Category Archives: Theology

Open Theism and Past-Directed Prayers

A past-directed prayer is one that petitions God either (1) to have brought about some state of affairs at some time in the past or (2) to bring about some state of affairs (now or in the future) that would require God to have brought about some (other) state of affairs at some time in the past.

Praying HandsIn this paper (submitted for publication in this forthcoming book) I argue that past-directed prayers can be answered by God only if God has foreknowledge of our future free choices, and therefore any evidence of answered past-directed prayers constitutes evidence against open theism (which denies God’s foreknowledge of future free choices). I also suggest (to complete the argument) that there appear to be actual cases of answered past-directed prayers. In the penultimate section of the paper, I make reference to a remarkable story related by Helen Roseveare in her book Living Faith. Her account is too long to quote in full in the paper, but since it’s such a striking (and encouraging!) testimony I thought I would reproduce it here instead (see below).

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Determinism: Soft or Hard?

This post is a short follow-up to the earlier one on Calvinism and determinism. I realize I should have said something about the distinction between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ determinism, and how that relates to Calvinism. So here I remedy that oversight.

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Calvinism and Determinism

Are You a Determinist?It’s often claimed that Calvinists are determinists. The claim is true as far as it goes; the trouble is that it doesn’t go very far, and it can lead to a lot of confusion and unwarranted conclusions. For there are many different types of determinism. Some of those types seem to be entailed by what Calvinists believe; some are consistent with Calvinist beliefs but not entailed by those beliefs; and some types are inconsistent with what Calvinists believe. (By “what Calvinists believe” I’m referring to mainstream historic Calvinism, as represented by the teachings of John Calvin and the major Reformed confessions and catechisms. I recognize, of course, that there’s diversity within the Calvinist tradition, but here I plan to focus on typical Calvinist claims.)

Along with the claim that Calvinists are determinists goes the assertion that Calvinists are committed to a compatibilist view of free will, where compatibilism is defined as the thesis that determinism is compatible with freedom. Again, this claim is true enough, but it’s rather vague as it stands because in theory there are as many versions of compatibilism as there are types of determinism: for every type of determinism we can formulate a corresponding compatibilist thesis (viz., that freedom is compatible with that type of determinism). Indeed, there are even more versions of compatibilism than there are types of determinism, because there are also various kinds of freedom. For any particular type of determinism, that type may be incompatible with some kinds of freedom (e.g., the freedom to have chosen otherwise than one did in fact choose) but compatible with other kinds of freedom (e.g., the freedom to act according to one’s desires in a way that is responsive to reasons).

All this to say, the idea that Calvinists are determinists and compatibilists is rather more complicated than many people recognize. My purpose in this post is to try to clarify matters (at least to some degree!) by distinguishing various types of determinism and briefly commenting on whether or not Calvinists are committed to each type. (Understand that I’m not aiming here to defend Calvinism, compatibilism, or determinism, but only to shed some light on the relationship between them.)

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Where Are the Muslim Doctors and Nurses?

For a couple of years now, I’ve taught a course entitled Christian Encounter with Islam. One of the major themes of the course, as you might expect, is the contrast between the Christian worldview and its distinctive view of God, and the Islamic worldview and its distinctive view of God. In light of that contrast I was particularly struck by the following section (pp. 220-22) from the recently published book Dispatches From the Front, a missions travelogue by Tim Keesee. (Pay close attention to the third paragraph.) Continue reading

Who’s Afraid of Relativism?

Here’s the longer version of my review of Who’s Afraid of Relativism? by James K. A. Smith. Edited versions were recently published by The Gospel Coalition (here) and Reformation21 (here).


For some time now James K. A. Smith’s agenda has been to enter into critical but charitable conversation with postmodernist writers, looking for points at which their arguments resonate with Christian claims and undermine the common enemy of modernism. I believe this is a worthy and worthwhile project, although I have questions about whether Smith is sufficiently critical, as I will indicate below. Smith’s 2006 book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? purported to “take to church” three leading postmodernists: Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. He argued that some of the distinctive claims of these writers have been misunderstood and misrepresented by evangelicals; properly understood they offer epistemological insights that ought to be affirmed by Christians. The hope was to introduce a lay Christian audience to “the real postmodernism” and to foster, if not a close friendship, at least a fruitful mutual acquaintance.

