October 13, 2014

A Critique of "Do We Have Free Will?" by Geoff Ashley
PART II: Considering the Considerations of the Objections

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So last week I looked a short essay written by a Geoff Ashley that has apparently been making rounds through Calvinist circles as an explanation of the Calvinist perspective of the will.

I agree that the essay was quite articulate, and in that, it clarified to me why Calvinists don't seem to get it. So much of the discussion seemed redundant or off-topic in terms of what we are actually talking about when discussing libertarian free will and determinism.

However, I did not go over the last section where Geoff attempts to anticipate, and therein defend against, objections to his view. Let us look at those now.

Do we have a choice?
We do indeed have a choice and are free to choose as we wish, but the reality of our depravity reveals that we all choose poorly. Not one fallen man in a trillion will trust God unless God first overcomes his natural resistance. This God mercifully and graciously does for the elect.
I quote this section only in part because I feel the above segment is representative of his argument. Now here I have to ask the question if the objection being voiced is an "Arminian" objection or something else. I cannot assume that he is addressing me and my perspective here. I suppose that some postmoderns may be concerned about whether or not we get to act on our desires.

However, like I said last week, I doubt that is the case. I don't think anyone is truly asking whether or not I am capable of acting on my desires. Indeed, it seems self evident that I am, at least some of the time. Therefore we get this redundancy that we get last time. If we are addressing whether or not free will is a thing, that means that we must be comparing it to what the world would look like if it weren't a thing. And I don't think any advocates of LFW are saying that if free will weren't a thing, then I would want to do something, but end up doing something else entirely (and I mean in a more blatent and concrete sense than Romans 7).

What we are talking about is causation, not the actualization of desire. Free will is usually defined by the capacity to have chosen differently than one actually had. When we ask, "did I have a choice" what we mean is, "could I have done something else?"  And I think the answer to this question must be no from a Calvinist perspective. But since the author chooses to address a different question than the one really being asked of hin, one can only speculate.

Another way of looking at this is from the question of human continguancy. Is a particular event contingent on what a human chooses, or do all events happen necessarily? This is asking the question more from a divine perspective, rather than the human perspective. And again the Calvinst must say the latter, meaning that we don't have choice, at least not in the sense that LFW are talking about it.

Is this unfair?
If all man has known is sin and if it is universally inherited from Adam, how can one be considered culpable for sin? By nature man cannot not sin. If he cannot do otherwise, how can God judge him and hold him responsible?
Finally it seems the author has stumbled upon the topic. Let us see how he addresses it.
Jonathan Edwards provided a helpful approach to answering this in his distinction between natural and moral inability. According to Edwards, natural inability would be like a man who has been knocked unconscious and tied to a chair. He cannot stand up and should not be held responsible for not doing so since he is prevented from standing up by virtue of the ropes which bind him. Though he wants and wills to stand, he cannot do so.
This is not the type of inability that we possess. We possess a moral inability. Though we are truly bound, our bondage is a result of our own desires. We are responsible because we have willfully rebelled. We reject Christ not because we are restrained by rope, but because we are hindered by our hatred of God. We are shackled only by our own selfish loves.
OK, so he phrases the problem now in two ways, and than circumvents the problems instead of directly dealing with it. For instance, let us look at the analogy from Edwards. In the analogy he affirms the fundamental problem: a person tied to a chair is not culpable for his actions. The implication is that he wanted to do one thing, but had to do another. However, this isn't entirally the reason why the person isn't culpable. It is also tied to the idea that it is the person who tied him to the chair that is culpable.

And ultimately it fails because it doesn't go deeper into the incompatibilists thoughts. After all, where does the person's desire come from? It comes from God. This is true of the fallen man, and any other state that man finds himself in. It is the origin of that desire to sin that is culpable, and that origin is God.

This is why his second way of going after this doesn't work. He says that we are willfully rebellious. Well, yes, but God made us that way. God made us rebellious. That is the problem. It makes God culpable, even if it is only equally culpable (though I would say more so).

Furthermore we don't have to go back to Adam to make this charge as he later states. With every sin we commit, we evidence God’s decree of us casting our vote for Adam’s sin. You cannot complain about each sin we make as if God has no part of it if you are a compatibilist. God is giving you your desires, your selfish loves, and your sin nature. Focusing on the positive side of Calvinism like this ignores the complaint rather than answering it.

Conclusion

As I read this, it became very clear that Geoff simply doesn't understand what is being talked about when others talk about "free will". It is certainly true that one can come up with a new definition of the word that coincides with Calvinism, but that is hardly impressive. What isn't preserved is any reason to think that sin has its origin in mankind. Rather, on Calvinism, sin must have its origin in God. That is the issue, not the self-evident assertion that we don't "feel" forced.

