Prophets, Precogs, and the Purposes of God

[I wrote this article back in 2002 for the now-defunct UK website Facing the Challenge. Reposted here, with minor edits, for posterity.]

Minority ReportWhat would you do if you were accused of a murder you had not committed… yet?

So runs the tagline for Minority Report, the latest action-thriller-cum-futuristic-noir from director Steven Spielberg. Intriguing though the question may be, it is by no means the only conundrum raised by this equally entertaining and thought-provoking film. As The Matrix did to a lesser degree, Minority Report touches on a host of age-old ethical and metaphysical puzzles — some raised explicitly, others apparent only on later reflection — but in an imaginative, contemporary, and stylish manner.

Are we free to determine our futures or are we destined by fate? If you know in advance that someone will perform a certain action at a certain time, can that person then be acting freely? Could it ever be just to punish a person for a crime they didn’t commit, yet surely would have committed had others not intervened to prevent it? Is a crimeless society thereby a virtuous one? When are privacy and freedom more valuable than safety? Where does justice end and vengeance begin? Is it ever justifiable to treat human beings (even abnormal ones) as means rather than ends?

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How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 2)

[This is the second in an n-part series, where n>1 and probably n<10.]

In this short series I’m considering the question: How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? In the first post I summarized how I plan to approach the question, before looking at two biblical teachings which Molinism seeks to accommodate: (1) comprehensive divine providence and (2) God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. I concluded that while the Bible does indeed affirm (1) and (2), and Molinism is consistent with the Bible on those points, Augustinianism also affirms those points. So Molinism holds no advantage over Augustinianism with respect to (1) and (2). I then added:

If we want to show that Molinism has better biblical support than Augustinianism (or vice versa) then we need to find some proposition p which is affirmed by Molinism and denied by Augustinianism (or vice versa) such that p enjoys positive biblical support (i.e., there are biblical texts which, on the most natural and defensible interpretation, and without begging philosophical questions, assert or imply p).

In the next few posts I want to examine three potential candidates for proposition p from the Molinist side: (1) that incompatibilism is true; (2) that God desires all to be saved; and (3) that God is not the author of sin.

Incompatibilism About Free Will

As I noted in the first post, Molinists are committed to a libertarian view of free will. Libertarianism involves two basic claims:

Incompatibilism: genuine freedom is incompatible with determinism.

Freedom: we make (at least some) genuinely free choices, i.e., choices for which we can be held morally responsible.

These two claims together entail that determinism is false, but since compatibilists typically agree that we make genuinely free choices, it’s the first claim which really distinguishes libertarians from compatibilists.

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Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Molinism

Consider this post a (lengthy) side-note to my earlier post. One of the favorite texts of Molinists is Matthew 11:21-24, because it indicates (1) that there are true counterfactuals of freedom, i.e., truths about what free creatures would have done in different circumstances, and (2) that God knows these true counterfactuals. I pointed out that while (1) and (2) support Molinism over against other views such as Open Theism, they don’t favor Molinism over Augustinianism, since Augustinianism also affirms (1) and (2). (Where Molinism and Augustinianism diverge, at least philosophically, is with respect to the nature of creaturely freedom and how God’s knowledge of the counterfactuals of freedom relates to his eternal decree.)

In this post I want to take a comment by Dan as a launching-pad for a closer examination of Matthew 11:21-24 and its relevance to the debate between Molinists and Augustinians. Dan wrote:

One of the classic “proof texts” for middle knowledge also seems resistant to Augustinian/Calvinistic reading and to favor libertarian freedom. Matthew 11:21 says: 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

On Calvinism, irresistible grace (a.k.a. modernistic regeneration or effectual call) determines conversion, such that anyone given God’s irresistible grace cannot resist and will repent. Further, without irresistible grace, no one can convert due to their depravity.

From the verse, we know the people of Chorazin didn’t repent, but the people of Tyre would have repented had the same might works been done there. Tyre was notoriously sinful, so the comparison is to shame the folks of Chorzin – they really had a great opportunity to repent, so their choice to remain in sin was more wicked than the folks of Tyre. Yet on Calvinism, God was not given the folks of Chorzin the one and only thing that He knew could enable and cause repentance: irresistible grace. This alone is problematic and seems disingenuous.

But there is another problem with regards to the folks of Tyre. Neither the people of Chorazin and Tyre actually repented. On Calvinism, we could safely conclude neither were given irresistible grace, because had they being given irresistible grace, they would repent. But the verse gives us the counter-fact: the people of Tyre would have repented, given the same might works. So how is it that Tyre would have repented without irresistible grace? On Calvinism, we are left with the contradiction that irresistible grace both is and is not necessary for repentance.

To avoid the problem, some might say the repentance is not true repentance. But Christ preached about true repentance: repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand! He never uses “repentance” as false repentance and He always denounces any outward pretense of conversion and He exposes any self-deception and false assurance. Further, it invalidates (probably inverts) Christ’s main point of saying the folks of Chorazin were worse than the folks of Tyre. It’s better to refuse the Lord’s supper than to partake in pretense, it’s better not to know the way of righteousness than to know it and turn from it and so it’s better to live in open sin than with a false repentance. So if the repentance is a false repentance, the folks of Chorazin are better than the folks of Tyre, because they avoided false repentance. But that’s the opposite of Christ’s point.

