Category Archives: Philosophical Theology

20 Christian academics speak about God, faith, and science

Here’s an interesting video of 20 Christian academics answering questions related to science, reason, and faith. Along the way, they comment on miracles, free will, the problem of evil, foreknowledge, evolution, and son on. And, the academics run the gamut from evangelicals like J. P. Moreland and William Craig to thinkers who reject almost anything miraculous or supernatural in the world. So, it’s a good video for getting a feel for how a broad range of Christian intellectuals respond to these questions.

An Opportunity Lost: Why Geisler’s Critique Missed the Mark

[I originally posted this as a guest post over at Near Emmaus. So, if you’d like to discuss it, please head over there and offer your comments.]

In the beginning there was discussion. Then we fell. Now, as far as the ear can hear, there is only debate.

Okay, maybe that was a little hyperbolic, possibly even a tad melodramatic. But it sounded good when I wrote it. And, it does reflect a bit of the frustration I feel as I follow many “discussions” today. Words flow across my screen in never-ending sequence, but try as I might, I can’t seem to find the conversation. In my most jaded hours, I wonder if anyone is really listening. Or, are we all just trying to “win” one more argument so we can go to bed at night satisfied that we have vanquished another dragon, unmindful of the dragon’s anguish.

Most recently, I’ve been trying to follow Norm Geisler’s critique of Michael Licona. Geisler has argued in two, separate “open letters” (see Brian’s summary) that Licona’s understanding of Matthew 27:50-53 is wrong, unbiblical, and pagan, ultimately undermining our confidence in the resurrection, the authority of the Bible, the veracity of God, and, quite possibly, the very integrity of the space-time continuum itself. (Okay, I may have added that last one myself.)

Now, I don’t want to go into the specifics of Licona’s position. Indeed, I can’t, since I haven’t read the book. (Will they be making a movie version soon?) As I understand it, Licona’s basic argument is that Matthew used a variety of apocalyptic devices at the end of his Gospel to emphasize the cosmic significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. And, he views the resurrection of the righteous dead in 27:50-53 as a “poetic” (i.e. apocalyptic) image that serves that purpose. In other words, Matthew isn’t trying to say that the tombs actually opened and that dead people actually came out. Instead, he’s using a poetic image that people in his day would have understood to indicate an event of great significance.

So, that’s Licona’s position. But, it’s really Geisler’s critique that I’d like to comment on. Because in many ways, it’s a great example of what happens when debate triumphs over discussion.

This was a perfect opportunity for discussion. Geisler clearly thinks that Licona has erred in seeing this is an example of a poetic genre used inside of a largely historical narrative (which, by the way, people do all the time). And, he obviously thinks that Licona made a mistake by looking to the surrounding cultural context for explanations of how a genre-device like this would have been understood (which, by the way, is something good exegetes do all the time). These are two important points worth discussing further. I can picture a situation where two scholars could sit down and have a very lively conversation about these issues and how they impact our understanding of Matthew 27.

And, Geisler rightly raises the question of inerrancy here. I say “rightly” for two reasons. First, Geisler is committed to inerrancy, so it makes sense for him to wonder how this might impact that doctrine. And, more importantly, Licona himself holds to inerrancy. So, once again I can imagine a meaningful discussion between them on how matters of genre, hermeneutics, culture, text, and history all come together in the context of a theological reflection on the nature of Scripture as the Word of God. (I have a very good imagination.)

Sadly, none of this happened.

Here’s what we got instead:

