This episode, I am continuing the Doctrine of God series, this time looking at God and Creation. Several interesting questions come up as we try to contemplate God’s relation to the universe that He created, and this podcast will serve as a brief introduction to some of these issues. For the book reviews, I’m looking at two companion volumes that discuss the Calvinism/Arminian debate; Why I am not a Calvinist and Why I am not an Arminian. For the audience question, I take a look at the consequences of God’s foreknowledge of the future, and consider whether such foreknowledge turns the world into one giant set-up. But first, let’s take a look at the news.
It’s been a long time since my last podcast, so I have several interesting news stories to discuss.
First up, a new endeavor called “The Jesus Project” is the latest scholarly group effort to try to find the true historical Jesus. 1 A group of 20 scholars formed by the secular Center for Inquiry, the new effort has drawn numerous comparisons to the controversial Jesus Seminar.
For those who are unaware, the Jesus Seminar is large group of liberal scholars who tried to determine what the historical Jesus actually said and did. Though they were well-advertised in the media, they drew much criticism from conservative scholars for their unorthodox methods and their questionable conclusions. Members of the seminar would all vote on individual sayings or doings of Jesus reported in the Bible and elsewhere, dropping different colored beads into a bowl depending on their conviction of the likelihood of the saying or deed. Their controversial findings were that Jesus did and said less than 20% of what is reported in the New Testament.
The Jesus Project, however, aims to distinguish itself from the Seminar. They are starting their investigation at rock bottom, not taking for granted even the existence of the man Jesus. The project is describing itself as “the first methodologically agnostic approach” to the question of Jesus’s historical existence. The project will use all available historical sources, including extrabiblical writings that briefly refer to Jesus, such as “The Annals” from Tacitus and “The Antiquities of the Jews” by Josephus.
It will be interesting to see the outcome of the Jesus Project. Will it be another liberal, anti-miracle pep squad, or will it offer conclusions more in line with the evidence? Seeing where the scholars fall on the first question of Jesus’s existence will be an important early indicator of the objectivity of this effort. Should they come out of their so-called objective, agnostic historical investigation doubting or denying the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth, it will be clear that this group is no better than the Jesus Seminar. Another revealing sign will be how these scholars use the New Testament writings. When it comes to an objective historical analysis, the Gospels are an extraordinarily important source concerning the life of Jesus Christ. People often forget that the Gospels are actually historical documents that only later were formed into the so-called “New Testament.” Blandly dismissing all four Gospels due to supposed ‘bias’ is a hopelessly faulty conclusion, for in fact the four gospels are some of the best and earliest sources for the historical Jesus, even if you disregard for the sake of argument the idea that the books were inspired.
I try not to be pre-judgemental, but let’s just say I’m not exactly holding my breath for this one. It has all the signs of a repeat of the Jesus Seminar. But, hopefully they make good on their promise for “the most rigorous methods, data, and open debate.”
A new report from the American Textbook Council, an independent national research organization that reviews textbooks and advocates for the quality of historical material, has found that many textbooks used in public schools are blatantly and subtly supporting Islam and disparaging Judaism and Christianity. 2 The report says that “Many political and religious groups try to use the textbook process to their advantage, but the deficiencies in Islam-related lessons are uniquely disturbing. History textbooks present an incomplete and confected view of Islam that misrepresents its foundations and challenges to international security.”
Some examples of questionable content include a passage explaining Jihad, which states that ‘Muslims should fulfill jihad with the heart, tongue, and hand. Muslims use the heart in their struggle to resist evil. The tongue may convince others to take up worthy causes, such as funding medical research. Hands may perform good works and correct wrongs,’
Another book claimed “Excepting the Old Testament’s poetry, the Jews produced very little of note in any of the art forms… There is no record of any important early Jewish contributions to the sciences.” 3
Many textbooks also spoke of Jesus as a Palestinian, refusing to acknowledge his Jewish roots.
I must say these findings were very surprising to me. I guess it just goes to show that you need to critically examine everything you read, and don’t take its truth for granted just because it is written in a textbook.
