Category Archives: Theology

Calvinism and the Problem of Contrition

I recently received the following inquiry about an alleged problem for Calvinism:

This problem is explained in a new book I’ve been reading, The Challenges of Divine Determinism, by Peter Furlong (a theist who’s agnostic about the reality of divine determinism). Furlong calls this problem the problem of contrition, which lies in the observation that (to put the basic point briefly and crudely) in order to repent for one’s sins in the fullest way, one must wish to have never sinned in the first place–but if divine determinism is true, and so God willed one to sin, this means that one must wish that God had not willed what He did, and so one’s will must be in some sense aligned against God’s to repent. Of course no Christian wants his will to oppose God’s.

A very interesting challenge! Some thoughts in response (bearing in mind that I haven’t read Furlong’s book):

1. Calvinists routinely distinguish between God’s decretive will and his preceptive will.1 The first concerns God’s eternal decree, which infallibly comes to pass, while the second reflects God’s commands for mankind as an expression of his holiness. Thus, God willed preceptively that Joseph’s brothers would not sin against him, but he willed decretively that they would do so (hence Gen. 50:20). As such, we should clarify that when we say “and so God willed one to sin,” we’re speaking specifically of God’s decretive will. There’s no opposition to God’s preceptive will implied here; on the contrary, the reason we wish we hadn’t sinned is precisely because our sins are contrary to God’s preceptive will!

The Repentant St. Peter (Goya)2. Having drawn this distinction, we can be more precise about the challenge posed. The alleged problem is that in order to be truly contrite, one must wish that God had decreed otherwise than he did in fact decree. But why exactly is this problematic? Would so wishing imply that God made some kind of mistake in decreeing as he did? Would it imply that God shouldn’t have decreed what he did? That doesn’t follow at all, as far as I can see. Presumably God could have decreed otherwise than he did (i.e., God had alternatives open to him; nothing necessitated what he actually decreed) and if God had decreed otherwise, he wouldn’t have been wrong to do so.2 Wishing that God had decreed otherwise needn’t imply any deficiency on God’s part (e.g., that God could have decreed something better than what he actually decreed).

3. It strikes me that if there is a problem here, it isn’t a problem merely for contrition but for any counterfactual wishing. Suppose my favored candidate loses the election and I think to myself, “I really wish Jones had won.” If God decreed that Jones would lose, my wishing that Jones had won implies that I wish God had decreed otherwise! So if there really is a problem, I don’t think it has anything to do with contrition per se.

4. What’s more, if this is a problem, it isn’t a problem for divine determinists alone. Molinists also hold that God has an infallible decree, albeit one conditioned by God’s middle knowledge. So if a Molinist truly wishes that he hadn’t sinned, he is also wishing that God had decreed otherwise (specifically, that God had “weakly actualized” some other “feasible world,” some possible world in which he doesn’t commit the sin in question).

5. Christ’s wrestling in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36-44) may be instructive here. Surely in some sense Jesus wished that his Father’s will were otherwise, otherwise his prayers in the garden make little sense. Jesus knew perfectly well that it was his Father’s settled will for him to go to the cross, but he still desired that things be otherwise. Was this a wrongful desire on Jesus’s part? Surely not! (Note that one doesn’t have to be a Calvinist to appreciate this point.)

Obviously I don’t offer this as an example of contrition, only as a case of someone non-sinfully wishing that God had willed otherwise. Of course, Christ obediently subordinated his (entirely understandable) desire not to drink the cup of God’s wrath to the will of his Father. In the end, Christ’s overriding wish was to do his Father’s will. (Praise God!) But that doesn’t mean his other desires weren’t genuine desires.

6. Reflecting on it further, I’m not sure this is even a strictly theological problem, because one can formulate non-theological versions of the problem of contrition. Suppose a young man has premarital sex with his girlfriend. She becomes pregnant and has a daughter whom the man loves dearly. In fact, the couple decide to get married and raise the girl together. Later on, the man experiences a religious conversion and becomes convicted that premarital sex is morally wrong. Should he sincerely wish that he hadn’t engaged in premarital sex? In some sense, yes. But if he hadn’t done what he did, his daughter would never have been born. So is he implicitly wishing that his daughter had never been born? Presumably not!

