compatibilism

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A Denial of Theological Determinism

It was not too long ago that I read a book by John Frame, a respected Calvinist theologian, entitled No Other God: A Response to Open Theism. In my review of that book, I wrote, “Interestingly, while I went in reading this book looking for some good arguments against Open Theism, I came out with the realization that theological determinism is a far more dangerous doctrine indeed.” It is time to address theological determinism more fully.

The Debate

There are many sides to the debate over the content of and/or level of determination entailed by of God’s omniscience. Briefly, I will summarize what I see as the four major positions:

  1. Open Theism- Open Theists hold that the future is, in some sense, “open” to the extent that even God doesn’t know for sure what will happen. God knows everything that might happen, and so can plan for every contingency.
  2. Theological Determinism- Essentially, the view that God, in His sovereignty, has determined everything which will happen. It is generally paired with compatibilism, the view that, despite God’s determining of creaturely action, those creatures are still responsible for their behavior.
  3. Molinism- The “middle knowledge” perspective holds that God knows counterfactuals of creaturely freedom–God knows what anyone will do in any situation–and so comprehensively knows the future. However, molinists hold that God does not determine what will happen, He merely foreknows it.
  4. “Bare Omniscience”- Those who hold this view basically fall into a combination of the previous three categories–mixing and matching as they will.

The Biblical Evidence

I’m only briefly going to operate under a claim which I’m sure will be quite contentious for all involved, so I will qualify it heavily:

P1: The Biblical data about God’s omniscience lacks the philosophical development to settle the issue. 

Now, this claim is very qualified: essentially I’m claiming that any one of the four positions discussed only briefly above can claim some kind of Biblical justification. Do I personally think they are all equal? Not at all, actually. But I do think that each position can put forth at least a few passages to try to justify their position. Thus, my suggestion is that the issue needs to be settled philosophically, not exegetically.

Some may latch onto this claim and rejoice, arguing that “J.W. has clearly rejected the Bible! [insert series of Bible verses]!” Such a strategy is wrongheaded for a number of reasons, foremost among them is the forcing of [cited verses] into a preconceived philosophical paradigm. I’m not arguing that the Bible cannot or does not reveal philosophical development. Rather, my argument is that on this issue, the Bible does not present a specific picture. Certainly, there are those who will disagree and say, “Well J.W. is just wrong! The Bible clearly states [favored position]!” It is not here my purpose to enter into a proof-text vs. proof-text argument. Rather, I wish to argue that determinism cannot be true and therefore one of the other positions must be the case. Given that most theologians grant there at least a few verses to support any of the previous positions, I think this is a safe qualification.

Against Determinism

I have argued extensively elsewhere for molinism and against open theism, and it is high time I turn my sights against determinism. I feel that theological determinism is, at best, philosophically untenable. At worst, it is incoherent. I shall put forth three theses to press my claim:

P2: Theological determinism’s only way to preserve creaturely responsibility (and thus save God from responsibility for causing evil) is compatibilism, which is incoherent.

Compatibilism, essentially, is the claim that God determines all things, and people are responsible for their actions.

I confess that, on the face of it, I struggle to understand compatibilism of any sort. But rather than giving in to a lack of imagination, I will seek to understand how theological determinists present compatiblism. Paul Helm, a Calvinist philosopher for whom I have great respect, writes “…God, though responsible, is not to blame for bringing about an evil act on the part of a human being if he has good reason for bringing such an act about, which he must have” (Helm, 164, cited below). Helm argues that God is the sufficient cause for all actions, but not the necessary cause of them. Because of this, Helm holds that “God may be ‘responsible’ for evil in some sense, but this does not mean that he is morally culpable” (Ibid, 164).

Again, I don’t see any way for this to work. First, if God really is the sufficient cause for evils, then it is extremely difficult to see how God would not be culpable. Sufficient causation implies exactly what it seems to: that God’s action alone is sufficient to bring about the evil. Yet Helm seems to think that because he holds that God is not a necessary condition for the evil actions, this removes God from responsibility.

Again, this seems to be exactly backwards, for at least a couple reasons. If God is the sufficient cause of all things, then that means that for any evil I can imagine (let’s say the Holocaust), one need only to refer to God to reveal its cause. Now Helm would hold that humans are the necessary conditions for this evil to occur. In other words, while God may have determined it to be such that the Holocaust would occur, it would not have occurred had there not been creatures to bring it about. But if this is the case, then it seems God is indeed squarely to blame for such evils because, after all, God is not only the sufficient cause of the events, but He also created the necessary conditions and set them up in such a way that these events would occur.

