Category Archives: Theology

Bertrand Russell on Pragmatism

Pragmatism is the view that a belief or claim is ‘true’ not because it accurately represents the way things are, but because it has beneficial effects. Truth is what’s useful, what works, what gets results. Correspondingly, religious pragmatism is the view that religious beliefs should be deemed ‘true’ if and only if they have good effects. Obviously this is quite a departure from the commonsense view of religious beliefs and religious truth, according to which the statement “God exists” is true if and only if, as a matter of fact, God exists.

Bertrand Russell was no friend of orthodox religion, but his critique of William James’s religious pragmatism is both devastating (in my judgment) and a delight to read:

Bertrand RussellIn a chapter on pragmatism and religion he reaps the harvest. “We cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it.” “If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true.” “We may well believe, on the proofs that religious experience affords, that higher powers exist and are at work to save the world on ideal lines similar to our own.”

I find great intellectual difficulties in this doctrine. It assumes that a belief is “true” when its effects are good. If this definition is to be useful—and if not it is condemned by the pragmatist’s test—we must know (a) what is good, (b) what are the effects of this or that belief, and we must know these things before we can know that anything is “true,” since it is only after we have decided that the effects of a belief are good that we have a right to call it “true.” The result is an incredible complication. Suppose you want to know whether Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492. You must not, as other people do, look it up in a book. You must first inquire what are the effects of this belief, and how they differ from the effects of believing that he sailed in 1491 or 1493. This is difficult enough, but it is still more difficult to weigh the effects from an ethical point of view. You may say that obviously 1492 has the best effects, since it gives you higher grades in examinations. But your competitors, who would surpass you if you said 1491 or 1493, may consider your success instead of theirs ethically regrettable. Apart from examinations, I cannot think of any practical effects of the belief except in the case of a historian.

But this is not the end of the trouble. You must hold that your estimate of the consequences of a belief, both ethical and factual, is true, for if it is false your argument for the truth of your belief is mistaken. But to say that your belief as to consequences is true is, according to James, to say that it has good consequences, and this in turn is only true if it has good consequences, and so on ad infinitum. Obviously this won’t do.

There is another difficulty. Suppose I say there was such a person as Columbus, every one will agree that what I say is true. But why is it true? Because of a certain man of flesh and blood who lived 450 years ago—in short, because of the causes of my belief, not because of its effects. With James’s definition, it might happen that “A exists” is true although in fact A does not exist. I have always found that the hypothesis of Santa Claus “works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word”; therefore “Santa Claus exists” is true, although Santa Claus does not exist. James says (I repeat): “If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true.” This simply omits as unimportant the question whether God really is in His heaven; if He is a useful hypothesis, that is enough. God the Architect of the Cosmos is forgotten; all that is remembered is belief in God, and its effects upon the creatures inhabiting our petty planet. No wonder the Pope condemned the pragmatic defence of religion.

We come here to a fundamental difference between James’s religious outlook and that of religious people in the past. James is interested in religion as a human phenomenon, but shows little interest in the objects which religion contemplates. He wants people to be happy, and if belief in God makes them happy let them believe in Him. This, so far, is only benevolence, not philosophy; it becomes philosophy when it is said that if the belief makes them happy it is “true.” To the man who desires an object of worship this is unsatisfactory. He is not concerned to say, “If I believed in God I should be happy”; he is concerned to say, “I believe in God and therefore I am happy.” And when he believes in God, he believes in Him as he believes in the existence of Roosevelt or Churchill or Hitler; God, for him, is an actual Being, not merely a human idea which has good effects. It is this genuine belief that has the good effects, not James’s emasculate substitute. It is obvious that if I say “Hitler exists” I do not mean “the effects of believing that Hitler exists are good.” And to the genuine believer the same is true of God.

James’s doctrine is an attempt to build a superstructure of belief upon a foundation of scepticism, and like all such attempts it is dependent on fallacies. In his case the fallacies spring from an attempt to ignore all extra-human facts. Berkeleian idealism combined with scepticism causes him to substitute belief in God for God, and to pretend that this will do just as well. But this is only a form of the subjectivistic madness which is characteristic of most modern philosophy.


(Source: A History of Western Philosophy, 2007 ed., pp. 817-18)

Brian Abasciano on John 3:16

Dr. Brian Abasciano recently posted an article on the Society of Evangelical Arminians website in response to an “untenable grammatical argument” offered by (so he claims) James White, Guillaume Bignon, James A. Gibson, and yours truly. Dr. Abasciano generously describes me as a “respectable Calvinist philosopher” (who are the disreputable ones, I wonder?) even though he thinks I committed an “embarrassing mistake” (if so, at least I’m in good company).