This raises the question of whether it’s possible to have wishes with logically inconsistent implications (or alternatively, to coherently wish for what isn’t possible). I think it is, although a defense of that claim will have to wait for another occasion. The only point I’m making is that the problem of contrition, if a problem at all, isn’t a problem for divine determinists alone. It can be turned into a problem for everyone. Conversely, if it isn’t really a problem in general, there’s no reason to think it’s a problem for Calvinists in particular.


  1. For a robust exegetical defense of the distinction, see this classic article by John Piper.
  2. It’s true that some Calvinists have taken a necessitarian position with respect to God’s decree, but that isn’t an essential tenet of Calvinism simpliciter.

Determined to Come Most Freely

A preprint version of the article I co-authored with Paul Manata, “Determined to Come Most Freely: Some Challenges for Libertarian Calvinism,” published a while ago in the Journal for Reformed Theology and summarized here, is now available here. Enjoy!

The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God

For those interested, the lecture I gave last October on the theological foundations of modern science has been published in the May 2019 issue of Reformed Faith & Practice. Go here to read it.

Grudem’s Christian Ethics and Other Themeliana

My review of Wayne Grudem’s Christian Ethics appears in the latest issue of Themelios. (In case you’re left wondering: yes, I actually used a set of scales.)

The April 2019 issue is quite a treat. Some highlights:

Something for everyone!

Vos and Van Til: How Wide the Divide?

I’ve been asked by several folk to share my thoughts on J. V. Fesko’s article, “The Scholastic Epistemology of Geerhardus Vos.” (Side note: I’m very pleased to welcome Dr. Fesko as a colleague following his recent appointment to the faculty at RTS Jackson! The following comments are offered respectfully and in the spirit of Proverbs 27:17. Semper reformanda!)

Geerhardus VosA great deal could be said in response to the various points Fesko raises in his essay, but I’ll restrict myself to some remarks on his core argument and a few other related matters. Fesko’s main target is the “Vosian Van Til thesis” which maintains that “Van Til and Vos had the same view of epistemology,” that there’s a “symbiotic relationship between Vos and Van Til,” and that “Van Til learned a unique epistemology from Vos.” Fesko readily concedes that Van Til was significantly influenced by Vos, but he wants to challenge the stronger claim that Van Til adopted a distinctive epistemology from Vos which served as a kind of course-correction for Reformed philosophy and apologetics.

Fesko’s central argument can be easily summarized:

  1. Vos (and the historic Reformed tradition) affirmed both natural theology and the traditional scholastic distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘mixed’ articles of faith.
  2. Van Til rejected both of the above.
  3. Therefore (contra the Vosian Van Til thesis) there’s significant discontinuity between Vos and Van Til. Vos stands in line with the historic Reformed tradition; Van Til does not.

There’s also a subsidiary argument, which I won’t assess here:

  1. Vos approved of Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
  2. Van Til criticized Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
  3. Therefore, Van Til’s epistemology isn’t in line with Vos’s.

Some comments:

1. It’s important to recognize the scope and nature of Fesko’s argument. It’s really an argument against the claims of certain Van Tilians. It isn’t a refutation of any distinctive element of Van Til’s thought. (I don’t mean to suggest it was intended to be, but some might fail to recognize what the argument, if sound, would actually prove.)

2. Along the same lines, we should acknowledge that the article is an exercise in historical theology: it concerns the intellectual relationship between two Reformed thinkers (and also their relationship to earlier Reformed theologians). Historical claims do not establish philosophical or theological theses. Fesko’s argument tells us little if anything about whether Vos’s position, Van Til’s position, or some other position is the right position to hold. The mere fact that Theologian A’s position aligns with Theologian B’s position, or stands in continuity with Tradition C, doesn’t as such give us any reason to agree with A, B, or C.

3. Some readers will take (and have taken) the article to provide support for Reformed scholasticism or Reformed Thomism. But again, I think that misses the scope of the argument. Nothing in the article constitutes a defense of scholasticism or Thomism as such. For example, there’s nothing here that vindicates the use of Aristotelian metaphysics or Aquinas’s nature-grace scheme.

