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!)

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Bringing Down the Walls of Jerry & Co

It’s a truly terrible title for a post, I admit, but I just couldn’t resist. Sorry.

Anyway, on to the substance. In 2011 Wesleyan philosopher Jerry Walls published an article, “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be a Compatibilist,” in Philosophia Christi. A compatibilist is one who holds that freedom is compatible with determinism (in this context, divine determinism). Walls’s arguments are targeted primarily at Calvinists, who typically endorse a compatibilist view of free will (and rightly so). Variants of Walls’s criticisms are pretty commonplace among non-Reformed Christian philosophers (hence the “Co” of the title).

The most recent issue of Philosophia Christi (Summer 2015) includes a splendid response to Walls’s article by Steven Cowan and Greg Welty. Greg has posted the article on his website with some scene-setting context and interesting commentary on how the debate between classical theists and non-classical theists is playing out. (Note also the link to an addendum to the printed article with fourteen ‘bonus’ rebuttals.)

Philosophy matters, because theology matters. It’s encouraging to see this important issue debated with respectfully but rigorously in the pages of a peer-reviewed philosophy journal.

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Calvinism and the First Sin (Again)

I’ve uploaded a revised version of my paper “Calvinism and the First Sin” (see this earlier post for context). I think it’s improved in several ways, thanks to constructively critical feedback from a number of folk (see final footnote for credits). The main changes:

  • A brief explanation of why I address problems not unique to the first sin. (p. 5)
  • A stronger response to the charge that Calvinism makes God culpable for human sin. (pp. 15-17)
  • A stronger response to the difficulty of explaining why (given compatibilism) unfallen Adam would freely choose to sin. In particular, I’ve added a section on how contemporary analyses of akrasia could shed some light on the issue. (pp. 20-24)
  • The “luck objection” to libertarian free will has been brought forward to section 2.
  • I cut out the objection to libertarian free will based on the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Dan Johnson pointed out a problem with the argument: as it stands, it relies on a version of the PSR which appears to commit one to necessitarianism. I still think the PSR raises more problems for libertarianism than compatibilism, but it would take me too far afield to get into that in this paper, and the main argument of the paper stands (or falls!) without it.
  • What I formerly called “The Arminian Account” I now call “The Simple Foreknowledge Account” (see footnote 52 for explanation).

Please note again that the online preprint version will be removed once the book is published and should not be quoted or cited in place of the published version.

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Calvinism and the First Sin

“Calvinism and the First Sin” is the title of my contribution to a forthcoming volume, Calvinism and the Problem of Evil, edited by David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson (Wipf & Stock). The publisher has kindly granted permission to post here a preprint version of the paper. Please note that this online version will be removed once the book is published. Do not quote or cite this version.

I think there’s something for just about everyone to disagree with in the paper! Constructively critical feedback is welcome.

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Calvinism and the “Leviticus Principle”

The following is a guest post by my friend Paul Manata, a philosophy student at Calvin College. It’s a response to this recent post on the Tyndale UC Philosophy blog. Paul originally submitted it as a comment on that blog, but for some reason it didn’t appear, and now the comments are closed there. So I invited Paul to post his response here instead.

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A Christological Argument Against the Principle of Alternate Possibilities

Many (not all) advocates of libertarian free will endorse the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP):

PAP: S is morally responsible for doing A only if S could have done otherwise.

PAP has come under continual fire ever since Harry Frankfurt’s seminal article in 1969, and many philosophers (including a number of leading libertarians) now accept that PAP is false. Leaving aside the philosophical arguments, however, it seems to me that any orthodox Christian ought to reject PAP on theological grounds.

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A Short Answer to a Quick Question for Calvinists

Arminian theologian Roger Olson has posted a quick question for his Calvinist interlocutors (whoever they may be):

To my Calvinist interlocutors I ask: If free will as uncaused choice is logically incoherent, what about God’s decision to create the world?

Dr. Olson apparently thinks this raises a problem for Calvinists, but I’m really not sure why. The idea, presumably, is that God’s decision to create was uncaused and therefore the idea of an uncaused choice must be logically coherent. But the question has several problematic assumptions lying behind it.

In the first place, few contemporary defenders of libertarian free will (LFW) would concede that it entails uncaused choices. I suspect most Christian philosophers today who hold to LFW accept some version of agent causation. But on that view, free choices aren’t uncaused; they’re caused by the agent (with no prior sufficient cause or explanation). If Dr. Olson thinks that LFW entails uncaused choices (as he seems to do, given the way he poses his question) then I’d say he’s in a minority even among his fellow libertarians.

