Saturday, July 22, 2017

Arguments from Tradition

I have recently realized why I don’t find arguments from tradition (especially in theology) very persuasive.[1] It used to be that I didn’t take church tradition very seriously at all. Now, I certainly think there is value in it (though I don’t perceive it to be authoritative). Nonetheless, I still find such appeals to tradition to be problematic.

It seems to me that the argument typically goes like this: this is a position tradition has upheld for a thousand years or more; you are arrogant to think that you somehow have it right where a thousand + years of Christianity had it wrong.

While there are issues on the periphery that bother me (e.g., if it’s arrogant, while that’s interesting, this alone says little about whether I am correct; it’s not clear why mere disagreement entails arrogance, and potentially so on), a bigger issue seems to me to lie in the claim itself that, in our example, has stood for a thousand years or more.

So let’s take it to be the case that this traditional position has been either: a) affirmed by a council, or b) made official dogma (I only differentiate in cases where someone might; I’m just trying to cover bases). This prevents a weaker case of tradition where some view has simply been held by Christians over the years; this is a view held by perhaps the vast majority of Christians over centuries.

While I agree that going against such a view should only be done in the gravest of care, I think we have an interesting scenario: it isn’t, presumably, the case that over the course of a thousand years, the vast majority of Christians who ever lived tested out the position to see if it was true, and all independently came to this conclusion that the position is true. Instead, in cases of (a) or (b), the position simply becomes the paradigm within which Christians work. At best, most Christians simply accept the position, and the rest work assuming the paradigm is true (in apropos Kuhnian fashion) and seeing how to defend it or what results from it.

Much, perhaps even most, of the force of these types of traditional arguments are removed when one realizes that the claim amounts to, “Everyone else has gotten in line; why haven’t you?” That claim, of course, works easily in cases where one takes tradition itself to be a kind of authority; but I don’t (for better or, as my Catholic friends may say, for worse).



[1] This is true in most contexts. Obviously, where the discussion centers around what tradition has typically upheld, I take it that traditional appeals are demonstrative.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

CARM and Molinism (But Really Just Prevenient Grace)

It has come to my attention that there is a newer, recent article from Matt Slick on prevenient grace and Molinism. In it, he attempts to argue that total depravity rules out prevenient grace (he applies this reasoning to two versions of prevenient grace, but since it relies on the same foundational reasoning it will be sufficient to deal with that). This is what I take to be his argument, in premise form:

1.     If total depravity is true, then man cannot come to God freely.
2.     If prevenient grace is true, then unregenerate man is still totally depraved.
3.     Total depravity is true (assumption of prevenient grace).
4.     Prevenient grace is true (assumption of prevenient grace, by definition)
5.     Therefore, if prevenient grace is true, then man still cannot come to God freely.
6.     Therefore, man still cannot come to God freely.

I believe I have represented Slick fairly and accurately here. However, there are some problems. First, he takes total depravity to mean that there is no free choosing of God and that prevenient grace doesn’t rectify this at all, since man is still totally depraved, and that prevenient grace relies on total depravity (since otherwise it wouldn’t be necessary). But this is just question-begging. After all, the advocate for prevenient grace can just insist that he doesn’t accept (3) if this is what total depravity entails (instead, call it “total depravity lite,” where the only difference is that prevenient grace can restore such an ability as an act of divine grace); or she can say she rejects (2), since, after all, prevenient grace is intended to restore, and so restores to a condition of total depravity lite. Why can’t he or she make this move?

Spelling it out more, this assumes prevenient grace doesn’t accomplish what it intends to accomplish. Prevenient grace agrees that man is totally depraved, but that any good that can be done by man is due to God’s enabling grace, and that he can come to the Father on the occasion of the Spirit’s moving work. But Slick simply claims that, in premise 2, we can see it doesn’t accomplish this. Why should we think this? Well, Slick quotes a few verses without doing any exegetical work. In other words, he builds his conclusion into his argument; he begs the question.


In truth, why can Molinists not just reject (2), and point out prevenient grace is meant to solve the ability problem? You can’t very well reply that prevenient grace doesn’t solve the ability problem because there is an ability problem!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

CARM is at it again!

