Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Are evangelism and human responsibility for sin rational in Calvinism?

Here is a quote from Dr. Craig that seems to get Calvinists so angry:

“The counterfactuals of creaturely freedom which confront Him are outside His control. He has to play with the hand He has been dealt.”

(Source)

Calvinists have told me that this quotation from Dr. Craig is “heretical” or “borderline heretical”. They are claiming that Dr. Craig thinks that God is lacking in power somehow. But why is God’s power limited, according to this quote?

Well, it’s because God respects FREE WILL. That quote is simply Dr. Craig’s way of saying that God does not override the free will of his creatures.

So let’s make sense of Craig’s statement. Either there is determinism and God causes people to act, or humans have free will and they cause themselves to do things. If you do not cause yourself to act, then you are not responsible for what you do. Just think for a minute. If I push you into someone and you fall into them and then they fall off a cliff, then are you a murderer? No – I would be, because I am the cause. The Bible teaches that God has chosen to limit his power so that that people have genuine responsibility for their actions, and that means they have genuine free will. Humans can only be responsible for their sins if they have the ability to do other than they do, and this is the traditional Christian view.

It’s true that human beings are totally depraved as a result of the fall, and do not want God in their lives, but they are responsible because God wants them to be saved, and it is their free choice that prevents it. Rather than force humans to love him against their will, God lets them resist him, and so they are responsible for their sin.

Dr. Craig cites the famous Calvinist D. A. Carson (who I like) explaining some of the themes of the Bible that affirm robust free will and human responsibility:

The classical Reformed [scholars]… acknowledge that the reconciliation of Scriptural texts affirming human freedom and contingency with Scriptural texts affirming divine sovereignty is inscrutable. D. A. Carson identifies nine streams of texts affirming human freedom: (1) People face a multitude of divine exhortations and commands, (2) people are said to obey, believe, and choose God, (3) people sin and rebel against God, (4) people’s sins are judged by God, (5) people are tested by God, (6) people receive divine rewards, (7) the elect are responsible to respond to God’s initiative, (8) prayers are not mere showpieces scripted by God, and (9) God literally pleads with sinners to repent and be saved (Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension, pp. 18-22). These passages rule out a deterministic understanding of divine providence, which would preclude human freedom.

On Calvinism, however, all of these 9 features of reality, supported by dozens and dozens of Bible passages, are all false. On Calvinism, God is the sole causal agent. There is no free will. People go to Heaven or Hell as a choice of God. People can only perform good actions if God acts unilaterally to “regenerate” them, making obedience to God possible. Calvinism teaches that God and his agents are constantly exhorting and commanding things that they literally cannot do because they are unregenerate, and the only way to get regenerate is for God to regenerate them, against their will. And they can’t resist that.

So let’s make sense of D.A. Carson’s list of 9 items:

  1. On Calvinism, when God or his agents exhort or command people to perform good actions, it’s meaningless because God has to unilaterally regenerate them first, so that they can perform the good actions.
  2. On Calvinism, when God or his agents tell people to obey, believe and choose God, it’s meaningless because God has to unilaterally regenerate them first, so they can obey, believe and choose God.
  3. On Calvinism, when people sin and rebel against God, it’s like people are soda cans that God shakes up some of them, and then pops the tabs on all of them and the ones he shook up fizz.
  4. On Calvinism, when God judges people for sinning, it’s like God sends the cans who don’t fizz to Hell for eternity, even though he unilaterally chose not to shake them, which is the only way they could fizz.
  5. On Calvinism, when God tests people, it’s meaningless, because there is no way they can pass the tests unless God unilaterally regenerates them first, so they can pass the test.
  6. On Calvinism, when people receive divine rewards, it’s meaningless, because all the credit goes to God for regenerating them. They are just fizzing because he shook the can.
  7. On Calvinism, when people respond to God’s initiative, it’s meaningless, because God’s regeneration is irresistible and irrevocable. They can do nothing other than fizz when he shakes the can.
  8. On Calvinism, when people pray, it’s meaningless, because God unilaterally decides whether to regenerate people or not, and all their fizzing comes solely from his decision to shake or not shake the can.
  9. On Calvinism, when God pleads with sinners to repent and be saved, it’s meaningless, because God has to unilaterally regenerate them before they can repent.

