Sunday, December 18, 2016

Can God Expect Us to be Good?

You’ve probably heard some variant of this: “Nobody’s perfect, so you can’t expect me to be, either.” I added an emphasis to the word “expect” so we can talk a bit about what’s going on here. We often intuitively agree with this; we shouldn’t expect perfection from someone. And yet it seems God expects perfection from us (and Christians think God is correct in doing so). So what is going on here, exactly? Is this a problem?

I think, at bottom, what is going on concerns an ambiguity in the way we use “expect.” Or at least in the context of the usage of the word. When we say that we cannot expect perfection from someone, what we typically mean is that perfection is not a reasonable outcome in a merely finite person. And that seems right.

But it also seems that this is not how we’re using “expect” when it comes to God expecting perfection of us. Instead, this is more like holding someone to an obligation. So when God expects perfection from us on his moral law, this means any infraction is a violation of the law more broadly construed (cf. James 2.10). It’s something to think about for today.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Omniscience, Omnipotence, and God

Suppose that omniscience is God’s knowing all true propositions and believing no false ones. Suppose further that omnipotence is God’s being such that he is able to perform any logically possible action. Now suppose that it is within my power (that is, it is up to me) to know what happened in the world yesterday (via a newspaper or website) or not—that is, it is within my power to know or to refrain from knowing. Suppose finally that God is essentially omniscient (that is, it is a property God must have in order to be who he is). The following paradox is said to hold for these claims:

1.     God is essentially omniscient.
2.     God is omnipotent.
3.     It is logically possible for me to know or to refrain from knowing x about yesterday.
4.     So God is able to know or to refrain from knowing x about yesterday (from 2-3).
5.     So God is not able to refrain from knowing x about yesterday (from 1).

(4) and (5) obviously contradict, and the critic of these attributes can point either to (1) or (2) as the culprit. What are we to do? Should we get rid of omniscience or omnipotence?

I think we should jettison the account given of omnipotence as too simplistic. I’m not saying we should give up omnipotence. Rather, I’m saying the definition doesn’t capture what it needs to; it’s too simplistic. Here’s an example:

6.     It is logically possible for me to know I am Randy.
7.     So, given (2), it is logically possible for God to know he is Randy.
8.     But God is not possibly Randy.
9.     So (2) is false.

(6) seems correct. I am identical to the referent of Randy, after all. (7) is an entailment of the definition we gave. (8) is a consequence of the fact that I am not even possibly God. (9) is just the entailment of (2) joined with (6-8). I find this argument far less objectionable in conclusion than the one above. So what is omnipotence? I don’t have the full account here in a short blog post, but the suggestion is that it’s maximal power (Flint and Freddoso). In this case, logical possibility is a necessary but not sufficient condition in the analysis of omnipotence. It at least has to be curtailed to something like “God can do what it is logically possible for him to do” (even if this can’t be the whole story—there could be other beings who can do everything it is logically possible for them to do, and they would fail spectacularly on the omnipotence scale).

So my final conclusion is to expand the analysis of “omnipotence” so that it captures the biblical data and works within our traditional theology. It then easily avoids the absurd conclusion that omnipotence requires God to know he is me!

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Does God Want All to be Saved?

In the Calvinist[1]/non-Calvinist dialectic over whether or not God wants people to be saved, the following often occurs:

Claim: God doesn’t want some people to be saved, on Calvinism. This is because he could cause them to believe if he really wanted to, but he doesn’t.

Response: But you have the same problem. On your view, God still has the power to cause people to believe, but he doesn’t, because he values free will. We have the same kind of response: God could save everyone, but he values something else more. For you, it’s human freedom, and for us, it’s his own glory.

It seems to me this response misses a crucial nuance that I’d like to explore.

When the non-Calvinist asserts that, on Calvinism, God doesn’t want some people to be saved, what she is really claiming (or at least what she should be claiming) is that God doesn’t want some people to believe. It is this key distinction in the dispute that will make all the difference. What does it mean to “believe” in Jesus? Does it mean to believe in his existence? Well, sure. What about his claims to divinity, and his resurrection? Of course. But it also means much more than these mere intellectual states. It is an active trust in God for life and salvation (just ask yourself—or a Calvinist—if someone is really a believer who has no interest in trusting God or following Christ at the time of their supposed conversion).

But this kind of trust, love, and discipleship can only be entered into freely. I suspect that, at bottom, most Calvinists would agree (on certain conditions, no doubt—but conditions not needed at present to agree). Non-Calvinists in the debate tend to believe in the thesis of incompatibilism—that causal determinism is incompatible with freedom—and as such, causal determinism is incompatible with freely entering into a love and trust relationship with Jesus Christ. Calvinists often, though not always, affirm compatibilism—the thesis that causal determinism is compatible with free action—and so causal determinism will be compatible with freely entering into such a relationship.