Therefore, we can conclude that while Calvinism can affirm the existance of the will, they cannot affirm the existance of a "free will" without redefining it. Calvinists make a habit of only talking about one side of an issue, and this issue is no different. When God told us to walk the narrow path, He didn't mean that we walk through life with blinders on, only paying attention to those aspect of theology which affirm our current beliefs. You cannot offer a defense of your position when you are apparently ignorant of the very complaint you are trying to defend against.

October 6, 2014

A Critique of "Do We Have Free Will?" by Geoff Ashley

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Recently, I was pointed to a presentation of the Calvinist view of the will that has been circling the internet (here). When I read it, I found it to be well written, and an excellent summary of my own understanding of Calvinist thought. So I thought it might be fun, and hopefully beneficial to others to go through it and give a basic breakdown of it from an Arminian perspective. Hopefully, the essay's clarity would allow me to be clearer on what the Arminian view of the will is.

Preliminaries

Before the essay really gets into it, it lays out a few preliminary comments. Rather than going over these directly, I felt it better to sum them up. He points out that the word 'freedom' has many different senses, and that he is only interested in how the concept operates within the bounds of soteriology (that is the study of salvation). Fair enough. As an Arminian, I fully concur that God is capable, and sometimes does, overpower the will for the sake of His general providence, but that He does not do so when it comes to an individual's salvation. Thus, I find this restriction convenient and appropriate, and I will likewise restrict my comments.

Also he says
Theological discussion of free will often includes historical and complex terms like Pelagianism, Arminianism, Calvinism, predestination, election, determinism and indeterminism, fate, compatibilism and incompatibilism, synergism, monergism, sovereignty and responsibility. We will try to avoid these terms for the sake of clarity and simply refer readers to the recommended resources if they desire a more scholarly discussion.
Again, fair enough. He is merely going to present the Calvinist view, and is in no way commenting on the Arminian view. Therefore, if I think he is implying something about the Arminian view, I would be incorrect since he could be implying something about many of these other views. So I will attempt to avoid jumping to conclusions about what he thinks about Arminianism, and assume that he is not interacting with it at all.

From here on out, I will be quoting him directly, and then merely commenting on each quote.

What Is The Will?

In order to understand “free will,” we must first understand the will. What is the will? Most simply, the will is the mechanism by which humans make choices. 
Human choices are made on the basis of preferences, pleasures, loves, affections, delights and desires. Choices may be (and often are) made with respect to a combination of various desires (some of which might even be in competition), but all choices ultimately boil down to preference. We choose what we find more valuable, enjoyable, pleasurable, etc. We choose what we most desire, what we want, what we “will.” 
If one wants to know what will be chosen, one simply needs to consider what he or she most prefers or loves. The concept of “free will” ultimately boils down to a question of desires. What does the human will most desire?
I think his basic definition of the will here is correct: the will is the mechanism of choice. However, I find his description of the will to be significantly wanting. He claims that it all comes down to desires. We will what we want. Well, duh. But that does absolutely nothing in terms of explaining how the will works. It is a bit like trying to explain how a car works by saying, "A car works by being driven." Well, OK. You've done nothing more than ascribe a verb which refers to it working. You haven't actually explained how it works. For that, you need to explain out the internal combustion engine and how it transforms that chemical power into mechanical power.

As for the will, we have no access to that level of explanation. We cannot get any deeper than the fact that decisions are in fact made. If we want, we can change the question, "How do we choose?" to "how do we prioritize our desires?" It is the same question merely rephrased. And we cannot completely generalize either, for not every human has the same priority of desires, or else we would be making the same choices. So where does that priority come from? Isn't that basically what choosing is? Determining which choice we really want?

What's worse here (that is worse than of the redundancy of the definition of the will) is that this is then called 'free will'. Now wait, where does freedom come in here? What is 'freedom'? How are you defining that? This is never really defined. Indeed, the various titles he gives to his sections implies that such a definition of forthcoming, but it never comes. Instead, 'free will' is merely equivocated with the word "will". But if 'free will' and 'will' mean the same thing, then why bother with the adjective? When we say "free will', we are distinguishing from a deterministic view of the will. But what view of the will is this contrasting against?

Now, I do think that I have enough material here, and experience with other Calvinists, to perhaps answer this question. It seems that Calvinists are using the term 'free will' as it is often used colloquially. That is, "He did such and such by his own free will." By that, we usually mean that he actually chose it, as opposed to someone forcing him to do something that he didn't choose, that is against his will. However, this phrase doesn't distinguish between doing something by a 'free will' vs doing something be a 'determined will'. Rather, we are comparing doing something by your will vs against your will. So this seems to be a mistake.

Furthermore, this isn't an social answer to an ontological question. We are talking about what the will is and how the will works, not whether or not it followed. It seems they are saying that we have a 'free will' because we are able to do things that we want. But again, duh. No one is accusing the Calvinist of denying that. What we are asking is whether the origin of that want is intrinsically created by us, designed by God, or necessitated by chemistry/physics. But that question, rather than answered, seems entirely ignored.