Here’s William Lane Craig to explain it further in an answer to a question of the week from Dr. Craig’s Reasonable Faith web site.

5 problems:

  1. Universal, divine, causal determinism cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture.
  2. Universal causal determinism cannot be rationally affirmed.
  3. Universal, divine, determinism makes God the author of sin and precludes human responsibility.
  4. Universal, divine, determinism nullifies human agency.
  5. Universal, divine determinism makes reality into a farce.

If God’s choice, to regenerate or not, causally determines whether we can respond to him, or not, then that is determinism. And it makes our lives meaningless because we are not responsible for anything we do. Life is a puppet show, and there is only one person pulling the strings. Evangelism makes no sense, because God decides unilaterally and irrevocably who is saved. When I explain this to Calvinists, their response is that God commands us to evangelize, so we must even if it makes no sense on their view.

A Calvinist might respond to this defense of free will and human responsibility with passages from Romans 8 and 9, but those are best understood as speaking about corporate election, rather than unilaterally-determined selection. Membership in the elect group is based on people responding to God’s drawing of them to him. That interpretation fits with the rest of the Bible, which is uniformly affirmative of human free will and human responsibility. Concerns about diminished divine sovereignty are resolved by middle knowledge, in which God chooses to actualize exactly the world that achieves his sovereign will out of all the possible worlds, and he saves exactly the people he chooses to save – but without violating their free will. Yes, it’s cosmic entrapment, but at least the cosmic entrapment does not violate the free will of the creatures, which would render then irresponsible for their own sins.

Disclaimer: I don’t think that this is an issue that should divide Christians, and I do think that Calvinists are most definitely Christians. And that they are very devout and intelligent Christians, too.

If you are looking for a good book on this issue, I recommend Kenneth Heathley’s “Salvation and Sovereignty“, which is a thorough discussion of the problem of divine sovereignty and human freedom.

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Jeffrey Simon on Calvinism, free will and moral responsibility

I spent some time last night chatting with some of my readers on Facebook, and Jeffrey Simon was one. He wrote this essay on Calvinism versus Molinism which I thought was good enough to post. I am in agreement with Jeffrey on this issue, BUT I did include some debates featuring Calvinist James White at the bottom of the post. I just wanted to present an excerpt from his essay that makes a point that I thought would get lots of responses from Calvinists. Jeffrey is quite aggressive.

The essay is here, but you have to be his friend in order to see it.

Excerpt:

When harmonizing man’s perspective and God’s perspective, the Calvinist embraces what is known as theological fatalism.  They redefine free will and embrace compatibilism.  Essentially compatibilism says that determinism and free will are compatible, hence the name compatibilism.  In the same way that the wind blowing causes the trees to move, our desires and environment produce an effect which would be our action.  When we make a decision, we could not have chosen otherwise.  The Calvinist likes to say that we choose according to our greatest desire.  This would explain how God is in control of everything and more specifically our salvation.  How does God ensure the salvation of certain individuals? He changes their desires so they will freely choose Him.  This brings up an objection though.  If God desires that all are saved (1 Tim 2.4) and does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked (Eze. 33.11) and God “can save all whom He chooses to save”, then why are not all saved?  The Calvinist responds by making a distinction in God’s will.  While it is God’s revealed will and desire [thelo] that all men are saved, it is not His decreed will [boulomai] that all will be saved.  Essentially, God desires that all are saved and has a general love for the reprobate, but He has predestined them to Hell because His will [boulomai] trumps His desires [thelo].  Within Calvinism, there is a smaller section that claims regeneration logically precedes faith.  Because we are “dead” in our sin, we must be made alive or regenerated before believing.  How can a dead man believe and make himself alive?  In the same way that Lazarus was commanded to be raised from physical death, we are commanded to be made alive (through regeneration) from our spiritual death.

