Category Archives: Anthropology

5 Arguments that Arminians Should Stop Using

Continuing our series on Striving for Clarity and Charity in the Free Will Debate, today we’re going to turn the tables. The last post focused on arguments that Calvinists need to stop using. Today’s post turns that same lens on Arminian arguments.

So, here are five arguments that I think Arminians need to stop using in the free will debate.

1. Calvinists reject free will. I won’t say much here, because I’ve already commented on this in the last post. But, this argument gets used often enough that it’s worth commenting on again. I’ll say it as clearly as I can. Calvinists do not reject free will. They do reject libertarian free will. But, of course, to criticize a compatibilist for rejecting libertarian free will is simply to reject a compatibilist for not being a libertarian. Not terribly helpful. You can critique compatibilism all you want, but simply arguing that Calvinists reject free will is not going to cut it. You’ll need to go deeper.

2. Calvinism undermines personal responsibility. The problem here, of course, has to do with the fact that Calvinism is a form of theistic determinism. Although they affirm (compatibilistic) free will, many simply can’t get past Calvinism’s determinism.  If it’s fully determined that I would do X, and it’s therefore necessary that I do X and “impossible” that I should do not-X, how can I possibly be held responsible for doing X? And, libertarians find the appeal to desires here (i.e. I’m responsible for doing X if I wanted to do X) completely unconvincing. Unless I’m somehow responsible for having these desires, then it’s hard to see how the desires themselves can render me responsible for the actions that they produce.

As I pointed out in the last post, though, the great irony here is that Calvinists use personal responsibility as an argument against libertarianism as well. But, if it’s a problem for both, then it’s hard to see how it is actually a problem for either. At the very least, Arminians need to recognize that Calvinists don’t have any greater difficulty with free will than they do.

3. Calvinists have no solution to the problem of evil. This objection is as old as theology itself. If God is completely sovereign and fully in control of every event that happens, then isn’t he responsible for all of the evil that happens in the world? So, it seems that the Calvinist either has to bite the bullet and admit that God is the “author” of evil (at least in a compatibilistic sense) or come up with some way of arguing that the “bad” things in the world aren’t really evil, in the big picture sense anyway. Since most libertarians find both of these solutions unpalatable, they often use the existence of evil as one of their larger clubs with which to bludgeon compatibilists.

But, the Arminian has a problem here. I argued earlier (8 Things That Everyone Needs to Stop Doing in the Free Will Debate) that good Arminian theology strongly affirms God’s sovereignty. But, if that’s the case, then the problem of evil would seem to be equally great for the Arminian. If God knew exactly how much evil would result from his act of creation, and if he could have acted (sovereignly) to prevent any given act of evil, then the problem of evil rears its head for the Arminian too. Granted, the Arminian doesn’t have to explain God’s causal relationship to such deeds, but the fact that he allows their existence is still a problem. The Arminian will probably respond that God allows such evil because he values free will (or the kind of relationship that free will makes possible). But, once you’ve made that argument, you’ve opened the door to saying that it’s possible for God to desire something of sufficient worth (e.g., his own glory) to justify the evil that exists in the world, which is exactly the kind of argument that the Calvinist often makes. So, once again we’ve run into an argument that is a problem for both and should be treated as such.

4. Quantum indeterminism creates room for libertarian free will. This is one that I run across increasingly often. On one interpretation of quantum physics, the physical world is fundamentally indeterministic. Although it appears to operate on deterministic principles, that’s only at the macro level. Dig deeply enough into the fabric of the universe and you only find randomness, chaos, and chance. And, if the universe is built on randomness rather than determinism, then the idea of a will unconstrained by antecedent factors seems much more likely.

The problem is that an indeterministic will is no solution to the free will problem. Indeed, it just makes the libertarian’s job even harder. I don’t have any greater control over an indeterministic system than I do a deterministic one. According to one, I have no “control” because my decisions are just the result of the deterministic processes around me. But, according to the other, I have no “control” because my decisions are the result of inherently random and chaotic processes. How is that any better? The only option here is to suggest that somehow my “will” lies outside these quantum processes and is able to impose some order on them. But, whatever that might be, it’s not quantum theory. So, now we’re just using the label while ignoring the actual content of the theory. (By the way, another problem with the quantum theory is that there’s a real debate regarding whether quantum physics entails that the universe is ontologically random, or whether it appears so because of our epistemological limitations.)

5. Compatibilism reveals its weakness by appealing to mystery all the time. Let’s face it. Ultimately, compatibilists can’t explain how their system works. Human volitions are both determined and free at the same time? Really? God is the ultimate cause of everything that happens and we’re responsible for our actions? How does that work? Push hard enough and most compatibilists will appeal to mystery. They won’t agree that their system is incoherent; they’ll just say that understanding how God’s causality and ours fit together is beyond our ability to understand. And, libertarians are often quick to suggest that this is because their system just doesn’t make any sense. Of course they have to appeal to mystery, it doesn’t make any sense.

Once again, though, the argument cuts both ways. Push a libertarian hard enough, and you’ll find mystery there as well. For the libertarian, the mystery usually comes in response to the “luck” argument. On the one hand, they have to affirm that the human agent is in “control” of the action. But, they also need to maintain that the action is not “determined” by anything (including the agent’s own reasons, character, habits, etc.). The action can be influenced and conditioned by antecedent factors, but not determined by them. If that’s the case, though, how exactly does the agent “control” the action? How exactly do I choose A rather than B in such a way that the choice was not determined by any prior factors and without it becoming an arbitrary decision over which I have no control and for which I bear no responsibility? I don’t know. And, as far as I can tell, neither do most libertarians.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

5 Arguments that Calvinists Should Stop Using

Continuing our series on Striving for Clarity and Charity in the Free Will Debate, today we’re going to look at five arguments that Calvinists routinely use against libertarian views of free will. And, although they’re popular arguments, I’d like to suggest that Calvinists should stop using them. Each of them in some way undermines the clarity and charity that I think needs to characterize this discussion.

