Debate on Calvinistic Compatibilism Part 25: Derek Responds

Matt,

You bring up many interesting points here. I am compelled to respond to a few of them, as follows.

You said “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.”

In theory, this all sounds pretty good. However, skeptics use this type of argument against Christian theists when they assert that a morally perfect God would never create a world in which evil exists with His knowledge or by His permission. It does indeed appear that an omnipotent, loving God could create a world free of evil (and the possibility of evil). He did not do so; thus a non-Christian would argue that He either does not exist or is not the greatest conceivable being in terms of His power and love. How would you answer these arguments of skeptics, since they themselves appear to be able to conceive an even greater being than the God of the Bible as you understand Him to exist?

There is one major flaw in the argument, and I answer with this slight alteration: “God, in virtue of being God, is the greatest inconceivablebeing.” I strongly distrust the ability of human conceptions to rightly apprehend an incomprehensible and transcendent God. (based partly on Isaiah 55:9)

Looking at your comments in general, I am not sure you grasp the articulate nuances of Calvinistic theology. Calvinists clearly and emphatically affirm that God is ONLY GOOD, ALL GOOD, and SOLELY RESPONSIBLE for EVERY GOOD that occurs. God is both entirely innocent of evil, completely victorious over it, and never subject to its tyranny. Think about the implications of these statements. Do you agree with them? Do you think it is possible that in your zeal to preserve God’s innocence you may have compromised other important attributes? It is all too easy to overcompensate. This is part of the reason we have to be guided by Scripture.

You said “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).”

Decreeing/ordaining evil is not the same as originating it. If God is the ultimate cause of everything that occurs–even on your view–how is evil exempted? Is it any better to say that evil occurs with God’s foreknowledge and permission, and that He could prevent it but chooses not to? If you affirm that God knows about and permits evil, then in some sense are you not committed to the belief that He willed it and is its ultimate cause? I think we would both agree that God is the ultimate cause of evil, and yet not it’s origin or author (because He is incapable of desiring to do evil). Do we even disagree on this point? I recently discussed this at length with Roger Olson in the comments at his December 2012 post entitled, “Calvinism and the God-as-Author Analogy.” You might find that conversation interesting.

You said “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 [PMP] 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 [PMP].”

Calvinism does not violate or deny God’s moral perfection. It exults in the triumphant display of it, and rejoices in the fact of it. You seem to be saying that God’s moral perfection and His foreordination of all things are mutually exclusive. I take this as a false dichotomy, along with your assertion that foreordination and freedom are incompatible. What prevents God from foreordaining in a way that does not invalidate freedom or implicate Him in evil? Is it a lack of power, ability, wisdom? I believe strongly enough in his omnipotent wisdom to suppose that He can accomplish these things, and I think highly enough in His moral perfection to suppose that He can do it without violating His holiness, justice, purity, or goodness. I would question whether you or I possess enough moral perfection to be competent in judging God’s decision to permit evil as a means of glorifying Himself. After all, some of the evil He has permitted is OURS! So our view of moral perfection may need some alteration (via Scripture and the work of the Spirit).

You said “It is important that we understand this because the divide between Calvinism and Arminianism cannot be resolved through simply appealing to scripture. . . . Both sides are using scripture—sometimes the same ones! But scripture alone is not sufficient. . . . Frameworks ultimately determine what we filter in and what we filter out, what is possible to concede to and what is impossible to allow.”

Scripture is sufficient when rightly handled. The problem is that we don’t always want it to say what it says, so we start downplaying what we don’t like and emphasizing what we do like. I believe you have done exactly this in your argument regarding the book of Proverbs (more on this later). Part of my appeal to Biblical paradox is based on a rigorous commitment to taking all of Scripture at face value all the time, as far as is humanly possible, even if it doesn’t seem to fit the system. This makes you think more, leaves you without an explanation sometimes, and takes your trust in the Bible through tests that result in an increase of faith faith and understanding. I am convinced that system-driven exegesis is actually a hindrance to sanctification. Although it is impossible to be completely unbiased, it is well worth working toward.

You said “Your framework is that God has meticulously determined and planned every evil thought, desire and choice—such that it MUST take place … 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.”

Classical Calvinism (all the way back to Augustine, at the very least) affirms that evil is ordained only by permission. It is not ordained in the same way that good is ordained, because God is not at all evil but is entirely good. The creature is the origin, author and direct cause of evil. God simply ordains to permit this. If He gave us libertarian freedom, without directly causing good in us, evil would be the only possible result. The reason I say this is that I believe so strongly in God’s moral perfection and omnibenevolence that I cannot conceive of the possibility of any good ever occurring apart from His direct causation. “There is none good but God alone.” “Apart from You I have no good thing.”

You said “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?)”

God only decrees to permit evil; he does not author it, directly cause it, or even allow it apart from the creature’s own autonomous volition. So, while the decree includes everything that occurs (both good and evil), God’s direct causation and authorship only includes the good. He ordains that the creature is allowed to do evil only as a means for Him to do even more good. From your perspective, how does God get credit for the good that occurs? Can good happen apart from His direct authorship? Further, when a person is committing a horrific crime such as you mentioned, do you believe that God’s sheer mercy is keeping him alive and thereby in some sense permitting him to do the horrific things he is doing? Do you believe that God is actively doing the “good” of extending that person’s life, even as the person does evil? Is God showing mercy by allowing that person to live? Or does this thought somehow violate God’s moral perfection and implicate Him in the evil that is being done by that person?

You said “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).”

Totally agree. This is a critical exegetical connection that is also well supported throughout the New Testament.

You said “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.”

Calvinism says that God is not the direct, sole or originating cause of evil; and certainly not its author. He permits it. I addressed the difference in previous comments, and have now done so again.

