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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.]

Flotsam and jetsam (1/24)

Arminians affirm everything necessary for a fully evangelical soteriology; Calvinists require more.  Why?

I simply want to introduce you to a side of him that you may not know, and hopefully to persuade you that he does, after all, belong to the human race. And I want to do that by focusing on two of his close friendships.

I have been taught the historical-grammatical approach to biblical hermeneutics both as an undergraduate student and as a graduate student. It has been useful, but it always left me wondering how this approach allows for the Scriptures to be the book of the church rather than merely an open source. It was not until this last semester when I encountered the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer that my paradigm was shaken.

  • Denny Burk offers a lengthy discussion of the textual problem in Luke 23:34 and why think thinks many experts are wrong when they conclude that Jesus’ prayer “Father, forgive them…” was not original.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/19)

I’ve noticed in the last few years a real bandwagon of anti-leadership sentiment in some circles. I think it started as a push-back to the “CEO” model/mentality in some, and as such, I’m sympathetic. But from there, it has progressed to where we now have many arguing that any concept of leadership in the church should be avoided.

I’ve noticed that people who do not read the original languages of the Bible sometimes think of those languages as somehow magical, as the key that can open any mystery and answer any question about the Bible. While reading the original languages is tremendously important and helpful and useful, such a reading by itself does not always magically result in clear and simple answers to controversial religious questions. There are limitations inherent in an appeal to an original language for determining the meaning of a text.

As the article indicates, countless PhD students spend years dedicated towards research that will perhaps never posit an actual job in their field. Supply is greater than demand as the article suggets. The future seems depressingly bleak then for doctoral students: They are treated as indentured servants by their superiors. They spend meaningful years that could have been put towards savings, retirement, and even more important—nurturing families.

  • Roger Olson and Michael Horton have had an interesting exchange on the nature of Arminianism (read the comments). In the process, Olson made a very good comment about fairly representing other perspectives:

I urge you, and all non-Arminians who describe our theology, to describe it as we describe it and then go on to explain why you disagree….Fairness is the issue here.

Flotsam and jetsam (12/13)

  • Roger Olson argues that Arminianism and Calvinism are “incommensurable” systems that should not be viewed as occupying different places on the same spectrum:

On the crucial issues of the nature of God’s election to salvation, the extent of the atonement and whether grace is resistible or irresistible  (the three main ideas that divide Calvinism and Arminianism) the divide between any and every version of Calvinism and any and every version of Arminianism is deep and wide.  So much so that it is really not possible to put them on the same spectrum.

  • Cynthia Nielsen reflects on Foucault’s understanding of “biopower” and its significance for understanding (post)modern society and the (post)modern self.

With the transition from the ancient and medieval monarchical model of absolute power to the modern model of biopower, power is no longer centralized around the person of the king but is distributed in a net-like fashion operating, invading, and permeating the social body far more efficiently and effectively than the previous model.

Okay, maybe Calvinism doesn’t lead to universalism inexorably–as if every Calvinist must become a universalist.  However, many leading universalist theologians are/were Reformed and believed that their Calvinist concepts of God’s sovereignty eventually compelled them to embrace universalism.

Flotsam and jetsam (11/30)

  • James McGrath had the students in his Revelation class evaluate a website and post their comments. He set up a blog for that purpose and is inviting everyone to check it out. I’ve only glanced at it so far, but it looks interesting.
  • Dane Ortlund offers a thought from Richard Baukham on why the Gospel writers thought history was so important.

Is there really a Calvinist resurgence?

According to a new study from the Barna Group, the recent Calvinist resurgence may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. We’ve heard a lot recently about the “New Calvinism.” According to many, we are seeing a revival of Reformed theology, especially among younger Christians – i.e., the Young, Restless, and Reformed. So, the Barna Group decided to do some research on the issue to determine if there’s any actual data to support the conclusion that we are seeing a revival in Reformed theology. And their conclusion?

….there is no discernible evidence from this research that there is a Reformed shift among U.S. congregation leaders over the last decade. Whatever momentum surrounds Reformed churches and the related leaders, events and associations has not gone much outside traditional boundaries or affected the allegiances of most today’s church leaders.