1. Arminians are anthropocentric. Calvinists love to argue that their system is entirely God-centered. Arminians, on the other hand, take the human person as their starting point. They focus on free will because their theology revolves around the human person and what he/she can contribute to salvation. In that sense, it is fundamentally anthropocentric and dis-oriented. And, this is usually where they’ll also bring in the idea that Arminianism undermines divine sovereignty; they’re really just trying to establish human autonomy.

But, it’s simply not true. Granted, Arminian theology understands the relationship between human and divine action differently, but that does not mean that their theology is conditioned by anthropocentrism any more than Calvinism is conditioned by fatalism. Good Arminian theology revolves around the triune God every bit as much as Calvinist theology does. Stop suggesting otherwise.

2. Arminians begin with philosophy rather than Bible. Similar to the first one, I often hear Calvinists claim that Arminians are more driven by a philosophical considerations than by the Bible. In other words, they think Arminians come to the table with a predetermined commitment to a libertarian view of free will, and then read that into the biblical texts, rather than allowing the Bible to shape and guide their view of the human person.

Two things can be said in response. First, Arminians unquestionably bring presuppositions to the discussion, but no more so than Calvinists. We all do it, so let’s stop pretending otherwise. Second, it’s just not true that Arminians simply impose their philosophical framework on the Bible (at least, no more so than anyone else). Arminians rightly point out that there is considerable support for their view of free will in the biblical texts. Of course, other biblical texts seem to support the compatibilist view equally well – that’s why there’s a debate. So, as I argued earlier, Calvinists need to stop acting like Arminians don’t read their Bibles.

3. Arminians can’t explain divine foreknowledge. Not everyone is going to like this one because the foreknowledge argument is quite popular in Calvinist circles. But, I think it causes more problems than it resolves. The basic idea of the argument is that if God knows in advance what we’ll do, then our actions are already fixed and cannot be libertarianly free.

The problem with the argument, though, is that it quickly lapses into discussions of the nature of eternity (is there any “sequence” in God’s experience of time or does he experience everything simultaneously) and divine knowledge (on what basis does God know things), things that are impossible to know for sure. Any argument based on such speculative considerations seems necessarily flawed. It also seems to run into problems with its “externalistic” view of volition. If I invented a time machine traveled forward to see what decisions you would make tomorrow, how does that have any bearing on the nature of your decisions? My knowledge is completely “external” to your decision (i.e. it has no direct connection). How could something so far removed from the decision have any bearing on whether the decision is free? So, for a couple of reasons, I find this argument far more trouble than it’s worth.

4. Arminians fail to realize that free will is driven by desires. This is the heart of classic compatibilism: a decision is free if it’s what the agent wants to do, but the decision is still fully determined because the agent’s desires are caused by antecedent factors. So, it’s fully determined that I will drink coffee this morning because I am already the kind of person who will want to drink coffee this morning. Thus, the same action is one that involves a choice for which I can be held responsible (i.e. it’s a free action) and is fully determined at the same time.

The problem is that desires alone are insufficient to ground a meaningful account of free will. To see this, suppose that my desire to drink coffee this morning stems from the fact that my evil neighbor planted some kind of neural parasite in my ear, which has attached itself to my brain stem, causing me to have coffee-drinking desires. In this scenario, I still want to drink coffee, and I still act on that desire, but it’s hard to see how it qualifies as a free action. (Notice in this scenario, I’m not being forced to drink the coffee – i.e. coercion – because I want to drink the coffee.) Now, this scenario is obviously absurd. But, it illustrates the fact that compatibilism cannot simply appeal to desires in its understanding of free will. It also needs to offer an account of where those desires come from sufficient to distinguish legitimately free actions (e.g., me writing this post) from those in which freedom seems compromised or lost entirely (e.g. brainwashing).  (Classic compatibilism has other problems, but this one seems the most glaring as it’s often explained by Calvinists.)

5. Arminian free will undermines responsibility. The argument here begins with the “luck” argument. Since, the libertarian view entails that nothing prior to my decision is sufficient to determine my decision, then it seems like the decision itself is rather arbitrary. Even my character, reasons, and desires do not determine what I will decide.  Given the exact same circumstances, it’s entirely possible that I would have made the opposite decision. So, libertarianly free decisions seem random. If good/bad results, that’s really just the “luck” of the draw and not something for which I can bear responsibility (after all, I could just as well have done the exact opposite).

Now, I think the luck argument itself is a significant problem for libertarian views of free will. (Libertarians will often appeal to mystery at this point.) So, that’s an argument that Calvinists should definitely keep using. But, Calvinists are rarely satisfied with the luck argument alone. The real payoff is in going the next step and arguing that because of the luck argument, the libertarian view of free will is inadequate to ground moral responsibility. The problem here is that Calvinists have an equal (if not greater) difficulty explaining moral responsibility (as we’ll see in the next post). So, if both sides have an equally difficult time with the same problem, it’s hard to see how it can serve as a useful argument for either.

I’m not saying here that the Calvinist has no good arguments against libertarian free will. As I mentioned above, I do think the luck argument is a significant problem. And, I could easily list a few more. The point of this post, though, is to highlight some arguments that I’d like to see much less of in future discussions.

