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).

Excusing Sinners and Blaming God

What are the most common philosophical objections to Calvinism? Arguably these:

  1. Calvinism makes the problem of evil even more intractable.
  2. Calvinism implies that God is culpable for the sins of his creatures (the “author of sin” objection).
  3. Calvinism undermines human moral responsibility by denying free will.

They aren’t completely independent objections, because the first is typically predicated on the second and third, which means that the latter two objections are the linchpins of the philosophical case against Calvinism.

Excusing Sinners and Blaming GodSo are these objections decisive? Far from it. They’ve been rebutted in various places over the years, but nowhere more directly and rigorously than in Guillaume Bignon’s new book, Excusing Sinners and Blaming God.

Dr. Bignon is a French analytic philosopher and computer scientist, a former atheist who ended up embracing the Christian faith through a remarkable series of providential events. The book is essentially Bignon’s doctoral thesis at Middlesex University and the London School of Theology under the supervision of Paul Helm (who also contributed a foreword to the book). Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s a doctoral thesis, though; it’s quite readable and accessible, despite its technicality. (I have to say that Bignon writes in clearer English than many scholars who claim English as a first language.)

Here’s the publisher’s summary of the book:

Calvinist determinism destroys moral responsibility and makes God the author of sin. These two accusations are not new, and were arguably anticipated by Paul in Romans 9, but they remain today the most important objections offered against Calvinist/determinist views of human free will. This book is a philosophically rigorous and comprehensive defense of Calvinism against these two families of arguments. With respect to human moral responsibility, it discusses whether determinism destroys “free will,” turns humans into pets or puppets, and involves or is analogous to coercion and manipulation. It responds to the consequence argument and direct argument for incompatibilism, the principle of alternate possibilities, the “ought implies can” maxim, and related claims. With respect to the authorship of sin, it discusses whether Calvinist determinism improperly involves God in evil. Does it mean that “God sins,” or “causes sin,” or “wills sin” in problematic ways? “Does God intend our sin, or (merely) permit sin?” In each case the coherence of the Calvinist view is defended against its most potent objections, to reject the claim that Calvinism is “excusing sinners and blaming God.”

Guillaume shared a draft version of his thesis with me, and I was very impressed with his work, so I was happy to provide the following endorsement for his book:

If God determines all things, including the evil actions of his creatures, doesn’t it follow by irrefutable logic that God must be culpable for those evil actions rather than the creatures? Au contraire, argues Calvinist philosopher Guillaume Bignon in this engaging yet rigorous work. Conversant with state-of-the-art literature on free will, this is one of the best defenses of theological compatibilism available today.

In short: highly recommended.

It’s not too late to get it as an extra stocking-filler for your Arminian brother-in-law! In fact, for a powerful one-two punch, couple it with a copy of Calvinism and the Problem of Evil. (Since they’re both published by Wipf & Stock, you might even save some money on shipping charges.)

How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 4)

[This is the fourth in an n-part series, where n>1 and probably n<10.]

In this embarrassingly intermittent series, I’ve been addressing the question: How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? In the first post, I argued that Augustinianism and Molinism can equally well accommodate comprehensive divine providence and God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, both of which the Bible clearly affirms. I concluded by observing that in order to show Molinism to be more biblical than Augustinianism we would need to identify some proposition p that is (i) affirmed by Molinism but denied by Augustinianism, and (ii) affirmed or clearly implied by some biblical teaching.

In the second and third posts, I considered two candidates for p: first, the proposition that moral freedom is incompatible with determinism, and second, the proposition that God desires all to be saved. In neither case, I argued, does the proposed p meet both (i) and (ii).

Now I’ll consider a third candidate for p: the proposition that God is not the author of sin. This is quite a common objection for Molinists to level against Calvinists (and Augustinians more broadly). For example, William Lane Craig raises this complaint in his contribution to the book Four Views on Divine Providence. (I’ll examine his criticisms more closely below.) The thrust of the charge is that Augustinianism, on account of its commitment to divine determinism, makes God the author of sin in a way that Molinism (which rejects divine determinism) does not.

Calvinism and the Problem of Evil

Calvinism and the Problem of EvilThe book Calvinism and the Problem of Evil, edited by David Alexander and Daniel Johnson, and to which I contributed the essay “Calvinism and the First Sin,” has finally been published. Go here for more details. For some reason the table of contents isn’t provided on the publisher’s website, so here it is:

  • Introduction (David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson)
  • Calvinism and the Problem of Evil: A Map of the Territory (Daniel M. Johnson)
  • Molinist Gunslingers: God and the Authorship of Sin (Greg Welty)
  • Theological Determinism and the “Authoring Sin” Objection (Heath White)
  • Not the Author of Evil: A Question of Providence, Not a Problem for Calvinism (James E. Bruce)
  • Orthodoxy, Theological Determinism, and the Problem of Evil (David E. Alexander)
  • Discrimination: Aspects of God’s Causal Activity (Paul Helm)
  • On Grace and Free Will (Hugh J. McCann)
  • The First Sin: A Dilemma for Christian Determinists (Alexander R. Pruss)
  • Calvinism and the First Sin (James N. Anderson)
  • A Compatibicalvinist Demonstrative-Goods Defense (Christopher R. Green)
  • Calvinism and the Problem of Hell (Matthew J. Hart)
  • Calvinism, Self-Attestation, and Apathy Toward Arguments From Evil (Anthony Bryson)

I haven’t read all of the other contributors’ essays yet, but the two I have read, by Dan Johnson and Greg Welty, are excellent. (Welty’s essay in particular is a real doozie.)

For a further taster, check out the Google Books preview.

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.

Libertarian Reformed Baptists?

This is a follow-up to the previous post in which I argued that “libertarian Calvinism” (a view recently explored by Oliver Crisp in his book Deviant Calvinism) is not compatible with the Westminster Confession of Faith. Not all Presbyterians hold to the WCF, although it is arguably the most widely-adopted Reformed confession among Presbyterians in the English-speaking world. Moreover, Reformed Baptists have their own parallel confession: the 1689  London Baptist Confession of Faith. Since the WCF and the LBCF are very similar (often word-for-word identical) in their statements on major points of Reformed doctrine (see here for a side-by-side comparison) I thought it would be interesting to quote the relevant sections from the LBCF to show that libertarian Calvinism isn’t a live option for Reformed Baptists who take the LBCF as their doctrinal standard.

Libertarian Calvinism?

Can a confessional Calvinist affirm a libertarian view of free will? Is “libertarian Calvinism” a live option? I suspect most Calvinists today would say no, but in chapter 3 of his book Deviant Calvinism, Oliver Crisp argues for the affirmative.Deviant CalvinismOne of Crisp’s central claims is that the Westminster Confession of Faith, one of the most widely endorsed Reformed confessions, doesn’t rule out a libertarian (i.e., incompatibilist) view of free will. In this post I want to take issue with that claim on two fronts. (What I say here overlaps to some extent with the criticisms raised by Paul Manata in his series of blog posts: here, here, here, and here.)

Let’s begin by understanding how Crisp defines libertarian Calvinism (hereafter, LC). LC is Calvinist because it affirms (1) that God ordains whatsoever comes to pass (i.e., comprehensive divine providence) and (2) that God determines (indeed causally determines) that his elect will come to Christ for salvation (i.e., unconditional election and effectual calling). So LC is strictly monergistic with respect to salvation. But LC is also libertarian because it affirms (3) that free choices require the ability to do otherwise and therefore cannot be determined by prior factors (such as God’s decree) and (4) that some human choices are indeed free.