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.
These remarks are certainly interesting and deserving of a response. But before we get into the details, let’s consider the pericope in context and on its own terms:
20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 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. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” (Matthew 11:20-24)
We’re told explicitly that Jesus’ purpose in saying these words was to “denounce the cities” because they wouldn’t repent despite having witnessed the many miracles Jesus had performed. They had sufficient evidence, yet they refused to acknowledge Jesus’ authority and they dismissed his call to repentance. Specifically, Jesus’ denunciation takes the form of a comparison with the notoriously depraved ancient cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom.
Now, do these statements by Jesus support Molinist claims in the way Dan suggests? In the first place, it’s not obvious that we should take Jesus to be making the precise counterfactual assertion that Molinists assume he’s making. Certainly Jesus is making assertive statements here. But is he really asserting something so specific as a literal counterfactual truth about what the people in those ancient cities would have done had Jesus performed the very same mighty works before them? (We should note in passing that that would have been a very different possible world than this one!)
Jesus’ point here is simply that the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida were hardhearted and deserving of judgment for their failure to repent; indeed, they were even more stubborn and culpable than the people of Tyre and Sidon. That point doesn’t in itself entail the precise counterfactual claim Dan and other Molinists assume. By way of comparison, suppose I were to rebuke one of my children by saying, “If I told you a thousand times, you still wouldn’t do as you were told!” On the face of it, that statement has the form of a counterfactual of freedom (if S were in C, S would/wouldn’t do A). But am I thereby affirming the specific proposition that my child wouldn’t do as he’d been told if he actually found himself in circumstances in which I had told him (literally!) a thousand times? To suggest so would be clearly to over-interpret my words. To put it in technical terms: such an interpretation would miss the real propositional content of my speech act.
Of course, the fact that my statement wasn’t intended to be taken as literally affirming that counterfactual proposition doesn’t mean that my statement is false. At issue here is the meaning of my statement (i.e., what proposition it’s expressing) rather than its truthfulness (i.e., whether the proposition it expresses is actually true). By making that statement I’m basically asserting something about my child’s stubbornness. And what I’m asserting is true!
Likewise, by questioning whether Jesus is really affirming the counterfactual proposition Dan assumes he’s affirming I’m emphatically not suggesting that Jesus could be affirming a falsehood. Rather, I’m suggesting that the truth he’s affirming is much simpler: the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida are stubborn and hardhearted — even more so than the people of Tyre and Sidon — and they will be judged for it. And that truth is just as consistent with an Augustinian perspective as with a Molinist perspective.
The lesson then is that Molinists probably place more weight on this text than it was ever meant to bear. When we pay attention to the point Jesus is making, we can see that his words don’t have the kind of philosophical entailments that would support Molinist claims about counterfactuals of freedom. To adapt a quip from Ludwig Wittgenstein: Molinists are making Jesus’ “ordinary language” go on holiday.
But let’s suppose I’m wrong about all this. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Jesus really is asserting the counterfactual propositions Dan and other Molinists think he is. Would that favor Molinism over Augustinianism, given that the latter rejects libertarian freedom and affirms irresistible grace?
One important question concerns the kind of repentance in view in verse 21. Dan contends that it must be “true repentance” rather than “false repentance”. But I’m dubious about this simple dichotomy. It seems to me the Bible leaves room for a kind of repentance that is genuine so far as it goes (i.e., not wholly insincere, not a mere show) yet is non-salvific (i.e., it falls short of spiritual conversion). The repentance of the Ninevites in the book of Jonah might well be an example of such repentance.
If a limited non-salvific repentance of that kind is in view in verse 12 then the issues Dan raises about total depravity and irresistible grace are beside the point. And it wouldn’t take anything away from Christ’s denunciation. Jesus would in effect be saying, “If my miracles had been done in Tyre and Sidon they would have repented [i.e., limited non-salvific repentance] but you guys have seen those miracles and you haven’t responded with any kind of repentance!” Such a reading would be entirely consistent with Dan’s (correct) observation that “Christ’s main point [is to say that] the folks of Chorazin were worse than the folks of Tyre.”
But once again, let’s grant Dan’s assumption for the sake of argument, i.e., that the repentance in verse 21 must be full-blown salvific repentance. Would that raise a problem for Augustinianism/Calvinism? I don’t think so, and I’ll explain why in response to Dan’s argument.
Dan observes that on the Calvinist view, neither the people of Tyre and Sidon nor the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida were in fact given irresistible grace, because if they had they would have repented. This much is true: it follows from the very definition of irresistible grace. (I prefer to speak of “efficacious grace,” but let’s not quibble about labels.) Dan further assumes, however, that in the counterfactual scenario in which Tyre and Sidon repent in response to the mighty works, they didn’t receive irresistible grace. He thus concludes that verse 21 doesn’t comport with the Calvinist claim that no one can repent with irresistible grace.
But this assumption is unwarranted. On the standard interpretation of counterfactuals, we need to consider whether the consequent of the counterfactual (the people of Tyre and Sidon repent) is true in the nearest possible world in which the antecedent (the people of Tyre and Sidon see the mighty works) is true. For all we know, the nearest possible world is one in which the people of Tyre and Sidon receive irresistible grace. Certainly Dan hasn’t given us any good reason to exclude this possibility. Given that on a compatibilist view of freedom a person’s free choices are determined not only by factors internal to that person but also by external factors (i.e., circumstances), and there can be complex causal relationships between those internal and external factors, it would be hard to disprove this supposition. God works out his decree through a multiplicity of interrelated means. Why couldn’t the nearest possible world in which God decrees that Christ’s miracles will be performed in Tyre and Sidon also be a possible world in which God brings Tyre and Sidon to repentance through his irresistible grace?
Indeed, to take the point a little further, why couldn’t the mighty works be part of that irresistible grace? (Credit to Paul Manata for suggesting this idea to me.) At the heart of the doctrine of irresistible grace is simply the claim that God has it within his power to bring any spiritually dead sinner he chooses to salvation, such that they come to Christ freely (i.e., without coercion; see WCF 10.1). But God is free to use a wide variety of means — including circumstantial means — to accomplish his effectual calling in different people, as the diversity of Christian conversion testimonies underscores. We shouldn’t think of irresistible grace like some kind of internal spiritual switch that God simply flicks in order to bring about conversion! There will always be some means which are central and universal among genuine conversions, such as the internal work of the Holy Spirit bringing conviction of sin and understanding of the gospel. But the attendant circumstantial means by which God brings about faith and repentance can and do vary considerably.
All this to say, on a Reformed view of divine providence and effectual calling Dan’s assumptions about the counterfactual scenario in which the people of Tyre and Sidon repent are unwarranted. And therefore even if we grant his other assumptions (i.e., that Jesus is making a precise literal counterfactual claim and that the repentance in verse 21 must be salvific repentance) Christ’s pronouncements in Matthew 11:21-24 don’t lend support to Molinism over against Augustinianism/Calvinism. A Calvinist compatibilist perspective can accommodate these statements of Christ just as well as a Molinist libertarian perspective.