You said “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.”

I disagree. Faithfulness to Scripture — and full submission to God’s truth expressed there — is the most important factor in evaluating any theological system. Affirming God’s truth according to Scripture will not prevent scoffers from deriding His character; in fact, it may only provoke them to further mockery (unless God changes their hearts).

You said “With that said let me address … some of the verses you believe commit you to the framework that God decreed all your decisions—including your sin.”

Do you believe that God foresees your sin? Does He have the power to prevent it? Does He willingly permit it? How is this different from decreeing to allow you to sin?

You said “Yes we are limited in our knowledge—I agree. But you are asserting contradictions that are in every sense incoherent and absurd.”

What contradictions have I asserted? Where have I stated that any given proposition is both true and not true in the same way and at the same time?

You said “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.”

Sure it can be challenged. It can be challenged by the Word of God. I am not at all saying my view is absurd from the human perspective; rather, I am saying that my view agrees with God’s Word, reflects God’s revelation, and may possibly be difficult to explain (in terms of mere human logic) at some points where God has not directly spoken. That is a far cry from absurdity! On the other hand, it is bordering on absurd to suggest that my view has any kind of connection with or similarity to gnosticism. The proper name of the hermeneutic I am representing here is presuppositional Biblical epistemology. How are we to know things that God has not revealed? When it comes to His eternal workings, which He has not seen fit to describe to us in detail, it could be a bit presumptuous for us to think our application of human logic is going to lead us to a detailed understanding.

You said “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.”

This is a tough conversation to have with anyone anywhere, especially when there are strongly held convictions on both sides. I appreciate your gracious attitude, which is all too often missing from these discussions.

Blessings,
Derek

(Continued in subsequent post…)

Matt,

Thank you for taking time to work through some of the Scripture passages I mentioned.

You said, “In your last response 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.”

Does God foresee every evil that occurs? Does He have the power to prevent it from occurring? (if not, what power does He have over evil?) Does He permit evil, or does it happen outside of His control? If God permits evil when He could prevent it, do you think this violates PMP? Does PMP dictate that God never foresees or allows evil?

The purpose of the Lord that stands — no matter how horrific the evil that occurs — is to bring about greater good.

You said, “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.”

In other words, God decrees to permit man to do what man wants to do? That sounds very familiar. The creature is always the originator of evil.

You said, “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.”

What is the difference between allowing evil in order to bring about good and decreeing to allow evil in order to bring about good? Is the “good” of overcoming evil His eternal purpose? Did He foresee it from eternity? Then why not decree to allow it?

You said, “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.”

The point is that the same evil event which was “meant for evil” by the brothers was simultaneously “meant for good” by God. Did God foresee and choose to permit the wicked characters and actions of the brothers? This was the human motive and means for Joseph to be sold as a slave in Egypt. Was God in control of this evil, such that He could have prevented it?

You said, “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).”

What you are describing here is in perfect harmony with Calvinism. Can you apply this same logic with regard to other horrific evils? Does God “plan and purpose” them? If not, how do they occur apart from His planning and purposing?

You said, “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”).

Calvinists do not think God creates evil within people. However, if the sin of Joseph’s brothers was foreseen and permitted by God in order to bring about what He planned and purposed, did they have the ability to choose otherwise? As you know, I would answer “yes.” Your view would seem to indicate “no.” If this is the case, were they morally responsible?

You said, “Such is the nature of true, God-glorifying sovereignty: overruling evil for good—not causing all evil to bring about some good. Vastly different.”

How about eternally purposing to allow a pre-defined amount of evil in order to bring about vastly more good?

You said, “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!”

Sure it sounds Calvinistic. We believe in the proper balance of human choice/responsibility and God’s sovereignty. We do not in any way deny human choice/responsibility. We also believe in the principles of Law and Gospel, so it is natural that we are commanded and held responsible. Again I am concerned that you may not be aware of the historic/classical Calvinistic approach.

You said, “This leads to my basic contention that any attempt to ground a universal, deterministic sovereignty in Proverbs is ill-conceived from the start. . . . 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.”

I believe this is a misguided and dangerous approach to exegeting the Wisdom Literature. Proverbs certainly contains general observations about the world and people as you indicate, but it also contains absolute and unobservable truth about God. Is the fear of the Lord ALWAYS the beginning of wisdom? Does God ALWAYS hate evil? Does He ALWAYS possess wisdom? Is He ALWAYS righteous? In Proverbs, truths about God’s nature and acts are not just general observations; they are revelation concerning matters we are incapable of observing.

You said, “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?”

Because the things the Proverbs reveal about God are not generalized. They are God’s self-revelation, and are not reflecting human observations. They are the Holy Spirit’s unveiling of God’s hidden ways.

You said, “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.”

Which roll of the dice IS God in control of? Which rolls are beyond His control? When does He find out the outcome of the game? Does He allow it? Could He have prevented it?

You said, “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.”

What would be the point of saying something OBVIOUSLY manipulated by God is under God’s control? That would be stating the obvious, no?

You said, “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.”

Does God foresee and allow the results of die rolling? When does He not foresee and allow the outcome? If you affirm that God both foreknows and permits the results of every die roll, aren’t you saying in some sense He wills/ordains them all?

You said, “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.”

Unfortunately, this view undermines God’s self-revelation, and downgrades it to the level of general observations about people and the world. Calvinists believe God is as morally perfect and meticulously sovereign as He reveals Himself to be throughout Proverbs. Your approach here would seem to reduce His self-revelation to mere generalization and human observation. What you are overlooking is that the point of many verses in Proverbs is to reveal eternal truths and principles about God that are consistent yet UNOBSERVABLE, in sharp and vivid contrast to the earthly realities generally noticed by humans.

Blessings,

Derek

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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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