Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Boilerplate anti-Calvinism

Justin Brierley recently published this article:

I'm not sure if this is worth commenting on because it's such well-trodden ground. Justin is a great guy who's doing great work for the kingdom. Given that Christianity is nearly in eclipse in England, Justin's work at Unbelievable represents a necessary and commendable Christian insurgent movement. 

I'll comment on his article because he commands a wide hearing. That said, I wonder who's the target audience. Is this supposed to change minds? On the one hand, there are readers who will nod their head because they're already on that side. So they come out of it the way they went into it. On the other hand, informed Calvinists will experience déjà vu. Many Calvinists have prepared answers. So what's the point of his article? 

According to many Calvinist theologians, the Bible also testifies to God’s total and meticulous control of every aspect of life. Whatever influence humans think they may have over their destinies, in reality God is the one who has planned it all out from the beginning. 

Correct. However, the alternative to Calvinism is not that we control our own destinies. Rather, our destinies are still determined by factors beyond our control, like social conditioning, luck, random opportunities. 

This perspective amounts to a ‘deterministic’ view of reality. 

To be more precise, it amounts to a ‘predeterministic’ view of mundane reality. 

The world is the way it is and could be none other, because God has predetermined every atom and every thought of every heart. 

That's inaccurate. Given predestination, the world is the way it is and could be none other, but the world could be different if God willed a different outcome. So it's not necessitated. 

In such a universe, human free will is an illusion. 

It renders certain concepts of freewill illusory. What does Justin mean by freewill? In the same article he approvingly quotes Keith Ward's statement that:

The subject self which I’ve got is the soul. In Christian terms it is also an agent self, so it decides between courses of action. So, it is not determined by its past behavior…there are tipping points and when people are put in crisis situations they can act out of character.

Is that Justin's concept of freewill? If so:

i) Calvinism isn't committed to the view that courses of action are determined by the agent's past behavior. Their courses of action aren't determined by the past history of the world, leading up to the moment of decision, but by God's antemundane plan for the world. Likewise, regeneration produces a change that's discontinuous with the agent's past behavior. 

ii) By freewill, does Justin mean our beliefs, choices, and actions are random? Is it like rolling dice where each throw is causally disconnected from the previous throw? If you roll the dice 1000 times, each time is like the first time?

If Justin thinks our choices are uncaused and random, then it's just a matter of chance that Justin isn't a psychopathic killer. And he could turn on a dime. 

To others it looks like the work of a puppet master…That we are neither subject to a puppet-master God nor a puppet-master universe matters a great deal….if God has pre-contrived our every desire so that we had no other option but to love our wife, love our children and to love him, then we are acting as little more than robots.

Whenever freewill theists reach for these simplistic, shopworn metaphors, that's an indication that they are incapable of having a philosophically serious discussion of the issues. 

Calvinistic Christians have more in common with many atheists than they may realize….Atheist determinism springs from a ‘materialist’ worldview. All that exists is the ‘material’ stuff of the universe. Everything about us and the world we live in can ultimately be explained by the physics of atoms, electrons, quarks and neutrons, interacting according to the predictable regularity of natural laws. But, in such a universe, the idea that we have any measure of free will evaporates. Every aspect of our existence was predestined by a cosmos blindly following the laws of cause and effect.

Most atheists I know pride themselves on the use of reason and evidence in their arguments against God. But, in a purely naturalistic worldview, all that’s really happening at a fundamental level is a variety of atoms bumping into other atoms, triggering electrochemical responses in the brain. What’s more, because the universe runs on the deterministic principle of cause and effect, all of those collisions were predetermined in the distant past. You and your beliefs are the product of a long chain of inevitable physical events.

So atheists have a major problem. If our thoughts are the product of a predetermined, non-rational process, then why should we trust the reasoning that brought us to believe in that very process? 

