Tag Archives: Calvinism

Reformed Perspectives on the Problem of Evil

A correspondent asks:

Could you recommend the best books for me to read on a Reformed perspective on the problem of evil?

I’d recommend the following:

  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, chapters 16-18.
  • D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? (Baker, 2006).
  • John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (P&R, 2002), chapter 9.
  • Paul Helm, The Providence of God (IVP, 1994), chapters 7 & 8.
  • James S. Spiegel, The Benefits of Providence (Crossway, 2005), chapter 6.

Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor (Crossway, 2006) is very good for a more pastoral perspective.

I’ve heard good things about John Feinberg’s The Many Faces of Evil, but it’s still on my to-read list, so I can’t give a personal recommendation.

Also look out for a forthcoming multi-author volume, Calvinism and the Problem of Evil, edited by David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson (Wipf and Stock). I don’t know exactly when it will be published.

The Fallible God of Molinism

I recently listened to the exchange on Molinism and Calvinism between William Lane Craig and Paul Helm on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable? radio program. It was more of a conversation than a debate, but it’s still worth a listen. In this post I want to expand on a point Helm raised but didn’t himself develop. I’ll first summarize the main tenets of Molinism before discussing what I regard as a serious objection to it. (Be patient — the first half of this post is just set-up.)

Molinism is a philosophical theory designed to reconcile a strong view of divine providence (according to which God foreordains all things) with a libertarian view of free will and a synergistic view of salvation (according to which God doesn’t cause anyone to repent and believe; instead sinners freely cooperate with God’s resistible grace in order to be saved). According to Molinism, God is able to providentially direct events by means of his middle knowledge, that is, his knowledge of what any libertarian-free creature would choose in any specific circumstances. For example, God knew prior to his decision to create this world whether I would freely choose a Boston Kreme if I were to go to Dunkin’ Donuts at noon on February 19, 2014, in such-and-such exact circumstances. God is therefore able to plan events down to the very last detail by prearranging the precise circumstances in which his creatures will find themselves and make their free choices. God doesn’t cause those choices, but he does guarantee them in some strong sense by orchestrating circumstances in light of his middle knowledge.

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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.

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.

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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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.

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Newcomb’s Paradox, Particular Redemption, and Sincere Offers

Newcomb’s paradox is a famous puzzle in decision theory that has provoked much discussion. It has been formulated in different ways, but a standard formulation runs as follows.

The Predictor is a person who is able to make a prediction about a future choice of yours with a very high degree of certainty. (In some versions, the Predictor is infallible — a point to which we will return.) The Predictor invites you to play a game involving two boxes: A and B. Box A is transparent and you can see that it contains $1,000. Box B is opaque. You’re now given a straight binary choice: you may pick either both boxes or only box B. But before you choose, the Predictor informs you that he has already predicted which choice you will make and has arranged the contents of box B accordingly. If he predicted that you will pick only box B then he placed $1,000,000 in that box; but if he predicted that you will pick both boxes then he left box B empty.

The million-dollar question is this: What choice should you make? (The thought experiment assumes, of course, that you want to maximize your winnings!)

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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.

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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