Debate on Calvinistic Compatibilism Part 24: Matt Responds

Hello Derek,

Thanks again for your patience. It has been a frustrating week of traveling. One of our older boys from the orphanage I oversee got accepted to a great university in Thailand. I left with him last week but he was issued the wrong visa. We tried to fix the problem in Thailand but were unsuccessful for the most inane reasons that accumulated to the point of taking a few years off my life :) We had to take the long journey back across the border and have been waiting on the embassy here to issue him the correct visa in the hope that he can return to Thailand tomorrow…but delays keep arising. I would rather not think God predetermined it before time began but has allowed it and will ultimately use it for our good IF we respond to it appropriately (i.e. not killing any embassy workers) :)

I would like to begin by laying out some needed borders to frame our discussion from this point on. I am committed to the view that God has not decreed or predetermined all evil because I am committed to a hermeneutical principle I have coined “The Principle of Moral Perfection.” (PMP) God, in virtue of being God, is the greatest conceivable being, yes? And it is greater to be morally perfect than not to be morally perfect, yes? As such it seems rather obvious and morally obligatory to hold that a being who has predetermined all evil is less morally perfect than a being who has refrained from predetermining all evil.

We are told that God hates evil and wickedness and loves righteousness, that God abhors evil and wickedness and that he is provoked by evil (would God decree his own provocation?). Moreover we are told that God cannot lie, cannot be tempted by evil nor tempt others to commit evil (much less decree that they commit evil!) and that God’s eyes are too pure to behold evil (much less decree it as certain!). Therefore I find that both logic, morality and biblical consistency require me to be committed to the view that God is morally perfect and therefore not the ultimate origin and cause of evil in virtue of sovereignly decreeing all evil and rendering it certain (if not necessary).

If the “Principle of Moral Perfection” (PMP) is true than we are bound by it just as much as we are bound to the basic principle “God exists.” With this in view I think you can understand why it is incumbent upon us to return to passages that apparently at first glance seems to violate PMF and ask ourselves, “Are there other possible, valid interpretations available that do not violate PMF?” I have become convinced that there exists no Calvinist proof-text that cannot be re-interpreted in a manner consistent with biblical exegesis and which does not violate PMF.

So those are my cards I am putting on the table. We both approach this topic with preconceived assumptions that guide what we are willing to concede—that I admit. It is important that we understand this because the divide between Calvinism and Arminianism cannot be resolved through simply appealing to scripture.

If it could it would have been at some point in the past 500 years. Both sides are using scripture—sometimes the same ones! But scripture alone is not sufficient. A person can have all the mosaic pieces available and still construct the wrong picture because he is working from an incorrect framework in how the “pieces fit.” The scriptures are like such mosaic pieces—and we are all to aware of how they can be moved and shuffled around to support a host of wrong theologies like Oneness Pentecostalism, Mormonism, etc. The argument can only be “won” by recognizing which framework is correct. Frameworks ultimately determine what we filter in and what we filter out, what is possible to concede to and what is impossible to allow.

Your framework is that God has meticulously determined and planned every evil thought, desire and choice—such that it MUST take place (because you assume if that is not true God could no longer be extolled as sovereign?) Moreover you assume the scriptures support your notion that God has decreed every evil choice throughout history.

In contrast my framework is that if the Principal of Moral Perfection is true—if God’s nature truly is morally perfect and righteous—then the claim “God decrees all evil and renders it certain” is a false claim. The question then is, “Whose framework is correct?” I can’t think of a greater cause to defend than the glory, holiness and righteousness of God against false, theological claims that logically hold him to be the ultimate origin, determiner and author of every evil (the claim is too dangerous and insidious to “punt” to mystery or paradox every time the need arises to absolve God of moral responsibility or escape logical implications). I truly feel the very character and glory of God is at stake in this discussion Derek. I hope you can appreciate that fact—for it is where most Arminians are coming from today. (I honestly wonder where you are coming from? Fidelity to scripture? What would make you want to defend the thought that God unilaterally decreed everything from the color socks you choose to child abuse, domestic violence and the “script” of every perverse porn film?)

