A Quick Argument Against Libertarian Calvinism

One of the current debates among Reformed scholars concerns whether Reformed theology commits one to a compatibilist view of free will. Is there room in the Reformed tradition for a ‘libertarian Calvinism’ which affirms Calvinist distinctives (such as a strong view of divine providence and a monergistic view of salvation) while also allowing for libertarian free choices (at least in some areas of human action)? I’ve already argued in several places (e.g., here and here) that Reformed theology is committed to divine determinism and thus excludes libertarian free will. In this post, I offer another brief argument against ‘libertarian Calvinism’.

In chapter 7 his recent book Divine Will and Human Choice, Richard Muller observes that early Reformed thinkers typically located the foundation of possibility in God himself — specifically, in divine omnipotence (Muller, pp. 263-67). On this view, God knows what is possible by way of divine self-knowledge: his knowledge of his own power. For any state of affairs S, S is possible reduces to God has the power to produce or bring about S.

This position cannot be reconciled with a libertarian view of free will, because libertarian free choices are contingent and cannot be produced or brought about by God (either directly or indirectly). Consider these two states of affairs:

S1: Albert’s freely choosing at time t to finish the pizza.

S2: Albert’s freely choosing at time t not to finish the pizza.

On the standard libertarian view, both of these are possible, yet it’s not within God’s power to bring about both of them (by which I mean to actualize whichever one he wants, not to actualize both of them at once, which would be a logical contradiction).

A Molinist committed to libertarian free will might observe that God has the power to weakly actualize S1 or S2, based on his middle knowledge, even though he cannot strongly actualize them. True enough, but on the Molinist view God is constrained by the counterfactuals of freedom such that he can only weakly actualize either S1 or S2 (given the same world history up to time t). So the Molinist still has to concede that there are some possibilities beyond God’s power to actualize (weakly or strongly).

In fact, it’s trivially true that Molinism is incompatible with the claim that possibilities are grounded in divine powers, for two reasons: (1) on the Molinist view, not all possible worlds are within God’s power to actualize; (2) the counterfactuals of freedom (i.e., the objects of God’s middle knowledge) are contingent brute facts beyond the control of God.

So here’s the argument summarized:

  1. The Reformed tradition holds that possibilities are grounded in divine omnipotence.
  2. Libertarian free will implies that there are some possibilities which are beyond God’s power to actualize, and thus that some possibilities are not grounded in divine omnipotence.
  3. Therefore, the Reformed tradition rules out libertarian free will.

Furthermore, if the Reformed tradition affirms that some human choices are free (which it does) then the Reformed tradition is committed to a compatibilist view of free will. Q.E.D.

When Harry Wants To Be Called ‘Sally’

Transgender IconThe Nashville Statement was published this week, and the (over)reaction to it has been entirely predictable. It’s a fine summary of the biblical Christian position on human sexuality, and (while I might quibble with the wording here and there) I agree with all of its affirmations and denials. What the statement doesn’t do (by design) is answer all of the tricky questions that arise for Christians now living in a culture that by and large repudiates the claims of the Nashville Statement. Truth notwithstanding, the tide is flooding the plain and we’ll soon be up to our necks.

It’s not unfair to say that the Nashville Statement answers easy questions. What does the Bible actually say about natural sexual distinctions and proper sexual relationships? The harder questions concern matters of Christian practice as we engage with the shifting culture around us and grapple with the impact it has on the lives of real people.

I’ve given several presentations on the topic of transgenderism over the last two years, one of which will be published as an article in the forthcoming issue of RTS’s journal, Reformed Faith & Practice. On every occasion, one particular question has been asked during the Q&A session:

How should we deal with people who claim to be transgender and ask us to use different names and pronouns to refer to them, which they claim correctly reflect their true ‘gender identity’?

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Edgar on Van Til

You might know that P&R have been publishing new editions of Cornelius Van Til’s major works. You might also know that those new editions have introductions and explanatory notes by WTS professors William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint.

You might not know, however, that a couple of Edgar’s introductory essays are fully contained in the free samples of those books available on the Westminster Bookstore website:

Check them out!

On Fairies and Gardeners

I’ve been revisiting Richard Dawkins’ best-seller The God Delusion in preparation for an apologetics class I’ll be teaching next week. On opening it up, I fell upon the dedication “In Memoriam” to Douglas Adams, accompanied by the following quotation (presumably from Adams):

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?

I suppose Dawkins considered this a pithy critique of theistic beliefs and in keeping with the thrust of his book. It does at least give us some insight into how Dawkins and his ilk think about theism, i.e., that it’s epistemically on a par with belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden. But it also reflects just how shallow that thinking is.

Flower Garden

Of course it’s enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it, because the former doesn’t depend on the latter in any plausible way. Fairies have no explanatory role to play in one’s appreciation of a beautiful garden. But theists have long contended that God has a significant explanatory role to play in our understanding of the world and our place in it; indeed, a necessary explanatory role.

So a more fitting question would be:

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there is a gardener who made it beautiful?

To which the answer isn’t obviously a self-congratulatory “Yes!” but rather (at a minimum) “Well, it depends on exactly what we see in the garden.” If the garden we see is an orderly, cultivated one then the answer is clearly, “No, it’s not enough; a rational person ought to believe both.”

In fact, an even more probing question would be:

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without considering not only whether there is a gardener who made it beautiful, but also how it is that we came to possess reliable cognitive faculties which allow us to see gardens, to conceive of them as gardens, and to make meaningful objective aesthetic judgments about them?

But that doesn’t sound nearly so witty, which I guess goes to show that cleverness and profundity don’t always coincide.