Other theological determinists take two supposedly different approaches to the problem. Some argue that because of total depravity, human wills are in fact free. In other words, humans are incapable of choosing good, but that does not mean they are not free or responsible because they continue to freely choose evil. This tactic does not seem to work, however, because theological determinists must also hold that God made humans in such a way that they would not desire good. In other words, God made these people totally depraved to begin with. Thus, those who disagree with determinists could counter by once more asking, “But isn’t God responsible for causing humans to only be free to choose evil anyway?”

The other tactic is to argue that while God is cause of all things, people themselves are the secondary cause. So while God might sustain my existence and even determine that I should do evil, it is I who do evil, not God. I am a creature, and I bring about the evil. God and I are separate entities, so it follows (on this view) that God is not the cause of evil. Now this view is really no different from Helm’s view explained above, but with less philosophical terminology. The problems with it are the same. Suppose we grant that it is the secondary causes, not God, which bring about evil. Whence these secondary causes? Why do these secondary causes act as they do? According to theological determinism, God created, ordained, and sustains these secondary causes. When a being brings about evil, that being acts secondarily–they are not themselves God. But God ordained and caused the world to be such that theses secondary causes would act in exactly the way in which they do. The secondary causes themselves are caused to act by God. So we have only pushed the problem back one step. Why would God cause secondary causes to do evil? It seems God would certainly be culpable for such evils.

Finally, a brief survey of those theological determinists who take the determinism seriously seems to confirm that God is the cause of evil. John Frame, for example, writes:

“The uniform witness of Scripture is that the evils of this life come from God” (Frame, cited below, 140).

“…[I]t is important to see that God does in fact bring about the sinful behavior of human beings, whatever problems that may create in our understanding” (68).

John Calvin himself wrote, in the Institutes:

When, therefore, they perish in their corruption, they but pay the penalties of that misery in which ADAM FELL BY THE PRDESTINATION OF GOD , and dragged his posterity headlong after him. Is he not, then, unjust who so cruelly deludes his creatures? Of course, I admit that in this miserable condition wherein men are now bound, all of Adam’s children have fallen BY GODS WILL. And this is what I said to begin with, that we must always at last return to the sole decision of God’s will, the cause of which is hidden in him.

It seems, therefore, that theological determinists, when consistent, acknowledge that God causes evil, and indeed wills it. The main reason given is some kind of mystery or hiddenness. I conclude this section with the observation that, despite attempts to the contrary, theological determinism must hold that God causes evil.

P3: Theological determinism is not a “lived” philosophy.

One of the tests for a philosophy–and I should think a theology in particular–is whether it is livable. If something is true, it should reflect reality. Theological determinism holds that every action I take is determined by God. I have found that in practice, I have not yet run into any theological determinist who agrees that they live as though their lives are determined. When bad things happen to them, they are distressed; when relatives are in danger, they pray for the danger to pass without harm; etc. Yet if theological determinism is true, none of these things would matter–all things are determined already. Even were one to pray, that prayer itself would have been determined, along with the outcome. Therefore, theological determinism seems to be unlivable.

P4: If theological determinism is true, I cannot know that it is true. It is therefore self-refuting.

Finally, even if none of the above arguments seem convincing, P4, at least, seems devastating to theological determinism. The argument itself is remarkably simple:

1) If I am determined by non-rational factors to have belief x, then I cannot rationally hold x.

2) On theological determinism, I am determined by non-rational factors to have any given belief.

3) Therefore, on theological determinism, I cannot rationally hold any given belief.

4) Therefore, if theological determinism is true, then I cannot rationally hold that theological determinism is true.

It seems to me that this argument is quite powerful. If theological determinism is true, then my beliefs are determined by God. That includes the belief I currently have that theological determinism is false. However, suppose I believed theological determinism were true. In that case, I have been determined by God to believe theological determinism is true. In fact, my act of deliberating and coming to believe that determinism is true would, itself, be determined. Thus, I cannot rationally hold theological determinism to be true (this argument can be attributed to a podcast from William Lane Craig, though I can’t track down the reference).

Given these reasons, it seems that there are some quite sound objections to theological determinism. Given that there are other positions with at least some Biblical support, it seems theological determinism should be abandoned. The position makes God the author of sin (contrary to the objections of its supporters), it is unlivable, and it is incoherent.

Sources

Paul Helm, Eternal God: A Study of God Without Time (New York, NY: Oxford, 2010), 2nd edition.

John Frame,No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001).

Image Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caen_palaisdejustice_peristyle.jpg

SDG.