It looks like CARM is discussing Molinism again. From the first sentence, we find ambiguities that may affect the ability of a person to dissect the claims. Nonetheless, I will stipulate what I reasonably believe CARM to mean so we can move on (from here on out, I will refer to Matt Slick, since he is the one who wrote the article). First, he starts out with “Molinism fails as a philosophical position.” What does this mean? Does it mean that Molinism fails to be a philosophical position? Surely not. He probably means it fails to be a truthful philosophical position, where he takes it Molinism is false. Next, he claims it is “founded on two unbiblical assumptions.” Now before we unpack what these are, it’s telling he doesn’t here describe what “unbiblical” means. Notoriously, “unbiblical” can mean anything from “anti-biblical” to “not explicitly taught in Scripture.” But, let’s say that we think Slick means “anti-biblical.”

So what is his criticism, specifically? First, he senses a tension between MacGregor’s discussion of prevenient grace and the biblical witness. Unfortunately, all Slick does here is list verses, and then conclude, “He cannot receive them.  It does not say he can under the right circumstances. It does not say he can with prevenient grace that enables him to choose to receive Christ.” With no exegetical work done, we can safely ignore this, since it’s not as though Molinists are unfamiliar with the relevant texts. In fact, this isn’t even a uniquely Molinist “problem.” All you have to do is recognize that we affirm these same texts, and that they don’t inherently preclude prevenient grace. After all, the texts affirm that man in his natural state cannot receive God, and it’s only by God’s grace that anyone can. Even on Calvinism, man still chooses God (it’s just that God regenerates him first, or causally acts on him such that he chooses, etc.). So a work of grace on the heart of man by God is what occurs. This seems entirely consistent.

Slick offers this next criticism briefly: “Even with prevenient grace as an option, why does one person believe, and another does not?  Doesn't God know how to work prevenient grace around/within a person to get him to believe?  It still comes down to human ability.  This is another problem which Molinism cannot answer, but scripture does.”

This is confused for a variety of reasons. First, it does not “come down” to human ability. After all, we just got through stating it was prevenient grace. This would be like a Calvinist insisting that any actions done by an unregenerate person qualify as a person acting in human ability. No actions can be done outside of common grace, and prevenient grace is at least common grace (plus the ability to believe, as it turns out). Second, Slick seems completely unaware of the literature on this subject. Molinists such as William Lane Craig offer possible speculations on this (in terms of transworld damnation). Further, some Molinists offer these truths as “brute facts” about the creaturely essence. But even here, it doesn’t relate to ability.

He then writes that if prevenient grace and libertarian freedom were true, then God’s appointing would be totally unnecessary. Except this, once again, shows a relative ignorance of Molinism. By actualizing a world, God thereby appoints every event that takes place within it. Now it is true that if prevenient grace and libertarian freedom were to be possible, then God need not actualize any world in order for these to be possible. But if they are not only possible but describe the actual world then, by necessity, God has actualized this world. And if he actualized it, he appointed it. And if he appointed it, it is because he is the sovereign creator of the world!

He then goes back to the whole why doesn’t God get everyone to believe? objection. This, of course, assumes there are relevantly true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom that are compossibly true such that God gets precisely what he wants in a relevantly similar world. Slick doesn’t have any way of knowing this is the case. He then asks us to consider Scriptures that supposedly show that free will doesn’t enter into the equation with respect to salvation. Since he does no exegesis, I won’t either, but I will say that Molinists can happily affirm each of the biblical texts he has listed. Since this is his article claiming Molinism fails biblically, it is up to him to exegete the text in such a way that it is both persuasive and precludes Molinist exegeses.

I am only responding because CARM has a strong online presence. I would hope they would continue their focus on cults and non-Christian world religions, where they have seemingly done quite well. Molinism is not their cup of tea, and that is OK!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Hedge of Protection Rules, Accountability, and Legalism

I was having a conversation yesterday about something and this blog post comes out of that. In previous generations, Christians and vocational ministers often had so-called “hedge of protection” rules, such as: never counsel a member of the opposite sex alone, always call when you are travelling away from family, limit or get rid of TV, etc. These are also placed alongside accountability rules, such as internet software (at least in today’s society), weekly meetings, phone calls, and small groups. These rules are in place, ostensibly, to keep people safe, their hearts pure, and their focus on the Lord.

On the other hand, lately I’ve seen a lot of comments from contemporary Christians that such rules are not desirable. Even worse than this, they are indicative of either an immature Christian or else an evil and/or impure heart. So which side is right? How can we adjudicate this rationally and spiritually?