4. The article refers to “Van Tillians” as though that’s a homogeneous group partly defined by a commitment to the Vosian Van Til thesis. But there have been considerable disagreements among self-described Van Tilians about how to interpret Van Til’s claims and implement his apologetic program. Van Tilians are no more a homogeneous group than Thomists. Fesko takes the claims of William Dennison and Lane Tipton to be representative of all Van Tilians. But on what grounds? Why think they speak for everyone who endorses a Van Tilian approach to apologetics (especially with respect to historical theses about lines of intellectual influence)?

Moving to matters of more substance:

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Blaming Sinners and Exculpating God

Some time ago I plugged Guillaume Bignon’s Excusing Sinners and Blaming God. Kevin Timpe wrote a critical review of the book in the journal Faith and Philosophy, and Bignon has now posted a response to the review on his website. His response is useful because it not only rebuts Timpe’s criticisms, but also takes the discussion further in some respects. Check it out.

The Deity of Christ and the First Table of the Law

One of the standard arguments for the deity of Christ runs as follows:

  1. The First Commandment demands that we worship no other gods besides the Lord God (Exod. 20:3; Deut. 6:13; Matt. 4:10).
  2. Jesus is (rightly) worshiped by his disciples (Matt. 14:33; 28:9; 28:17; Luke 24:52; Rev. 5:11-14).
  3. Therefore, the worship of Jesus must be the worship of the Lord God.

Since it’s very difficult to reject premise 2 while accepting the authority of the New Testament, some unitarians (those who deny the deity of Christ) concede the point but counter that worshiping Jesus doesn’t violate the First Commandment even though Jesus is a mere creature. They suggest that the commandment needs to be understood in the context of Ancient Near Eastern polytheism. What the commandment forbids is the worship of other gods in addition to the Lord God (specifically pagan gods such as Baal, Molech, etc.). The worship of Jesus doesn’t involve any such thing (so it is argued) because the one true God is being worshiped through Jesus, by God’s own designation. Jesus is God’s unique agent and mediator of salvation, and therefore the worship due to God for his works of salvation can be appropriately mediated by Jesus. In short, to worship Jesus is to worship God indirectly rather than directly. Jesus is the proper medium for the worship of God. But that doesn’t require us to say that Jesus is equal to God.

One difficulty with this response is that it neglects the close connection between the First and the Second Commandment. Both commandments are concerned with the proper worship of God, but in different respects. The First Commandment says, in effect, that we must worship the true God only: no worship of false gods. The Second Commandment says, in effect, that we must worship the true God truly: no false worship of the true God. The paradigmatic case of the latter sin is worshiping God through creaturely images (cf. Deut. 4:15-17).

The Ten CommandmentsThe golden calf incident (Exod. 32:1-20) serves as an object lesson in false worship. Not only do the Israelites worship false gods (note the plurals in vv. 1 and 4) they also worship the true God falsely (note v. 5, where Aaron pathetically tries to redeem the idolatrous worship by turning it into “a feast to the Lord”; apparently his strategy was to make the worship of the golden calf an indirect worship of the Lord). However we interpret the thinking of Aaron and the Israelites here, it’s clear enough that the first two commandments are being violated. (Compare the later idolatry of Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12:25-33 which obviously parallels the incident in Exodus 32; in both cases the idolatrous image-worship is rationalized as Yahweh-worship.)

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An Observation About the Tuggy-Brown Debate

Last week Dr. Dale Tuggy debated Dr. Michael Brown on the question, “Is the God of the Bible the Father alone?” (Tuggy affirmed; Brown denied.) The entire debate, including Q&A, can be viewed here. A print version of Tuggy’s opening statement can be found here. Brown’s opening statement can be read here.

Tuggy-Brown Debate

I thought it was a very useful, high-quality debate between two smart, serious people who stuck to the arguments and treated each other with respect. Tuggy and Brown are quite different in their skill sets, theological methodologies, and speaking styles, which made for an interesting match-up.

I have only one observation to make here, which I haven’t seen noted elsewhere. Throughout the debate, from his opening to his closing statement, Tuggy pressed the claims that the NT doesn’t reflect a trinitarian theology (as he defines it) and that Brown hadn’t offered an intelligible “Trinity theory” (or any Trinity theory at all, for that matter). But note the question that framed the debate:

Is the God of the Bible the Father alone?