New research conducted by David Ashford finds that, contrary to popular misconceptions, the Bible does not take a negative stance on women. 4 Ashford, after analyzing the relevant texts, concludes that the majority of women receive either a neutral or positive analysis, with 60 of the Bible’s 175 female characters being described with words such as “blessed,” “righteous,” “outstanding,” and “beautiful.” Moreover, Jesus defied social conventions by speaking with women frequently. Ashford states that “Only 13 women are described negatively with terms such as ‘nagging, intimidating, lustful, or provocative.” Ashford’s analysis is an important one that reveals the myth about female contempt in the Bible. To go along with Ashford’s research, I think it is important to point out that, first of all, most men of the Bible are not exactly described in glowing terms, and, second of all, the sinful nature of humankind was inherited through Adam, not Eve. Though many claim that Eve is given the blame for being the first to eat fruit from the forbidden tree and disobey God, the Biblical witness actually demonstrates that original sin passes through Adam.
Note that the Apostle Paul, who is often labeled a woman-hater because of his views of women in ministry, states in Romans 5:12;
“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.”
Sorry guys, we’re not off the hook.
Dr. Justin Barrett of Oxford University declared on BBC Radio 4’s Today program that young people have a natural predisposition to believe in a supreme being. He said “The preponderance of scientific evidence for the past 10 years or so has shown that a lot more seems to be built into the natural development of children’s minds than we once thought, including a predisposition to see the natural world as designed and purposeful and that some kind of intelligent being is behind that purpose.” 5
If Barrett is right, then so-called religious indoctrination by parents and authority figures may not play as prominent role in belief as is commonly believed. However, this research is unlikely to answer the most pressing question, is the predisposition to believe a result of natural processes, or did God purposely make us with a tendency to acknowledge the truth?
A public intellectual from Iran named Abdulkarim Soroush, a controversially liberal Muslim, has recently defended the position that the Koran, the Islamic Holy Text, was not the direct, word for word translation by Muhammad from God. Rather, he claims that the prophet was at the same time the receiver and the producer of the Koran. While he certainly affirms the Koran as a holy text, he stops short of the belief held by most conservative Muslims that it is directly the words of God. 6
Interestingly, though Soroush’s position has caused a great deal of controversy, his view is actually virtually identical to the way most Christians interpret Biblical revelation. Christian theology recognizes that the Bible is both the Word of God and the product of man. The Bible was written by many different authors over different time periods and in different contexts, and each book displays the undeniable hallmarks of a human production. Nevertheless, according to Christian theology, these authors were inspired by and guided by God to produce His revelation.
Something a bit more lighthearted, the Evangelical Alliance recently released the “Ten Commandments of Blogging” to help guide the thousands of Christians who are are now blogging about faith. 7
1.) You shall not put your blog before your integrity
2.) You shall not make an idol of your blog
3.) You shall not misuse your screen name by using your anonymity to sin
4.) Remember the Sabbath day by taking one day off a week from your blog
5.) Honor your fellow-bloggers above yourselves and do not give undue significance to their mistakes
6.) You shall not murder someone else’s honor, reputation or feelings
7.) You shall not use the web to commit or permit adultery in your mind
8.) You shall not steal another person’s content
9.) You shall not give false testimony against your fellow-blogger
10.) You shall not covet your neighbor’s blog ranking. Be content with your own content
Hopefully, by the grace of God, I am obeying most of these commandments.
Main Feature: Doctrine of God – God and Creation
Continuing with the doctrine of God series, in this podcast I would like to take a look at God and creation. Reflecting on God’s relationship to His creation raises many interesting questions and also brings us head-on into many powerful criticisms levied against Christian faith. In this brief treatment I would like to outline some of the main issues and present some preliminary responses to objections posed against the Christian view.
The Biblical account is full of passages describing God’s creation of the universe, most famously in the first passage of the Bible; Genesis 1:1
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
This powerful statement separates the Judeo-Christian faith from the vast majority of religious competitors, by identifying one God who created the entire universe. This distinguishes Judeo-Christian faith from pantheism, panentheism, and polytheism. The statement also implies a beginning of time, thus refuting the idea that the world is eternal. The view that God created the entire universe out of nothing is frequently called “creatio ex nihilo,” meaning creation out of nothing.