For some other good posts on this subject, see:

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

8 Things Everyone Needs to Stop Doing in the Free Will Debate

We all have bad habits. Maybe you bite your fingernails, watch too much TV, or throw wet socks at strangers on the bus. We all have them. And, the problem with habits is that we usually don’t even notice them. That’s kind of the idea. A habit is like breathing, you just do it.

But, many habits are quite annoying. You might not notice, but the people around you do. And, although they might be too polite to say anything, they don’t like it.

Intellectual habits are no different. We all have patterns of thinking and arguing with which we’ve become quite familiar. We come back to them time and again, seeking the reassurance that only an old friend can provide. They’re such a part of life that we don’t even notice them anymore.

But, many of them can be quite annoying, especially to people with different habits.

Some of these intellectual bad habits make regular appearances in the free will debate. And, whenever they’re present, they prevent meaningful dialog. So, in the interests of promoting clarity and charity in the free will debate, here’s a list 8 things that I think everyone involved in the discussion should stop doing.

1. Stop ignoring the broad areas of agreement. I could just rename this one, “Make sure you read my last post.” But, this one’s important, so I thought I’d mention it again. Since both sides agree on so much, let’s stop pretending that they’re polar opposites. That’s lazy, and a bit rude.

2. Stop using terms without clear definitions. Much of the debate is marred by the imprecise and unclear use of terms. To some extent I suppose that’s unavoidable. If we stopped to define every term clearly, we’d never get anywhere. But, you’d think that people in the debate would at least take the time to define the most central terms (free, will, necessity, determinism, etc.), and then stick to those definitions with consistency throughout the discussion. Unfortunately, that’s the exception rather than the rule. If the conversation is going to get anywhere, we have to break the habit of using such terms lazily. (I offered some initial definitions in my first post.)

3. Stop believing that certain arguments are on your side. Both sides have their favorite arguments that they like to wield against the other approach. But, they often fail to realize that many arguments are more cobra than a club, just as likely to bite the person holding it as the intended target. So, the libertarian critiques the compatibilist for appealing to “mystery” in explaining the relationship between determinism and freedom, neglecting to mention that it also appeals to mystery with startling regularity. And, the compatibilist happily points that it’s difficult for the libertarian to explain how completely free actions are related to the reasons that a person has for those actions (i.e. if the action is completely free, then even my strongest/best reasons don’t necessitate the decision), but neglects to point out that a determinist system has equal, if not greater, problems explaining how fully determined actions can be properly responsive to “reasons” (e.g., billiard balls don’t reason, they just respond). Many arguments in the debate are like this; they cut both ways. So, let’s stop pretending that certain issues are only problems for one side. Most are problems for both, just in different ways.

4. Stop pretending that your side is the only one that reads the Bible. This is possibly the worst habit of them all, and both sides do it. Here’s a good rule to live by: Assume that the Christians you’re debating actually do read the Bible and are not complete idiots. They’re fully aware of the verses you’re citing and they are not just ignoring them. They read those verses differently than you, but that’s not the same as not reading them at all. So, take the time to engage how/why they’re reading them differently.

5. Stop ignoring the diversity of the other side. I’ve actually been doing the debate a bit of a disservice by referring to libertarianism and compatibilism as though they were singular entities. The reality is that they’re actually broad labels covering a number of distinct, though related, perspectives. Unfortunately, many either neglect to engage that diversity or are unaware of it entirely. So, you’ll often find someone critiquing, for example, one kind of libertarian free will, and then acting as though he/she has defeated libertarianism itself. That’s like capturing one pawn and concluding that you’ve won the chess game.

6. Stop picking on your weakest opponent. Paired with the last problem is a tendency to focus only on the weakest form of libertarianism or compatibilism. For example, some will critique classical compatibilism, a view with a number of glaring difficulties, and then act like compatibilism itself has been defeated. And, of course, the same problem occurs when critiquing libertarianism. Just because I can knock down your little brother, I shouldn’t assume that I can take on your whole family.

7. Stop appealing to God’s will. Here’s another good rule: Don’t try to resolve one mystery by appealing to another. Most would agree that understanding God’s eternal will is a task that lies far beyond us mere mortals. Yet, you will often find theologians appealing to the divine will in support of their view of free will (i.e. God does/doesn’t have libertarian free will. Therefore, it’s reasonable to conclude that we do/don’t have it either.) Unless you’re really sure that you understands the ins and outs of God’s eternal will, let’s stay away from this one. (Caveat: The one exception to this rule is when appealing to God’s will as a thought experiment to deal with conceivability/coherence arguments. For example, some contend that libertarian free will is simply incoherent. In that case, it’s legitimate to ask if they think God has libertarian free will. If they say yes, then they actually don’t think the concept is incoherent. This doesn’t establish whether libertarianism itself is right or even coherent; it just establishes that the other person needs to be more consistent in their thinking.)

8. Stop assuming that yours is the “commonsense” approach. I find it interesting how many theologians/philosophers on both sides of the aisle argue that theirs is the “commonsense” view of free will and that the other side bears the “burden of proof” in the argument. Stop it. Although it’s probably true that most people assume some form of libertarianism in daily life, you only have to ask a few questions before their compatibilist assumptions also begin to surface. The simple truth is that the “commonsense” view of free will is conflicted and, quite possibly, incoherent. So, let’s all stop assuming that our approach is normative and that the other side is the one that has to establish their case. Both sides have a lot of work to do.

I’m not foolish enough to think that following these eight guidelines will solve all of our problems. But, I’d like to believe that it would help.