Thankfully Calvinists have not cornered the market on God’s glory—despite the attempts of Piper to convince Christendom otherwise. Indeed Arminians like myself believe high-profile Calvinists, like Piper, have so thoroughly made God out to be morally ambiguous that “God’s glory” has become indistinguishable from a cosmic being of supreme power willing whatever. But God cannot “will whatever.” God cannot lie and cannot tempt men to commit evil. Yet in Piper’s portrait, God’s exercise of supreme power “becomes the good” rather than being dictated “by the good.” No longer is God’s morally perfect nature the paradigm of goodness that determines God’s willful use of power. Instead God’s will and exercise of raw power determines what is good. (This is a form of radical voluntarism i.e.– something is right simply because God wills it).

All of this is misguided. God’s glory is ultimately not his exercise of will through supreme, raw power—but his moral perfection that determines the use and LIMITS of divine power. God’s perfect goodness is his glory! That is why God literally said to Moses, “I will cause my goodness (glory) to pass before you and I will proclaim the name Yahweh before you” (Exo. 33:19).

I’m slightly digressing to make a point–sorry. Just to be clear, my underlying contention is that the Arminian framework preserves God’s glory and moral perfection whereas the Calvinist framework makes God the cause and author of evil (the very antithesis of glory). You can deny this but you have yet to parse the difference between God’s holy mind decreeing that evil occur and authoring that evil occur.

Every theological school of thought has its own “horse pills” to swallow. Ultimately it is about choosing a theological position that has the least amount of interpretive problems and preserves God’s holy character and glory from derision. With that said let me address some of your additional comments and then some of the verses you believe commit you to the framework that God decreed all your decisions—including your sin.

You state:

“Scripture and the believer’s experience support both divine determinism and genuine free will of some sort (though not exactly the libertarian variety).”

There is little I can say to this claim that I haven’t already said. First your earlier concession that genuine freedom must entail genuine possibilities “to do otherwise” IS the libertarian position! Secondly the weakness of your view is that from God’s decretive standpoint we are not genuinely free to do other than what God decreed. God’s decree acts deterministically upon our wills and from God’s decretive standpoint we are not free to choose contrary to God’s determination. You don’t deny this because you intuitively know to do so renders divine determinism—and thus your view— meaningless. Moreover in your view multiple possibilities or outcomes do not REALLY exist because you concede that only one outcome has been determined (and therefore must occur). In the end your view posits merely the illusion of free-will in that we are ignorant of God’s decree before we choose in accordance with God’s sole decree. And of course the reason we choose in accordance with God’s decree is because God’s decree causally constrains our choice to one—the one he determined. Thus again your view collapses into causal determinism that invalidates genuine freedom, genuine contingency and genuine possibility.

But you deny all this. You deny that humans are merely experiencing the illusion of free-will and you assert that genuine possibilities of choice REALLY exist—despite the fact that every result and outcome has been predetermined. You admittedly cannot resolve the logical dilemma and obvious contradiction inherent to your view and so you again appeal to inscrutable mysteries. You state:

“I am not at all shy about ascribing great limitations and even apparent contradictions to our perspective.”

Yes we are limited in our knowledge—I agree. But you are asserting contradictions that are in every sense incoherent and absurd. Derek, no matter what I say that logically or scripturally invalidates your view, you can simply say, “The contradiction only exists in our human perspective.” It is un-falsifiable because it can’t be challenged by argument, logic…words! This seems to me a tad dangerous—if not gnostic. You are more or less saying your view is absurd from our human perspective but its ultimate truth lies hidden behind the curtain of mystery and exists in the realm of a secret, hidden perspective known only to God.

I think we have both exhausted all we can say on this matter—so we have to let any undecided readers decide (presumably freely?) for themselves :)
What is left is your contention:

“Our paradoxical human perspective is even expressed in Scripture.”

To prove your point you sought to enlist Proverbs 19:21 ‘Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.’”

And before that you highlighted:

Proverbs 16:9 The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.

Proverbs 20:24 A man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can man understand his way?

I see these verses abound all over Calvinist forums and so in my next post I will attempt to deal with the common use of Proverbs by Calvinists to draw forth proof-texts to substantiate a view of meticulous, divine determinism. I hope to highlight why your use of Proverbs is ill-conceived from the start.