Problems with Creatio ex Nihilo
Perhaps the biggest difficulty with the doctrine of creation out of nothing is that it is simply bizarre. How could the universe be created out of nothing? Wes Morriston presses this objection when he claimed that “creation out of nothing is at least as counterintuitive as is beginning to exist without a cause.” 8 Indeed, creation out of nothing leaves us with no material cause of the universe.
However, this objection fails because the alternative, that the universe began to exist without a cause, also lacks a material cause. However, in this case, the universe’s existence does not even have an efficient cause either. So while it may be true that it is hard to understand how God could create the universe out of nothing, it is so much the harder to understand how the universe could just pop into existence. At least in the first case, we have some explanation for the universe’s existence. Nevertheless, it remains true, I think, that the idea of God creating the universe out of nothing is hard to truly comprehend.
Defense of Creatio ex Nihilo
Whatever problems we may have conceptualizing the awesome doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, it is a doctrine that actually receives remarkable support from modern science and cosmology. As I explained in episode two of this podcast, which was about the cosmological argument, scientific evidence strongly favors the position that, approximately 15 billion years ago, the universe popped into existence out of nothing. Back then, I grouped the scientific evidence for a beginning of the universe into two broad categories – evidence that the universe is expanding and evidence from thermodynamics. Evidence for expansion implies a beginning because, as we look back further and further into the past, the universe was smaller and smaller, until we finally reach a point where the entire universe was rolled up into a single, infinitely dense point called the ‘singularity.’ Thermodynamics provides strong evidence for a beginning because it implies that the current universe could not have existed forever. Basically, thermodynamics demonstrates that energy runs down over time, and if our universe had existed forever, then it would have already run out of usable energy.
Since I produced that podcast, the evidence for the beginning of the universe out of nothing has become far stronger. Alexander Vilenkin, Alan Guth, and Arvind Borde developed a theorem which demonstrates that, under any realistic conception of the universe, the universe must have had a beginning. In his book “Many Worlds in One,” Vilenkin surmises that-
“It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape: they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.” 9
Thus, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo may be unparalleled for its strong support from scripture, science, and reason. However confusing it may be, this doctrine is on extremely strong ground.
It is, however, important to mention at this point that the truth of a beginning of the universe does support creation out of nothing, but it fails to prove the robust Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. For two other possibilities remain; first, that more than one agent was responsible for creating the universe out of nothing, second, that something else existed alongside God when He created the universe.
The first possibility is essentially the view of polytheism. Do we have any reason to prefer monotheism? As a matter of fact, it seems we do. The principle of Ockham’s Razor tells us that we should prefer the simplest hypothesis to explain the relevant data. Since one Creator will do the job, it is absolutely unnecessary to postulate multiple gods. It thus seems, on the face of it, that monotheistic creation is the most plausible view given the scientific data.
The second possibility brings us into a discussion of the doctrine of aseity. Aseity is the doctrine of God’s self-existence and independence. This classic doctrine asserts that God exists completely independently of anything else. God preexists all other things. Scripture seems to affirm this position in powerful passages such as John 1:3 –
“All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
Moreover, denying aseity seems theologically problematic, because it would seem to reduce God’s glory. First of all, it would imply that God did not create everything, and second of all it would rob from God the unique status of being the only being who exists completely independently.
We’ve already seen that the scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe, coupled with Ockham’s Razor, plausibly confirms the Christian doctrine of one supreme creator of the universe. However, it does not seem to preclude the possibility that other things exist alongside God. Thus, a defense of divine aseity will require some additional arguments. What are the merits for holding that either material or immaterial things existed alongside God from the beginning?
First of all, it should be mentioned that Ockham’s Razor is also effective for helping to demonstrate the rationality of the doctrine of aseity. Just like we should not posit extra gods that are unneeded, so to we need not posit extra entities existing alongside God without some sort of evidence. It is possible that an eternally boiling teapot has existed with God from all eternity, spoiling His aspirations for aseity, but there is simply no reason in particular to think that there is such an everlasting teapot. Thus, in order to throw doubt upon aseity, the critic will have to demonstrate positive reasons for believing that God was not the only entity from the beginning.
