Thursday, July 17, 2014

"How does God decide?"

Roger Olson
Your assertion does not answer the question. "According to his will" doesn't say HOW God chooses certain individuals. It leaves arbitrariness lingering over the doctrine of unconditional election. Try again. If God's selection of certain individuals is absolutely unconditional, as traditional Calvinism claims, then HOW does God decide "this one, not that one?" What criteria does he use? Once you say the selection is absolutely unconditional, that it has nothing to do with anything God "sees" in the individuals he selects, arbitrariness is already included in that assertion. There is no logical alternative.

In this post I'm going to expand on something I said in my previous post:

i) It isn't clear how Olson arrives at his definition. He seems to begin with the adjective ("unconditional"), then based on a dictionary definition of the adjective, concludes that "unconditional election" is synonymous with arbitrary election. 

If so, that's an inept way to define theological terms. The meaning of unconditional election is derived, in no small part, from what it stands in contrast to. In terms of historical theology, it stands in contrast to Arminianism, Molinism, and Roman Catholicism. Let's take a few brief definitions:

Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions (WCF 3:2). 
Election does not in any way depend on the foreseen faith or good works of man, as the Arminians teach, but exclusively on the sovereign good pleasure of God, who is also the originator of faith and good works (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 115). 
There is no previously merit or condition in the creature, either present or foreseen, which determines the divine choice (Roger Nicole, Standing Forth, 430). 
So election to salvation is not based on anything we do. It is entirely gracious (John Frame, The Doctrine of God, 328).

So unconditional election is meant to exclude certain considerations, like merit (Roman Catholicism), foreseen faith (classical Arminianism), or the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (Molinism) as the basis of election. "Unconditional election" is "unconditional" in reference to specific positions to the contrary. 

This doesn't mean election is unconditional in the sense of being random, haphazard, or fortuitous. God can have a reason for why some individuals are elect and others reprobate. 

ii) Another problem is the misleading way Olson frames the issue. There's the specter of preexistence, as if these people came on the scene, and God must decide, after the fact, what to do with them. As if God is confronted with a bunch of people, to whom he subsequently assigns a destiny, for good or ill. 

But, of course, that's not a Calvinistic way of framing the issue. That seems to reflect Olson's subconsciously Arminian framework, where there are foreseen persons. Persons whose foreseeable existence is independent of God. 

From a Calvinist standpoint, Olson's question is like asking a novelist if he chose a character based on what he saw in the character. But that's backwards. For the character is the product of his own imagination. What he saw in the character is what he saw in his own imagination. The character has no individuality apart from the conception of the novelist. 

We're talking about God's idea of individuals. God's prior concept is the source of the individual. The individual has whatever personality, or life-experience that God mentally supplies for him. 

Election isn't contingent on what the individual is like, for what he's like is contingent on God's defining idea of what's he's like. The Reformed position is more radical than Olson appreciates. A creaturely mode of existence is entirely derivative. God "sees" in us what he puts in us–like a painter sees in a painting what he sees in his own mind and transfers to the canvass. 

Although election isn't conditioned on what God sees or foresees in the individual, that doesn't mean God has no reason for electing some and reprobating others–just as a novelist has a reason for making some characters heroes or heroines while making other characters villains. 

History is like a story in time and space. A concrete narrative. It's populated by individuals whose actions advance the plot. God's "criterion" for who's elect and reprobate is their contribution to the story. Human agents figure in historical causation. If God made Abraham reprobate rather than elect, that would change the course of world events. If Pilate was elect rather than reprobate, that would change the course of world events. God has a preferred timeline. What happens is based in part on what people are like, what they do, and that's based on the kinds of people God chooses to populate history. 

How does a novelist decide what characters to put in his story? That depends on the story he wants to tell. Plot and characters fit together. Change a character and you change the plot. You have a different outcome. By the same token, that's why God elects one individual but reprobates another. 


