Tag Archives: Calvinism

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.

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.)

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.

How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 4)

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

In this embarrassingly intermittent series, I’ve been addressing the question: How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? 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 concluded by observing that in order to show Molinism to be more biblical than Augustinianism we would need to identify some proposition p that is (i) affirmed by Molinism but denied by Augustinianism, and (ii) affirmed or clearly implied by some biblical teaching.

In the second and third posts, I considered two candidates for p: first, the proposition that moral freedom is incompatible with determinism, and second, the proposition that God desires all to be saved. In neither case, I argued, does the proposed p meet both (i) and (ii).

Now I’ll consider a third candidate for p: the proposition that God is not the author of sin. This is quite a common objection for Molinists to level against Calvinists (and Augustinians more broadly). For example, William Lane Craig raises this complaint in his contribution to the book Four Views on Divine Providence. (I’ll examine his criticisms more closely below.) The thrust of the charge is that Augustinianism, on account of its commitment to divine determinism, makes God the author of sin in a way that Molinism (which rejects divine determinism) does not.
Continue reading

What’s Wrong With Jerry Walls’ Argument Against Calvinism

The following is a guest post by Dan Johnson, associate professor of philosophy at Shawnee State University and co-editor of the recently published Calvinism and the Problem of Evil.

The Central Argument in Walls’ New Book Against Calvinism is Logically Invalid

The argument that lies at the heart of Jerry Walls’ recent book Does God Love Everyone? What’s Wrong With Calvinism is reproduced here:

  1. God truly loves all persons.
  2. Not all persons will be saved.
  3. Truly to love someone is to desire their well-being and to promote their true flourishing as much as one properly can.
  4. The well-being and true flourishing of all persons is to be found in a right relationship with God, a saving relationship in which we love and obey him.
  5. God could give all persons “irresistible grace” and thereby determine all persons to freely accept a right relationship with himself and be saved.
  6. Therefore, all persons will be saved. (p. 30)

He points out that the argument results in a contradiction (between premise 2 and the conclusion, 6), though he could have just as easily removed premise 2 and just noted that the argument proves something Calvinists reject. He says that Arminians reject 5, but since 5 is an obvious implication of Calvinism and Calvinists also accept 2 and 4, Calvinists have to reject 1 or 3.

Walls treats this argument like it is a logically valid argument. He calls it a “logical argument,” and he thinks you need to deny one of the premises in order to avoid the conclusion of the argument: “Now Calvinists and Arminians generally agree that 2 is true and is clearly taught in Scripture. Therefore, both sides will deny the conclusion (number 6) that says “all persons will be saved.” But here is the question: which of the other premises will you reject if you deny that all are saved? Will you deny 1, or 3, or 4 or 5?” (p. 31) Only logically valid arguments – arguments where it is impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false – are such that you must deny a premise in order to avoid endorsing the conclusion of the argument. With invalid arguments it is possible for all the premises to be true while the conclusion remains false. So Walls must think this is a logically valid argument.

Continue reading

Calvinism and the Problem of Evil

Calvinism and the Problem of EvilThe book Calvinism and the Problem of Evil, edited by David Alexander and Daniel Johnson, and to which I contributed the essay “Calvinism and the First Sin,” has finally been published. Go here for more details. For some reason the table of contents isn’t provided on the publisher’s website, so here it is:

  • Introduction (David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson)
  • Calvinism and the Problem of Evil: A Map of the Territory (Daniel M. Johnson)
  • Molinist Gunslingers: God and the Authorship of Sin (Greg Welty)
  • Theological Determinism and the “Authoring Sin” Objection (Heath White)
  • Not the Author of Evil: A Question of Providence, Not a Problem for Calvinism (James E. Bruce)
  • Orthodoxy, Theological Determinism, and the Problem of Evil (David E. Alexander)
  • Discrimination: Aspects of God’s Causal Activity (Paul Helm)
  • On Grace and Free Will (Hugh J. McCann)
  • The First Sin: A Dilemma for Christian Determinists (Alexander R. Pruss)
  • Calvinism and the First Sin (James N. Anderson)
  • A Compatibicalvinist Demonstrative-Goods Defense (Christopher R. Green)
  • Calvinism and the Problem of Hell (Matthew J. Hart)
  • Calvinism, Self-Attestation, and Apathy Toward Arguments From Evil (Anthony Bryson)

I haven’t read all of the other contributors’ essays yet, but the two I have read, by Dan Johnson and Greg Welty, are excellent. (Welty’s essay in particular is a real doozie.)

For a further taster, check out the Google Books preview.

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!)

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.

Continue reading