Four Eras of Freedom
A final clarification before we can answer the question, “Do we have free will?” is to define who “we” are. Man is not as he once was, nor is he as he will always be. The Bible speaks of the nature of man in four distinct ways, corresponding to four movements of redemptive history: man as created, fallen, regenerate and glorified.We must be careful lest we confuse the freedom of the fallen state with the freedoms of the created, regenerate or glorified states. Each era is distinct, and the freedom possessed within each is subsequently distinct, as well.
  • There is man as created. Man was originally created in a state of goodness and innocence. Though we do not know how long this condition lasted, it covers only two chapters of the Bible.
  • Since Genesis 3, we see man as fallen. Fallen man is fundamentally different from man as he was originally created. He was no longer innocent or good.
  • Though the condition of the Fall is universal in its effect upon all men, it is not permanent for all. There is a third way of understanding man, man as regenerate. Regeneration refers to the work of God to transfer a man or woman out of darkness and into light, out of death and into life. John 3 calls this reality being “born again.” The regenerate state is also a temporary condition awaiting the consummation of God’s work in eternity.
  • Man as glorified describes the final state in which God’s work of redemption will be complete.
Given that our discussion of free will is restricted to the question of an unregenerate (fallen) human’s response to his Creator’s work of redemption, we will narrow our focus to the state in which man has found himself since the Fall.

Well, that seems fair enough. It is certainly true that our choices are limited in different ways in these different conditions. So there isn't too much here that I can directly disagree with, though I know that ultimately I am going to understand these states differently.

However, I would offer a brief caveat. In my experience, it seems to me that Calvinists usually make a strong separation of these states than I do. While there is a significant difference in terms of what we are capable of in these states, ultimately, we are still us. Our humanity is still what it is. So our arms still work the same way, our legs still work the same way, and our wills still work the same way. The fall affects our wills be impediment, not by having it operating by a different paradigm. It is a corruption of what was already there, not something else entirely. I think a Calvinist would agree with my point as stated, so the difference is really where we draw the lines.

The last paragraph here in this section is: "What is the fallen human will like? Given that the will chooses on the basis of desires, we must therefore consider what a fallen, unregenerate person loves, desires, values and esteems." Well, ultimately here my disagreements on the above section rears its head here. Certainly not all unregenerate people love, value, or esteem the same things. While we can generalize to some degree, it is worth asking, why does each unregenerate person choose which sin to commit? It is self determined, God determined, or physically determined? If that question is left unanswered, I doubt the real issues will be addressed.

The Reality of Unregenerate Bondage

This is where we really start getting into the meat of the article, so I am going to be taking things apart a bit more. However, I would advise you, before reading the following, that you read this section whole before seeing it in pieces. Ultimately, a commentary on a work only elucidates the work if, on some level, the work was already understood.
The human will universally inherited in Adam is not born into a state of neutrality and apathy. The fallen and unregenerate human will has natural loves, passions, desires, delights and pleasures. The will chooses on the basis of these desires, which are not neutral but, instead, absolutely and universally influenced toward evil. Sinners by nature desire rebellion, and thus their wills always incline toward rebellion. 
Fallen humanity is naturally (that is, by nature) broken and depraved. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:3, we are “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” This fallen nature has limitations. It cannot not sin. All it desires (wills) is sin.
Primarily, I would say that  there isn't a whole lot here that I formally disagree with. Certainly we are not born neutral, but born into fallenness. However, it simply says that we have "natural desires" but it doesn't really say why and where these desires even come from.

I would say it like this: immorality is like darkness; it is the absence of something, rather than the presence of something. Let's say you offer me three jelly beans: apple, cherry, and grape. I then chose grape. Does this mean that I have chosen the best kind of jelly bean? Of course not. All good and wholesome people know that licorice is the best. But that was simply not an option for me.

Likewise it is possible for us to say that one can have LFW, and still not be able to choose the good. This is because I can still do other than what I do. For instance, I could murder John instead of Jan. These are two different options. But both are sinful. Options to actually do good are not available in the fallen state.

This is because true morality comes from being in submission and love with God. But if one is separate from God, than good isn't really possible. Instead, we can only be in submission and love with humans, either our self or others (usually ourselves).

While this isn't in contradiction to what is said above, I felt it was worth mentioning here because it is going to be similar to what he says next:
This truth is foreign to modern thought. How can Christianity affirm that every action of fallen man is sinful while there exist evidenced examples of social kindness and love throughout the world? The biblical answer begins with an understanding of sin.6 Sin is not merely external action, but internal affections and motivations. Helping an elderly lady cross the street, giving to charitable causes, refraining from certain behaviors and engaging in others are not good in the fullest sense of the word. Nothing is good if not done from a posture of humble trust in God and a love for His glory. As the Bible states, anything done in unbelief (Romans 14:23) or done without respect to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31) falls short of righteousness.