This is the second in our series on approaching the free will debate with clarity and charity.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Th.M. program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

5 Things Everyone Agrees on in the Free Will Dbate

Man is the intersection of two worlds….[I]n him there takes place the conflict between spirit and nature, freedom and necessity, independence and dependence. ~Nikolai Berdyaev

Everyone involved in understanding the human person wrestles with Berdyaev’s two worlds: freedom and necessity. What are these two worlds? What is their relationship to each other? What impact does this have on everyday life? And, the answers to these questions go in many, often contradictory, directions.

Like most debates, this one tends to focus on the areas of disagreement. That, of course, is the heart of the argument. So, it’s not surprising that the disagreements get most of the attention. But, we lose something when we only focus on disagreement. At the very least, we lose the opportunity to appreciate what really is (and isn’t) at stake in the discussion. If we’re going to approach the free will debate with clarity and charity, this can’t be our starting point.

So, instead of highlighting that which divides, I’d like to focus on 5 areas of general consensus in the debate. Before I start, though, it’s important to realize that I’m talking about the free will debate as it currently stands among evangelical Christians. So, these won’t necessarily be areas of consensus for philosophers, scientists, and theologians coming from other perspectives. But, among evangelicals Christians, these are 5 areas on which both libertarians and compatibilists agree.

1. Human persons have free will. Everyone agrees that human persons do in fact have free will. We must affirm this at the beginning of the discussion. I often hear people assert that some group denies the reality of free will. No, they don’t. Even if you think you have reasons for questioning the adequacy of their overall view, you shouldn’t incorrectly suggest that they deny the reality of free will. Among Christian theologians, there are few (if any) hard determinists. So, let’s stop pretending that there are.

2. Human persons are morally responsible beings. Since I included moral responsibility in my definition of free will, this area of agreement is technically a part of the first one. But, it’s so important that I thought it worth mentioning separately. Many of the arguments in the debate center on accusing some other perspective of denying or undermining moral responsibility. And, of course, it is possible that they actually are undermining this key principle. But, let’s begin the discussion by recognizing that they do not think they have done so and have no intention of doing so. All of those involved explicitly affirm the responsibility of human persons for their actions and decisions. Let’s start there.

3. Not all human actions and decisions are meaningfully free. Everyone agrees that not all of our actions/decisions are meaningfully free. Instinctive actions over which I usually have little or no control (e.g. breathing) do not qualify as “free” actions in the sense that most intend. Nor would actions that result from external coercion and/or manipulation. No one is talking about these kinds of actions, though they come into play as thinkers have to determine how to distinguish between free and non-free actions.

4. Free will is compatible with divine sovereignty. Again, everyone agrees that God is sovereign and that this is fully compatible with affirming that humans have free will. This one gets abused often enough that I need to say it again. Both sides affirm that God is sovereign (yes, including Arminians), both sides affirm that humans have free will (yes, including Calvinists), and both affirm that these two assertions are compatible with one another (even if they struggle to explain how).

5. Free will is importantly related to antecedent conditions. As I explained in yesterday’s post, determinism is best understood as the view that any event necessarily results from antecedent conditions plus the laws of nature. Because antecedent conditions are associated with determinism like this, many conclude that libertarian views have no room for antecedent conditions. That is not the case. Every major view of free will recognizes the importance of antecedent conditions for understanding free will. They differ significantly in the role that they ascribe to antecedent conditions, but no one simply ignores them. So, it’s just not true that libertarians see decisions as being made in a “vacuum,” isolated from things like character and environment. Everyone agrees that such factors influence free will in important ways.

As you can see, evangelicals involved in the free will debate actually agree on a broad range of issues. Most importantly they agree that human persons are meaningfully free and morally responsible, and that this is fully compatible with a strong affirmation of divine sovereignty. For everyone, these provide the framework within which they struggle toward a more detailed understanding of human volitionality.

Unfortunately, the agreements often get buried under the disagreements. And, we lose sight of how much we share in common. We’re not strangers from different countries waging war over disputed territory, but close neighbors linked by a long history of shared assumptions, disagreeing about what’s best for the neighborhood.

This is the second in our series on approaching the free will debate with clarity and charity.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Th.M. program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

Striving for Clarity and Charity in the Free Will Debate

I’d love to get Augustine and Pelagius in a room and listen to them debate free will. That would be a sight. At least PG-13. Or, better yet, Augustine and one of the great Greek theologians like Gregory of Nazianzus or John Chyrsostom. Perfect.

We’ve been debating free will for a very long time. And, if you read some of the more recent discussions, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we haven’t made much progress. The arguments of today sound just like the arguments of yesterday (and the day before).

Despite the lack of progress, free will remains an important issue. Your view of free will impacts how you understand salvation, discipleship, ethics, humanity, and even the nature of God himself (e.g., see the recent exchange between Roger Olson and Michael Patton on whether God has free will), among other things.

So, since free will is both important and contentious, I thought it would be worth writing a few posts on the subject. But, let me be clear. I’m not going to try and resolve the debate (if that’s even possible). Nor will I be arguing for one position over another. Instead, I’m going to offer some thoughts on what we need to do if we’re going to have discussions about free will that are characterized by both clarity and charity, two things frustratingly lacking in many of these debates.

