Thursday, May 03, 2018

Is Compatibilism Unfounded?

The origin of this post is from a question I asked my friends on Facebook, but I figured it would be worth expanding the audience a bit.  I have heard a lot of people criticize compatibilism as being incoherent, self-contradictory, and the like, but I think it’s relatively easy to establish at least one type of compatibilism that is coherent and ought not be controversial, even.

But first, what do we mean by compatibilism?  I take the definition here as: “God’s determining of an action is compatible with man’s moral responsibility for having performed that action.”  And by “moral responsibility” I mean that man is praiseworthy or blameworthy for performing the action that was determined. 

It’s easy to see why this causes some surface level tension for most of us.  If God determines that something will happen, how can we be responsible for it when we are doing what He determined?  So let me put forth the question I asked on Facebook: 

“Suppose that there is an action (A) that God has determined you will do.  God intends A because He’s got a good reason for doing so.  But you decide to do A because of a sinful reason.  Are you morally responsible for doing A even though A itself was determined by someone other than you?”

Or to put it another way:

1. God determines you will (A) because of morally good reason (G).
2. You (A) because of morally evil reason (E).

Under this scenario, I conclude you are therefore held morally responsible for your actions even though you did what was determined for you to do.

The Bible gives us (at least) two full examples where this format happens, and makes several allusions that appear to back it up as well.  The first example is when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery; the second when God used Assyria to punish Israel.  So in the first case, we have:

1. God determines that Joseph’s brothers will sell Joseph into slavery because He intends to save lives.
2. Joseph’s brothers sell Joseph into slavery because they hate Joseph.

We can establish each part of these claims from Scripture.  First, we know that God determined that Joseph’s brothers would sell Joseph into slavery because of Genesis 45:8a, “So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”  We know He did so for a good reason because of Genesis 50:20b, “God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”  Finally, we know that Joseph’s brothers did so for an evil reason from the first half of that verse: “As for you, you meant evil against me.”

In the second example with Assyria, we have this structure:

1. God determines that Assyria will conquer Israel in order to punish evil and bring her to repentance.
2. Assyria conquers Israel because Assyria wishes to plunder and destroy.

Each of these is established in Isaiah 10.  Verse 6 informs us what the determined action and a partial reason for it is: “Against a godless nation I send [Assyria], and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.”  Verse 7 gives us Assyria’s evil reason for doing so: “But he does not so intend, and his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few.”  Finally, the ultimate good reason for why God acts is found in verse 20: “In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth.”

In addition to these full examples, we have a multitude of examples that show part of the structure and by which we can infer the same result, such as in Acts 4:27-28, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”  And we even have the inverse, where instead of being morally blamed for sinful actions, we are morally praised for doing good that was determined for us: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

So looking at this, I think it’s safe to say that there is plenty of Biblical evidence that God can determine an action and the person who does the action can still be held morally responsible for having done that action, which is all that compatibilism requires to be established.  But what are some possible rejoinders to this?

First, I can imagine someone saying that the person is not actually held morally responsible for the action itself, but rather for the intent of the action.  To that I would say that this just is the manner in which most, if not all, actions are judged.  Take a man who cuts open the abdomen of another man and removes an organ.  This is an immoral action if the original man intends to torture or kill the victim, but it’s a morally praiseworthy action if the original man is performing life-saving surgery on the patient (no longer a victim).  To look at it from a different angle, suppose someone is insane and therefore incapable of understanding his own actions.  We do not typically hold such a person responsible for his actions, not because the action itself is different but because of why the action was performed.

Secondly, I can also imagine someone objecting: “But God decreed that they should have the intent they did.”  But where does compatibilism require God decree intents?  Even looking at the broader subject of Calvinism, having God ordain the actions but not ordaining the intent is at least not inconsistent with WCF 3.1, “God from all eterinity, did…ordain whatsoever comes to pass.”  Ordaining what someone will do is distinct from ordaining the reason why someone will do what they will do.  It is certainly logically possible to hold to the belief that God ordains all actions without ordaining even a single intention and still be consistent with the WCF.  And this view would fit in with several Scriptures too.  For example, Proverbs 16:9, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”

But in reality, we do not need to counter any of these objections, because neither of them would overthrow the fact that all we need is one instance where God determines an action (A) while holding a moral agent responsible for (A)-ing in order to establish that compatibilism can occur.  And we have two definite examples, plus a multitude that are highly suggestive in reserve, to do that for us here.

1 comment:

  1. Finding examples of God determining people's actions in order to bring about a good does not go very far in demonstrating Calvinism. In Calvinism God is uniformly determining all actions. Like a homogonous bowl of pudding. No lumps.

    Pointing to examples tends to work against this. They are examples because they are notable. LOOK! God determined this individual's actions in order to bring something good.

    I am Lutheran, by the way.