Fallen humans love sin. They desire sin. They will sin. They delight in sin. They crave sin. They prefer sin. They choose sin. We abhor the glory of God in lustful craving for our own exaltation and autonomy. We want to glorify ourselves, not our Creator. Because we will (desire) sin, we will (do) sin. We are “willing” participants in sin, and all we can do is sin.
As you can see, the definition of morality is the same: a focus on God. Thus sin is being defined the same way: not focusing on God. But there is no explanation here as to where these sinful desires come from. They are merely considered to be brute facts. This strikes me as so odd because the notion of LFW is offered precisely as that: as an origin to the sin nature. So how can he be offering an explanation of free will if he does not address that very issue that leads people to believe in it? Perhaps it is because he doesn't understand why people believe in it. Indeed, I would theorize that this is true.

However, perhaps I am assuming too much. Perhaps there are many people out there who merely believe in free will because it gives them a sense of power and control. Certainly this seems to be true of many Post-moderns and existentialists. However, this isn't the case for the traditional view of LFW within Christianity, so it still strikes me as odd, or at least incomplete, not to interact with it.
The question is not, “Can we do what we want?” but “What do we want?” Unless and until we come face to face with the radical depravity of fallen man, we will never truly understand who we are and what God has done in bringing us to Himself. As long as we conceive ourselves as neutral in our longings and desires, we will assume a false foundation for understanding the nature of our freedom or bondage.
Well, actually, neither of these is the question. The question is "do we have a free will?" which is more complex than either of these two questions. As long as we understand the question merely in terms of wants and not in terms of human nature, we will miss the entire point of the question.
The biblical depiction of fallen mankind is desperate, dark and dire. Consider the following descriptions of an unregenerate person:
  • Our eyes are blind to the glories of the gospel (Matthew 13:14-15; John 12:39-40; 2 Corinthians 4:4).
  • Our minds are darkened and hostile toward God (Romans 8:7; Ephesians 4:18; Colossians 1:21).
  • Our ears are deaf to the call of our Creator (Matthew 13:14-15).
  • Our hearts are darkened and deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 1:21).
  • We are enslaved to sin (John 8:34; Romans 6:17; Galatians 4:8).
  • We are foolish (Romans 1:21; Titus 3:3).
  • We hate God (John 3:19-20).
  • We are dead (Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13).
Is a blind man “free” to see Christ? Is a deaf man “free” to hear Christ? Is a dead man “free” to stand up and walk toward Christ? Is a slave “free” from slavery?
Well, this is rather interesting. The first part of this quote is something that don't debate at all. Certainly the unregenerate state is desperate, dark and dire. I also completely agree with the list that follows. However, when tying this issue into the discussion of free will, he seems to be making a critical mistake. These descriptions that are being quoted have nothing to do with the question of "freedom" (with the possible exception of slavery), at least not in the sense that we are describing it. Death to God has to do with estrangement. Deafness with stubburnness. Much of the material has more to do with hostility. None of these deal with question of whether or not humans have LFW.

Even if we consider enslavement to sin, which I would say definately is denoting a proclivity towards sin as much of the material does, all that is being said here is that the human being, without God, is driven by selfishness. It doesn't mean that the person is without choices. It merely means that the persons choices are limited to sinful selfish choices. But there are a plethora of sinful options available to the decripid man. There is no reason to conclude from the fact of the sinful nature that LFW is false.
Considering the biblical depiction of mankind, the type of freedom that many simply assume to be true is grounded in an unrealistic understanding of what has happened to man in the Fall. A deeper freedom was once possessed in “man as created,” but man is no longer as he was created. Our nature has changed, and with it the understanding of our liberty. Goodness and innocence fell from us at the Fall, and we forfeited some degree of freedom by eating of the fruit. Fallen freedom consists of the ability to do what one desires; though, those desires are universally directed away from Creator and toward creation.
Again, so much to agree and disagree with here. When he talks about "freedom which is assumed", I do not know to whom he is referring. Perhaps to certain postmodern groups. Still, the issue of free will isn't the question of whether we are able to do what we want, but whether we are able to make a different choice than we do. Again, his unwillingness to define freedom itself rears its ugly head.

Now, I'm going to stop here because this post is getting rather long. I'll pick up with the rest of the paper, where he attempts to deal with disagreements next week.

September 3, 2014

Thoughts on God's NOT Dead

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OK, it took me awhile to watch it, but I finally did. And now a few weeks after watching it, I am commenting on it. However, for both of you who read my blog, you may note that my posting has been rather sporadic anyway due to my current schedule at work. So I apologize for my timing.

Now on to the movie. I loved this film. However, due to the ending, I only give it an A-. More on that later. My fear though is that many people are going to misunderstand exactly what the film is doing and who the film is for.
It is important to notice that the film is for Christians, and not for Atheists. If you show this film to an Atheist, they are likely to be unimpressed, and perhaps even a bit angered. However, this is more due to a misunderstanding of what the movie is doing. It is not offering arguments for God's existance, but offering counter arguments to the two main arguments we tend to get from Atheists. So in this sense, if the Atheist is angered, this is more likely due to them being unreflective of their own bad arguments, or to them misunderstanding what the film is doing (or perhaps at the bad ending, which I will get to. Promise).