  • The Logical Extension Argument: I put this one first, even though it’s not the first one Geisler uses, because it bugs me the most. I run into this one all the time. It goes something like this: (a) you claim to believe X; (b) you also believe Y; (c) I think X and Y are incompatible; therefore (d) you don’t really believe X (even though you continue to insist quite firmly that you do). In this case, it goes: (a) Licona claims to believe in inerrancy; (b) he has a “poetic” view of Mt. 27; (c) I think these two are incompatible; therefore (d) Licona doesn’t really believe in inerrancy. Can we please stop using this argument? It’s really annoying. At the very least, it suggests one of two things: (1) you’re an idiot and can’t tell that these two are contradictory, or (2) you’re dishonest since you know full well that you don’t really believe both. Implying that someone is either an idiot or dishonest is not conducive to good conversation. So, we really need to stop doing that.
  • The Guilt by Association Argument #1: Geisler leads out by connecting Licona’s argument with those who would deny the resurrection of Christ or the Virgin Birth because of their parallels with other Greco-Roman stories. And, that’s a fair question. But, unfortunately, Geisler seems to pose it more as a way of associating Licona with these as a way of proving that Licona is just another dehistoricizer. In other words, (a) they’re bad, (b) you look a lot like them, therefore (c) you must be bad too. (It’s the same logic that makes people cross the street at night to avoid people who dress a certain way.) 
  • The Guilt by Association Argument #2: Not satisfied with that, Geisler quickly moves to connect Licona to Robert Gundry and his resignation from ETS over similar issues. Having connected the two, Geisler seems to think that his work is basically done: (a) Gundry was guilty; (b) Licona is Gundry-resurrected; therefore, (c) Licona is guilty. It’s fascinating to me that he never considers the possibility that (a) the situations are actually different, or (b) the earlier decision was wrong. I’m not saying either of those is correct. But, they’re both worth exploring before throwing somebody under the bus. Aren’t they? 
  • The Implied Threat: Though Gundry doesn’t say so in the first letter, he clearly means to imply that Licona’s status in ETS is in jeopardy if he doesn’t change. After all, that’s what happened to Gundry. And, by the second letter, the implied threat has become much clearer. But, what’s interesting here is that Geisler is not a member of ETS. He resigned several years ago because the rest of ETS does not agree with him. Oddly, he doesn’t bring that up in either letter.  
  • The Guilt by Association Argument #3 (he really likes this kind of argument)Geisler paints Licona with the “pagan” brush. Apparently he thinks that if he can associate a position with the pagans, it must be wrong. (By the way, am I the only one who thinks of the movie Dragnet when people start talking about pagans?) Unfortunately, he never gets around to dealing with the reality that the biblical authors lived in Greco-Roman (i.e. “pagan”) context. One would think that this might have some significance for interpreting what they wrote. Just a thought. 
  • The Personal Affront: Geisler opens his second letter by making it sound like Licona has been dodging him. But, the simple fact is that Licona doesn’t owe Geisler any kind of response. To the extent that Licona chooses to engage, great. But, that’s his choice. (By the way, have you ever met someone at a party who insisted on carrying on a discussion/argument with you even though you clearly weren’t interested in talking? They bugged you, didn’t they?)

I may have missed a few, but those are the ones that stood out.

This isn’t discussion; it isn’t conversation; it isn’t helpful. This is debate. Pure and simple. It’s about winning and losing.

I should say, before concluding, that Geisler does ask some good questions. He wants to know whether we can really call these resurrections a poetic device without having to say the same about the resurrection of Jesus. And, he wants to know what methodology we’ll use to differentiate a “poetic device” from some problem text that we just don’t happen to like. And, finally, he wants to know what all of this entails for how we understanding the nature of Scripture. If we hold to Licona’s interpretation, and those like his, can we still meaningfully say that the Bible is inerrant? And, if so, what does that even mean?

These are good questions. And, they called for a good discussion. They deserved a good discussion. They didn’t get one.

They got a debate.

That’s sad.

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you can effectively silence each other by your superior debating skills.

I bet they could make a song out of that.

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Check Your Brain at the Door: Faith and Intellectual Freedom

Am I free? Not legally (I’m not in jail) or metaphysically (who knows if I have “free will”?) but intellectually. Do I have intellectual freedom? After all, I teach at a school with belief commitments. To get my job, I had to sign our Faculty Teaching Position. And, if I ever changed my mind on a core aspect of that document, my job would probably be in jeopardy. In that kind of situation, can I have any kind of real intellectual freedom? Or, am I really just kidding myself by thinking that I’m an academic.

If you live in a confessional world, do you need to leave your brain at the door?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether Roman Catholics have less intellectual freedom than other Christians because of the strongly confessional nature of the Catholic tradition. Michael Patton began the firestorm, and quite a few have chimed in since then. I don’t want to rehearse the whole debate, so check out Brian LePort’s summary for his comments and links to other good posts.