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Book Review: “No Other God: A Response to Open Theism” by John Frame

I recently finished No Other God by John Frame. Seldom have I read a book with which I find I disagree so strongly on some issues, while agreeing adamantly on others. Frame pulls no punches and is unafraid to make sweeping generalizations and assertions. Due to the fact I pretty much split the book in half as far as things with which I agree or disagree, I shall proceed by noting these areas and close with a few conclusions.

Areas of Agreement

One of the strengths of Frame’s book is how clear his thinking is. His style of argumentation is precise, and he clearly lays out what he considers evidence for his positions. He is unafraid to make statements with huge implications.

A particularly interesting aspect of Frame’s work was a brief historical look at the roots of Open Theism, leading it back to the Socinianism. Frame points out that advocates of Open Theism tend to portray their view as the “new theology on the block” despite the fact that it has been around (and rejected) for quite some time.

I believe Frame is correct when he argues against the centralization of any one attribute of God. Specifically, the centralization of love on Open Theism tends to ignore other important attributes of God (49ff). (Interestingly, Frame’s own account of God unnecessarily over-emphasizes Sovereignty, though he disguises this by calling it “Lordship.)

Frame levels strong critiques against Open Theism’s reading of Scripture. Open Theists tend to advocate the “straightforward” reading of texts which help their case. One of Open Theist’s favorite passages is God testing Abraham. Yet Frame rightly notes that if there is a straightforward reading of the text, then God did not know the present truth of Abraham’s heart, whereas Open Theists attempt to use this to support God not knowing the future (47). Further, if God was trying to figure out how Abraham would act in the future, then He was trying to do something He couldn’t (determine what the libertarian free choices of humans would be) according to Open Theism. So the story’s straightforward reading does not work to support Open Theism. Frame urges a similar examination of other passages, though he doesn’t expand on it.

Areas of Disagreement

Despite these areas of agreement, I vehemently oppose Frame’s position on several issues. Most notably, on theistic determinism, compatibilism, and libertarianism.

First, libertarianism. Frame correctly notes that the core of Open Theism is the assumption of libertarianism. Yet his critique of libertarianism is wrongheaded. He caricatures libertarians as believing that choices are made in the absence of any motivation. He writes, commenting on the libertarian view, “if our decisions are caused by anything or anyone (including our own desires), they are not properly our decisions… to be responsible, we must be able to do otherwise” (121). Yet this is explicitly not libertarianism. Peter van Inwagen, for example, explicates libertarianism by saying “…that someone’s acts are undetermined does not entail that they are uncaused” (van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will, Oxford: 1983, p. 14).

But Frame explicitly centers his critique of libertarianism on a contra-causal account of freedom, saying, for example, “If guilt presupposed libertarian freedom, then in order to show that Hubert [a man accused of robbing a bank] is guilty, the prosecutor would have to show that his decision to rob a bank had no cause…” (126). But again, libertarians deny this very type of contra-causal freedom, so Frame is arguing against a straw man. Because Frame thinks libertarianism is so utterly central to Open Theism, this means that the core of his critique fails to hit home.

The problem with Frame’s counter against libertarianism is that it barely touches the surface of the philosophical arguments for the position. He correctly rails against the idea that our actions are just random occurrences, but incorrectly assumes that this is libertarianism.

Finally, the greatest area of disagreement I have with Frame is on his view of omnidetermination. Consider the following two quotes:

“The uniform witness of Scripture is that the evils of this life come from God” (140).

“…[I]t is important to see that God does in fact bring about the sinful behavior of human beings, whatever problems that may create in our understanding” (68).

I’d be curious to see how Frame reconciles these assertions with the constant witness of Scripture that God is just; fair; good; opposed to evil; etc. Frame utilizes several verses to support his position, but he makes primary those which say God uses “all things” and verses which say calamities are from God. But regarding the former, this can easily refer simply to permissive will, and regarding the latter, the verses he uses are out of context (and even were one to grant the “straightforward reading,” one could counter by saying the calamities are not every evil action, but merely those things which God uses–i.e. storms, other nations, etc.–to instruct His people). Frame, like many theological determinists, is not building even on sand, but on a void. Literally saying that God causes evil is so utterly repugnant and contrary to Scripture that this view overshadows all the good things Frame has to say.

Conclusions

Ultimately, No Other God is on target in a few ways, but it is wildly gunning the wrong direction on too many issues. Frame’s philosophical case against libertarianism is off the mark, he fails to deal with the strong philosophical arguments for libertarianism, and his view that God literally causes evil is baseless. Interestingly, while I went in reading this book looking for some good arguments against Open Theism, I came out with the realization that theological determinism is a far more dangerous doctrine indeed.