So what are the two arguments being dealt with?

Counter Argument 1: Argument from Authority

This is what is really being countered by the main storyline. It is important to note that the Professor only offers this as an argument. Now from an Atheist perspective, this may seem to be a straw-man. However, there are many professors who do precisely this, and there is a lot of this form of bullying going on on-line.

So how does the movie counter? By exposing it as the fallacious argument that it is. Ultimately, an argument from authority is a fallacy because no human being, no matter their credentials knows everything and because ultimately it isn't the credentials that would make an expert right, but the evidence that had convinced that expert of their opinion. At some point, we need to examine the actual evidence.

The story does this with 2 plot moves. First, it portrays the professor as a bully. This is because that is what this argument is doing. It is bullying.

The second is by the Christian presenting good arguments. Now, he doesn't present them fully, but only an a kind of introductory way. This is because they are not really what the plot is about. Instead it about how this professor tries to defeat them merely by appeal to authority. I feel the apex of this counter-argument is with the Stephen Hawking quote. He is stumped by the appeal to authority, does his research, and counters with a second authority. After this, the appeal to authority is, within the movie, dead. We instead focus all of our attention on that second argument.

Counter Argument 2: The Argument from Evil

After the professor's defeat in regard to the Stephen Hawking quote, and his embarrassment, we get to the real reason why the professor is such a bully: he lost his mother. From his perspective, God would never let his mother die.

Now, there is a problem here that needs to be acknowledged. It is a common Evangelical Argument that Atheists are all simply hurt, and that is the only reason why the reject God. This is a bad argument and shouldn't be made. You shouldn't ask the question that the main character asks of his professor "What happened to you" to every Atheist that you encounter. It is belittling to their beliefs and, on the whole, ineffective for precisely that reason. Many Atheists are going to see that argument in the movie at this point, and that is unfortunate.

However, it isn't the professor's Atheism that causes the student to ask this question. It is his bullying. The professor is clearly angry. He hates Christianity and God and he demonstrates it by how he acts, not by what he espouses. Now the movie could still be advocating the above argument, but I do think that the character is justified asking the question when he does.

But in either case, this explicitly introduces the second argument: if there is suffering in the world, then God doesn't exist. While the student does present an intellectual answer to this, in the form of the free will argument, he barely gives any time to it. Instead, he merely asserts it, and then gets the professor to expose his own hypocracy. But we aren't left with too much of an answer.

Unless we broaden our scope to the rest of the movie. Most of the movie is a series of stories of individual people dealing with various problems. But if you notice, the theme of dealing with the evil in our lives is the common thread holding all of these stories together. Ulimately the counter-argument to the problem of evil isn't some intellectual argument, but the very fact that Christianity brings healing to the suffering. It is the multi-faceted nature of Christianity in reaching into those dark places of hurt and confusion and to hold and help us that is truly the answer to the question. Christianity doesn't ignore the question of evil. It solves it.

Two Criticisms

There are some criticisms that can be made of the film though that I feel are worth looking at. And warning: spoilers ahead.

First of all, due to it's conservative source, I am sure that it is going to be critiqued from minority voices. And, quite frankly, I don't think it does too well. When we look at it from a race perspective. every non-white character is a foreigner (with the exception of Michael Tate, but he's a celebrity). Now the Chinese student, the Arab teenager, and the African missionary are all portrayed in a positive light, but one could easily get a sense that Americans are all white from this film. Even the Arab father is portrayed positively in the sense that he is heart-broken by what he feels he must do. Indeed, the portrayal of Arab culture in that scene is quite accurate (though Arab culture is of course quite varied. I am assuming the family is Sunni). But from the perspective of an American minority, they could easily feel unrepresented.

The other critique would the professor's death. I could see many atheists being offended by how this was done. Indeed, I think it is a failure of the film. It isn't so much that they killed him, but that the atmosphere around his death was so happy. I get that it is showing that the professor is saved in the end, but it should have given the moment of his death more respect than it does.

Here is how I would of done it, and maybe you can see my point. I would have had the professor see the advert for the Newsboys and leave. Then I would show the scene with Duck Dynasty (though I wouldn't have used him, but whatever) talking about sending the text message. I then would have had the montage of the various texts going out, including the Arab girl texting her younger brother, but not having one go to the professor. The last one I would show would be the girlfriend sending her text to her brother. After she does, she sees the voicemail message, and exits the auditorium. We then cut to the professor walking down the street, with no music. We see the pastor and the missionary are there. Then the professor gets hit by the car, and the scene of his bed-side confession precedes the same, except continuously, and just the sound of rain. Then he dies, and we pause... with the pastor over his body, in the rain and his head down. Then the missionary puts his hand on his shoulder and starts giving his speach. As he does, we cut back and forth between him talking to the pastor, and the girlfriend listening the voicemail left by the professor (with the sound of the Newsboys coming in quietly). Then she sends the text message to him. The pastor hears it, picks up the phone, and reads the message. He smiles, and then we cut to the concert, which now can serve as a symbol of the celebration in heaven.

