Yours Sincerely

In an earlier post I offered a response to a specific objection to the doctrine of particular redemption. This objection boils down to the claim that the following two statements are incompatible:

(1) Christ did not die in an atoning sense for S.

(2) The gospel can be sincerely offered to S.

I argued that (1) and (2) can be seen to be compatible by drawing an analogy with Newcomb’s paradox in the case where one of the two boxes turns out to be empty.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant raised some characteristically thoughtful objections to my argument. He and some other readers thought they smelled a rat, in the form of a relevant disanalogy between the two scenarios. In the first part of this post, I’ll first respond directly to Bnonn’s comments; in the second, I’ll try to advance the argument a little further.

Response to Bnonn

Bnonn writes:

James, I need to think about this some more, but my tendency is to agree with previous commenters who’ve pointed out the prima facie disparity between how foreknowledge works in your analogy and how it works in particular atonement; viz:

1. In your analogy, the existence of the reward (call it R) in Box B is decided by the choice (C) of the agent (S). The Predictor is a passive party to S’s choice, and merely honors that choice (in advance).

2. But in Calvinism, the reward (namely salvation through atonement) in Box B (Jesus?) is decided by the choice of the Predictor. Agent S is a passive party to the Predictor’s choice, and only chooses Box B if the reward has already been placed there for him.

I grant that this is a genuine difference between Newcomb’s Predictor and God (on the Calvinist view). But the question is whether this difference is relevant to the argument. The burden lies on the objector to establish that.

Bnonn continues:

Ie, for any agent S:

1. SCB @ t2 > PR @ t1
2. PR @ t1 > SCB @ t2

Notice you can still construct the same conditional statement for both:

1′ . If SCB @ t2, then PR @ t1
2′. If SCB @ t2, then PR @ t1

[Bnonn doesn’t say, but presumably the > symbol here stands for ‘determines’ or ‘explains’.]

Strictly speaking, If B then A doesn’t necessarily follow from A > B. (Counterexample: “The fact that it rained this morning explained [or determined] the fact that there was a puddle on the driveway at lunchtime.”) However, in the special case of divine foreordination, I agree that 2′ follows from 2.

…but of course, the conditional is obscuring an ambiguity by not taking into account the reasons for each clause:

1”. Because SCB @ t2, PR @ t1
2”. Because PR @ t1, SCB @ t2

It’s quite true that the logical conditionals don’t capture the underlying causal relationships. In fact, I deliberately noted this point in a parenthetical comment in the original post, precisely because I think this is a virtue of the argument. The issue is whether the different causal or explanatory relationships in the two cases is a relevant point of disanalogy. Bnonn hasn’t yet given me any reason to think that it is. I suggest it isn’t relevant because the objection is really concerned with the “emptiness of the box” rather than these causal or explanatory relationships. As I’ve observed, if the latter were the concern then we’d be dealing with a different objection: an objection to the doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace rather than the doctrine of particular redemption. But since Bnonn accepts those doctrines, presumably he doesn’t want to endorse that sort of objection.

You’ve tried to deflect this by saying that it isn’t an objection to particular redemption per se, but rather to unconditional election. I don’t think that flies for three reasons, though:

Firstly, it’s not clear that the reasons for S and P’s actions—ie, the causal relationship between them—are ancillary to the paradox’s success. In fact, it seems to me that they’re integral to it. The paradox plays out from P’s acting to give the reward (placing it in the box), based on what he foreknows about S’s choosing it. But then your analogy should play out from God’s acting to give the reward (having Christ atone S’s sin) based on what he foreknows about S’s choosing it (which doesn’t reflect Calvinism).

Again I would point out that while this may be a difference, Bnonn hasn’t made the case that it’s a relevant difference.

It’s easy to lose sight of this fact in the conditional statements you formulated, because they conceal the reasons relationship between P’s and S’s actions. But these reasons seem important to the issue of sincerity. It’s one thing for S to lament, after choosing A, “If only I’d chosen B, then I’d have gotten R”. But it’s quite another for him to complain, “If only P had made R available, then I could have chosen B”! The latter complaint seems perfectly valid in this situation. But it’s not valid in the original paradox.

There are two problems with Bnonn’s response here. The first is that he’s criticizing my argument for failing to do something it wasn’t designed to do, namely, to address the “latter complaint” he describes above. As I thought I made clear, my original argument aimed to show that a different complaint was misguided: the complaint that “the box was empty all along”.