First, let us consider material objects. A skeptic of divine aseity could claim that it is more plausible to hold that matter existed alongside God from the beginning. It seems more plausible that God would simply use matter as raw materials to mold a universe. This line of argument is taken up by Michael Martin in his book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. 10 After all, one of the biggest problems with creatio ex nihilo was the difficulty comprehending God literally willing something into existence. Isn’t it easier to imagine God molding pre-existing materials?
Well, I think that the scientific evidence for a beginning of the universe tends to disconfirm this idea. According to the Big Bang model of the universe prevalent today, the singularity just is the first moment of time and the first moment in which matter exists. Pre-existing physical objects seem to be disconfirmed by the best scientific theories today. Whether we like it or not, modern cosmology gives us two options – creation ex nihilo by God or the universe spontaneously popping into being out of nothing.
As a side note, it is true that many scientific models predict pre-existing universes and so forth. However, these models have simply failed to commend themselves, and virtually all of them fly in the face of the best cosmological and theoretical evidence. See the second podcast for a more detailed critique of many of these models. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem basically proves that the universe ultimately originated out of a singularity, so the critic of divine aseity has little scientific standing on which to launch his attack.
Well, what about the possibility that immaterial things have existed alongside God? Here we run into a much thornier problem for the advocate of aseity. Immaterial, abstract objects include things like numbers, propositions, and sets. If these things actually exist, then it seems that they would exist necessarily and independently of anything else. For example, the number “7,” if it really exists as an abstract object, must always exist, because nothing can cause the number 7 to come into existence. A key question, then, will be whether or not it is plausible to think that these types of abstract objects actually exist.
There are many positions on this topic, but I will analyze three of the main contenders – nominalism, conceptualism, and Platonism.
Nominalism denies the existence of abstract objects entirely. According to this view, the number “7” is at best an idea in your mind, it does not have actual, independent existence.
Conceptualism holds that abstract objects have a real existence in the mind. Theistic conceptualists believe that abstract objects exist as divine ideas within God’s mind.
Platonism asserts that there is a separate realm of abstract objects that actually exist. Moreover, these objects exist necessarily.
So, notice that Platonism is the only view that troubles the defender of divine aseity. Thus, if Platonism is shown to be false, then aseity will be in the clear. However, if Platonism is shown to be the most plausible view, then the Christian will be fighting an uphill battle. Thus, an analysis of the arguments for and against Platonism are very important.
Perhaps the main argument in favor of Platonism is the so-called indispensability argument. Basically, this argument contends that abstract objects are absolutely indispensable for us. Witness, for example, the tremendous success of mathematics for helping us comprehend the world around us. If abstract objects are simply things we made up in our minds, then why is mathematics so successful?
One problem with Platonism is that it runs into several antinomies that are difficult for the Platonist to resolve. One example is Russell’s antinomy, which Craig discusses in his book The Kalam Cosmological Argument,
“Russell’s antinomy proceeds on the assumption that it is meaningful to ask whether a set is a member of itself. Some sets are clearly not members of themselves. For example, the set of all pigs is not itself a pig, and, hence, it is not a member of itself. But some sets appear to be members of themselves; for example, the set of all things mentioned in this chapter is itself mentioned in this chapter and so would seem to be a member of itself. But what about the set of all sets that are not members of themselves- is it a member of itself? Denoting this set by S, we discover that if S is a member of itself, then it cannot be in S, for S includes only sets that are not members of themselves. But if S is not a member of itself, then, since it fulfills the condition for being in S, it is a member of itself. Thus, we reach the contradictory conclusion that S is a member of S if S is not a member of S.” 11
In any case, these kinds of paradoxes are difficult to explain under the Platonist view, and less hard to explain under the other views which are not committed to accepting the real existence of abstract objects.