First, a few of definitions:

  • Free will: The most important term in the whole debate, “free will” is also the hardest to define. For our purposes, it will suffice to say that “free will” refers to the capacity to choose among various options in such a way as to be responsible for those choices. The concept thus includes both choice and responsibility. And, indeed, much of the debate revolves around what constitutes a real “choice” and what things are necessary to hold a person “responsible” for their choices.
  • Determinism: The standard definition for (causal) determinism is that a particular event (e.g. a “choice”) is necessitated by antecedent events/conditions together with the laws of nature. Thus, it was causally determined that the ball would break the window (event) as soon as I hit with with the bat at just the right angle and velocity (antecedent event/conditions), assuming that God doesn’t miraculously intervene (laws of nature). And, these antecedent conditions can be entirely natural (materialistic determinism) or supernatural (theistic determinism). Either way, the antecedent causes/conditions necessitate the particular event.
  • Libertarian: A view of free will is libertarian if it holds that “free will” (i.e. choice + responsibility) is incompatible with determinism. In other words, if it is true that all human actions/choices are fully determined by antecedent events/conditions plus the laws of nature, then, quite simply, we are not free beings. We are simply billiard balls careening around the table, every action determined by the collision of the balls around us.
  • Compatibilist (soft determinist): A view of free will is compatibilistic if it holds that “free will” is compatible with determinism. In other words, one can fully affirm that we are free moral agents, responsible for all of our decisions, and still maintain that all of our actions/choices are completely determined by antecedent causes/conditions. (This view is often called “soft determinism,” to distinguish it from “hard determinism,” or the view that since our actions/choices are fully determined, we are not free beings.)

In Protestant theological circles, the real debate is between those holding a libertarian view of free will (broadly “Arminian”) and those with a compatibilist view (broadly “Calvinist”). I should say that using theological labels like Arminian/Calvinist actually tends to confuse the issue, since those labels are far too imprecise to be terribly helpful, and they include much more than just particular views of free will. But, there’s no getting around the fact that these labels are importantly involved in the free will debate. So, we shouldn’t just ignore them.

With these definitions in place, the rest of the series will focus on developing greater charity and clarity in the free will debate. I may not succeed, but I intend to try anyway. I’ll add the links as the series develops, but here’s a quick rundown of where we’re going.

Stick around. It should be fun.

The Top 10 Myths about the Brain

The Smithsonian has an excellent article on the Top 10 Myths about the Brain. It’s amazing how well-entrenched these are in the popular consciousness. So, before you say anything about the human brain (especially in a sermon), please consult this list.

My favorite insight from the article was that “There’s a long history of likening the brain to whatever technology is the most advanced, impressive and vaguely mysterious.” We describe the brain as a computer, earlier people described it as a steam engine or telephone. We’ve always been fascinated and confused by what makes the human person tick, constantly searching for some analogy that will make us make sense to ourselves.

You’ll want to read the entire article to get the explanation for why these are myths, but here are the Top 10 Myths.

  1. We only use 10 percent of our brains.
  2. “Flashbulb memories” are precise, detailed, and persistent.
  3. It’s all downhill after 40 (or 50 or 60 or 70)
  4. We have 5 senses.
  5. Brains are like computers.
  6. The brain is hard-wired.
  7. A conk on the head can cause amnesia.
  8. We know what will make us happy.
  9. We see the world as it is.
  10. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.

That last one is contentious enough that it’s worth quote a bit of the article in full.

Certain sex differences are enormously important to us when we’re looking for a mate, but when it comes to most of what our brains do most of the time—perceive the world, direct attention, learn new skills, encode memories, communicate (no, women don’t speak more than men do), judge other people’s emotions (no, men aren’t inept at this)—men and women have almost entirely overlapping and fully Earth-bound abilities.

Read the rest of the article and let me know what jumps out at you. Do you have any long-cherished beliefs about the brain on this list? Are there any that you would dispute?

Channeling Desire: A Theological Vision for Celibacy and Sexuality

Celibacy. No sex. At all. Talk to most people today about celibacy and you’ll probably get one of two reactions, possibly both:

  1. It’s impossible. Anyone who claims to be celibate is lying, or will be soon.
  2. It’s unhealthy. Sex is an essential part of being human that you shouldn’t just give up.

And, to support their convictions, many will appeal to the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in recent years. “See,” they’ll say. “Those priests tried to give up sex and they failed because it’s just not possible.” Or they’ll argue, “Look what happens when you try to give up such an essential part of being human. It’s just not healthy.”


Protestants seem particularly fond of such arguments, pointing at clerical celibacy as one of the more absurd aspects of Catholic dogma.

But, as Sarah Coakley points out in her article, “Taming Desire: Celibacy, Sexuality, and the Church,” a real theology of desire requires much deeper reflection. Coakley argues that if we look at how people respond to both clerical celibacy and homosexuality, we’ll find several, deeply-rooted problems.

1. There is both a widespread pessimism that celibacy is even possible and a shared consensus that certain forms of sexuality should never be expressed. So, we maintain that (clerical) celibacy is impossible, and at the same time we tell “sexual deviants” that they should remain celibate.

2. There is a focus on issues surrounding homosexuality and a corresponding neglect of the problems that plague so many heterosexual relationships. So, we spend considerable time discussing gay clerics, but devote surprisingly little attention to divorced clerics.

3. There is a tendency to view celibacy and marriage as opposites: one involving no sex, and the other as much sex as possible.

Coakely uses these three to demonstrate that popular sexual thought is deeply conflicted.

She then turns to an interesting discussion of Freudian sublimation. Unlike the common notion that Freud viewed all sexual sublimation as repressive and unhealthy, she points out that Freud’s more mature thought saw sublimation as a necessary channeling of energy toward other ends. So, even Freud could be a champion of celibacy, as long as it was a healthy redirection of energy and attention toward worthy goals.