  1. I find the author/story analogy to be one of the best ways of explaining the more difficult biblical concepts. For example, "how is God the Alpha & Omega?" "How does know the future?" "How is God 'outside' or 'not bound' by time?" The answers to these questions seems to be, "in the same way that an author relates to his story." Or what about the transfiguration? Did not God unzip and peel back the reality that the 'characters' in His story understood so that they could see, for a moment, the 'higher reality' of that of the Author?

    This certainly lends itself more toward a hard determinism, but I've yet to be convinced that would be an issue. There are really two main objections, one being the same as the one Paul so adequately responds to in Romans 9, "how can God still find fault?" The other is the so-called "problem with evil." An author is not a murderer because he authors - or is the metaphysical cause of - murder in his story. And the character who murders can be held accountable simply because the author has made accountability so, not because being-held-responsible-for-ones-actions required the character to have a will that was "libertarily" (I made up a word) free from the author.

    It is this very analogy that has helped me think through these issues, but if I'm off in my thinking, I'd love to learn how. I care much more to learn how to think rightly about my God so that I can live rightly, rather than to simply "be" right.

  2. "God's "criterion" for who's elect and reprobate is their contribution to the story."

    Assuming there are multiple possible good worlds (or plots) for God to conceive and actualize, could at least one of these other worlds include many (if not all) the same characters but with each character having the opposite elect status? In this case, God could have good reasons for creating *at least* two different plots. But then what would the criterion be for which plot is chosen and thus which elect status the individual characters have? I suppose it's a bit different, though related: What is the criterion for the criterion of who's elect or not? Does avoiding an infinite regress here require at least some degree of "arbitrariness," granting my assumptions? It is of course a bit difficult to conceive of the same 'me' possibly existing as 'me' at just *any* point in various plots, with different parents, who have different histories, etc. But would God be in a position to make at least one "arbitrary" decision when there exists a created order? Am I assuming (or not assuming) something inappropriately?

    1. i) You partially answer you own question when you say "It is of course a bit difficult to conceive of the same 'me' possibly existing as 'me' at just *any* point in various plots, with different parents, who have different histories, etc."

      ii) Apropos (i), in principle, there were other men in Ur whom God could have chosen for the same role. But even if that wouldn't make much immediate difference, small initial differences can ramify over time. If the progenitor of ethnic Israel was someone other than Abraham, then you'd have a different cast of characters all down the line, which would change the face of history. Little initial differences add up to a huge cumulative difference. The snowball effect.

      Likewise, St. Paul wasn't indispensable to church history. But he had a unique skill set. If God chose someone other than St. Paul, the NT would be different, historical theology would be different, &c.

      In principle, God could have a different Roman official assigned to Palestine, to perform the same role as Pilate. That, however, would involve rearranging some bits of Roman history leading up to that reassignment.

      iii) Your question goes to a classic conundrum. If God had (indeed, *must* have) a sufficient reason for which world he chose to create, then he isn't free not to choose that world. His choice is necessitated by sufficient reason.

      Mind you, on one definition of freedom, that's generally acceptable. God is free in the sense that God's choice isn't constrained by anything outside himself.

      However, that doesn't seem adequate when dealing with a contingent state of affairs. It's one thing to say God isn't free to be unjust, quite another to say God isn't free to choose a different world.

      But if, on the other hand, we say sufficient reason didn't require God to pick this particular world, then God's choice seems a bit "arbitrary."

      iv) Even assuming we don't have a solution to that conundrum, it's a conundrum for Calvinism and freewill theism alike. If sufficient reason precludes God from choosing otherwise, then that puts even more strain on freewill theism than Calvinism–given the axiomatic status of libertarian freedom in freewill theism, as well as the common claim that God's freedom is the template of human freedom.

      As long as there are feasible worlds with minor variations, the dilemma looms.

      v) One can, however, challenge the underlying assumption that God is only able to choose one possible world to instantiate. For all we know, God can instantiate a multiverse of alternate timelines. As long as these are separate from each other (i.e. parallel universes), that seems to be coherent. In that case, the conundrum is a false dilemma.

  3. Thanks, Steve. Very helpful.