I may be back on the road tomorrow but will try to post it up if time allows. Again I want reconfirm that I have enjoyed the dialogue. If I ever sound flustered or blunt just know it comes from a good place :) Sometimes blogs are a poor medium for debate and reflection.

(Continued in subsequent post…)

In your last response, Derek, you called to aid Proverbs 19:21 “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.”

Does this verse dictate that God meticulously determines and controls everything humans do—such as molesting children? The Principle of Moral Perfection would say “no.” Therefore let us look at other possible interpretations of which I can readily think of two:

(1) Far from saying man’s plans originated in God’s decretive mind and that man is merely the intermediate instrument to bring about God’s decree, the verse actually grounds man’s plans in the mind of man—not God. Secondly God’s sovereignty is best seen in overruling man’s ingenuity and evil to bring about his sovereign purposes. There is no violation of PMP in saying God can use, direct and steer man’s own sinful intentions (known to God because he knows our characters) to ultimately fulfill his purposes. That is to say God can exploit man’s plans to fulfill his own purposes. His purposes can trump ours! Again his sovereignty is best seen in overruling evil by exploiting evil for his own good purposes. But it quite another thing to say God decrees evil SO THAT he can bring about good purposes.

For example you bring up the story of Joseph and how God meant for good what the brothers meant for evil. The “it” you reference is Joseph being sold as a slave in Egypt—not the wicked characters of the brothers. And God does no wrong in planning or purposing that Joseph be a slave in Egypt. We owe our very lives to him and if God wishes that I become vulnerable and subject to the evil whims of men such that I serve his overarching purpose as a slave so that good can come, that is God’s prerogative. However we most note the hatred and jealousy of the older brothers arose out of their own wicked hearts and minds (i.e. many are the plans in man’s mind” Pr. 21:9). God did not HAVE to create it within them or decree their evil characters before the foundation of the world in order to later exploit their jealousy and sin to achieve his own good intention (“meant it for good”). Such is the nature of true, God-glorifying sovereignty: overruling evil for good—not causing all evil to bring about some good. Vastly different.

(2) All of the above entails one possible interpretation of Prov. 21:9 that avoids violating PMP. But even then I am cautious in thinking the writer wants us to think of this verse as denoting a universal truth applicable without exception. Another possible interpretation is to rightly assume Proverbs is intended to GENERALLY instruct—not the wicked but the one seeking wisdom. Therefore when a person submits their plans to God—as the scriptures advise us (“commit your way to the Lord”), the Lord is faithful to ensure “his purpose will stand” in our lives. This is all the more credible when we realize Prov. 21:19 parallels Proverbs 16:9 which states “the human mind plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps.” Yet 16:9 is prefaced earlier in 16:3 “Commit to the Lord whatever you do and he will establish your plans.”

Similarly Proverbs 20:24 “A man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can man understand his way?” need not mean that God determined the steps of a rapist to his victim. If it were intended to mean that every person’s steps and path is ultimately controlled by God’s irresistible decrees, then what do we do with the multitudinous verses that advise persons to depart from the path of evil, wickedness and foolishness and adopt the path of wisdom? It is much more likely to assume that the writer of Proverbs is saying that the person who has committed his path to the wisdom and guidance of God will more often than not find himself to be on a journey of faith where full disclosure and understanding is often beyond our grasp. Proverbs 3:5-6 puts it this way:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, do not lean on your own understanding, but in all of your ways submit to him and he will make your paths straight (i.e. direct your steps).”

Does that sound Calvinistic? Not at all–because the onus is on us to trust the Lord and submit to him in order for our paths to be directed! Yet it is speaking to the same issue as your proof-text of Proverbs 20:24. This leads to my basic contention that any attempt to ground a universal, deterministic sovereignty in Proverbs is ill-conceived from the start. It is wholly irresponsible for us to read Proverbs in a manner divorced and isolated from the overall emphasis of Proverbs—that being to instruct one in the way of the Lord. Calvinists invite many contradictions when they seek to universalize these passages into doctrines and principles that deterministically extend exhaustively to all.

Lets examine why.

