an hill (Isa 30:17).

There’s a paradoxical relationship between light and darkness. Light drowns out light while darkness discloses light.

You can’t see a beacon in daylight. Sunshine drowns out the beacon. The beacon can only been seen at night, even if it was shining day and night.

Many unbelievers lead sunshiny lives. Natural light blinds them to the heavenly light.

The lives of many believers are darkened by hardship and heartache. Yet as their life grows outwardly darker, that is when heaven’s beacon burns more brightly in the distance.

It’s only because their lives are darkened by affliction that they can more clearly see the guiding light, as it leads them and beckons them onward and upward to Mt. Zion. 

George Beverly Shea @ 102

Chris Rosebrough threatened with arrest at The Elephant Room

Read about it here.

James MacDonald should be thoroughly ashamed of himself. This merely extends the embarrassing and ridiculous escapades in which he has engaged during this entire Elephant Room situation.

I for one am glad that he has resigned from membership in The Gospel Coalition.
(And on that note, please see this wickedly sharp critique from DJP.)

So that no man may boast

I’m commenting on this post:

The problem, in brief, is this: Some theologies (e.g. traditional Calvinist ones) hold that God damns some sinners as a just punishment for sin, thereby repudiating sin clearly and forcefully. But by damning some persons as a punishment for sin, God is responding to the “affront” of sin by guaranteeing that this affront continue for eternity. But how is that supposed to repudiate sin? How can you repudiate something by guaranteeing that it never stop?
In a nutshell, Steve responds to this problem by denying that, on Calvinist theology, there is any meaningful sense in which sin as such is “intolerable” to God. What is intolerable is sin unrepudiated, sin for which just punishment has not been meted out. In other words, he takes it that the main challenge I’m raising in the Problem of Damned Sinners is this: By tolerating the never-ending sinfulness of the damned, the Calvinist God “tolerates the intolerable.” He then responds by saying that never-ending sinfulness as such isn’t intolerable, so long as it is fittingly punished.
But here, Steve is both misconstruing the main force of the Problem of Damned Sinners and, in responding to the misconstrued argument, relying on a premise I find highly implausible.

I was responding to what Reitan said on Rauser’s blog. Reitan is free to improve on what he said there, but my reply is not deficient if it fails to anticipate an argument which he failed to provide at the time.

Before making these points, I should stress something that my co-author, John Kronen, wants emphasized. The argument I presented first on Randal’s blog and then in the previous post—which I’ve dubbed “The Problem of Damned Sinners”—is adapted from an argument in God’s Final Victory and brought to bear on certain Calvinist claims. But it is not identical to that argument. In our book, the argument John and I develop is not premised on God’s finding sin intolerable, but on the premise that God would never will sin. We argue that by permanently casting the damned away from the only thing that can save them from their own sinfulness, God does end up willing sin. In the book, we consider and respond to a host of objections to this argument--both to the claim that God would never will sin and to the claim that God would be doing exactly that were He to impose eternal alienation as a punishment.
 According to Calvinism, God does will sin. He doesn’t will sin for its own sake. He doesn’t will sin in isolation. But he wills sin to achieve certain second-order goods.

Conversion and deconversion

I’m going to comment on some statements from this post:

For the Reformed, then, the change marked by Sudduth's announcement is a huge, dramatic change. The difference they see in this conversion is the difference between heaven and hell.
For Sudduth himself, what happened to him can barely be described as a change. Certainly not as a sharp turning. It's more like a gradual growth, a continuation, a more complete, more full discovery of what, in fact, already was.

i) Of course, that’s equivocal. It confuses objective change with a subjective impression of change.

ii) Keep in mind, too, that the change which apostasy represents isn’t so much a personal change in the apostate, but a relational change. For instance, his loss of faith may be incremental. When he makes a final break, that’s not a sudden, abrupt change, but the culmination of a gradual process.

Or the apostate may always have been a nominal Christian. He simply went public.

Yet apostasy can still involve a radical disruption in the apostate’s objective relationship to God.

iii) Because relational changes happen to us rather than in us, because relational changes don’t necessarily change us, but rather, change our objective standing with someone or something else, there’s no reason to think we would sense a change.

Suppose the king dies when his heir is away from home. His heir is now the king. But his heir doesn’t feel any different. The moment the king dies, the heir doesn’t perceive a change. He’s not even aware of the king’s demise.

iv) Keep in mind, too, that from a Reformed perspective, apostasy (if we define that as a definitive break with the faith) does not entail a fundamental change. The apostate was always a reprobate at heart. So his apostasy is continuous with his prior condition. What is latent becomes patent.

But there’s still a categorical difference between election and reprobation, salvation and damnation. That doesn’t range along a continuum. Even if the phenomenology of conversion or deconversion has continuity, the reality is discontinuous between two contrary states of being.

This experience of conversion as realization and recognition of what is already true, as acknowledgement of what already is the case, rather than as some sort of change, is actually quite common in conversion narratives. This is a standard part of contemporary accounts of conversion.

One thing this fails to consider is that conversion/deconversion testimonies aren’t merely descriptive accounts. Rather, the reason the individual is giving an account of the process is to justify his conversion or deconversion. As such, there’s a tendency to present his journey in the most favorable light.

We wouldn’t expect him to say: “I’m gullible. I’m a sucker. I’m intellectually unstable.”

No, the strategy is to shift blame to his upbringing. There was nothing deficient with him. Rather, his religious environment was deficient. As such, he didn’t know any better.. He believed what he did because that’s all he was exposed to. As a kid, he had no control over that. 

But then, when he went off to college, did his own study, he instantly saw the folly of what his elders believed. The folly of what his elders taught him as a child.

With variations, that’s the stereotypical narrative.

Consider Scott Hahn's popular account of his conversion to Roman Catholicism...He describes his conversion as a coming home. This is in the title of his book, Rome Sweet Home...

Of course, that’s how Hahn packages his conversion to Rome, not because his experience selects for that interpretation, but because he is assimilating his experience to the institutional claims of his adopted denomination. Rome claims to be Mother Church. Protestant denominations are schismatic. So, by theological definition, if a Protestant converts to Rome, he is returning to the source. Coming home.

Yet it’s not the phenomenology of conversion, per se, that specifies this paradigm. Rather, Hahn is using Catholic categories as an interpretive framework. That’s something superimposed on the raw experience, not given in the raw experience.