Having dispatched the supposed anti-celibacy champion, Coakley turns her attention to Gregory of Nyssa as an example of a Christian thinker who saw sexuality as something that could be channeled toward a greater purpose. Referring to Gregor’s “On Virginity,” she says:

Indeed, what is truly interesting about Gregory’s treatise is the image that lies at the heart of the argument. It is the metaphor of the “stream” of desire, and of its right direction, use, and even intensification in relation to God. In this task, Gregory says, both celibates and married people are equally involved as a life-long ascetical exercise (“ascetical,” of course, here referring to the practice of disciplining and training one’s body, of learning, in other words, self-control).

It might be thought that Gregory intends this intensification of desire towards God as mutually exclusive with a sexually-active life in marriage. But interestingly, he repeats the same metaphor of the stream precisely to explain how sex in marriage can be a “good irrigation” provided it, too, is ordered in relation to God and so made “moderate” in comparison with the intensified and unified stream that desire for God demands.

It is not, then, to suppress passion that Gregory’s treatise is written, but actually (as stated by Gregory at the very outset) precisely to “create passion” for “the life according to excellence.” And so Gregory lauds virginity, not on account of its sexlessness, but because of its withdrawal from worldly interests.

So, she argues that “Gregory’s vision of desire as thwarted, chastened, transformed, renewed and finally intensified through its relations to God…represents a way beyond and through the false modern alternatives of ‘repression’ and ‘libertinism’.” Placing the discussion in a much broader theological framework, we can see that sexual desire is not an end in itself and break free from the constraints of modern sexual discourse.

When it comes to specific ethical issues, I’m sure that Sarah Coakley and I would differ significantly. But, she has done a great job here identifying the weakness of our modern notions of sexuality. We consistently reduce it to particular forms of sexual expression/repression. Instead, we need “to re-invest the debate with a theological and spiritual wisdom too long forgotten.” She is well-aware that this will not make the arguments go away, they are too complex for that, but she’s right to argue that this is a necessary step forward.

If you’d like to read further on some of the issues involved in developing a theological vision of sexuality, here are a couple of other posts on the subject:


Reviewing Half the Church (Todd Miles)

This is a guest post by Todd Miles, Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary. Todd has a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and now serves as an elder at Hinson Church in Portland, OR.

Many thanks to Zondervan for providing a review copy of Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women by Carolyn Custis James (2011).


Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, by Carolyn Custis James, is a book written by a woman for women, calling them to bless the church and ultimately the world through the exercise of their gifts. As a man, a good case could be made that I have no business reading the book, let alone reviewing it. However, I was asked to review the book from a complementarian perspective. It is a book of significance in the evangelical church, so it needs to be evaluated.


First, a summary of the contents: The book is driven by two issues that are of chief concern to James. First, she grieves the loss to the church and to men when half the church effectively disappears through Anorexic spiritual diet or stymied roles (19). Second, James is dismayed over the plight of women in other countries and is outraged that the church is not the loudest voice decrying the atrocities committed against women around the world (21). These two issues lead to three significant questions whose answers comprise the rest of the book. She wants to know what message the church has for women of the 21st century, what will the church do about the rampant suffering of the world, and what messages are we sending to the world in the way that we mobilize and treat our own daughters (41). It is her desire to write a book that takes seriously the plight of women who live in states of horrific oppression, while simultaneously calling women of the evangelical church to Kingdom action. In so doing, she urges women to participate in the full-orbed gospel of both gospel proclamation and mercy/social justice (25).

Much of the book is given to alerting the reader to atrocities committed against women around the world, such as abuse, sex-trafficing, torture, and various kinds of murder (e.g., female infanticide and so-called honor killings). But James is concerned that the evangelical Church is sending the wrong message to the watching world and to those women who are suffering. Though the time is right for “believers to embody a gospel culture where both halves of the church are thriving because following Jesus produces a climate of honor, value, and love, and we are serving God together as he intended from the beginning. Yet instead of casting a powerful gospel vision that both validates and mobilizes women, the church’s message for women is mixed at best; guarded, negative, and small at worst. Everywhere we go, a line has been drawn establishing parameters for how much or how little we are permitted to do within the church (48).

To remedy this, James correctly turns to the Bible. First, from Genesis 1, she teaches that men and women are fully and equally created imago Dei (57-72). James rightly notes the glory of being an image bearer, along with the awesome responsibility that the doctrine entails. From the creation of man and woman in the image of God, she contends that Adam and Eve were born into conflict and resistance (before the fall) where both are called to be leaders in the tasks presented to them by God (73-78). James finds evidence for female leadership in the narrative of Ruth and Naomi (80-98).

Second, James turns to Genesis 2, where it is written that Eve was created as a helper fit (ezer kenegdo) for Adam. James notes that there are many places in Scripture where God is described as an ezer, often with military connotations. James then concludes that God created his daughters to be ezer-warriors with our brothers (113). She then unpacks the paradigm shifting implications (for both women and men) of women being ezer-warriors (111-118, 123-133), particularly given the dangers in our current cultural context of magnifying submissiveness, surrender, and meekness as important attributes for women (120-123).

Third, James turns to what she calls the blessed alliance that the Bible presents as the model for male and female roles and relationships (135-143). Examples of the blessed alliance are found in Esther and Mordecai, and then in Mary and Joseph (143-150).

Having turned to the Bible for instruction and examples of how women and men are to relate in the mission of the Kingdom, James then explains where we ought not to turn in the Bible for such instruction: the passages over which complementarians and egalitarians debate (153-61). James believes that biblical texts such as 1 Tim 2:11-15 are so difficult to understand that it would be wise to turn to clearer texts that are not the subject of debate for guidance on the issue of men’s and women’s roles in the Church and home. It is frustrating to James that the Church quarrels over these texts while women in the world are suffering injustice and atrocities (161-165). Turning to the example of Jesus, James suggests that Evangelicals should be less concerned with issues of authority and more concerned with issues of justice (166-173).