Most of the discussion so far has focused on whether Patton is right about Roman Catholicism. (Hint: The answer is ‘no’.) But, somewhat lost in all of this is his argument that true scholarship and confessional commitment are antithetical to one another. His comments on Catholicism are based on his Cartesian commitment to skepticism as methodologically necessary for real academic work. If you’re not willing to doubt every idea/belief, open to the possibility that you might be wrong, then you’re not really an academic.

If he’s right, then, any school with confessional commitments only has limited intellectual freedom (at best). And, based on that argument, the faculty at Western Seminary don’t really have academic freedom. We throw it away when we sign the Faculty Teaching Position. Our job status is connected to at least some of their beliefs. Change those beliefs, and we’re in trouble. So, we’re not really academics. We’re just defending the status quo.

Granted, faculty can always leave and try to find a job at another school. So, we haven’t killed intellectual freedom entirely. We’ve just cut off both its legs. It can still move around, but only by painfully dragging its bloody torso somewhere else.

As someone who teaches at such a school, I think there are some critical things wrong with this (common) argument. Brian LePort explains his reservations (and appreciations) in Five Thoughts on Objectivity, Open-Mindedness, and Scholarship. You should definitely check it out. But, let me add three additional concerns about this argument that I think we need to keep in mind.

1. It over-emphasizes the individual. This is the Enlightenment at its finest. Presuppositions and traditions are the enemy of intellectual progress. They must be challenged and questioned at every turn so that I, as the ultimate human authority in my life, can be confident that I am coming to know things as they actually are and not just how they have been presented to me. You never get the sense that intellectual activity is a communal activity in this approach. Instead, you’re left with the picture of the academic locked away in his/her office or lab, seeking Truth through the power of unimpaired reason. Given Patton’s clear commitments to doing theology in community, that seems like an odd stance.

2. It devalues institutions. This one is connected to the last, but the argument seems to betray a subtle anti-institutionalism. This view of academics makes the professor an independent contractor with no real connection or loyalty to particular institutions. The individual sticks around as long as he/she is satisfied with the institution’s position. And, if you change your mind and can no longer affirm those commitments? No worries, there’s always another one around the block. It’s church shopping at the academic level. (I may comment on this more later. This kind of subtle anti-institutionalism is rampant in evangelicalism.)

3. It neglects the importance of presuppositions. Many people make this mistake. Most recognize that we all have our presuppositions. They’re a necessary evil that we have constantly guard against. And, there is some truth to that. But, people often fail to recognize that presuppositional frameworks have value as well. No scientist is going to waste their time investigating whether the world is flat. They’ll assume that question is settled. It’s part of their presuppositional framework. And this allows them to use their time investigating other issues. The same is true in theology. For me, the deity of Christ is a “settled” issue. Not settled in the sense that everyone agrees, and not even settled in that I think I understand everything about what that means (who does?), but settled in that I think that it’s true and not really open to question. Does that make me less free? I don’t think so. If anything, I think it frees me up to pursue other issues. Recognizing that some doors should stay closed, grants me the freedom to go through others. Being “open” to everything leads to bondage, not freedom. So, it’s not just a matter of acknowledging our presuppositions, but embracing them as necessary for real intellectual freedom.

Do I have intellectual freedom? Absolutely. I have the kind of intellectual freedom that comes from knowing who I am as a part of an ecclesial community with a clear sense of its history, identity, and purpose. And, I have the kind of intellectual freedom that comes from a community that raises hard questions and explores new ideas together, supporting each other as we strive toward faithful Christian living in a broken world. And, I have the kind of intellectual freedom that comes from seeing some things as “settled” so that I’m free to spend my time on other issues.

Granted, I don’t have the kind of intellectual freedom that’s willing to throw off all of that in favor of an individualistic pursuit of rational autonomy. But that’s okay. I’m not interested in that kind of freedom anyway.

The Tragedy of Bioethics

[This is a guest post by Dr. Joe Gibbs, a Family Physician on the faculty of the University of Chicago (NorthShore) Family Medicine Residency. Dr. Gibbs recently attended the annual conference of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, at which Jerome Wernow presented some thoughts on theology and bioethics. Jerome is a friend, adjunct professor at Western Seminary, and regular commenter on this blog. So, I thought Dr. Gibbs’ comments would be of interest. He originally posted this on his blog, and has graciously permitted me to repost it here.]