Drs. Bignon and Gibson have replied here. Dr. White made some excellent comments in response on The Dividing Line (April 24 episode). I don’t have much to add to these, but I’ll make a few observations of my own.

Continue reading

John 3:16 Teaches Limited Atonement

Yes, it really does. Hear me out.

John 3:16 is commonly cited against the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement (LA).1 The argument is simple: LA teaches that Christ made atonement only for the elect, but this best-known verse in the Bible says that God so loved the world that he sent his Son. That implies a universal atonement, for all mankind, not one limited in its extent.

The WorldThat seems like a knockdown argument on the face of it, but on closer examination it turns out to be very weak. In John’s writings “the world” (ho kosmos) rarely if ever carries the sense of “all mankind” or “every human who ever lived.” It certainly doesn’t mean that in 3:16 because that would make nonsense of the immediately following verse. (Try replacing “the world” with “all mankind” in verse 17 to see the point.) Rather, “the world” typically means either (i) “the created universe” (as in John 17:24), (ii) something like “the fallen creation in rebellion against God” (e.g., John 3:19; 13:1; 15:19; 17:13-18; 1 John 2:15-17) or (iii) “all nations” as opposed to the Jewish people alone (as in John 4:42). Whatever the exact sense in 3:16, there’s nothing that conflicts with LA.

So John 3:16 doesn’t count against LA. Perhaps most Calvinists are content to leave it at that, but I think we can go further and argue that it actually supports LA.

Continue reading

  1. I prefer the labels ‘definite atonement’ and ‘particular redemption’ but I’m going to stick with the traditional label for this post.

How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 6)

[This is the last in an n-part series, where n turned out to be 6.]

In a highly irregular series of posts, I’ve been considering the question, How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? As I explained in the first installment:

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.

Luis de MolinaI noted that Molinism has been both defended and criticized on both theological and philosophical grounds, and that’s entirely appropriate since it’s a philosophical theory that seeks to reconcile certain theological claims. However, discussions of the purported virtues and vices of Molinism are often conducted at a safe distance from the text of Scripture. (I’ve observed elsewhere that this is a more general shortcoming among analytic/philosophical theologians.) So in this series I’ve endeavored to bring the discussion into closer contact with the more explicit and direct teachings of the Bible. My approach has been to evaluate Molinism alongside what is arguably its leading competitor among orthodox Christian theologians, Augustinianism,1 by considering which of the two views better fits some key “data points” provided by the Bible.2

Continue reading

  1. As I noted in the first post, I’m using the term Augustinianism simply as shorthand for causal divine determinism.
  2. See the first post for a brief discussion of what I mean by biblical “data points” and how they can be used to evaluate philosophical theories.

How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 5)

[This is the fifth in an n-part series, where n>1 and very probably n=6.]

A long time ago, in a galaxy remarkably like this one, I began a series addressing the question, How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? It’s high time I started to wrap things up. So, to recap:

  • In the first post, I argued that Augustinianism and Molinism can equally well accommodate comprehensive divine providence and God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, both of which the Bible clearly affirms. I observed that if Molinists wants to argue that their position is more biblical than the Augustinian position, they need to identify some proposition p that meets two conditions: (i) p is affirmed by Molinism but denied by Augustinianism, and (ii) p is affirmed or clearly implied by some biblical teaching.
  • In the second, third, and fourth posts, I considered three candidates for p: first, the proposition that moral freedom is incompatible with determinism; second, the proposition that God desires all to be saved; and third, the proposition that God is not the author of sin. In none of these three cases, I argued, does the candidate p meet conditions (i) and (ii).

In this post, I turn the tables and argue there are three propositions, each of which meet the following two conditions: (i) the proposition is denied by Molinism but affirmed (or at least not denied) by Augustinianism, and (ii) the proposition is affirmed or clearly implied by some biblical teaching. That being the case, we should conclude that Augustinianism is better supported by the Bible than Molinism. Continue reading

Some Challenges for Libertarian Calvinism

Since we’re talking Calvinism and compatibilism, let me mention that Paul Manata and I just had an article on those issues published in the Journal of Reformed Theology: “Determined to Come Most Freely: Some Challenges for Libertarian Calvinism” (details here).

Here’s the abstract:

It is commonly held that Calvinism is committed to theological determinism, and therefore also to compatibilism insofar as Calvinism affirms human freedom and moral responsibility. Recent scholarship has challenged this view, opening up space for a form of Calvinism that allows for libertarian free will. In this article we critically assess two versions of ‘libertarian Calvinism’ recently proposed by Oliver Crisp. We contend that Calvinism (defined along the confessional lines adopted by Crisp) is implicitly committed to theological determinism, and even if it were not so committed, it would still rule out libertarian free will on other grounds.