Moreover, it can be argued that Platonism is simply implausible. The claim that abstract objects really exist “out there” seems odd, to say the least. What does it mean to say that the number 7 exists? What does it mean to say that the property ‘redness’ exists? Abstract objects, by definition, have no causal effects whatsoever, so in the absence of compelling reasons to believe that they exist, why should we believe they do? Aren’t we simply reifying these objects, ascribing true existence to something only in our minds?
The nominalist Mark Balaguer takes this line of argument further. He asks us to consider, for the sake of argument, what would happen if, in an instant, all abstract objects were to disappear. As a matter of fact, there would be absolutely no effect on our world. This is because abstract objects are, by definition, causally inert. Their disappearance would not change the physical world one bit. If this is the case then, do we really need abstract objects in our ontology? If we can do fine without them, then the indispensability argument for Platonism loses its force, and we are left with no real reason to accept the real existence of such bizarre entities as the property of brownness and the number ’5.’ 12
It is thus my inclination to believe that Platonism is counterintuitive and therefore requires some reasonable defense in order for us to affirm it. However, with the indispensability argument undercut, there don’t seem to be enough strong reasons to adopt Platonism.
However, if nominalism seems extreme in its denial of the real existence of abstract objects, then a conceptualist account may appear more plausible. Theistic conceptualism basically takes the abstract forms and objects contained in Plato’s theory and relegates them to the divine mind. Rather than existing from eternity completely independently, abstract objects thus exist eternally as thoughts in the divine mind. Whether this doctrine differs substantially from pure nominalism is a matter for debate, but for those more Platonistically inclined, the doctrine of conceptualism, which has been very popular throughout the history of the Church, may be the way to go.
I don’t want to be too glib about dismissing Platonism, which is a serious and formidable theory that cannot be easily dismissed. However, it seems to me that the balance of arguments favors a non-Platonistic conception of abstract objects. If that is the case, then divine aseity has been vindicated. Neither concrete nor abstract objects can plausibly be held to exist alongside God from eternity.
Up to this point, we have only discussed one facet of the doctrine of creation, that being the original creation. However, traditional Christian theology has also affirmed divine conservation, by which God upholds and maintains the creation in existence.
The Bible also frequently speaks of God’s continuing creation. For example, Hebrews 1:3 states of Jesus Christ that
“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
Thus, the Christian doctrine holds not only that God created the entire universe out of nothing, but also that He upholds and conserves the existence of everything.
How should we distinguish between creation and conservation? As Moreland and Craig point out in their book Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, we should avoid thinking of continuous creation as the action whereby God recreates at every moment the existence of every object. 13 If we adopt that position, then we will have to adopt the bizarre doctrine of occasionalism, which holds that no persisting individuals exist. If occasionalism is true, then personal identity is completely prohibited, since I am not the same person from moment to moment, but rather a recreated individual created by God at each successive moment. They instead construe the difference between creation and conservation to be that in the former, there is no object, whereas in the latter, there is an object upon which God acts.
Ultimately, the doctrine of conservation points to the radical primacy of God and the radical contingency of the creation. Much contemporary thinking seems to suggest that God simply created the world and let the world run its own course, perhaps stepping in on occasion with a miraculous event. However, this is a false conception, because it grants that things can exist without God. The doctrine of conservation, on the other hand, asserts that my continued existence is utterly dependent upon God. I can do absolutely nothing without God conserving me in existence.
Now that I am in the middle of a “Doctrine of God” series, it seems appropriate that I discuss one of the most important theological debates within the Christian community- the issue of Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Though this controversy is named after John Calvin and Jacobus Arminius of the 16th century, the actual debate goes back much farther than that.
Though attempting to reduce Calvinistic or Arminian theology to a few basic points is risky business, for our present purposes it seems appropriate to briefly outline the main points of contention. Arminian theology essentially claims that God has granted human beings at least some free will to choose or to reject him. Arminian theology denies that believing in Christ is a work, but at ground level humans have at least some freedom to accept or reject him.
Calvinistic theology, on the other hand, denies that people have any freedom to choose Christ. Given our sin nature, we are literally incapable of choosing Christ. Thus, in order to save some from damnation, God has elected to graciously give some sinners saving faith. Those who thus have saving faith are known as the ‘elect.’