Do you see how that is more respective to the death? In the movie it feels, well, vengeful. There is no beauty in the moment. And it is at such a pivotal part of the movie (you know, the ending). Indeed, it feels like the promo of the film, that is the sending of the texts and of the Duck Dynasty guy, was more important than the story, and that is just a shame.

Wrap-up

Overall, if we understand this movie as inspiring Christians to be bold and not to be afraid, then I have to say the film succeeds, in spades. It definately could have been better, but considering the low budget, I would say that it does an excellent job. I highly recommend the film, and pray that you forgive it for its imperfections.

It does a very good job at pointing us to good arguments for God's existance, as well as telling thought provoking and probing morality stories to inspire us to think more deeply about pain and suffering. I especially like the point about the pastor not being on the side lines, but being on the front-lines, just like any missionary. Life is complicated, and one cannot be expected to answer its questions with pat answers to pat questions. We need to look deeper into the fundamental human experience and see God there, and I am thankful that the film reminds us of that.

June 9, 2014

Essential Attributes Verses Relational Attributes

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What I want to say here is going to be a bit technical, so please hold your horses, but I think that this is important in terms of a particular argument that I hear from Calvinists as well as a classic argument that one hears from Atheists. This has to do with the kinds of attributes a thing can have.

Lifting Rocks

Let’s start with the Atheist argument because I think it is more familiar. It runs as follows:

  • Can God create a rock so heavy that He cannot lift it?
  • If He can’t, then He is not omnipotent since this is something that he cannot do.
  • If He can, then lifting it is something He cannot do, and so again He is not omnipotent.
  • Therefore omnipotence, as an attribute, is incoherent and God cannot be omnipotent (or God cannot exist though that would require some additional premises)

Now, theologians have consistently said that the phrase “create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it” is itself an incoherent phrase, and God is not beholden to be able to do something nonsensical. However, I think many have trouble seeing how this phrase is incoherent. We can see the incoherence by understanding the difference between essential attributes and relational attributes.

Simply defined, an essential attribute is a attribute something must have in order for it to be what it is. It is an aspect of its nature. A relational attribute is a attribute that something has in relation to something else.

Let’s take a rock. Let’s say the rock is five pounds. Is this rock heavy or light? Well, quite quickly you would say that it is light. You are able to lift it readily. However, imagine you are an ant. Now is it heavy or light? Well, clearly now it is heavy. But how can this be? We are talking about the same rock. The rock didn’t change; only the situation around the rock changed. So how could a attribute of the rock be different? The simple answer, according to the definitions given above, is that heaviness is a relational attribute, meaning that it is in relation to the power of the one attempting to lift or move it. But then, what is it that makes the rock heavy or light relative to me? It’s mass. Mass is not a relational attribute but an essential one.

Now this shows us the incoherence of the argument. Creation is the forming of something’s essence. As a process, creation is merely concerned with essential attributes, and does not form relational attributes. Likewise, the act of lifting is concerned with heaviness; it is not concerned with mass (Since I also could lift a rock of any mass given properly low gravity). Thus the two verbs in the sentence are acting on different attributes (creation --> mass | lifting --> heaviness). Therefore, the two verbs are themselves completely disconnected, and one cannot make demands on the other, making the sentence incoherent. God can create a rock of any mass and lift a rock of any heaviness. Therefore He is omnipotent.

Getting Justice

Now the problem with the Calvinist argument is much more subtle, but is answered by the exact same distinction. According to certain Calvinists (admittedly not all), God is justified in creating persons with the knowledge (and I would say intention) that He must condemn them because God needs to express His justice. Justice is a defining attribute of God, and if God did not express it, then He wouldn’t be God.

Well OK, but what kind of attribute is it? How do we determine whether justice is an essential attribute or a relational attribute? Is justice part of God's essence, or is it something God is in relation to something else? Well for that, let us return to the rock.

As you may recall, since it was two paragraphs ago, the mass is an essential attribute of a rock, since it is part of the rock's nature, and heaviness is a relational attribute of the rock, since it is defined in relation to something else (namely the power of the lifter and gravity). How did the atheist confuse these two things? Well because any relationship involves two entities, it is therefore connected to the attributes of those two things. So with heaviness, it is connected to the power that the lifter is able to generate and the mass of the rock (and of course the gravity). However, in everyday conversation, when we talk about relational attributes, we usually assume the context. For instance, we always simply assume Earth's gravity when talking about heaviness. Also we usually assume that the lifter is the one being spoken to, making the available power just as assumed Therefore, in everyday speech, heaviness is typically determined by the mass of the rock. Because the other referents are assumed, we think of it as a sole property of the rock even though in reality it is actually the rock's mass expressed within a particular context. Therefore, all relational attributes are basically the expression of an essential attribute within a particular context. We can therefore identify a relational attribute if it requires something else for expression and is reducible to some essential attribute. We can also identify an essential attribute if it requires nothing external for expression.