At last week’s CBHD conference, a few of us were treated to a unique “Drinking-from-a-firehose” experience.  Jerome Wernow gave a talk with the eyesplitting title, “Bioethics:  Facing a Philosophical Theology of Tragedy and Mystery.”  Intrigued at the title in the conference brochure, but having no idea at all what it might refer to, I slid into a seat in the classroom where Dr. Wernow was to speak, prepared to be befuddled.  Instead, in the space of about about twenty minutes, those of us in the room were given an alluring glimpse into a poignantly beautiful picture for doing bioethics that alters what I see when I look at a patient.

I will attempt to present gleanings from the rich feast that was Dr. Wernow’s talk.  The early 20th Century Russian philosopher Nicloas Berdyaev wrote,  ”There can be no moral life without freedom in evil, and this renders moral life a tragedy and makes ethics a philosophy of tragedy.”  As anybody who has witnessed the anguish of those who seek an ethics consult can attest, as anybody haunted by the dark questions our modern technology raises would agree, in bioethics all decisions are fraught with tragedy;  ethics consultants are actors in one-act medical dramas that are tragedies.  And tragedy is neither lessened nor assuaged when good and evil alone are used in bioethics’ calculus.  Our knowledge of good and evil is damaged, the product of a lie (“your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil“); it was in the very act of grasping for the tree of that knowledge that we were banished from the tree of life.  When we approach people whose stories have taken a catastrophic turn and we wield only the calculus of good and evil, our bioethics is left lifeless, empty, and tragic.  According to Wernow, to address tragedy we must turn to mystery, to “Mystery-revealed:” Christ, in whom is Life.  The question we ask as Christians doing bioethics is not just, “What is good?” but “How do I bring eternal life into this tragedy?  How do I bring the mystery of Life into the abyss?”

There was an amazed silence in the little classroom when Dr. Wernow finished.  Unfortunately, that is all I can leave the reader with.  I am not even sure that in my pathetic summary I presented Dr. Wernow’s vision remotely accurately;  his ideas poured out quickly and passionately, I could take only skeleton notes, and he has not as yet published an article or book that sets out the implications of the “Philosophical Theology of Tragedy and Mystery.”  But I sure love his vision of bioethics-as-drama instead of as sterile philosophical specimen;  and I can embrace the quest to bring the Mystery of Life into tragedy as a robustly and profoundly Christian way to engage and immerse myself in the tragedies of a fallen world.

To Will or Not to Will, There Is No Question

[This is a guest post by Tim Hankins. Tim is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and is participating in this summer’s Th.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.]

Jonathan Edwards was by any measure a brilliant man, and his book Freedom of the Will is an excellent demonstration of his intellect at work. The book is at least in part a response to what Edwards saw as a false understanding of the Will and Man’s ability to choose, but also partly Edwards’ assertion on the proper understanding of the Will. As a result there are both negative (the will is not. . .) arguments alongside positive assertions (the will is. . .) with sections sometimes starting with the negative and concluding with the positive, but other chapters entirely devoted to the one or other.

Jonathan Edwards was very much a product of his times. His arguments are very much framed in a cause-effect model. Indeed he spends several chapters establishing his argument that every effect has a cause and that every act of will finds its cause in the motive (Part 1 Sec 2; Part 2 Sec 3; Part 2 Sec 10). This model is inherent in most of Edwards’ arguments.