For the book reviews this episode, I will take a look at the companion volumes Why I am Not an Arminian and Why I am Not a Calvinist. For a balanced and fair perspective, I would recommend that interested readers check out both books. Even though the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism is frequently vicious and exaggerated, both of these volumes manage to maintain a civil and respectful tone throughout. All the authors wisely recognize that theologians on both sides of the issue are in fact brothers in Christ. With the harsh language and accusations of heresy absent, these books have a chance to truly inform any reader about this important theological debate.
Why I am Not a Calvinist
This book was written by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell. While recognizing that reasonable people can disagree on this important topic, Dongell and Walls provide a strong Biblical and philosophical defense of Arminian doctrine.
In the first part of the book the authors attempt to deal with what they believe are the three strongest scriptural arguments in favor of a Calvinistic view, which are;
1. The sovereignty of God
2. The gracious nature of salvation
3. The reality of divine election
On the sovereignty of God, or the doctrine of God’s power in the world, Walls and Dongell point out that the Calvinist understanding of this doctrine leads to severe tensions in much of Scripture. They claim it implies restricted love, which cuts against the grain of many passages that not only affirm God’s universal love for all but also His desire for all to be saved. Moreover, it implies that God’s will cannot be resisted by humans. However, the Scriptural testimony actually documents people rejecting God’s stated wills and commands. One particularly poignant example is found in Jeremiah 13, where God declares that He will weep if Israel does not turn. These types of passages don’t mesh well with Calvinist teachings.
As for the gracious nature of salvation, the authors actually admit that many contemporary Arminians have failed to adequately acknowledge the gracious nature of salvation. However, they chalk this up as a problem with contemporary culture and feel-good theology. They contend that historic Arminianism properly recognizes that all salvation is of grace.
I agree with the authors that this is a major area of contention in the debate, and unfortunately it is one where many contemporary Arminians have developed theologies that are man-centered and unbiblical. True historic Arminian theology, on the other hand, affirms original sin and the radical nature of sin that
On the reality of divine election, the authors look at the major proof texts cited by Calvinists to support their theology and try to demonstrate that these texts all have plausible Arminian interpretations.
In addition to an analysis of the relevant Biblical materials, Walls and Dongell offer an important discussion on the topic of free will. They define and distinguish libertarian, determinist, and compatibilist accounts of freedom, and argue persuasively that the libertarian account is intuitively superior, necessary for moral responsibility, and implicitly supported by Biblical passages. This is an important discussion for the debate and I am glad that the authors chose to engage in it.
Near the end of the book, the authors offer some important critiques of Calvinist theology. First, they question Calvinism’s ability to coherently understand the existence of evil. Second, they question Calvinism’s ability to explain why some persons are lost, given the Biblical affirmation that God desires the salvation of all. Calvinist theology has difficulty explaining this issue because, since it affirms that the decision of salvation is entirely up to God, it seems that His desire for the salvation of all would entail that all men were saved. Finally, the authors argue that Calvinism is difficult to live out in the Christian life.
Overall, Why I am Not a Calvinist is an excellent work. Unfortunately, the authors failed to engage adequately with all of the relevant Biblical texts. Nevertheless, they make a strong case for Arminianism and against Calvinism. Especially impressive was their engagement in the debate about the philosophical nature of free will. Many Arminians fail to note important distinctions in this discussion which often leads to a simplistic analysis. For those who are interested in the issues of salvation, predestination, and free will, I strongly recommend this book for a solid overview of the issues, written in a friendly and irenic spirit.
My rating for this book: 4 stars out of 5.