The second problem is that the complaint Bnonn describes can easily be reformulated and deployed against other Calvinist doctrines. Unconditional election: “If only God had elected me, then I could have chosen Christ!” Effectual calling: “If only God had effectually called me, then I could have chosen Christ!” All this to say, the underlying objection here is directed at particularism in general (perhaps conjoined with divine determinism) and not specifically at the doctrine of particular redemption. So does Bnonn really want to endorse this objection?

Secondly, although it’s tempting to try to treat particular redemption in isolation, I think (if you’ll excuse me) it’s rather naive. TULIP isn’t a handy acronym for five important but unrelated doctrines. Rather, perseverance is true because we are totally depraved and would otherwise fall away, obviating our unconditional election. Irresistible calling is true because we are totally depraved and would otherwise not choose to be saved at all, obviating his unconditional election. Unconditional election is true because we are totally depraved and cannot help ourselves, so God has to elect us without consideration for our own inclinations. We can’t separate the various doctrines from each other without undermining the reasons for holding them.

A few things to say here. First, the students in my Introduction to Theological Studies class can testify that I don’t treat TULIP as “five important but unrelated doctrines”. :-)

Second, it’s rather surprising to find a Reformed guy who rejects limited atonement arguing for the interdependence of the five TULIP doctrines. Usually 4-pointers are at pains to show that the L can be logically detached from the other four points.

Third, I have to note that while I agree with the three examples Bnonn gives, none of them refers to the L of the TULIP! So I’m really not sure what conclusion to draw from Bnonn’s point here.

Thirdly, and in line with my second reason, the “sincere offer objection” is an objection against the internal consistency of Calvinism. If you want to defuse it, then, you need to have a solution that stands up when Calvinism is consistently applied to it. I don’t think it’s right that you can formulate a conditional and say (arguendo), “Here, if we ignore the rest of Calvinism, this conditional shows that particular redemption doesn’t entail an insincere offer” when, if you bring in the rest of Calvinism, the conditional seems to fall apart. Particular redemption can’t be isolated from Calvinism in general. If you can only defend it against the sincere offer objection by ignoring other Calvinist doctrines, then it doesn’t seem you’ve successfully defended it at all.

What Bnonn says here is true enough, but irrelevant. I didn’t claim or imply that my defense of particular redemption succeeded only by isolating it from Calvinism in general or by ignoring other Calvinist doctrines. What I said was that my argument didn’t assume other Calvinist doctrines, which is something quite different. (The claim “P doesn’t assume Q” is not the same as, and does not entail, the claim “P assumes not-Q”.)

Moreover, Bnonn is still assuming what he hasn’t proved. He claims that I haven’t offered “a solution that stands up when Calvinism is consistently applied to it” and that “if you bring in the rest of Calvinism, the conditional seems to fall apart”; but as I’ve pointed out, he hasn’t yet given me any good reason to believe those claims. (The second claim is particularly surprising given that his earlier comments seem to concede the conditional in question!)

All things considered, then, Bnonn hasn’t persuaded me that the original argument is unsuccessful, given the stated target of the argument. However, I want to see now whether I can advance the argument further by offering another analogy designed to show positively that the argument is not derailed by the considerations Bnonn mentions.

Another Analogy

Imagine that you are a master cook and have the best recipe for lamb casserole that the world has ever known. (If lamb casserole doesn’t take your fancy, substitute a dish more to your liking.) You decide to make some of your casserole as a gift for your neighbors. So you go door-to-door and ask each one whether they would like a portion. Let’s suppose that there are 10 houses in your street and 7 of them respond positively to your offer. (The numbers here are chosen purely for illustrative purposes, of course.) With knowledge of their responses in hand, you return home, prepare 7 portions of casserole, and deliver them to those neighbors.

Would anyone seriously suggest that, because you made only 7 portions, your offer to the 3 neighbors who refused the offer was insincere? Of course not. This shouldn’t be a controversial point, but it’s important to establish this baseline.

Now rewind the tape and add to the story that you have the ability to predict somehow — it doesn’t matter how — the future responses of your neighbors with very high confidence. You predict that 7 out of 10 will accept your offer, so you prepare 7 portions and then go door-to-door in the same fashion. To those who accept, you immediately give a portion of casserole; to those who reject, you don’t.

Now could it be reasonably claimed that your offer to 3 of the neighbors was insincere because you made only 7 portions? I say no. In both scenarios, you made exactly the same number of portions; the only difference was that in the second scenario you prepared them in advance, because you had prior knowledge rather than posterior knowledge of those responses.