But leave that quibble aside. The main problem here is that Calvinists needn’t be committed to the idea that LFW is logically incoherent. Yes, there are some Calvinists who take that view. But it isn’t implied by Calvinism as such. A Calvinist can consistently hold that LFW is a coherent idea but that it isn’t actually instantiated (i.e., creatures could have had libertarian free will but don’t in fact have it).

In fact, a Calvinist can go further and say that while LFW may be coherent as such (i.e., there is nothing incoherent about the idea of LFW) it is necessarily false that any creatures have LFW. He may hold (as many Calvinists do) that creaturely LFW is incompatible with divine omniscience or meticulous divine providence. And if God possesses his attributes of omniscience and sovereignty essentially (i.e., he could not fail to possess those attributes) then creaturely LFW must be impossible in the broadly logical sense: there is no possible world in which creatures have LFW. (This is not to say, of course, that creatures couldn’t have free will in some other significant sense.) But it doesn’t follow from the claim that creaturely LFW is broadly logically impossible that LFW as such is logically incoherent. The Calvinist could consistently hold either of the following views:

(1) LFW is logically coherent, and God has LFW, and necessarily no creature has LFW.

(2) LFW is logically coherent, but God does not have LFW, and necessarily no creature has LFW.

So it’s hard to see why Calvinists qua Calvinists should be unsettled by Dr. Olson’s question. He relates an email exchange with John Frame in which (as he recalls) he extracted a concession from Dr. Frame to the effect that LFW must be coherent if we grant that God makes free choices. But why should we consider any such concession significant? It doesn’t raise any special problem for Calvinism.

One final observation. Dr. Olson’s question is also premised on the assumption that we ought to grant that God has LFW if we claim that God freely chose to create. But that assumption isn’t beyond question either. Steve Cowan, for example, has argued that there are problems with construing divine freedom in standard libertarian terms. So this assumption can’t simply be taken for granted. But even if it turns out that God must have LFW, this shouldn’t cause any Calvinist to blush. Calvinists have plenty of other good reasons to deny that creatures have LFW without having to argue that LFW as such is logically incoherent.

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Calvinism, Assurance, and Inerrancy

I’m pretty sure that by now I’ve heard all the major objections to Calvinism. Some of them deserve to be taken seriously, although none are weighty enough to overturn the balance (or rather imbalance) of biblical evidence. Others objections, however, I find hard to credit at all. An example of the latter is the claim that the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election undermines assurance of salvation. Only this week a student was telling me about a professor at a nearby liberal arts college who had wielded this objection in his theology class. The objection is rarely articulated with precision, but as best I can make out the idea is that a Calvinist can’t enjoy assurance of salvation because he’ll always be fretting about whether or not he’s really elect. What if he’s a reprobate after all? He longs to peer into the secret will of God, but all in vain — for as Deuteronomy 29:29 declares, the “secret things” belong to the Lord God alone.

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The Arminian Cause

This post serves as a follow-up to my last post, in response to the comments that my new Arminian friend posted here (on-site) and then here (off-site). (Since he goes here by the username ‘Arminian1’, I will use that name below.) I’m not going to respond point-by-point to his second set of comments, because (i) I simply don’t have the time and energy at the moment, (ii) it would end up so long that I doubt anyone else would have the time, energy, and interest to actually read it, (iii) Steve Hays has already raised some excellent points with which I concur, and (iv) I’m confident enough that anyone who reads Arminian1’s second response, and understands the metaphysical problems I raised for his position, will recognize that  his rebuttal consists largely of hand-waving non-answers (e.g., appeals to divine transcendence, eternity, and omnipotence that somehow function like magic wands to dissolve away, without any further explanation, the paradoxes raised by backward/circular causation).

So for now I will simply address the issue he raised in his first comment. (Since he repeats this point several times in his second response, I suppose this will count as a partial reply to that too!)

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Arminianism and the Paper Trail of Prophesied Prayers

This is a follow-up to my earlier post, in response to some comments.

To recap: on Justin Taylor’s blog, a commenter called ‘Arminian’ took issue with an article by John Piper by contending that Calvinism is incompatible with the claim that our prayers can be “genuine causes” of God’s decisions about how to answer those prayers. As he put it, “the person’s request for God to do the thing cannot reasonably considered a cause of God doing the thing.” I responded (here and here) that (1) this is correct, but Piper wasn’t making that claim in the first place, and (2) it’s hard to see how our prayers could be “genuine causes” (in the sense intended by ‘Arminian’) on the classical Arminian view either. This post is an elaboration on (2).

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