Why I am Not an Arminian
This book was written by Robert Peterson and Michael Williams. They begin their work with a brief history of the debate between Augustine and Pelagius, essentially the ancient founders of this debate. Both of these thinkers endorsed monergism- which is the view that only one agent acts authoritatively in salvation. While Augustine defended divine monergism, with God being the sole actor in salvation, Pelagius defended human monergism. It should be noted that there is some debate about this point. Pelagius’s works are only available in bits via critiques from other writers like Augustine, who is not known for being charitable when quoting opponents. Nevertheless, Pelagius certainly focused much more attention on human effort in salvation than did his opponent. Regardless, Pelagius was condemned in 417. Soon after, the so-called Semi-Pelagians John Cassian and Vincent of Lerins defended the view that human nature is weakened but not disabled by sin. However, the first step towards God is taken by man, though grace is still needed if salvation is to be attained. This view defends synergism, the view that there are two actors in salvation- both God and man- working together.
This discussion is important not only because it sets up the historical context of this debate, but also because it reveals a fundamentally unfair charge made by many anti-Arminians that Arminian theology is Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian. As a matter of fact, Arminian theology affirms that sin has so corrupted the human nature that God must make the first move to make individuals receptive to the Gospel. This view is actually a modification of Augustine and so is called Semi-Augustinianism by Peterson and Williams. This is the view that was affirmed in the Synod of Orange in 529. However, Peterson and Williams still believe that Arminianism falls short by failing to truly recognize the damage of original sin and refusing to affirm divine monergism.
In addition to the historical overview, however, Peterson and Williams focus a great deal of attention on important Biblical passages that touch on the core differences between Arminians and Calvinists. They have good discussions on predestination, perseverance, and irresistible grace. Unfortunately, however, I think that they seriously botch the issue of free will.
To begin, they assume that free will is the foundation of Arminian theology. “…for Arminius and the Arminian tradition, human freedom is axiomatic. Because of this the freedom of the human will serves as a kind of grid through which all other notions and doctrines must pass in order to be accepted. That which might qualify or question human free will must be rejected. The assumption of the unblemished integrity of human free will leads Arminian theology toward indeterminist incompatibilism: divine sovereignty and true human freedom are incompatible, and human beings are free; therefore, God cannot sovereignly govern human history, events or personal destinies.” [137-8]
First of all, I think this is a caricature of the Arminian position. As Roger Olson points out, God’s goodness and justice are actually the main foundations of the Arminian position. Arminian theology protects God’s character by denying that He has anything to do with evil, instead attributing this evil to the sinful choices of free creatures. Moreover, Arminian theology takes seriously the Biblical affirmation that God desires the salvation of all men. While it may be true that some Arminians advocate the view because they want to salvage indeterministic free will, it is unfair to label this issue as the ‘axiomatic, non-negotiable’ factor in Arminian theology.
Secondly, Peterson and Williams make the classic false dichotomy between libertarian human freedom and divine sovereignty. It is simply silly to say that Arminian theology entails that God is not sovereign, since He sovereignly decided to create free human agents. If God freely decides to create agents who can freely decide what they will do, His sovereignty is not limited but rather enhanced. Indeed, Calvinism often seems to deny the very possibility that God could decide to create agents with libertarian free will, which seems to be a limitation on God’s freedom itself. In any case, the Molinist account of divine foreknowledge and providence adequately demonstrates that God can sovereignly order the world through free creatures. This Molinist account was discussed and defended in episode 18 of this podcast.
Thirdly, the authors seem to imply that libertarians believe that we can literally always choose otherwise. But this is a crass oversimplification of the view. Few libertarians contend that every choice we make is completely free.
Finally, the authors contend that the Bible supports a compatibilist understanding of freedom, but they never defend this view philosophically. While I respect the author’s focus on Scripture, I doubt that Peterson and Williams can allay the suspicions of libertarians like myself who believe that so-called compatibilist freedom is an empty concept. Moreover, all of the scriptural passages cited by the authors to demonstrate how God molds history and works all things towards His ends through human free choices simply supports the Molinist view that is often advanced by Arminians.
Nevertheless, other than a weak discussion on the nature of freedom, Peterson and Williams do a marvelous job explaining their disagreements with Arminianism and offering the Calvinist alternative. Their book should be praised for its irenic spirit and civil tone, as well as for its formidable scholarship. In particular, I respect their relentless focus on Scripture as they develop and defend the Calvinist position.
