Category Archives: Theology

Negligibly Resistible Grace

It’s well known that Calvinists and Arminians disagree about whether God’s redemptive grace can be resisted by those to whom it is directed: Calvinists affirm irresistible grace (the ‘I’ of the TULIP) while Arminians affirm resistible grace. The labels aren’t ideal (I prefer to speak of “efficacious grace”) but they still capture a key difference between the two camps. Consider, for example, the fourth of the Five Articles of Remonstrance which represents the classical Arminian position in contrast to the Calvinist position:

That this [saving] grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of any good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without that prevenient or assisting; awakening, following, and co-operative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements that can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But, as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, inasmuch as it is written concerning many that they have resisted the Holy Ghost, -Acts vii., and elsewhere in many places.

In debates between Calvinists and Arminians the issue is typically treated as a simple binary choice: grace is either irresistible or resistible. It’s not often recognized, however, that resistibility typically comes in degrees.

For any person S, something offered to S could be more or less resistible. Likewise, for any two things offered to S, one could be less resistible than the other. For example, a ham sandwich may be more resistible for me than a bowl of chili. I could resist either of them, but one would be less resistible than the other.

Varyingly Resistible Cupcakes

Furthermore, two items of the same kind could have different degrees of resistibility. Of two cupcakes offered to me, I might find one to be less resistible than the other. Of twelve different cupcakes, some will almost certainly be less resistible for me than others. (The resistibility of any particular cupcake will depend on many other factors, of course, such as how hungry I am, but that qualification doesn’t affect what I’ll argue below.)

Presumably the same principle would apply to divine grace (however exactly we define ‘divine grace’). If the divine grace offered or given to some particular unbeliever is resistible at all, it could be more or less resistible. One assumes God has considerable freedom as to exactly what grace is given to a person, and how much of it. That grace could include both external and internal elements (e.g., the preaching of the gospel would be an external grace, while the drawing of the Holy Spirit would be an internal grace) and those elements could be given in more or less resistible forms.

If divine grace can indeed vary in its resistibility with respect to any particular unbeliever, this presents something of a challenge to the Arminian. Consider the following three propositions:

(1) For any unbeliever S and resistible grace G, there is a less resistible (but still resistible) grace G’ — a grace that S is less able or inclined to resist.

(2) For any unbeliever S and resistible grace G, God is able to give G to S.

(3) God always prefers to give less resistible grace.

What reasons would an Arminian have to affirm each of these? (1) seems to follow naturally from the fact that there are degrees of resistibility. (2) follows from divine omnipotence; if it’s logically possible for S to receive G, it should be within God’s power to give G to S. (3) would be supported by the Arminian axiom that God wants everyone to be saved. Given the choice between giving more or less resistible grace to an unbeliever, surely God would choose the less resistible grace, simply because the unbeliever is less likely to resist it (and therefore more likely to be saved).

Here’s the problem: (1), (2), and (3) taken together imply that God will always give minimally resistible grace to every unbeliever; indeed, he will give infinitesimally resistible grace. (By analogy, think of an asymptotic function that approaches zero but never actually reaches zero.) Yet surely an infinitesimally resistible grace — what we might call “negligibly resistible grace” — is for all practical purposes indistinguishable from irresistible grace. If the latter is morally or theologically objectionable, why not the former?

So I assume the Arminian will want to back up and reject one of the three propositions above. But which one, and why? (I have a hunch about how most Arminians will be inclined to answer here, but I’ll let them speak for themselves!)

How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 3)

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

In this unintentionally and regrettably sporadic series, I’ve been considering the question: How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? In the first post I argued that the Bible affirms (1) comprehensive divine providence and (2) God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (i.e., knowledge of what any created agent would freely choose if placed in specific circumstances), but Molinism holds no advantage over Augustinianism with respect to (1) and (2). I concluded with this statement:

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 second post I examined one candidate for proposition p: the proposition that moral freedom is incompatible with determinism (which Molinists invariably affirm, but Augustinians typically deny). I concluded that the Bible offers no support for incompatibilism. In this post I’ll consider a second candidate for proposition p: the proposition that God desires all to be saved.
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Are All Sins Equally Bad?

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.

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Further Thoughts on Tuggy’s Challenge

Dale Tuggy has replied to my brief response to his challenge to “Jesus is God” apologists. In this follow-up post I’ll clarify the thrust of my earlier response and add some further thoughts.

Dale’s original challenge presented an argument, with premises he thinks orthodox Christians should accept, to the conclusion that Jesus “is not a god.”

I offered a parallel argument as a means of indicating where I think Dale’s challenge goes awry. Dale seems to think that I was arguing along these lines: Michael Rea’s view of material constitution is correct, therefore premise 4 in the parallel argument is false, and hence premise 4 in Dale’s original argument is false. To be fair, I can understand why he might have interpreted my response that way, but that wasn’t quite my point.

As it happens, I don’t endorse Rea’s position on material constitution. I think it’s plausible and defensible, but I recognize that there are some serious arguments against it. I have an open mind on the issue, because it’s a difficult one to resolve. There are competing metaphysics of material objects, each with its own virtues, and it’s a tough debate to adjudicate. And that’s my point — or at least part of it.

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A Brief Response to Tuggy’s Challenge

Dale Tuggy has offered a challenge to those who claim that Jesus is God. The challenge takes the form of an argument, with premises that Tuggy thinks orthodox Christians should accept, to the conclusion that Jesus is not God (more precisely, that Jesus is not “a god”).

Here’s Tuggy’s argument:

  1. God and Jesus differ.
  2. Things which differ are two (i.e. are not numerically identical)
  3. Therefore, God and Jesus are two (not numerically identical). (1, 2)
  4. For any x and y, x and y are the same god only if x and y are not two (i.e. are numerically identical).
  5. Therefore, God and Jesus are not the same god. (3, 4)
  6. There is only one god.
  7. Therefore, either God is not a god, or Jesus is not a god. (5, 6)
  8. God is a god.
  9. Therefore, Jesus is not a god. (7, 8)

So where does the argument go wrong?

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On Contradicting the Bible

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”.

The Same God? A Plea for Precision

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.

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A Model Christian-Muslim Discussion

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.)

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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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