In my estimation, the main problem with Calvinism is that it embraces a causally deterministic system.  How can we freely make decisions yet God determined them for us?  It is not a mystery, but rather a contradiction.  In fact, at this point Calvinists are in agreement with naturalists because nearly all naturalists embrace compatibilism or determinism due to the fact that naturalism implies physicalism or materialism.  Now, imagine reading through the Bible with the idea that free will does not exist.  It is rather dizzying to imagine such a thing!  Dr.  William Lane Craig sums it up nicely when he says,

”Universal, divine, causal determinism cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture. The classical Reformed divines recognized this. They acknowledge that the reconciliation of Scriptural texts affirming human freedom and contingency with Scriptural texts affirming divine sovereignty is inscrutable. D. A. Carson identifies nine streams of texts affirming human freedom: (1) People face a multitude of divine exhortations and commands, (2) people are said to obey, believe, and choose God, (3) people sin and rebel against God, (4) people’s sins are judged by God, (5) people are tested by God, (6) people receive divine rewards, (7) the elect are responsible to respond to God’s initiative, (8) prayers are not mere showpieces scripted by God, and (9) God literally pleads with sinners to repent and be saved (Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension, pp. 18-22). These passages rule out a deterministic understanding of divine providence, which would preclude human freedom” (The Only Wise God).

If God has determined our every thought and action, yet those nine things hold true, then it turns the Bible into a charade.  How can anything be expected of us if we can’t make decisions?  In response to this, the Calvinist may say “so what”.  It may violate our fallen sense of justice, but God can do as “He pleases and no one can hold back His hand or say to Him: ‘What have You done?’” (Dan 4.35).  God can determine us to do immoral things and hold us responsible because He is God.  In fact, in the Book of Acts when Peter and John are talking about Christ’s crucifixion, they say that God “anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever His hand and His purpose predestined to occur.” Even though God predestined them to crucify Christ, they were held responsible.  While this is possible it surely does not seem plausible.  Turning to the book of Judges, for example, we would find ourselves asking why God determined Israel’s rebellion so many times.  One only has to retort, so God is the author of evil, then?  If I were to pick up a stick and use it to move a rock, what moved the rock? Technically the stick moved the rock; however, no one would say that.  I moved the rock by picking up the stick and using it.  It is no different with God.  Surely those men crucified Christ, but it was really God behind the scenes.  This intrudes upon the holiness of God because He cannot stand sin (Psalm 5.4) and cannot even tempt man (Jas 1.13) yet alone causally determine evil.  Continuing, let’s take this causally deterministic system and God’s will as described by Calvinists to its logical conclusion.  First of all, as I just mentioned, the biggest problem is that God becomes the author of evil.  Second of all, there can be no “well-meant offer” of the Gospel to all persons if God has determined their destruction in hell.  In regards to God’s will, a better way, I think, to understand it would be that while God desires all men to be saved, His will is to save those who believe.  This does well with texts that say that God desires that all men are saved (1 Timothy 2:4) and does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11) (and it also does not make God look hypocritical).  There are numerous texts where God exhorts people to believe, yet they reject Him.  For example, in Isaiah 5 God is disappointed with Israel because of their continuous sin and He asks what more could He have done for them.  God had provided all the means for godly living, yet Israel rejected Him.  Why would God waste His time with people whom He predestined to Hell and had no chance of salvation?  Also, if it’s God’s “secret” will to save some and damn some, then how can anyone know about it?