My rating for this book: 4 stars out of 5.
For the audience question this episode, I would like to address a question asked about the last episode, which was about God and foreknowledge. Richard says, “In summary I understood that either God has limited foreknowledge (which is supported and goes against bible teachings at the same time) or the world is a giant setup (which makes for dubious divine morality). Are any of these answers satisfying for you?”
This question presents us with a dilemma, either God has limited foreknowledge or the world is a giant setup. Richard claims that biblical teachings both support and undermine the view that God has limited foreknowledge. I acknowledge that there are certain passages which seem to support the limited foreknowledge view, but as I explained in the last podcast, the best interpretation supports the idea that God knows the future entirely. So at least in my opinion, I would like to reject the idea that God has limits of foresight.
So, if I affirm God’s complete foreknowledge, am I doomed to live in a world that is a giant setup? Why should we think so?
Richard is implying that God’s foreknowledge, if perfect, entails that things he foreknows will necessarily happen. And if everything happens necessarily, then the idea of freedom is eliminated and the feeling that this world is a set-up is approaching. But this line of thought actually relies upon faulty reasoning. To defend fatalism, or the view that the world is a so-called “setup,” is essentially to defend the following three premises.
1. Necessarily, if God foreknows that I will take a nap, then I will take a nap.
2. God foreknows that I will take a nap.
3. Therefore, my taking a nap will necessarily happen.
1. Necessarily, if Smith has children, then Smith is a father.
2. Smith has children.
3. Therefore, Smith is necessarily a father.
This conclusion is clearly false, though, because of course it is not necessary that Smith be a father. It is not impossible for Smith to lack fatherhood, he could accomplish such a feat in any number of ways.
The problem is that the second premise is contingent, or could have been otherwise. It is not necessary that Smith has children, he could simply refrain from having sex and all but guarantee such an outcome. Likewise, it is not necessary that God foreknows I will take a nap. Indeed, it is up to me whether God has such foreknowledge.
In fact, this theological objection really reduces to Greek fatalism, or so-called logical fatalism. Logical fatalism holds that everything that happens happens necessarily. Such fatalism only depends on the assumption that future-tense statements are either true or false, and does not rely on God’s foreknowledge to reach its conclusion. The most famous illustration of Greek fatalism usually revolves around a sea battle that occurs on a particular date. If a sea battle occurs today, then it was true 80 years ago that a sea battle would occur today. But if it was true that a sea battle would occur today 80 years ago, then the sea battle happens necessarily. Since fatalism does not depend on God’s foreknowledge, there is no particular reason for a theist to be concerned by the charge that this world is a “set-up.” But in any case, we’ve already seen why both theological and logical fatalism are false- in both cases they imply that a contingent event was necessary.
Finally, when you truly reflect on the concept, the idea that God’s foreknowledge destroys our freedom is senseless. How could it possibly be the case that mere knowledge of a person’s future free choice undermines that person’s choice? Knowledge as such does not cause anything, it is entirely passive. On this view, what exactly is supposed to constrain human free choice?
Thus, for several reasons, I think the charge of fatalism is unfounded. Perhaps, however, Richard is implying that the problem with my account of divine foreknowledge is the way God runs the show. Molinism, the view I defended last podcast, is often criticized as a manipulative understanding of divine providence. God knows everything every free creature will do, so He sets everybody up just the way He wants to in order to get them to do what He wants. Doesn’t this sound like a God of manipulation and controlling obsessiveness?
Well, I suppose it depends on your perspective, but I don’t think so at all. Molinism does not imply anything manipulative about God’s creation, it only implies that He carefully chose the world He created to meet His ends. If His ends were evil, then the charge of manipulation might be fair. However, Christian theology holds that God’s ends are good, both for fulfilling His own glory and for the salvation and joy of men.
Indeed, if you think about it, what exactly would you have God do? Given that God has perfect foreknowledge of future free events, no matter what He does He is going to know what the future holds. So why should He refuse to take this knowledge into account when deciding what kind of world to create?
In summary then, I don’t think the view that God knows all our future free choices undermines either freedom or divine morality.
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