If Jack cheats at Scrabble, is that as bad as if he cheats on his wife?
If Elmer pilfers $10 from the offering plate, is that as bad as if he embezzles $10,000 from the church?
If Annie shoots her neighbor’s dog, is that as bad as if she shoots her neighbor?
To most people, the answers to the questions are quite obvious. In each case, the answer is no: both of the actions mentioned are sinful, but the second is worse than the first. All too often, however, I encounter Christians (including some of my students) who seem confused about this issue, or who at least hesitate to give the seemingly obvious answer. I’ve heard Christians say things like, “All sins are equally sinful in God’s eyes,” and therefore they conclude that we shouldn’t discriminate between ‘lesser’ and ‘greater’ sins or make comparative judgments regarding different sins.
Suppose Chris says, “Gordon is married,” and Malcolm says, “Gordon is a bachelor.” Has Malcolm contradicted Chris? It depends on whether Malcolm is referring to the same ‘Gordon’. If Malcolm is talking about some other ‘Gordon’, there’s no contradiction. Conversely, if you think Malcolm has contradicted Chris, you’re presupposing that they’re talking about the same ‘Gordon’.
Now suppose you think, as is plausible, that when the Quran says that God has no son (Q4:171; Q6:101) it’s contradicting the Bible (John 3:16, etc.). In that case, you’re presupposing that the Quran is referring to the same God as the Bible. Conversely, if you think the Quran is referring to a fictional, non-existent deity when it says that God has no son, you need to consider whether the Quran is actually contradicting the Bible in saying so (and if it is contradicting the Bible, how it is doing so). The same goes for other objectionable statements the Quran makes about God.
If you say the Quran is in fact referring to the God of the Bible (because it make false claims about the God of the Bible) are you thereby implying that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God”? Not necessarily. It all depends what you mean by “worship the same God”.
Triggered by recent events at an evangelical Christian college, there has been an explosion of discussion about whether Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” In my experience, most people think the answer to the question, “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” is very obvious. What’s fascinating, however, is that some of those people think the answer is obviously yes, while others think the answer is obviously no!
One immediate pitfall is the ambiguity in the word ‘same’. If someone says “John and Julie have the same phone,” that’s a different kind of statement than “John and Julie have the same father.” There are two phones, but only one father! Now consider this statement: “John and Julie read the same book.” How many books were there?
So the basic problem is this: the question “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” is ambiguous as it stands, and thus susceptible to different answers depending on exactly how one interprets the question. In reality, when people raise the question they often end up conflating a host of related but distinct questions, such as the following:
- Do Christians and Muslims refer to the same Deity when they speak about ‘God’? In other words, do both groups refer to the one true God, the Creator of the universe? (A closely related question: Do the Bible and the Quran refer to the same Deity? Does the Quran make false assertions about the real God or does it make assertions about a fictional deity, analogous to ancient Greek claims about Zeus?)
- Do Christians and Muslims believe in the same Deity, despite their (very significant) disagreements about the nature and character of God?
- Is the worship of Christians and Muslims directed towards the same Deity? If it is, does it follow that Christian worship and Muslim worship are equally acceptable to God?
- Do Christians and Muslims conceive of God in the same way when they worship? (A closely related question: Do the Bible and the Quran depict God in the same way?)
- If Christians and Muslims don’t conceive of God in the same way, do they conceive of God in a sufficiently similar way? (That in turn invites the question: sufficient for what?)
- Can both Christians and Muslims be said to know God? If so, exactly what kind of knowledge are we talking about here? Purely intellectual knowledge? Personal relational knowledge? Saving knowledge?
- If Christians and Muslims do share some common knowledge of God, does it follow that both groups respond appropriately to that knowledge?
This list of questions isn’t meant to be exhaustive, only illustrative. And equivalent questions can be asked of Christians and Jews, Christians and Hindus, Christians and Mormons, and so forth.
Recently I watched the two-part discussion between Dr. James White, President of Alpha & Omega Ministries, and Imam Muhammad Musri, President of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, which took place on March 21, 2015, at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando.
If you’re looking for a good introduction to the defining issues between Christianity and Islam, and the arguments offered on either side, I highly recommend you take the time to watch the two videos below. Trust me: it will be 3½ hours very well spent. (Especially if you watch them while using an elliptical, as I did.)
[I wrote this article back in 2002 for the now-defunct UK website Facing the Challenge. Reposted here, with minor edits, for posterity.]
What 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?
[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.
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.
[This is the first in an n-part series, where n>1 and probably n<10.]
Molinism 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.)