Why Did God Allow the Fall?

Who would be so foolhardy as to accept an invitation to answer that question in only 1400 words?

Find out here.

To Err is Humorous (2017 Edition)

It’s that most wonderful time of the year: grading season. As I’ve noted before, there’s an occasional silver lining to this otherwise purgatorial duty, namely, occasionally encountering an amusing typo or other lapsus calami. Five years ago I posted a collection of these gaffes, and as an act of solidarity with my fellow professors, I now post a second batch. (All are genuine.)

First, however, let me repeat some important words of qualification from my earlier post:

I should emphasize that most of these are innocent mistakes and no reflection on the abilities of the students who wrote them. Some of them appeared in otherwise excellent papers. They’re the sort of errors any of us could make, and many of us have made, especially when under the pressure of a deadline or ambushed by the AutoCorrect feature of our word processors. So enjoy them, but don’t forget that these are human errors — and we’re all human.

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Tuggy’s Triad and the Death of God

God's Not DeadDale Tuggy has recently been discussing at some length what he takes to be an inconsistent triad of claims:

1. Jesus died.

2. Jesus was fully divine.

3. No fully divine being has ever died.

He thinks that 1 is beyond dispute for Bible-believing Christians, and that 3 also finds strong support from the biblical affirmations of God’s immortality (Rom. 1:23; 1 Tim. 1:17; 1 Tim. 6:16). He therefore concludes that 2 should be rejected for the sake of logical consistency. That would, of course, require one to reject one of the essential tenets of the doctrine of the Trinity.

I’ve listened to several of Dale’s podcasts on the issue, but not all of them, so I may well be overlooking something here. Still, it seems to me that there’s a fairly straightforward way for a Trinitarian to affirm all three claims without inconsistency. I agree with Tuggy that there’s solid biblical support for 1 and 3, but as I see it there’s an equivocation on the term ‘died’. (I know that Dale has denied any such equivocation, but hear me out.)

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T. S. Eliot on Reading for Amusement

Some insight from Eliot’s essay “Religion and Literature” (1935):

Now what we get, as we gradually grow up and read more and more, and read a greater diversity of authors, is a variety of views of life. But what people commonly assume, I suspect, is that we gain this experience of other men’s views of life only by “improving reading.” This, it is supposed, is a reward we get by applying ourselves to Shakespeare, and Dante, and Goethe, and Emerson, and Carlyle, and dozens of other respectable writers. The rest of our reading for amusement is merely killing time. But I incline to come to the alarming conclusion that it is just the literature that we read for “amusement,” or “purely for pleasure” that may have the greatest and least suspected influence upon us. It is the literature which we read with the least effort that can have the easiest and most insidious influence upon us. Hence it is that the influence of popular novelists, and of popular plays of contemporary life, requires to be scrutinized most closely. And it is chiefly contemporary literature that the majority of people ever read in this attitude of “purely for pleasure,” of pure passivity.

The relation to my subject of what I have been saying should now be a little more apparent. Though we may read literature merely for pleasure, of “entertainment” or of “aesthetic enjoyment,” this reading never affects simply a sort of special sense: it affects our moral and religious existence. And I say that while individual modern writers of eminence can be improving, contemporary literature as a whole tends to be degrading. And that even the effect of the better writers, in an age like ours, may be degrading to some readers; for we must remember that what a writer does to people is not necessarily what he intends to do. It may be only what people are capable of having done to them. People exercise an unconscious selection in being influenced. A writer like D. H. Lawrence may be in his effect either beneficial or pernicious. I am not sure that I have not had some pernicious influence myself.

One can only imagine what Eliot would have concluded about the influence of movies, TV shows, and YouTube videos on our “moral and religious existence.”

Some Thoughts on the Lowder-Turek Debate

I recently watched (or rather listened to) the debate last December between Jeffrey Jay Lowder and Frank Turek on whether naturalism or theism “better explains reality”:

Overall it was one of the better theist-atheist debates I’ve encountered, and I would recommend watching it. The two opponents were intelligent, well-spoken, respectful, experienced, and focused on the issues. I’m not going to evaluate all the arguments in the debate or make a judgment about who ‘won’ the debate (it depends which criteria you apply). I’m just going to make some very general comments about the strengths and weaknesses of the presentations.

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A Selection of Presuppositional Arguments

One criticism of presuppositional apologetics is that its advocates rarely if ever offer serious arguments for their distinctive claims (e.g., the claim that our ability to reason presupposes the existence of God). The criticism is overstated, but there is a measure of truth to it. I count myself a presuppositionalist, but I’ve been frustrated in the past by presuppositionalists who seem to imagine that declaring what Van Til’s “transcendental argument” purports to demonstrate is tantamount to actually making that demonstration. Simply asserting that “without God you can’t prove anything at all” or that “your very ability to reason presupposes the existence of God” does nothing whatsoever to explain why those weighty assertions should be believed. Likewise for the failure of non-Christians to answer questions asking them to account for their ability to reason, to know truths about the world, to make meaningful moral judgments, etc., in terms of their own worldviews. Questions cannot substitute for arguments, no matter how pointed those questions may be.

So it’s important for presuppositionalists to present arguments in support of their claims, and to ensure their critics are aware of those arguments so that they can be critically evaluated. In that spirit, I thought it would be useful to gather in one place my own presuppositional arguments, as well as my attempts to explain or reconstruct the arguments of other presuppositionalists:

In addition, my book Why Should I Believe Christianity? offers a broadly presuppositional (and evidential!) case for the biblical Christian worldview.