In their research into the reformed movement in American churches, the Barna Group surveyed Protestant leaders around the country to determine whether they self-identify as Calvinist or Arminian in orientation. And, according to the study, 31% of Protestant pastors identify themselves and their churches as “Calvinist or Reformed” down from 32% in 2000. And, this number has been relatively stable for the last 10 years. So, rather than supporting the idea of a significant resurgence in Reformed theology, these numbers suggest that pastors, at least, self-identify with Reformed theology at the same rate as they did 10 years ago.

And, from the other perspective, 32% self-identify as Welseyan-Arminian, down from 37% in 2000. Representing a slight decline, this number has fluctuated more over the last ten years, though the researchers offer no suggestion as to why this might be the case.

On the basis of this evidence, the researchers conclude that we currently have insufficient evidence to support the conclusion that there is a resurgence of interest in Calvinist theology. They do acknowledge, however, that there may be factors they have not included in their research which might still validate the idea of a Reformed resurgence. Thus, despite the data, Ed Stetzer concludes,

All that to say, I think there IS a resurgence of Calvinism (particularly within evangelicalism), but since it is younger, and a subset of a very large pool of pastors (for polling purposes), it is not evident via the research.

But, contrary to Stetzer’s conclusion, the Barna data shows 34%  of young pastors (ages 27 to 45) self-identifying as Wesleyan/Arminian and only 29% as Calvinist/Reformed. Thus, even if there is a renewed interest in Calvinist theology, it is not yet sufficient to offset the continuing support for Wesleyan/Arminian theology among young, Christian leaders.

I also found it very interesting that older, Christian leaders were the least likely to identify with either description, with only 26% identifying as Calvinist/Reformed and 27% as Wesleyan/Arminian. And, indeed, it seems worth noting that although 32% of the total population identified as Calvinist/Reformed, and 31% identified as Wesleyan/Arminian, that still means 37% chose not to identify with either description. If nothing else, this would seem t suggest that we need to recognize more diversity than can be captured with a simple Calvinist/Arminian spectrum.

So, is there a Calvinist resurgence today? I’m still inclined to think so. But, the Barna survey places this resurgence in context, demonstrating that it’s overall influence on the Christian community as a whole is still relatively minimal. Given the relative prominence of many New Calvinist leaders, that does not mean the movement is insignificant, only that it’s overall impact has yet to be determined.

Flotsam and jetsam (8/9)

Why do non-Calvinists hate Calvinism so much?

That’s the question being asked on a couple of blogs today. Frank Turk starts things off with “Filthy Calvinists and the People Who Love to Hate Them“, asking why many non-Calvinists get so fired up about Calvinism, insisting loudly that they’re not Calvinists, but they don’t express similar vehemence against other systems like Catholicism. (He also mixes in quite a bit of rhetoric as blog fodder, but this is the basic question.) The post is followed by an extensive discussion in the comments on the issue.

Adam Omelianchuk follows up with “My Distaste for Calvinism Made Public.” Although not a Calvinist himself, he argues:

I think the main reason why so many protestant Christians have a problem with Calvinism more than issues related to Catholicism is that they see Calvinism as a plausible system. That means it is a reasonable one that could possibly be true (sorry, but some of those beliefs about Mary are just plain silly). I remember being introduced to the theology 11 years ago through the “limited atonement” piece of the puzzle, and I still remember the violent reaction I had to it. It made the strange view of Open Theism look attractive, but Calvinism’s plausibility created a long-time of wrestling that ultimately resulted in a (short lived) conversion to Calvinism.

He then goes on to explain why he is opposed to Calvinism, focusing largely on issues related to the problem of evil and the idea that everything God does is focused on his own glory (i.e. the “self-absorbed God” problem).

I’d actually be inclined to argue that non-Calvinists are more stridently opposed to Calvinism because it is “closer” to them – closer theologically, culturally, and often geographically. The general orbit of non-Calvinist Protestants churches overlaps that of Calvinist Protestants far more than it does that of Catholics, Orthodox, and others. And, if you’re going to throw stones at someone, you’re far more likely to throw them at the person standing next to you than some guy on the other side of town.

Feel free to engage in the discussions at the other two blogs, but I’d also be interested in hearing what you think on the subject. If you’re a non-Calvinist, do you find yourself being more critical of Calvinism than other theological systems? If so, why? And, if you’re a Calvinist, do you have any thoughts on why other Protestants pick on you all the time?