SDG.

Check out other posts about Open Theism here.

John Frame,No Other God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001).

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “Eternal God: A Study of God Without Time” by Paul Helm

Paul Helm is, in my opinion, one of the most lucid thinkers on the topic of God and Time. His Eternal God defends two extremely unpopular positions within Christian philosophical theology: 1) that God is timeless; and 2) that time is static (the B-Theory of time).

Helm points out early in his book that the issue of divine temporality/atemporality is “underdetermined” in Scripture (7). This means it’s one of those fun issues that lies most squarely in philosophy of religion.

And that is where Helm excels. Chapter-by-chapter he outlines a cohesive case for divine atemporality. Where Paul is most successful, I think, is in his rebuttals of arguments for temporality. For example, a well-known argument for temporality is that if God interacts in time, he must be temporal. Helm counters by pointing out that a precisely parallel argument could be constructed for God and space. Yet few Christian philosophers accept that God is spatial (49ff). While this doesn’t rebut the argument, it does point out something important: it doesn’t seem as though the conclusion (God is temporal) follows from the premise (God interacts in time) any more than it would if it were spatial (God is spatial/God interacts with space).

There are many different accounts of divine timelessness, from Brian Leftow’s spaceless timelessness (see his work Time and Eternity) to relative timelessness, and beyond. Helm takes the much less popular route and takes the tough pill of saying that God created spacetime as a static bloc. This allows Helm to easily deny many of the arguments for temporality which stem from a-theory or dynamic time. But it also raises many problems. Foremost among these (in my opinion) is human freedom. For, on the B-Theory of time (static theory), everything which will ever happen, has happened, and in a sense exists. As we go from moment to moment, we’re really just passing through a bloc of spacetime, we aren’t literally moving through a present. Presentness is a subjective phenomenon, given static/B-theory. It’s just our perspective. So where does human responsibility and freedom come in?

Helm here turns to compatibilism. He freely admits that timeless creation entails determinism (170). Thus, he denies that humans have free will in the libertarian sense. But this, he argues, does not undermine human responsibility. I don’t think I can do justice to the nuances of his argument, but the basic idea is that Helm argues that just because past actions/events determine our actions in the future, that doesn’t mean that we aren’t responsible for what we do. As I said, this is a really, really watered down version of his argument, but I think this is one of the weaker points of his work.

Why? Because the idea of responsibility simply does not make sense on determinism, particularly when it is theistic determinism. For consider the idea proposed here. God has created all of time and space as one bloc. Thus, everything I do or have ever done was created by God once he brought the universe into being. Literally, everything I did, I do because God created the universe such that I would do x. So how could it be that I am responsible for doing x, if I never chose to do x. I simply do x because I have to, I have “already” done it, on the static theory. If I could create a time travel device, I could travel forward in time and see myself doing x, and could not prevent it, because God created the world such that I would do x. But the core of responsibility is that I chose to do x. While we punish people for things they do by accident (vehicular manslaughter, for example, or accidentally breaking a window), these things still resulted from prior choices (playing baseball near breakable window/driving carelessly). I simply do not see how any account of responsibility could make sense unless someone can choose to do what they do.

There are several different positions about divine temporality/atemporality. Helm swallows the hard pill of going with the static theory of time to ground his divine atemporality. This, I believe, grants his account extreme philosophical plausibility. If God created the entire universe as a space-time continuum (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase from Star Trek!), then there’s no reason to suppose God would be affected by time. It’s ontologically outside of God, and all of his interactions already have taken place. While I’ve already pointed out some of the problems with this view, these problems are not with the coherence of the view but with the theological nature of it. Thus, I think it possible to say that Helm has adequately defended a position of divine eternity.

It would be impossible to cover everything of interest in such a comprehensive look at the topic of divine timelessness. Helm analyzes an extraordinary number of arguments in great detail. I cannot recommend the book more highly. Although I ultimately reject Helm’s second contention (B-theory), I believe his view is extremely coherent, and I can find little fault in it. Anyone interested in the issue of God’s relationship to time must read this book. It’s a book I think I shall re-read so that I can better grasp his arguments.

(Note: This review is based on the recently published second edition of this text, which includes several new chapters with much of interest, including a rebuttal of William Lane Craig’s arguments against timelessness. I recommend interested readers get their hands on the newer edition.)

SDG.

Source:

Paul Helm, Eternal God (New York, NY: Oxford, 2010).

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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