So let us turn this analysis onto justice. Is justice relational or essential? Well, immediately we see that this almost answers itself. The Calvinists’ own argument clearly shows that justice is relational, since it claims that the unrighteous are necessary in order for justice to be expressed. Well, since all relational attributes are reducible to some essential attribute, what do we reduce justice to? Again the answer is quite clear. Justice reduces to righteousness or goodness. In other words, justice is merely the expression of God’s goodness in the context of evil, just as heaviness was the expression of the rock’s mass in the context of the ant.

So where does this leave us in terms of assessing the Calvinist argument that God created us for the expression of His justice? Well for this, we will need to turn to another attribute of God: aseity.

Now the doctrine of aseity states that God is self-existent: He can exist by Himself and has existed by Himself and He needs nothing. Thus the Latins said that God exists “a se” or ‘himself’, hence aseity. So what does this mean? Well if God exists by Himself, then the only kind of attributes He must express are essential attributes. Indeed, we can say this stronger. We can in fact say that God must be able to not express any relational attributes. To deny this is to deny divine aseity. If God ever needs to express a relational attribute, then God needs something beyond Himself. In fact theologians of typically argued that God must exist as a Trinity in order for love to be an essential attribute of His, for He needs persons to love. Therefore God must express His goodness in all circumstances, but God also must be able to not express His justice. He must be able to exist without the existence of things to enact justice towards.

Does this mean that God is not necessarily just? Of course not. God is necessarily just within the context of evil. To ask if God can be just without evil is akin to asking if God can lift a rock so heavy He can’t lift it. It is meaningless. However, to ask if God could ever not be just when evil is present is like asking if the five pound rock could be anything but heavy to an ant. Therefore it only makes sense to ask is just within the context of evil, and within that context He must be because He is always just.

Therefore, considering the argument “God created wicked people for the expression of His justice”, we can draw two conclusions: one logical and one theological. First, the argument is incoherent. It is clear that justice as a concept is only valuable and meaningful in the context of evil, and cannot be used to justify the existence of evil itself. It is merely derivative of His goodness and does not require expression in of itself.

Second, the argument can make God dependent on His creation. If God must express any relational attribute, then He needs the existence of the thing it relates to, which in this case is us. What’s worse is God wouldn't require us per se, but would require our sin. This makes God not just dependent on humanity, but dependent on sin itself. Now a Calvinist might argue that God doesn't need to express justice, but that it is merely good for God to express justice. If that is true, then that good would have to be compared to the existence of evil itself. I fail to see how a world without justice because it is without evil is worse than a world with any amount of evil at all. Justification for the existence of evil must come from an attribute of creation itself which is not inherently evil but created for the good, such as free will. In the absence of just such a justification, Calvinism must either reexamine whether God is truly good, or better yet reexamine their Calvinism.

April 30, 2014

My Thoughts On The Ignorant

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So last week I put up a post responding to John MacArthur's video on Inclusivism. However, I did not include my actual beliefs in that post, and I thought it might be good to write a seperate post describing what I personally think.

First, I want to state that I am not a Pluralist. I strongly reject the notion that all beliefs are created equal, and I believe that a response to the gospel in particular is soteriologically important. However, I am also not an Exclusivist, so I do believe that there are some who will be in heaven who had not heard the gospel in this life. Therefore, I will fall somewhere in the middle, making me an Inclusivist. However, I try to balance out a lot of different truths in the full development of my belief.

  • That God desires all to be saved (I Tim 2:3-4)
  • That God is lenient on those who are ignorant (Acts 17:30)
  • That evangelism brings salvation to those who hear it (Rom 1:16)
  • That faith in Christ is necessary for election, justification, and regeneration
So how do I compile this. First of all, there is a difference between election, justification and regeneration over against final salvation. Final salvation is an end state. When we are referring to that, we are referring to something that will happen in the future. When I say that I am saved, what I mean is that the good work which has been done in me is such that it guarantees salvation (given that I do not abandon it). 

Election, justification, and regeneration on the other hand are contemporaneous acts that God does on me which take place here and now.When I say I am elect, I mean that right now I am part of God's people. When I say I am justified, I mean right now I am legally in right standing with God. When I say that I am born again, I mean right now God is revived my dead spirit and that the Holy Spirit resides within me. All of these acts are necessary for salvation to ultimately be completed, and it is these acts which guarantees my salvation (not anything I do). 

So how does this apply to the ignorant? Well it seems to me that there is no way that one who is ignorant of the gospel can be regenerate, justified, or elect. Without the gospel, they cannot be in Him, and thus enjoy the benefits and the calling of representing God in the world through His people. However, it does strike me as possible that they can be confronted with the gospel upon death, and that in accordance to that response, be justified, regenerated, and elected. 