Finally, James concludes her book with a call to women to rise up and actively participate in the mission of the Kingdom, proclaiming the gospel and advocating for women around the world who are suffering (175-194). The Church must empower and utilize its other half by mobilizing an army of ezer-warriors.

Areas of Agreement

Let me begin my critique of the book by highlighting four areas of agreement with James. First, it is evident that Carolyn Custis James is a sister in Christ who cares deeply about the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Despite our differences, we are co-laborers in the Kingdom of Christ. Second, in Half the Church, James calls attention to the atrocities committed against women in other nations. She rightly rebukes the church for its ignorance and silence concerning the horrific plight of far too many around the world. Third, James correctly calls for the church to engage in both the word and deed of the Kingdom, commanded by Jesus, and then modeled by Jesus and his apostles. Too often the church swings from the extremes of proclamation only to mercy/social justice only. Such is a distortion of the Kingdom and the gospel that announces it. Finally, James is right to want to get every woman involved in the ministry of the gospel. She appropriately grieves over the anorexic spiritual diet of many Christian women.

Areas of Critique

As an elder in a local church, I can deeply appreciate these emphases. Unfortunately, the book is flawed at too many levels for me to endorse it. Hermeneutical errors, biblical-theological errors, exegetical errors, and logical errors abound. These errors are not peripheral to her main points but in every case exist precisely where her arguments are being made. For the reasons outlined below, I could not in good conscience recommend the book to anybody.

James understands Adam and Eve to be co-laborers in a context of conflict and resistance even before the fall, necessitating a strong co-leader for Adam. But Scripture attributes the conflict of the biblical drama to sin, narrated in the account of the fall in Genesis 3. There is no hint in the narrative or in subsequent biblical testimony to the kind of conflict that would necessitate a co-leader and warrior for Adam. Adam is alone, so God creates one who is like him, but is not the same as him, as a “helper suitable for him,” and in so doing creates the institution of marriage. James ignores the biblical-theological categories of fall and redemption, attributing that which the Scriptures blame on the sinful rebellion of Adam and Eve to creation itself. Contrary to James’s analysis, Adam was called to “work and keep” the garden before the creation of Eve (Gen 2:15), and this is language more in keeping with a biblical priest than a biblical warrior. Further, even if the mandate to work and keep were passed on to Eve (which I suspect it was), does this entail that their respective roles in working and keeping were identical?

James’s evaluation of the Hebrew word ezer is more problematic. Recall that James established that God had created a warrior-ezer for Adam because other biblical uses of the word ezer carry military implications. But words have meaning in specific contexts and to find a meaning of a word in one text and then transfer that meaning in wholesale fashion to another text is illegitimate. By the time James is done, her call for an army of warriors with ezer-spirit permeates the book. Gone, all in the name of a word study, is any notion of marriage in the understanding of a helper fit for him, even though the context of that specific text (Gen 2:18) is marriage itself. Gone is the important and faith-filled reality that Adam named his wife Eve (contra James’s assertion in 100-101), “the mother of all living” (Gen 3:20), his statement of faith that God would save them one day through the offspring of his wife (Gen 3:15).

James calls for a blessed alliance between women and men. But she refuses to interact with the biblical texts that speak directly to how men and women are to relate in the context of the church and marriage (in fact, James implies that the Bible does not contain instructions for building a blessed alliance in our churches and homes [146]). She simply dismisses those texts as too difficult to understand, claiming that doctrines should be based on clear texts, not disputed texts. That sounds a bit like cooking the books to me. If one eliminates all the many biblical texts that speak to differentiation of roles in the church and home, then of course there would be no call or reason for wives to submit to their husbands, or for the office of elder to be reserved for men. But are those texts too difficult to understand? Is “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” or “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” impossible to interpret? I will grant that application will take wisdom and discernment. But disliking the implications of a verse is not the same thing as not being able to interpret the verse. If dispute over meaning were grounds for eliminating biblical texts, we would have no word from God at all. Further, dismissing the debate by arguing that while the church quarrels “millions of little girls are being sold as sex slaves in vast regions of the Majority Word . . . and human trafficking is happening locally, right under our noses” (161) is both a red herring and an appeal to emotion, and is neither suitable nor helpful for real Christian discourse, nor does it help those being victimized.

On the same topic, James feels that the egalitarian world is repelled over the debates concerning men’s and women’s roles in the church and home, because women who have experienced great gains in the academy and workforce are called to submit in the church (48-49, 159). But what kind of argument is this? Of course our fallen world will look at the church, which calls for women to submit to the sacrificial leadership of their husbands, as hopelessly bizarre. Acceptance or rejection by the world is not an argument in any way for the legitimacy of a doctrine.

One last significant hermeneutical flaw: James believes that a key to understanding the Ancient Near East and Greco Roman contexts in which the Bible was written is to look at today’s Middle East (32). They do share commonality in that they could each be described as patriarchal, but is it legitimate to compare the contemporary Muslim culture of the Middle East with the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures of the Old and New Testaments? For example, did Mary really face the threat of an honor killing? The biblical texts do not indicate so. When such erroneous cultural assumptions are made, the result in Half the Church is a distortion of the biblical narratives. Honestly, as I read James’s retelling of the stories, I almost came to dislike Joseph and Boaz for being dangerous patriarchalists. Never mind that the biblical texts describe Joseph and Boaz as just and worthy, respectively. In general, James’s interpretation of the biblical narratives, particularly when she seeks to find examples of female leadership over men (e.g., Ruth and Naomi over Boaz, Mary over Joseph, Esther over Mordecai), are creative, but faithful to neither the immediate context nor the biblical-theological storyline.