It seems to me, on the one hand, that the accountability side is right. We are made for community, both because we image-bear God (cf. Gen. 1:27) and because we are made to be in fellowship with each other, bear one another’s burdens, and so on (see literally any and all of Paul’s letters). Additionally, Jesus himself advocated for taking radical steps, albeit while speaking hyperbolically, to avoid sin (see Matthew 5:27-30). Paul urged us to “flee” youthful lusts.[1]

On the other hand, there is something right about the naysayers. There is a legitimate point to be made about legalism and how it doesn’t change your heart. If all you do is institute a bunch of rules, you may simply be revealing how sinful your heart really is, and these rules aren’t going to change that—they simply remove some particular opportunities to commit that sin.

Here, I think, is where we can find a rapprochement. It’s very true that if a man struggles with watching inappropriate things on TV, removing a TV doesn’t cleanse his heart or renew his mind. In fact, all it does is simply remove one way he might sin. He’s still living, and breathing, and thinking, and thus his problem is not solved. Thus, we can see if one is trying to cleanse his heart and renew his mind by simply hedge-of-protection rules or accountability, this will not work.

However, if a man struggles with inappropriate thoughts, and is in the Bible and praying, he may add accountability, and radical measures, and this will be fine, and even good for him! Why? Because it’s motivated by a desire for a change of heart, and as we are being renewed, we remove temptation from our lives where necessary. The arrow runs in the other direction. You’re not holy because you remove temptation; you are being made holy, and you recognize for your life you need to remove this temptation for a time, or even permanently. The danger is in thinking it somehow makes you spiritual, or in insisting others do it as well, or else be in sin.

This can be applied to other sins as well (indeed, all of them!). Gluttony—perhaps remove particular foods. Body image issues—perhaps remove particular magazines or TV programs. Gossip—perhaps remove yourself from particular friends for a while. The list can go on and on. None of these help you become spiritual. But what they do accomplish is to help someone who is becoming spiritual weather temptation in different areas.

Finally, one last note: we all struggle with something sinful. That’s because we all have a sin problem. So if you think, “If that person struggles, then he is really sinful,” just know you’re right. I am really sinful. And so are you. So pray for each other, and show each other grace. As (I believe) Mike Grover once suggested, too often we claim we have avoided legalism, but in reality all we have done is switched sides!



[1] Granted, this is plausibly in juxtaposition with “following” righteousness, faith, charity, and peace in the same verse, and so may be more metaphorical. Nonetheless, I suspect Paul may have had room for a literal application (Joseph, anyone?).

Friday, June 9, 2017

Some Notes on My Recent Research

I’ve recently received some feedback on my PhD work that I have submitted so far. Without getting too far into it, I am writing a bit (for this current chapter) on the pairing problem. For those who are unfamiliar, the pairing problem basically says that it does not appear that there is anything in virtue of which a mental cause can be paired with a physical effect, and that where we can describe cause/effect pairings, we do so in a manner wholly descriptive of the physical (e.g., the cause is x distance away from the effect, the laws of nature are such-and-such, etc.). Thus, there probably (or necessarily!) is not any realistic way mental causes can be paired with physical effects.

This has traditionally been used to bring up a problem for dualist conceptions of action (where humans who have a soul can interact with the physical world, including their bodies). However, it has recently been applied by Andrei Buckareff to divine causation as well. This is where my current research comes in. I’d like to provide a potential positive model for divine causation, but in order to do so, I’ll need to interact with the divine pairing problem.

The feedback I received for my progression panel was really helpful. However, I was reminded that, in a PhD, there is a sense in which no one knows more of what you’ve written than you do. I am not claiming I am the world’s expert on the pairing problem (far from it); all I am saying is that I know what I mean to convey, why I am conveying it, etc., and this can be advantageous. One of the criticisms was that he thought it may result in the cause and effect being located in the same place, in which case we are still left with the question of what pairs the cause and effect together.


While I will need to take care to be clear on this, I think it makes the mistake of thinking that mental events are or can be located somewhere, if by located we mean “physically located.” A counterintuitive result of discussing mental events or substances as causes and physical location is that these events or substances as causes are not located anywhere! Nonetheless, I intend to work to undercut the pairing problem and to see if I can provide a positive model of God’s creative and sustaining interaction with the world.