Now we can see the difference between the initial claim and the response, and why the response (given by people such as John Piper) doesn’t have the intended force. It’s because the answer is “no”—God cannot force someone to freely do something, any more than he can create a married bachelor or lie or will himself not to exist, etc. The whole idea of salvation presumes a free choice to participate in sin such that one needs salvation.

Now on the non-Calvinist view, God could have created creatures without any free will, such that none would ever go wrong. But then these wouldn’t be humans (and plausibly wouldn’t have been made in the image of God); they would be something else entirely. Notice the response loses force if we amend it to, “Yes, but on your view, God could have refrained from creating humans and no one would be lost;” the lack of creation is not symmetrical to securing universal salvation. The fact remains that on the Calvinist view, God could secure a free response of salvific belief for everyone, and simply does not do it.

[1] What I am calling “the Calvinist view” is shorthand for the view of Calvinist theology with the thesis of causal determinism. Thus, in principle (and in practice!) there can be Calvinists to whom this does not apply.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Some Kinds of Thinking

In this post, I am going to examine five kinds of thinking that I believe people engage in. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on how this might be expanded, applied, or even corrected!

1.     No thinking.
This is what happens when people simply repeat things, like campaign slogans, one-liners, and other things. People aren’t always revealing a lack of thinking when they engage in such things, but they frequently are. It sounds good, so they repeat it, so they can move on. This is dangerous for the church, for it opens the door to cults and cult-like movements that can be unbiblical.

2.     Simplistic thinking.
This occurs often at the “one-liner” level. The person who engages in simplistic thinking often approaches an issue and is willing to engage with it, but only as far and as quickly as it takes to espouse a position. This is not always (or even usually) done maliciously. An example is found in politics, when Democrats accuse Republicans of lacking education (as a catch-all explanation; as an alternative see “evil”), or when Republicans accuse Democrats of wanting to control your every move (again, as a catch-all). Simplistic thinking can be harmful since, on the “defensive” side, it easily lends itself to misrepresentation of one’s opponents, and on the “offensive” side, it reflects very little contemplation of an issue (e.g., “Something bad happened to you; therefore, you must be in sin!”).

3.     Confirmatory thinking.
This goes beyond simplistic thinking, but perhaps not by much. It allows the person to think just so far as it makes her position stronger, and no farther. It’s a lot like confirmation bias in this respect. It’s damaging to the church at large since it allows believers to stay within their tradition, whether or not that tradition is even remotely correct. Questions are answered only as far as it takes to confirm the pre-conceived idea. It’s not wrong to investigate an issue and find out you were right the whole time, or even to defend what you believe to be biblical truth. However, it is wrong to short-change the issue by refusing to entertain contrary objections or evidences.

4.     Interactive thinking.
This is a decent level of thinking. It moves beyond initial answers to interact with objections, answers, and counter-answers. It weighs the arguments and evidences to see what the best answer might be. From a Christian perspective, it measures things against the biblical record. If what is at stake is a matter of biblical interpretation, interactive thinking seeks to resolve this from a wide variety of sources, arguments, and evidences.

5.     Exploratory thinking.
Not everyone is required to engage in exploratory thinking. This is the level that not only engages scholarship but also uses it to stimulate new ideas. These new ideas need not come at the expense of old ones; in fact, these new ideas just can be new ways to arrive at old conclusions. In politics, exploratory thinking can be applied to help solve governmental issues and meet societal needs. In Christianity, exploratory thinking can run from theology to culture to every area of life in solving problems, raising new questions, and answering old ones. It’s a very exciting area indeed!

            So, do you have anything to add? What do you think about these levels? Tell me in the comments below!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

An Update

Here is a brief update on what I am doing with my PhD. As some of you may know, I am currently enrolled in the PhD Philosophy program with the University of Birmingham (UK). I am doing the degree under Yujin Nagasawa, an excellent philosopher and already a helpful supervisor. My PhD topic is going to be on alternative concepts of God. Specifically, I want to study a particular argument for God-as-embodied (say, a Christian pantheism or panentheism) and critique it, using a reductio ad absurdum and whatever other tricks up my sleeve I might discover.

It is a three-year program at full-time speed. Thus, I would ask that you pray with me that I can balance work, teaching, family, church, and research all together in the best stewardship of my time. A disciplined exercise will be to write more, both on my research topic and other apologetic or theological topics more frequently. This will cut down on “warm up” time that seems to eat up so much of my research time.

Finally, I am attempting to write a few book reviews and apply for a conference and funding. I’d ask that you pray that I would have strength and that God’s will be done. Normally, I am on Facebook, but for rest reasons I am not returning to Facebook until November 9. Feel free to drop me a line here, and God bless!