This would imply though a well tilled soil. I don't want to suggest that all ignorant persons will ultimately be given eternal life. Indeed, I would think that it is less likely, or else what is the point of evangelism other than giving them the Spirit within this life? But if a person was in fact responding to the drawing of the Holy Spirit, and lacked only exposure to the truth, such exposure would come in death.

After all, faith is about trust and submission to God. It is not about doctrinal affirmation. Doctrine is a sign of maturity; it is not a sign of salvation. So this would raise the question, what signs would we expect from such persons? Well I would suggest that it is not the same signs as a Christian. The fruit that we usually discuss from Christians are the fruits of the Spirit, but an ignorant person wouldn't have the Spirit since they would not be regenerate. Mostly, I would think we would expect a dissatisfaction with what their society says. In other words, they wouldn't be saved because they are a good Muslim for instance, but they would actually be a bad Muslim. Such persons would be responding to the internal draw of the Spirit, and would be lead away from the lies that are around them. They would be ready and willing to hear the truth, simply not knowing what the truth is.

This would be consistent with what Hebrews says, when it claims that someone who has never heard the truth would be better off than the apostate. This makes no sense with exclusivism, but it does with the position I laid out above.

Now I have had this basic view for many years. Generally the only argument I have heard against it is that it is the MacArthur kind. I don't think that I can prove this with Scripture, but I think it is consistent with Scripture and with what I know about God's heart. I am perfectly open to other theories though. 

April 25, 2014

John MacArthur on Inclusivism

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So I recently watched this video:


There are a couple of things I would like to say in response, some positive and some negative.

First of all, MacArthur here is suffering from a confusion of terms. When he is responding to what the Catholic apologist and Pope said, and then goes on to define Inclusivism, what he actually defines is what is known as Pluralism. Pluralism is that doctrine which states that what one believes is irrelevant, but only how one acts or whether one is spiritually connected with God.

In this, I completely share in MacArthur's criticism. Truth matters. Pluralism fundamentally denies that there is any true gain in properly identifying and submitting to the one true God. Instead, it focuses on the individual's authenticity of belief and honesty. I do not think this is biblically defensible, nor do I think it is intellectually honest.

However, by calling this Inclusivism, he is able to avoid dealing with the claims of actual Inclusivism. We see this when he quotes the obviously Inclusivist quote from Billy Graham. MacArthur's primary argument against Graham's position is merely a guilt by association. But not only is such an argument fallacious on its face, but in this case the association itself is merely artificial.

Part of the problem of course is the actual definition of Inclusivism. Inclusivism is the belief that God will take into account the conditions and situations around those ignorant of the truth, and will judge them according. You may note a degree of vagueness in that definition. The reason for that is that Inclusivism is actually quite varied in its application, and often maintains a degree of mystery about how things work in regards to the ignorant. This variety makes it quite difficult to assess Inclusivism as a whole since some forms of it can border on Pluralism, while other forms of it border on MacArthur's own Exclusivism (that only those with full understanding of the gospel will be ultimately saved). Indeed, one can argue that unlike Pluralism or Exclusivism, Inclusivism isn't really a doctrine but an umbrella term for all those nuanced beliefs that fall between the two.

As such, it is easy for someone at the end of the spectrum, such as MacArthur, to conclude that all those who disagree with him basically believe the same thing. Indeed, this seems to be the only kind of argument MacArthur seems to know sometimes. However, it is also an erroneous conclusion.

April 18, 2014

A Good Friday

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Let me rephrase what Jesus said to the rich young ruler: why do we call today good? I love Jesus. He comforts me, He takes care of me, and He defines my very existence. Yet today we celebrate the day that He died the most horrible and gruesome death ever known. So why do we call it good?

Let me share a bit of my life. A year and a half ago, my second son, Justin, was born. He had a beautiful face and unusually wise eyes for his age. However, even though he looked perfectly healthy from the outside, on the inside his lungs and heart were malformed. The Lord gave my wife and me 10 days with him, and then he left us. Out of all of the experiences of my life, it is the most painful and difficult experience I have ever had. And I will treasure it always.

There is only one word to describe those days we had with Justin: good. There is only one word for the anticipation of him being born even though we knew he would be sick: good. There is only one way to define the feeling of being able to hold him in my arms as he passed away: good. There is only one thing to say to explain what Justin’s short life was: it was most certainly good.

Good is not the absence of pain, or the immensity of happiness. It is the fundamental value of something. Justin’s life, though short, will forever be cemented in his mother’s and my hearts, and it is that which makes it good. When we look to the cross – the epicenter of human history, the suffering to end all suffering, the King of Kings carrying the guilt of the world – we look at something of immeasurable worth. It was not just another Friday, but for humanity it was the best Friday of history. And though it was a difficult time for Christ that day, I am certain He looks back on it and calls it good, for it was the day He bought His people.

So let us celebrate in mourning. Let us express our joy for the day of sorrows. And let us look up that hill and know that what was done was done for you, for me, and for the whole world. May you have a truly Good Friday. Amen.