Edwards makes a few very strong arguments for his determinist view of the will. One argument which Edwards uses well is that of the life of Jesus Christ. In countering the “Arminian” argument that determinism negates the basis for praise or blame, Edwards argues that it was impossible that Jesus would sin or fail in doing the Father’s Will. This was because to do so would invalidate the salvation of all who had preceded, and would make God a liar through the failure of all the promises and prophesies concerning Jesus Christ. Therefore Jesus’ actions were necessary and determined, yet they cannot be criticized as not being praiseworthy. Another related argument is that if neither blame nor praise can be assigned because of acts of necessity then “he [God] is deserving of no commendation or praise; because he is under necessity, he can’t avoid being holy and good as he is; therefore no thanks to him for it.”(p.278)

While refuting the idea of the praiseworthiness of decisions from indifference, which he represents as essential for a decision/action to be virtuous rather than determined, Edwards posits what I can only call the praiseworthy sociopath. He argues that if one ponders committing criminal actions from a Vulcan dispassionate indifference (ok he didn’t actually say that but that is the picture he paints) then one is closer to committing those crimes than if viewing them from a predisposition of disgust and horror. Furthermore, Edwards gives the example of seeing a friend in deadly danger and with that same Vulcan dispassion pondering whether or not to assist them. He argues (and rightly so I believe) that in such situations an indifference to saving or leaving is not virtuous but rather worthy of condemnation.

I must confess that not all of Edwards arguments are so easy to agree with, including his argument regarding God’s foreknowledge and decrees.  Here is how he lays out the argument. First Edwards posits that if God foreknows something that event is certain to happen. He goes to great lengths to emphasize the absolute certainty of God’s foreknowledge: if God foreknows something it WILL happen, no possibility to the contrary. This certainty is so strong that there is nothing that could make it stronger. If God decrees something it will happen with absolute certainty. Both God’s foreknowledge and His decrees have an absolute certainty of coming to pass. Since God’s foreknowledge is not incompatible with human freedom because of its certainty, therefore God’s decrees likewise must not be incompatible with human freedom.

It is at this point that I shock everybody with my confession that I am not a Calvinist, so I admit to a certain presuppositional bias. Yet it seems to be that Edwards is making a logical fallacy here. I am certain that the Calvinist/determinists out there will see nothing wrong with the argument as it is laid out, but it seems to me that there is a qualitative difference between foreknowledge and decree. Yes, one could argue that the result is the same, the foreseen or decreed event occurs exactly as it was foreseen or decreed, but they are different starting points. Decree is inherently causal, foreknowledge is not. And as such then assumptions and qualities for the one do not necessarily carry over to the other. Foreknowledge in and of itself does not seem to necessitate decree. To get from one to the other there must be some glue, some logical bridge connecting the two. In my view the certainty of result is insufficient to make that connection.

Aside from stirring up that tired old argument between determinists and non-determinists, I have a few other criticisms of Edwards arguments.

  1. His “greatest desire” model seems simplistic, and unable to deal with passages like Gal 5:16-17.
  2. One of his arguments regarding the incompatibility of contingency and foreknowledge is that knowledge must have evidence, because it must be evident to the understanding (p.258). This is already a weak argument, built around an undefined term: understanding. But Edwards then continues on to argue that because there is no necessary connection between a contingent future event and the present. This boils down to a manufactured argument for contingency cannot work with foreknowledge because I say it cannot.

I am not trying to open the contingency argument here, just to point out that not all of Edwards arguments carry the full impact that he seemed to think they carried.

Overall I would call Freedom of the Will a mixed bag. Edwards has some strong arguments, he has some weak arguments. There certainly has been plenty of material for me to reflect on.  But is there someone who can help me wrap my apparently not sufficiently deterministic mind around how to make the connection between foreknowledge and decree? I know the sovereignty passages, I am not even necessarily arguing against decree as it is used. But I just don’t see the connection that makes what is foreseen necessarily (to use the term in the Edwardsian sense) decreed.

[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.]

Some Problems with Jonathan Edwards’ view of Original Sin

[This is a guest post by Andreas Lunden. Andreas is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and is participating in this summer’s Th.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.] 

In The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended; Evidences of its Truth Produced, and Arguments to the Contrary Answered, Jonathan Edwards engages in the controversy over human depravity, a topic that occupied much of the eighteenth century. Edwards’ eagerness to refute his opponents on this matter indicates that a major cultural shift was ultimately at stake, since the Western man was viewing himself with increasing positivism regarding his nature and potentialities. In other words, Edwards was combating an increasingly prevailing drift of opinion that had begun in Europe and was now slowly but surely invading America.