Libertarian Calvinism (LC) is an attempt to reconcile a Calvinistic (monergistic) view of salvation with a libertarian (incompatibilist) view of human freedom. We summarize and compare two versions of LC proposed (although not personally endorsed) by Oliver Crisp. Following Crisp’s lead, we take the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) as representative of historic confessional Calvinism. We develop three objections that apply to both versions of LC:

  1. WCF’s statements about God’s attributes and God’s eternal decree imply theological determinism and thus rule out libertarian free will (since libertarianism, on standard definitions, entails that determinism is false).
  2. Libertarianism is motivated by the ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ (OIC) principle, but WCF implicitly rejects OIC, thus undercutting a major motivation for libertarianism (and thus for LC).
  3. WCF 10.1 straightforwardly affirms compatibilism by asserting that God determines that the elect freely come to Christ. Since libertarianism entails that compatibilism is false, LC is internally inconsistent.

We conclude the paper with a brief assessment of the prospects for libertarian Calvinism more generally.

Excusing Sinners and Blaming God

What are the most common philosophical objections to Calvinism? Arguably these:

  1. Calvinism makes the problem of evil even more intractable.
  2. Calvinism implies that God is culpable for the sins of his creatures (the “author of sin” objection).
  3. Calvinism undermines human moral responsibility by denying free will.

They aren’t completely independent objections, because the first is typically predicated on the second and third, which means that the latter two objections are the linchpins of the philosophical case against Calvinism.

Excusing Sinners and Blaming GodSo are these objections decisive? Far from it. They’ve been rebutted in various places over the years, but nowhere more directly and rigorously than in Guillaume Bignon’s new book, Excusing Sinners and Blaming God.

Dr. Bignon is a French analytic philosopher and computer scientist, a former atheist who ended up embracing the Christian faith through a remarkable series of providential events. The book is essentially Bignon’s doctoral thesis at Middlesex University and the London School of Theology under the supervision of Paul Helm (who also contributed a foreword to the book). Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s a doctoral thesis, though; it’s quite readable and accessible, despite its technicality. (I have to say that Bignon writes in clearer English than many scholars who claim English as a first language.)

Here’s the publisher’s summary of the book:

Calvinist determinism destroys moral responsibility and makes God the author of sin. These two accusations are not new, and were arguably anticipated by Paul in Romans 9, but they remain today the most important objections offered against Calvinist/determinist views of human free will. This book is a philosophically rigorous and comprehensive defense of Calvinism against these two families of arguments. With respect to human moral responsibility, it discusses whether determinism destroys “free will,” turns humans into pets or puppets, and involves or is analogous to coercion and manipulation. It responds to the consequence argument and direct argument for incompatibilism, the principle of alternate possibilities, the “ought implies can” maxim, and related claims. With respect to the authorship of sin, it discusses whether Calvinist determinism improperly involves God in evil. Does it mean that “God sins,” or “causes sin,” or “wills sin” in problematic ways? “Does God intend our sin, or (merely) permit sin?” In each case the coherence of the Calvinist view is defended against its most potent objections, to reject the claim that Calvinism is “excusing sinners and blaming God.”

Guillaume shared a draft version of his thesis with me, and I was very impressed with his work, so I was happy to provide the following endorsement for his book:

If God determines all things, including the evil actions of his creatures, doesn’t it follow by irrefutable logic that God must be culpable for those evil actions rather than the creatures? Au contraire, argues Calvinist philosopher Guillaume Bignon in this engaging yet rigorous work. Conversant with state-of-the-art literature on free will, this is one of the best defenses of theological compatibilism available today.

In short: highly recommended.

It’s not too late to get it as an extra stocking-filler for your Arminian brother-in-law! In fact, for a powerful one-two punch, couple it with a copy of Calvinism and the Problem of Evil. (Since they’re both published by Wipf & Stock, you might even save some money on shipping charges.)

Warfield Lectures: Anthropology & Transgenderism

Last October I had the great privilege of delivering the Fifth Annual B. B. Warfield Lectures at the invitation of Erskine Seminary and First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, SC. Edited versions of those two lectures have now been published in RTS’s online journal, Reformed Faith & Practice:

  1. What Are We? Three Views on Human Nature
  2. Transgenderism: A Christian Perspective

The first lecture is to some degree setup for the second, but each one is self-standing.

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.

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!