Finally, as a husband, father of a daughter (and five sons), and elder over a church at least half-full of women, I must comment on the tone of the book. The language throughout is prejudicial against those who see marriage and motherhood as of the essence of femininity, and against those who see submissiveness as a legitimate biblical virtue to be sought after. For example, women who lovingly submit to the sacrificial and loving leadership of their husbands are described as bringing less of themselves to the task at hand, not bringing their full selves to the partnership (158). Parents who teach their daughters to submit in this day and age might be setting them up for physical abuse (120-122). Perhaps most frustrating were claims that differentiation of men’s and women’s roles in the church and home are not qualitatively different than, and could lead to, the atrocities of violence and abuse committed against women in the world. These claims were explicitly made (e.g., 110). They were perhaps more effectively implicitly made on the numerous occasions when chapters that expressed concern for women in the church began and ended with stories of horrific abuse from around the world. This is an effective literary strategy, but it is irresponsible, logically flawed, and misleading.

James is right to call attention to the plight of victimized women around the world, but her biblical arguments are so poor that she has done little to rectify the meager spiritual diet she so decries. The women of the church need better than this.

When half the church holds back…

I grieve the loss to the church when so many Christian women believe it’s possible to subsist on an anorexic spiritual diet. I grieve that far too many women and girls are living with small visions of themselves and their purpose. I grieve the loss to our brothers who are shouldering burdens we were created to share and are doing kingdom work without us when God means for us to build his kingdom together.

When half the church holds back – whether by choice or because we have no choice – everybody loses and our mission suffers setbacks. Tragically, we are squandering the opportunity to display to an embattled world a gospel that causes both men and women to flourish and unites us in a Blessed Alliance that only the presence of Jesus can explain.

That’s from the introduction to Carolyn Custis James’ Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women.  Over the next couple of days, we’ll be posting two reviews of the book from people with different perspectives on the role of women in the church. Brad Harper from Multnomah University will start things off tomorrow, and Todd Miles from Western Seminary will follow. I’d encourage you to track both reviews and get two different looks at the book.

And, don’t forget that Zondervan has also give us a copy of the book to give away. We’ll be giving the book away on Friday, so you still have a few days to enter if you’re interested.

Augustine and the Problem of Free Will

Picture in your mind something that you think is a really bad idea. (I’m picturing a cat.) Now imagine someone using something that you wrote many years ago to defend this heinously awful idea. How would you feel?

That’s exactly what happened to Augustine. By the latter part of his life, Augustine had developed a clear reputation for defending divine sovereignty, predestination, original sin, and the “bondage” of the will. But when he was younger, Augustine had written some things, particularly in De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Will), that sounded to many like he used to believe something very different. Indeed, some of statements sound very libertarian. And, much to Augustine’s chagrin, his critics used these earlier works against him, contending that they were just saying what himself he used to teach.

That had to have been annoying.

And, it raises a key question: Did Augustine have a consistent position on free will throughout his life, or were his opponents correct that his later position was a dramatic departure from what he wrote in his earlier works?

Those are the issues that Billy Cash dealt with in the paper that he presented to the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society last month, “Augustine and the Consistent Trajectory of Compatibilism“. (Billy is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and a regular contributor to this blog.) And in the paper, Billy contends that Augustine’s early writings are consistent with his later writings, and that we should understand Augustine to be a consistent compatibilist throughout his life.

Billy starts things off by arguing that although Augustine does sound libertarian at times in De Libero Arbitrio, he is still operating from a largely compatibilist framework. Two arguments in particular ground this conclusion:

First, in book three of On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine asserts that the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden consigned all men to a life of “ignorance and difficulty,” a life in which they would find themselves unable to choose the good….

Secondly, although the grace of God is not center-stage in this particular treatise, it is not absent.  In his Retractions, Augustine reminds his readers that he does in fact claim in On the Free Choice of the Will, “that anything good in a human person, including any goodness in the will, is a gift of God.”

So, although there are some differences between Augustine’s early and mature writings – differences that can be partially accounted for by the Manichean controversy that Augustine was addressing in his earlier writings – there is enough continuity to conclude that there is a clear and consistent “trajectory” leading from the one to the other, rather than a marked “departure” in the later writings.

In the last part of the paper, Billy turns his attention to an interesting argument presented by Eleonore Stump, which she calls “modified libertarianism.” I won’t go into the details of the argument here, but the essence is that Stump is looking for a way to understand even the later Augustine within the broader framework of a libertarian view of free will. And, although she presents a creative argument, Billy contends that her position is ultimately incoherent (or at least inconsistent).

So, at the end of the day, Billy concludes:

Development in theology does not necessarily imply change, as seen in the early church’s development of doctrines concerning the divinity of Christ.  That Jesus was the divine Son of God was never denied by the Orthodox Church.  There was development, however, in how that divinity was to be understood, and this development led to a distinction between what was to be considered true or heretical.  Likewise, in Augustine’s mature theology he believed that the will of man was free to choose what it desired, but the desire of will to choose the good was enabled by the grace of God, prior to any choice or merit found within the individual.  Although his early theology was not as developed and Augustine did not give grace as prominent a position in influencing the will in On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine himself says that the grace of God was not absent, just not the focal point of his argument.  In light of the affirmations of the will found in his early writing, On Free Choice of the Will, it may be stated with surety that the trajectory of his argument was compatibilist in nature, and was not altered from early to later works, just more thoroughly developed.  Since this is the case, any attempt at construing a libertarian view of the will in Augustine is misleading.

(This is part of a series highlighting papers presented by several faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)