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An Outline of Edwards’ Argument

The argument of this book is straightforward. Edwards spends well over three hundred pages defending the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. More specifically, for Edwards, Original Sin means, (1) the innate depravity of heart of all men OR, (2) the imputation of Adam’s sin to all men. Those who hold to one of these statements usually also hold to the other. On the contrary, those who oppose Original Sin usually oppose both these statements. According to Edwards, such “new interpretations”, which stray from Christian tradition, are unlikely to be correct. For Edwards, “mankind are by nature in a state of total ruin, both with respect to the moral evil they are subjects of, and the afflictive evil they are exposed to, the one as the consequence and punishment of the other, then doubtless the great salvation by Christ stand in direct relation to this ruin.” He finds support for his views both in general observations of man’s inclinations and behaviors (history), as well as the witness of the Christian scriptures.

The flow unfolds as follows:

  • Part One: Evidence of Original Sin from Observation, Experience & Scripture
  • Part Two: Observations from Scripture Proving Original Sin
  • Part Three: Observations Relating to the Process of Redemption
  • Part Four: Answers to Common Objections

What stands out is Edwards’ brilliant exposition concerning man’s inability to present evidence for capacity of goodness despite God’s “great means” to promote such virtue. He analyzes both the Old and the New Testament, focusing on the means used by God to draw man to Himself: from Adam to Noah, from Abraham to Jesus in relation to the Gentiles, from Abraham to Jesus in relation to the Jews, and finally the “Church age.” For John Taylor (the main opponent of Edwards), the ongoing failures to pierce the heart of man were simply due to a wrong representation of the gospel. Such a view must have caused unpleasant affections in the heart of Edwards. According to our defender of Original Sin, the problem of man’s depravity stems ultimately from something much deeper than an “unfortunate” misunderstanding. Man’s apparent failure to respond to God lies in the realm of a thoroughly corrupted heart. Consequently, man’s redemption is obviously connected to a restructured heart, which is exclusively the result of the Holy Spirit’s work.

Some Problems with Edwards Argument

Edwards has a talent for arguing in such a way that he answers not only the questions currently on the table, but also possible “follow-up” issues that may surface in response to his own writings. However, one possible weakness in Edwards’ argument (as discussed in class) is his view that creation is a continuous event ex nihilo (from nothing). In arguing that God recreates the whole of the universe every instant, he is able, not only to combat Deist notions, but also maintain a sense of oneness, and connectedness between the first Adam, and the whole of mankind (as opposed to Taylor’s view that sin and guilt are to be seen as entirely personal). However, this begs the question, if history is divided into an infinite number of independent frames, how is the now related to the past or the future? What, then, is a person? How does one in this view understand personal identity?

Another area that I find problematic is Edwards’ somewhat condescending posture in relation to his opponents. His argumentation is ruthless, in style but first and foremost in intellectual force. While, I agree with most of Edwards’ argument it’s possible that his aggressiveness caused a more polarized debate, rather than mutual learning from one another. I am by no means arguing we should compromise truth, only that we constantly need to be on the lookout for ways to communicate creatively in a spirit of truth and grace, simultaneously.

Edwards’ Opponent

Finally, I conclude from this reading that nothing is new under the sun. I found myself chuckling at Taylor’s arguments since they sometimes sound similar to contemporary objections to Christian doctrines of Sin, Hell, Judgment, etc. Here are a few examples:

The doctrine of Original Sin…

…disparages divine goodness in giving us our being, so that we have no reason to thank God for our being.

…pours contempt on human nature.

…gives us an ill opinion of our fellow humans.

…hinders comfort & joy, and promotes sorrow & gloominess.

…is not mentioned by Jesus in the gospels.

Jonathan Edwards offers sound answers to every one of these objections, but I’m curious, how would you respond?

[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.]


Dorothy Sayers on the Lost Tools of Learning (and a happy birthday)

Today marks Dorothy Sayers‘ 118th birthday (June 13, 1893). Writer, theologian, poet, essayist, and playwright, Sayers did it all. And, she did it amazingly well.

To commemorate her birthday, here are some excerpts from her essay on The Lost Tools of Learning. Regardless of whether you agree with her argument that we need to return to medieval models of education (and the way this argument has been used by the classical and home schooling movements), her comments on the importance of learning to think are outstanding:

Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?