Proverbs is thoroughly understood by scholars to be within the genre of “wisdom literature” which was not all that uncommon in the ANE culture. It was a form of literature that sought to articulate general wisdom for society to follow.

Proverbs in not a book where we should seek absolute doctrines of universal, binding truths. If we do we have on hand dozens of contradictions and falsehood. For example there are highly skilled people in this world who have remained unknown and unrecognized by kings and rulers despite Proverb 22:29 saying otherwise. A soft answer does not always turn away wrath (15:1). Humility and the fear of the Lord do not always bring riches as Prov. 22:6 asserts. Nor do we find that the wise always inherit honor and that fools on this earth are always shamed and brought to disgrace (3:35). Rulers are not always friends with the kind and pure of heart (22:11). Training up a child in the way of the Lord does not guarantee that he won’t depart from it as 22:6 states. Proverbs asserts that the Lord will ensure that the righteous never go hungry and that the desires of the wicked are never realized (10:3), but this is also not universally true. We live in a corrupt world where the wicked do prosper and even Paul said he suffered great hunger.

One can go on and on. Should we assume that Proverbs is so untrue to many instances of life that it is contradictory, errant and fallible? Not at all—the genre is general wisdom. And IF, Derek, Proverbs contains many passages that are clearly unfulfilled and tenuous in their universal binding nature, why are you so confident in believing your enlistment of Proverbs 21:19 is announcing a universal truth that God purposes and predetermined everything that occurs?

You didn’t mention Proverbs 16:33 but I see it so often on Calvinist forums (one of Pipers favs) that I would like to deal with it. Any Arminian would concede that God in his power is more than capable of determining the outcome of any casted lot—we just feel the Calvinist is overstepping his case in teaching that God determines every throw of the dice in every monopoly game based on this verse.

Moreover this verse is not without its historical context. It was not uncommon in the history of Israel to attempt to discern God’s will in a particular matter by casting lots. For instance when the faithful of Israel gathered together before the Lord to seek his council they would ask that the decision of the lots come from the Lord, such as in Joshua 18:8 where we find that Joshua cast lots for his men “before the Lord” or in 1 Samuel 14:41 where lots are cast to determine guilt between Saul and Jonathan. Many scholars think the Ephod, Urim and Thummim were inanimate objects of divination like flat coins or dice in which the priest or king prayed for God to UNIQUELY manipulate the objects to reveal his will. The writers of the O.T. would not have believed every roll of the dice or every lot cast in every gambling foray was equally manipulated and determined by God! Yet Calvinists would have us believe Prov. 16:33 is asserting such a universal rule.

In the N.T. we also find a situation in which the disciples gathered UNIQUELY before the Lord to seek his decision by casting lots to fill Judas’s spot as the 12th disciple. These are specific cases where men are seeking the will of the divine and God in turn seeks to reveal his specific will. God is more than capable of honoring their faith. That is the key—it is done in faith. There just isn’t good warrant for the Calvinist to universalize this passage deterministically over every bounce of the gambling dice in Vegas! Common sense tells us Prov.16:33 is extolling God’s ability to intervene (at will) into random lots cast, but that such intervention is contextually appropriate to situations where God has a specific course in mind and controls the lots in accordance with his guidance in a certain matter.

So in sum Derek, if we cannot universalize a host of passages in Proverbs without undermining the book…we ought not to assume that the passages you (and many other Calvinists) cite are intended to unveil a universal theme of exhaustive, divine determination.

There are still substantive comments you have made I want to respond to…plus your enlisting of Acts and the predetermined crucifixion of Christ. I will address those next.

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About StriderMTB

Hi, I'm Matt. "Strider" from Lord of the Rings is my favorite literary character of all time and for various reasons I write under the pseudonym "StriderMTB. As my blog suggests I seek to live out both the excitement and tension of a Christian walk with Christ in the 3rd world context of Asia. I am unmarried yet blessed to oversee an orphanage of amazing children in South-East Asia. I hate lima beans and love to pour milk over my ice-cream. I try to stay active in both reading and writing and this blog is a smattering of my many thoughts. I see the Kingdom of God as Jesus preached it and lived to be the only hope for a broken world and an even more broken and apathetic church.
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