If this point is accepted, so should be my earlier argument. However, I think the analogy can be extended to address the sort of concerns raised by Bnonn and others. Rewind the tape again and add the following: you live in a neighborhood where everyone has an aversion to lamb casserole, such that (all else being equal) each of your neighbors would refuse it if offered to them. (Perhaps this aversion is due to an irrational cultural prejudice or a bad experience at a neighborhood potluck; it doesn’t matter for the purposes of the story.) Nevertheless, your casserole is so incredibly delicious that anyone who is exposed to its aroma cannot help but want to try some. You know this, but for good reasons of your own that you don’t care to divulge, you’ve decided that you want only 7 of your neighbors to partake of the casserole. So you make the casserole and you arrange (in conjunction with favorable weather conditions) for its aroma to reach only those 7 houses. On the basis of what you know, you predict that only those 7 neighbors will accept the casserole, so you prepare no more than 7 portions. You then visit all 10 neighbors and offer them the casserole. Sure enough, only 7 of them accept and you hand over each of the 7 pre-prepared portions.

This third scenario seems to correspond more closely to Calvinism, for here the neighbors respond as they do because of the way you prepared the casserole, rather than the reverse. So now ask the same question as before: Was your casserole offer sincere in every case? You didn’t coerce anyone into accepting or rejecting the casserole. Furthermore, if you had thought that all of the neighbors would accept, you would have made casserole for all; no one who asked for casserole would have gone without. So on what basis could your offer be judged insincere?

My suspicion is that those who think that in this third scenario the offer is not sincere do so on the basis of the particularism of the entire scenario (i.e., the fact that you decided that you wanted only some of the neighbors to eat the casserole) rather than the mere fact that you didn’t prepare portions for everyone. If I’m right about this, it confirms my claim that 4-point Calvinists (for want of a better label) are misguided when they argue that limited atonement would render the gospel offer insincere while unconditional election and effectual calling would not. Either particularism per se is objectionable or it’s not, in which case the “semi-particularism” of 4-point Calvinism is either inadequate or unnecessary.

The point can be reinforced by asking this final (rhetorical) question: If the offer of the casserole in the last scenario was indeed insincere, why think that it would have been sincere if only I had prepared 3 more portions?

5 thoughts on “Yours Sincerely”

  1. James, I don’t mean to be dull… but I wonder why behind this discussion, it isn’t really a matter of what you intend by “sincere”. Is there a convenient way to address that?

    If by “sincere” one means that the ‘portions of casserole’ are pre-prepared and actually available to all to whom it is offered, or that the portions are hypothetically available, to be made after the fact or upon request by those to whom it is offered… then definite atonement is incompatible with those notions of “sincere”.


    Perhaps the qualifier “sincere” is even an unnecessary complication. And the issue is what is simply meant by “offer”? This seems, in a way, the sort of debate had with Protestant Reformed folk, and others.

    I think the OPC minority report (Young, Hamilton) is somewhat preferable:

  2. James, I think Baus has a point. Your lamb casserole analogy seems to me to not constitute a sincere offer.

    Perhaps Hoeksema, who was a hypercalvinist, can help. He maintained, when talking of the free offer of the gospel, that it must have four indispensable elements if it is to be genuine. (I take “genuine” to be synonymous with the way you’re using “sincere” here.)

    First of all, a genuine offer entails an honest and sincere desire on the part of the offerer to give something. Without such an earnest will and desire on the part of him who makes the offer, the offer would not be honest or upright. It’s not clear to me that God has this desire under your scenario.

    Second, the offerer must posses that which he extends. In the event of acceptation the offerer must be in a position to impart that which is offered. This is not in view under your scenario, and is why I would say that it describes an insincere offer.

    Third, the offerer must have the desire that the offer be accepted. Again, this isn’t clear to me under your scenario.

    Fourth, the offerer does so either unconditionally, or upon the condition that he is aware that the recipients of the offer are able to fulfill the condition. (Moral ability being distinct from natural ability, of course.)

    A.C. de Jong, The Well-Meant Gospel Offer: The Views of H. Hoeksema and K Schilder, (Franeker: T. Wever, 1954), 43.

    I think John Gill rejected the sincere offer for the same reasons as Hoeksema, did he not?

    I guess I just don’t see that you can “make” an offer sincere just by predicating sincerity on the response to it, rather than the offerer’s own intentions.

  3. Pingback: James Anderson’s Argument for a Sincere Offer Based on a Limited Provision « Theology Online

  4. Pingback: Ponter on Anderson on Limited Atonement and The Free Offer « Fides, Ratio, et Mysterium

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