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Is not the great defect of our education today—a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned—that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning. It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play “The Harmonious Blacksmith” upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized “The Harmonious Blacksmith,” he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle “The Last Rose of Summer.” Why do I say, “as though”? In certain of the arts and crafts, we sometimes do precisely this—requiring a child to “express himself” in paint before we teach him how to handle the colors and the brush. There is a school of thought which believes this to be the right way to set about the job. But observe: it is not the way in which a trained craftsman will go about to teach himself a new medium. He, having learned by experience the best way to economize labor and take the thing by the right end, will start off by doodling about on an odd piece of material, in order to “give himself the feel of the tool.”

..

For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of “subjects”; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell binder, we have the impudence to be astonished. We dole out lip-service to the importance of education—lip-service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.

[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.]

Some concluding reflections on how to approach the free will debate

Thousands of years, countless philosophers, theologians, and scientists, and still no resolution to the free will debate. Maybe we should just stop talking about it.

But that won’t do either. Our view of free will has too many important implications for life, ministry, theology, and ethics. Far from being a speculative, philosophical discussion, the free will debate touches on nearly every aspect of what it means to be human.

So, we have a seemingly unsolvable problem that is, at the same time, vitally important for many of life’s most significant issues.

Oh, is that all?

We’ve been working through a series on Striving for Greater Clarity and Charity in the Free Will Debate (you can see all the posts in that series here). And, that’s a great place to start. But, it’s just a starting place. The hard task of actually understanding “free” will remains.

As I said at the beginning of this series, I have no intention of trying to resolve the issue here. But, to wrap up this series, I thought I should at least say something about how I approach the discussion. I haven’t come to a satisfying conclusion yet. But, I have landed on a way of framing the discussion that I find helpful.

The closest that I come to arguing for a particular view of free will is in my book Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed. (Yes, that was a shameless plug for my book.) The basic thrust of my argument in that chapter is that any adequate theological anthropology must affirm certain basic things about the human person, which I develop in my chapter on the image of God: christocentrism, qualified uniqueness, mystery, relationality, moral responsibility, embodiment, and brokenness. This is the theological framework within which particular scientific/philosophical theories must function to be theologically adequate. So, I evaluate any approach to free will by its ability to operate coherently and convincingly within this theological framework.

I won’t take the time here to unpack everything that I develop in that chapter. But, here’s the conclusion:

Working through each of these theories using our criteria for a theologically adequate anthropology, we can see that each struggles at certain key points. Certainly, classic compatibilism is viewed by most as inadequate both because of its failure to provide an adequate explanation of where desires and beliefs come from, as well as its inadequate explanation of alternate possibilities. New compatibilist theories have worked hard to overcome these weaknesses. Nonetheless, we have seen that they still struggle to explain how the complete determination of the human person’s character and affective states does not ultimately undermine the person’s responsibility for actions that result from that character and affective condition. The source of the person’s ‘deepest self’ seems important and unfortunately opaque in the compatibilist system. For theological compatibilists, this leaves them susceptible to concerns surrounding the origin of sin and the nature of evil.

Libertarian theories are subject to important critiques as well. Indeed, the libertarian approach struggles to explain how there can be sufficient indeterminism to allow libertarian free will, without ultimately foundering on the problem of luck or the loss of any causal significance for human reasons, beliefs, and desires. And theologically, libertarianism struggles to explain how God can be causally active in the lives of human persons without undermining their free will.

Our discussion in this chapter has not focused on trying to resolve these debates. Indeed, I have argued that given the currently ambiguous and debated relationship between moral responsibility, causality, and free will, it seems unlikely that the debate will be resolved any time soon. So, as with the mind/body debate, I think that we will be on safer ground identifying those things about the human person that must be affirmed in any adequate theological anthropology and use those as our guiding criteria. With these in place, we can acknowledge that each of these theories has important strengths and corresponding weaknesses. We cannot rule either of them out of bounds on this basis, but we can develop a picture of what any adequate view of free will must be able to affirm and move forward from there.

Like I said above, this isn’t a satisfying answer to the problem, though I do find it to be a compelling way of approaching the discussion.

[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 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.]