The better solution seems to be to deny grace is irresistible and say man has libertarian freedom with respect to resisting God’s grace.

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How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 1)

[This is the first in an n-part series, where n>1 and probably n<10.]

Luis de MolinaMolinism is a theory that purports to reconcile a robust doctrine of divine providence and foreknowledge with a libertarian view of free will by appealing to the notion of divine middle knowledge: God’s eternal knowledge of the so-called counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, that is, contingent truths about what possible creatures would freely choose if they were created by God and placed in particular circumstances. (For previous posts on Molinism, see here.)

Molinism is most often criticized on theological or philosophical grounds, mainly because it’s most often championed on the basis of its supposed theological and philosophical virtues. And there’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve objected to Molinism on theological and philosophical grounds myself. (So it must be okay, right?) Nevertheless, for the Christian who takes the Bible to be the Word of God and the final authority in theological matters, the preeminent question ought to be: How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? (I don’t propose to defend the underlying methodological principle at this time; I’m simply going to take it for granted.)

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Bringing Down the Walls of Jerry & Co

It’s a truly terrible title for a post, I admit, but I just couldn’t resist. Sorry.

Anyway, on to the substance. In 2011 Wesleyan philosopher Jerry Walls published an article, “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be a Compatibilist,” in Philosophia Christi. A compatibilist is one who holds that freedom is compatible with determinism (in this context, divine determinism). Walls’s arguments are targeted primarily at Calvinists, who typically endorse a compatibilist view of free will (and rightly so). Variants of Walls’s criticisms are pretty commonplace among non-Reformed Christian philosophers (hence the “Co” of the title).

The most recent issue of Philosophia Christi (Summer 2015) includes a splendid response to Walls’s article by Steven Cowan and Greg Welty. Greg has posted the article on his website with some scene-setting context and interesting commentary on how the debate between classical theists and non-classical theists is playing out. (Note also the link to an addendum to the printed article with fourteen ‘bonus’ rebuttals.)

Philosophy matters, because theology matters. It’s encouraging to see this important issue debated with respectfully but rigorously in the pages of a peer-reviewed philosophy journal.

A Response to Some Criticisms of WYW

A couple of months ago I received a polite and thoughtful email from a student at Princeton University with some criticisms of my little book What’s Your Worldview?. I’m reproducing the email here (with the author’s permission) with my responses interspersed.

I recently picked up and read your book What’s Your Worldview? The questions you posed were fascinating—I always love these kinds of philosophical questions. I also enjoyed the fact that the book is meant to be an “interactive” guide to the discovery of a worldview (no doubt a complex task).

I respect your worldview. However, I found your presentation of the opposing views to be highly biased. I do not fault you for being biased; as you say in your introduction, we are all unavoidably biased (“Does that mean the whole book is biased? Well, sure!”). I disagree, however, that bias cannot be hidden (or at least, not so obviously flaunted as it is here).

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Two-Headed, Four-Legged Women

Last week a shocking video was released which showed the Senior Director of Medical Services for Planned Parenthood, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, casually discussing how to perform abortions so that the murdered baby’s body parts can be preserved and sold for medical research. A second video was released today by the Center for Medical Progress which features another of Planned Parenthood’s top doctors, Dr. Mary Gatter, apparently negotiating over the price of organs harvested from aborted babies.

This is truly horrific material, even if we should not be surprised given what we already know about how the abortion industry operates. So much could be said about the ethical and political dimensions, and most of it has already been said by others more eloquent than me. (I particularly appreciated Brit Hume’s short but hard-hitting commentary.) However, I do have one observation to add to the discussion, which I haven’t yet come across elsewhere.

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Bugs, Features, and Atheism

A short article written for The Gospel Coalition.

You Shall Not Bear False Witness (Tabletalk)

[The following article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Tabletalk magazine. It is reproduced here with permission.]

“What is truth?” Pilate’s question reflected a jaded skepticism toward the very idea of truth rather than a serious philosophical inquiry. How tragic that a man entrusted with matters of life and death should express such a cynical attitude. And how very different should be the attitude of Christians, whom Jesus described as those who are “of the truth” (John 18:37).

The supreme value of truth is evidenced by the presence of the ninth commandment in the Decalogue: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16). The commandment is most immediately concerned with truthfulness in a judicial context. Deuteronomy 19:15-21 gives instructions about witnesses in a criminal case. A single witness is insufficient to establish a charge; there must be two or three witnesses (Deut. 17:6; see also Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19). If there is any question about the integrity of a witness, the judges must “inquire diligently,” and if the witness is found to be a “false witness” (Heb. eid-sheker—the same term used in Ex. 20:16), he must receive the very penalty that would have been applied to the accused. Thus, perjury carried a maximum penalty of death under the Mosaic law.

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So You Want to Teach Philosophical Theology?

Some sage advice from Greg Welty, who knows whereof he speaks.