Tuggy’s task was to argue that the God of the Bible is the Father alone. Brown’s task was to argue that the God of the Bible isn’t the Father alone. To win the debate, Brown didn’t have to defend trinitarianism or any particular theory of the Trinity. He only had to show that the God of the Bible is identified with someone other than the Father, such as the Son or the Spirit. In fact, Brown targeted nearly all of his ammunition on showing that the Bible identifies the Son with Yahweh and attributes to the Son things that imply his equality with the Father as to deity (the Son is eternal, creator of all things, shares the glory of the Father, receives the same worship as the Father, etc.). You can review Brown’s opening statement to confirm that this was his main emphasis.

Strange as it may sound, given the specific proposition being debated, Brown could have adopted a modalist position and still won the argument! (Interestingly, Tuggy suggested a few times that Brown was in fact expressing a form of modalism, albeit unwittingly. Even if Tuggy were right about that, it would have been beside the point in the context of the debate.) Brown’s task wasn’t to defend the specific claim that there is one God who exists in three distinct persons, still less to defend some metaphysical model for that claim. Indeed, he expressed reservations about adopting creedal language (“persons”) rather than biblical language. I don’t share those reservations, but again, that’s beside the point here.

All Brown had to do was argue that the Bible teaches the full deity of Christ, i.e., that the Son is divine in the same sense that the Father is divine. In my judgment Brown did argue that persuasively, and Tuggy’s alternative interpretations of the key texts seemed stretched (e.g., Heb. 1:10-12 and Col. 1:15-17 are really speaking about the new creation; the logos in John’s prologue is something like God’s eternal wisdom rather than the preexistent Son who became flesh). For that reason, even while admitting my own biases, I’d say Brown won this round.

Determined to Believe?

Determined to Believe?John Lennox is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and an evangelical Christian with a longstanding concern to defend the Christian faith in the public sphere. In recent years he has risen to prominence as an articulate, well-informed, and winsome apologist, writing books on the relationship between Christianity and science, and engaging in public debates with prominent skeptics such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Michael Ruse. His 2007 book God’s Undertaker, which I have often recommended to my students, deftly debunks the myth of conflict between religion and science. I wish I could be so enthusiastic about his recent foray into systematic and philosophical theology, which might well have been titled Calvinism’s Undertaker.

As Lennox explains, his latest book “is written mainly for Christians who are interested in or even troubled by questions about God’s sovereignty and human freedom and responsibility” (15). Having been asked on many occasions to share his views on this thorny issue, Lennox decided to embark upon a book-length treatment of the topic. The primary target of his book is theistic determinism, which Lennox nowhere explicitly defines but apparently takes to be the view that God determines—more specifically, causally determines—every event in the creation, including the decisions and actions of his creatures. The book consists of 20 chapters and is divided into five parts. In this review I will summarize the content of each part, offering some critical comments along the way, before concluding with some concerns prompted by the book’s title.

Read the rest of the review here.

Is Calvinism Unliveable?

It’s sometimes claimed that determinism is irrational because (so the argument goes) one can’t consistently believe that one’s beliefs are determined. Occasionally this is transposed into an objection to Calvinism, since Calvinism is arguably committed to theistic determinism.

Let’s take a look at a recent example from William Lane Craig’s weekly Q&A blog and consider whether the objection has any substance. (Craig’s article was reproduced on Biola University’s blog several months later, so it has had some exposure.)

A correspondent writes to Dr. Craig:

As a former agnostic, one of the most powerful apologetic arguments against naturalism, atheism (and so on) is the idea that nobody strives to be a *consistent* naturalist/atheist/etc. In other words, they fail to act in accordance with the nihilism to which many of these ideas logically lead. Being more than a little curious, I stumbled into the free will position within Calvinism. Doesn’t this lead to a similar problem? In other words, what exactly does a consistent Calvinist even look like?

What does a consistent Calvinist look like? Well, if you’re really curious, you can find out here. But moving on to Craig’s response:

I think that you’ve successfully identified a problem with determinism in general, Leif, of which Calvinism is but a specific instance, given the Calvinist’s view that God determines everything that happens.

Note first that Craig treats Calvinism as merely one species of the genus determinism, taking it that any problem with determinism in general must afflict Calvinism’s theistic determinism. I doubt things are that simple. It’s pretty difficult to generate an argument against determinism as such, which is why most anti-determinist arguments target particular types of determinism (e.g., physical determinism or nomological determinism).

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