But the comparison is vitiated by fatal equivocation inasmuch as predestination is the opposite of "blind" determinism. There's a fundamental difference between intelligent and unintelligent determinants. An electronic calculator is deterministic: programmed to give the right answers to math problems. But there's nothing irrational about the process or the end-product. 

Love is only truly love when freely given and freely received.

What about men who fall hopelessly in love with women who don't feel the same way–or women who fall hopelessly in love with men who don't feel the same way? That's the backbone of countless plays, poems, novels, movies, and TV dramas. It's funny how freewill theists talk in such abstract terms about true love, when the reality of human experience is manifestly counter to their armchair stipulations. 

Can the person who commits a heinous offence be judged guilty of a crime if they were bound to act in such a way by the divine decree of God? Indeed, it could be argued that God himself is more culpable than they are. Equally, how can those God has predestined to hell be considered guilty of rejecting him, if they had no option to choose him?

That's a legitimate issue. Unfortunately, Justin merely recycles boilerplate objections to predestination. He does nothing to advance the argument. He makes no effort to engage the counterarguments. For instance, he's aware of Guillaume Bignon monograph, which presents a systematic philosophical refutation of stock objections to absolute predestination and meticulous providence. Cf. Excusing Sinners and Blaming God: A Calvinist Assessment of Determinism, Moral Responsibility, and Divine Involvement in Evil.


  1. Thanks Steve. I listened to James White's comments as well, and he took considerable time in defining terms, to avoid the broad sweep of the brush. I agree with you, that Justin didn't really bring anything to the table. I am supremely grateful for all that he does, but there are times I wonder if, in his environment, he lives in a sort of fishbowl, where most of what he learns comes from Keith Ward and John Lennox, both wonderful men, but as you point out, who present only stock arguments.

  2. Disappointing to see how little exegesis there is in his article; how much human theorising, and the most superficial invocation of a few Scriptures thrown in.

    For example, it's all very well, at a certain level, to make sweeping statements about how people can't be held accountable for their part events that were predestined. But, in fact, the Scripture not only affirms that this is the case, but actually does so about the event right at the heart of our salvation (Acts 4:27-28). How does Justin deal with that? Do his strictures that such things are impossible apply, or not apply? And what implications does that have? Who knows? Sadly, as I say, the analysis is so superficial amongst all the mere assertions of what his human philosophy teaches him must or must not be, he doesn't even hint that such questions exist. Much less is the reader alerted that you haven't even begun to engage with the Scriptures if you don't answer them.

    1. Ironic how he punts to John Lennox for the heavy-duty exegesis. Lennox is a wonderful Christian gentleman and apologist for the faith, but he's not a trained exegete, and it shows.

  3. I'm not a Calvinist (that I know of!) so please forgive if this is simplistics & ignorant. My (very limited) understanding of predestination is that God foreknew all choices & decisions before He ever created. So, in essense, God already had the script in hand before the first moment of time. He knew & knows every choice, every decision. Hence, God does not *make* us do things but knows our choices & decisions long before we make them.

    1. That's one conventional model of divine foreknowledge in freewill theism (esp. classic Arminianism). However:

      i) That's foreknowledge instead of predestination. Does predestination have any role in your theology? What does predestination actually *do* in your theology? What difference does predestination make on your view? What difference would it make to your theology if there was foreknowledge without predestination?

      ii) It fails to explain how God knows the future choices/actions of free agents if the outcome could go either way. There's no singular object of knowledge under that scenario.

      iii) It abridges divine aseity by making foreknowledge a copy of the world.

      iv) It falls prey to the objection that simple foreknowledge is providentially useless:


    2. Steve, thanks for the response. I didn't go into it but I beieve God has a purpose in creation & God has foreknowledge of all choices before creation therefore predestination is a given. Unless the foreknowledge was guarenteed, it would be contradictory. You cannot have knowledge of an event prior to the event unless all choices that led up to the event were not only known but unchangable. So I would have to agree wholeheartedly with Calvinism on predestination. Again, thank you for the response and I'm going to go read that pdf now :)