Tuesday, February 16, 2010

We are His sheep, but not His cattle (What's Wrong with the World)

We are His sheep, but not His cattle (What's Wrong with the World)


I agree with your post. For the sake of our readers, though, I'd like to point out that your criticism of Calvinism on this score is of the same sort that can be made of any theology holding both that sin is unavoidable and that grace is irresistible, which in turn flows from monergism in general--though some Lutheran theologians have argued that the irresistibility of grace does not follow from monergism alone.

As Dan's comment indicates, monergists end up affirming the counterintuitive claim that one can be held accountable for actions one lacks freedom to avoid, in a "libertarian" sense of freedom (which I take him to mean the ability to choose and do otherwise). But that is not just a theological claim. Those non-Christian philosophers who are still called "soft determinists" generally strive to overcome the claim's counter-intuitiveness by substituting for libertarian freedom some weaker notion of freedom--such as freedom from external compulsion--and then limning the concept of moral responsibility so that it makes sense to hold a person accountable for an action even when they could not have done otherwise. The grain of truth in soft determinism is that, in some cases at least, it does seem that a person can be held accountable for an inner state of character or soul which renders them unable to do otherwise than they do. In some instances at least, I might be "unable to do otherwise" given the kind of person I am--which of course could hold for some good actions as well as bad. But of course that only pushes the question back. In what sense can a person be held accountable for the state of their soul, if that state is not itself the result of choices that it was once within their power to have made otherwise?

This is where theology usually enters the picture. Monergists answer by saying not merely that we are all personally guilty for being sinners, in a forensic sense of 'guilty', but that we are all conceived with a 'sin nature' which makes sinning inevitable and renders us incapable of pleasing God by anything we do. Frankly, I find the concept of an inherently evil nature, be it human or otherwise, incoherent; but this is not the place to make that argument. I can understand and do accept the idea that we are each conceived in a state of alienation from God, a state whose effects make it inevitable that we will sin at some-or-other time if and when we develop the full exercise of reason. Such is the Catholic doctrine of original sin. But that is quite compatible with holding that no particular sin is such that the sinner could not have done otherwise, unless the sin in question has been rendered inevitable by character flaws that, in turn, the sinner could have freely prevented or ameliorated, in a libertarian sense of 'freely'. So the Catholic doctrine of original and actual sin is quite compatible with, and indeed ultimately requires, a libertarian conception of freedom, which is more intuitively plausible than the conception we get on the monergist picture.

In the end, the monergist strategy is to interpret Scripture monergistically, so as thus to claim the authority of divine revelation for monergism, despite the almost exclusively synergist position of the Fathers of the Church. I find that strategy implausible for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it entails that the patristic and medieval Church, East as well as West, lost something absolutely essential to the Gospel for well over a millennium. I see no evidence of such discontinuity in the pre-Nicene Fathers. Theological monergism also requires an essentially lexical approach to interpreting certain key Scriptural terms, which is incompatible with the approach to Scripture in the patristic and medieval Church, where the tradition of that family known as "the Church" was taken as the key to sound exegesis. Thus, although the monergist hermeneutic of Scripture is rationally self-consistent, so are certain synergistic ones. And synergism, which typically involves a libertarian conception of human freedom, is far less counter-intuitive.

Posted by Michael Liccione | February 14, 2010 10:38 AM

"I agree that the issue of compatibilism, soft determinism, whichever you call it, does become relevant here. I've been a libertarian on the free will issue for many a year, and I suppose that independent philosophical issue just comes right in here on a truck. It seems to me obvious, on the one hand, that we cannot be blamed for acts that in no sense (not even in choosing to lose our self-control, as in the case of being under the influence of alcohol) were our free choice in the libertarian sense."

The problem is the Paul (and I would add the Holy Spirit who is the author of scripture) is real clear on this point...

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a a debased mind to do b what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.
Rom 1:18-2:5 (ESV)

Paul doesn't say "men, who by their unrighteousness are ignorant of the truth", it says "suppress the truth. Therefore it is a culpable denial of truth. God bound himself to Adam, had Adam been obedient he could have entered into the eternal state of blessedness by works, but he wasn't so in him the entire race fell into disobedience. Christ was obedient to the law but yet punished as a sinner, by faith His righteousness is imputed to us (Rom 5)

Oh and this morning's sermon at my reformed, evangelical Presbyterian church ( :) ) was on Isaiah 55:8-11, God placed this text in front of me, now I give it to you

“Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
leader and commander for the peoples.
Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

“For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the Lord,
an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
-Isaiah 55 (ESV)

Wow, there's like 4 outta 5 of Calvinism's points just in that chapter.

Posted by Kevin V. | February 14, 2010 2:02 PM

We obviously have very different interpretive approaches, Kevin V. Actually, I'd probably choose different proof-texts were I to argue the Calvinist position. (I was raised Calvinist-Baptist, more or less, and went to a very Calvinist-inclined Baptist Bible college.) I take it that the Romans 1 passage refers to individual people: _they_ suppress the truth--an act of the will--therefore _they_ are given over to a reprobate mind. Very much like deliberately getting drunk when you know better deep down or cultivating an addiction, in fact.

Posted by Lydia | February 14, 2010 3:30 PM

Kevin V:

The problem is the Paul (and I would add the Holy Spirit who is the author of scripture) is real clear on this point...

The problem, rather, is that you are interpreting Paul in a manner that is clearly incompatible with the patristic tradition, arguably incompatible with Paul himself in the larger context of his letters, and yields the counterintuitive result that people in general are morally responsible for committing sins they have no freedom to avoid. That is why it is nonsense to say that "Paul is real clear" on the point you want to make.

Paul is clearly saying that the sinfulness characteristic of the pagan world is due to people having ignored the evident existence and nature of God, because of the pride and lust that leads to idolatry. One cannot deduce from this, however, that anybody in particular is morally accountable for committing sins they could never have avoided. It is perfectly compatible with Paul's point to hold that, to the extent people are accountable, it's because somewhere along the way they freely chose, for bad reasons of their own, to ignore what is evident. It may well be that, given such a culpable choice, some people are no longer capable of refraining from sin. Yet following his Master's injunction, Paul also enjoins the Romans not to "judge" people, and criticizes the Romans for judging people for doing the same things they do themselves.

It has always been a mystery to me why some people insist on interpreting Scripture in a counterintuitive way that also depicts both man and God in a terrible light. I doubt it's for the sheer joy of it. Rather, this sort of hermeneutic is a tradition, of which monergists are the traditionalists. That must bring a kind of comfort I cannot fathom.

Posted by Michael Liccione | February 14, 2010 3:31 PM

Saturday, February 13, 2010