Is there anyone on the Calvinist side reading this who can explain how people can be responsible for sinning if they have no way to avoid it? I am not sure if a person can be responsible in that case because the only way that they can not sin is if God does something, and he chooses not to do it. It’s like giving a person a final exam but locking them out of the classroom all semester long.

Actually, I can see how that might actually be offensive to atheists, as in this debate between William Lane Craig and Edwin Curley of U of Michigan Ann Arbor.

Probably the best way to settle this is with debates. But I think that the only Calvinist who has debated on this issue is James White. So I put his debates below. I don’t think that famous Calvinists like Mark Dricoll and even Wayne Grudem defend Calvinism in formal public debates. Can anyone point out any debates that I may have missed? I want formal debates with good scholars on either side so I can make sure that my mind was made up based on evidence.

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Is God the cause of human evil in Calvinism?

Wes over at Reason to Stand thinks so.

The problem:

A Calvinist friend of mine recently asked me the difference between “unwilling” and “unable” and why I consider the two to be mutually exclusive when talking about mankind’s ability to sin or not.

And here is his reply to his friend:

If I am unable I cannot be unwilling because my inability precludes my willingness either way.

[…]If I am unable then I am no better off than a robot preprogrammed to run a certain course and as such I cannot rightly be held accountable for that which I have no control over.

On the other hand, if I am unwilling then I logically have the ability to act in a manner other than that which I choose.

If I am unable to not sin then I cannot logically be held accountable or responsible for choices that are, by definition, beyond my control.

If I am unwilling to not sin then I am not only responsible for my choice but, in light of the holy standard of God, I am unable to bridge the gap I freely created.

[…]The bottom line is that we are either free and responsible or else we are not free and therefore not responsible.

And William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga also like middle knowledge. Hmmmn. Wes and Bill Craig and Alvin Plantinga are pretty smart guys.

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Phil Fernandes explains his view of free will and divine sovereignty

It also happens to be MY view, pretty much.

This is SPOOKY! I could have said 99% of this myself!

The only thing we differ on is that I think you can lose your salvation, but only by committing “the unforgiveable sin”, which is rejecting God’s grace intentionally. You can’t lose your salvation by sinning, because you are forgiven. But every sin will cause damage in your life.

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Response from a Calvinist

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Stan’s concerns about the middle knowledge argument

In this post at Birds of the Air.

Excerpt:

There are multiple problems in my mind. There is what is known as the grounding objection. This argument sees a problem with what are called “counterfactuals”, that whole list of contingencies that God sees. If they never happen, on what basis can they be considered true? If they never occur, how are they real? In fact, if they’re based on the freedom of the creature, how can they be true without limiting the freedom of the creature? Yeah, yeah, whatever. The thing that disturbs me the most is that it undermines God’s Sovereignty. The Bible claims that God is the only Sovereign. In Middle Knowledge we have a contingent God. All of Middle Knowledge is based on what the creature will or won’t choose and what God can do with it. God, then, is limited to what His creatures will or won’t do. Let’s say, for instance, that God would like to save Ted. Going further, let’s say that there could be one circumstance that would cause Ted to choose Christ (all big assumptions, but just follow along). However, that one circumstance required that Bob would make a free will choice … that Bob won’t make. Poor Ted. God had it all figured out how to save him, but Bob wouldn’t make the right choice, so Ted is doomed.

Of course, I have other big problems with Middle Knowledge. There is the fundamental assumption that God cannot under any circumstances interfere in Man’s Free Will. Where this notion comes from is completely beyond me. There is the further fundamental belief that if God does certain things, some humans will choose Him. The Bible depicts humans as dead in sin (just for starters). Under what possible set of circumstances would God be able to get this dead person to properly respond to Him? If “The Natural Man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned”, what possible scenario could God scare up to make him accept the things of the Spirit of God?

The grounding objection is the only one that worries me. Stan is awesome to read because he always tells the truth about the views that he rejects. He knows both sides of issues equally well.

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Response from a Calvinist

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