Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Is Jerry Walls a classical theist?

Five years ago, Arminian philosopher Jerry Walls published an article with the combative title "Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever be a Compatibilist."

This implies that Jerry classifies himself as a classical theist. The point of my post is not to assess classical theism on the merits, but to assess whether Jerry measures up to his own yardstick. 

In An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford, 2004, 3rd. ed.), Brian Davies provides an exposition of classical theism, sometimes using theistic personalism as a foil. Let's begin by listing the tenets he cites to define classical theism. These defining tenets function as criteria to determine whether or not someone adheres to classical theism:

1. Creation ex nihilo (2-3).

2. Continuous providence:

God is both the initiating and the constantly sustaining cause of the universe and all it contains…Everything other than God is totally dependent on God for its existing and for its being as it is (3).

3. Divine impassibility:

Nothing created can cause God to change or be modified in any way. In terms of classical theism, there is no causality from creatures to God since creatures are wholly God's effects….God cannot be altered by anything a creature does, and God is intrinsically unchangeable (5).

4. God is outside time (5-7)

5. Divine simplicity (8-9; chap. 8).

6. God causes everything and permits nothing:

While classical theists typically hold that all history is God's doing, theistic personalists more commonly see it only as partly this. Some events, they often say, are not so much caused by God as permitted by him (11).

7. God knows the future (12).

8. God's knowledge is inderivative:

While classical theists typically say that God knows all history by being its maker, theistic personalists are more likely to assert that God's knowledge of history may partly be acquired by him as history unfolds. On their picture, God's knowledge of the world, especially the world of human affairs, is capable of increase…God's knowledge is caused by things other than himself (12). 

Of these 8 criteria, I'm guessing that Jerry only affirms the first (creation ex nihilo) tenet. Keep in mind that (1) is not a classical theist distinctive, but only a classical theist essential. Both classical and nonclassical theists can affirm creation ex nihilo. 

I suspect he denies 2-8. If so, he only affirms 1 out of 8 criteria for classical theism. But surely someone who rejects 7 out of 8 tenets of classical theism isn't remotely a classical theism.

Let's briefly explain my interpretation: Since Jerry believes human volitions are independent of God, which means the immediate effects of human volitions would likewise be independent of God, he can't affirm (2). 

By the same token, he believes many events are caused by our volitions, which are independent of God. So he can't affirm (6). 

He's on record stating his sympathies for open theism, so he can't affirm (7). 

Freewill theists like Jerry typically reject 3-5 and 8. 

If my interpretation is correct, then Jerry doesn't begin to qualify as a classical theist. To the contrary, he is almost systematically opposed to classical theism. 

Perhaps he could try to deflect this conclusion by rejecting the exposition of classical theism by Brian Davies. But on the face of it, Jerry is using himself to define classical theism, rather than using classical theism to define himself.  


  1. I haven't read his article, but maybe he sees himself among the "Let Alone Orthodox Christian" group and in the closet in not being among the Classical Theist group.

    1. No. Orthodox Christian theism builds on the foundation of classical theism. He presumably believes that to be an orthodox Christian takes classical Christian theism for granted, but adds further specifications. After all, he sets both in contrast to what he opposes. Therefore, he must think you should be both. He didn't publish an article against classical theism.

    2. I agree that Christian theism builds on classical theism, but maybe Walls secretly doesn't believe that. That's what I was suggesting. But not having read the article, he may have implicitly or explicitly claimed to hold to classical theism.

    3. Since he has sympathies for open theism, and since he might secretly agree with many Calvinists that classical theism and open theism are incompatible, he might in fact be a closet anti-classical theist. Admittedly, I'm just speculating based on the fact that Dr. Walls can do philosophy and logical deductions/syllogism fairly well.

    4. Nevermind, your interpretation of the title makes more sense. That he's implying he's a classical theist as well.

  2. If he consciously rejects classical theism, it would be strange for him to use classical theism as a standard of comparison. Why say no classical theist should be a compatibilist if he thinks nobody should be a classical theist? Why use that frame of reference if he thinks it's wrong? However, his animus towards Calvinism may be so overpowering that he's just incoherent.