Who's Afraid of Relativism?Who’s Afraid of Relativism? is a follow-up to Smith’s earlier book. On this occasion Smith seeks to play the role of defense attorney for ‘relativism’; more precisely, the philosophy of pragmatism as propounded by the controversial American philosopher Richard Rorty. His central thesis is easily identified, since it is repeated in different forms throughout the book: pragmatism is a philosophy centered on the recognition of our dependence, finitude, and contingency; thus Christians, who acknowledge the dependence, finitude, and contingency of the creation, ought to be sympathetic rather than hostile toward pragmatism. As Smith puts it, “My thesis is that Christians should be ‘relativists,’ of a sort, precisely because of the biblical understanding of creation and creaturehood.” (p. 12)

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A Brief Response to William Lane Craig on Molinism

A few months back I wrote a post entitled “The Fallible God of Molinism” which was prompted by an exchange between William Lane Craig and Paul Helm. Some folk alerted me to the fact that Dr. Craig briefly responded to my argument in a recent podcast. This is what he said:

I think he’s made a misstep in his argument here. It certainly is true that in any particular freedom-permitting circumstances an agent is free to do other than as God knows he will do. But in that other world in which the agent does something different, God’s plans wouldn’t be the same. What this fellow doesn’t seem to remember is that in that world God would have different plans. God would know in that world that S would do something different in C and so in that world he would have plans for that to happen. So what he’s tried to do is keep God’s plans firm and fixed from world to world, but then vary the value of the counterfactuals, and you can’t do that. If you switch to a world in which S does not do A in C then you can’t say, “Well, in that world God’s plans are that S would do A in C.” No, no, in that world God would have different plans.

So when you switch the truth-value of the counterfactuals, you’ve got to switch the providential plans as well, because the providential plans are based upon the counterfactuals that are true in those worlds. So given that God’s plans are based upon what he knows the free agents would do, the plans will change from world to world along with the decisions of the agents. So there’s just not any problem. God’s plans never fail, and he’s not fallible.

Let me say first of all that I’m honored Dr. Craig considered it worthy of comment! But I do have a few things to say in response.

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Reformed Perspectives on the Problem of Evil

A correspondent asks:

Could you recommend the best books for me to read on a Reformed perspective on the problem of evil?

I’d recommend the following:

  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, chapters 16-18.
  • D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? (Baker, 2006).
  • John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (P&R, 2002), chapter 9.
  • Paul Helm, The Providence of God (IVP, 1994), chapters 7 & 8.
  • James S. Spiegel, The Benefits of Providence (Crossway, 2005), chapter 6.

Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor (Crossway, 2006) is very good for a more pastoral perspective.

I’ve heard good things about John Feinberg’s The Many Faces of Evil, but it’s still on my to-read list, so I can’t give a personal recommendation.

Also look out for a forthcoming multi-author volume, Calvinism and the Problem of Evil, edited by David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson (Wipf and Stock). I don’t know exactly when it will be published.

Justification: A Guide for the Perplexed

My review of Justification: A Guide for the Perplexed by Alan J. Spence has been published in the Journal of Reformed Theology. Post-print version posted here with permission.

The Bible is a Plain Book

“The Bible is a plain book. It is intelligible by the people. And they have the right, and are bound to read and interpret it for themselves; so that their faith may rest on the testimony of the Scriptures, and not on that of the Church.”

(Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:183)

The Fallible God of Molinism

I recently listened to the exchange on Molinism and Calvinism between William Lane Craig and Paul Helm on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable? radio program. It was more of a conversation than a debate, but it’s still worth a listen. In this post I want to expand on a point Helm raised but didn’t himself develop. I’ll first summarize the main tenets of Molinism before discussing what I regard as a serious objection to it. (Be patient — the first half of this post is just set-up.)

Molinism is a philosophical theory designed to reconcile a strong view of divine providence (according to which God foreordains all things) with a libertarian view of free will and a synergistic view of salvation (according to which God doesn’t cause anyone to repent and believe; instead sinners freely cooperate with God’s resistible grace in order to be saved). According to Molinism, God is able to providentially direct events by means of his middle knowledge, that is, his knowledge of what any libertarian-free creature would choose in any specific circumstances. For example, God knew prior to his decision to create this world whether I would freely choose a Boston Kreme if I were to go to Dunkin’ Donuts at noon on February 19, 2014, in such-and-such exact circumstances. God is therefore able to plan events down to the very last detail by prearranging the precise circumstances in which his creatures will find themselves and make their free choices. God doesn’t cause those choices, but he does guarantee them in some strong sense by orchestrating circumstances in light of his middle knowledge.

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