Impeccability of Christ & Broadly Logical Modality

The Sproulian view of the peccability of Christ ends in either in an abstraction of the human nature from the second Person or else it attributes human personhood to the Son. Either way the denial of the impeccability of Christ implicitly, yet unwittingly, denies Chalcedon. (At the 21 minute mark I interact with Sproul, though I don’t get into modality in the Sunday school class.)

It’s really as simple as modus tollens.

1. If it is possible that Jesus could sin, then it is possible that God could sin.

2. It is false that it is possible that God could sin.

3. Therefore, it is false that it is possible that Jesus could sin.

Given the validity of the form of the argument, which premise (1 or 2) is disputed by those who’d deny Christ’s impeccability? It’s hard to say given that the focus is typically on the possible sin of Christ’s humanity, and not on the possible sin of Christ in his humanity. Notwithstanding, in order to deny impeccability one must affirm that it’s possible for the Son to sin. Otherwise the debate is misunderstood.

Possible world semantics are also useful here. Consider, is there a possible world in which the incarnate Son of God sins? (The answer to the question is kind of built into the definition of God, but I won’t get ahead of myself.)

Modality considerations:

We would do well to distinguish (a) narrow or strict logical possibility from (b) broad logical possibility or metaphysical possibility. One might say that “God sins” is logically possible in a strict sense because the proposition does not immediately entail a logical contradiction. But that would not imply that it is broadly logically possible, metaphysically speaking, for God to sin.

An analogy might be useful here. A state of matter cannot be solid and not solid at the same time and in the same way. To affirm the contrary would entail logical impossibility in a strict sense, as it would violate the law of non-contradiction in an immediate inferential sense. (It’s critical to grasp at this point that one needn’t know what solid, gaseous, liquid and plasma states entail for it to be known that such a phase of matter (a form that is both solid and not solid…) is a strict (or narrow) logical impossibility. The logical contradiction in view is formal and according to the law of non-contradiction (aside from any semantic considerations). It merely pertains to: something cannot be x and ~x…

However, it would not immediately entail a logical contradiction for a phase to be simultaneously solid and gaseous; yet how is such a state of being relevantly possible? Well, it’s not. It can’t be actualized. We might say that such a form of matter is not strictly (or narrowly logically) impossible, but that’s merely because no formal law of logic is immediately violated by the term solid-gas. What’s lacking in the immediate or strictly logical inference of the possibility of a solid-gas is the meaning, or qualitative differences, of two distinct truths about forms of matter. Yet once we know the semantic implications of solid and gaseous states, then we may infer from additional premises that no solid can be simultaneously gaseous. Accordingly, we may then further deduce that a phase that is both solid and gaseous is more broadly logically (or metaphysically) impossible. Furthermore, a solid-gas is just as relevantly impossible as a solid that is not a solid!

Back to impeccability. Like a solid-gas, a God-man who can sin is a contradiction in terms. Such contemplations are broadly illogical due to the nature of things.

2 ways one might go:

Without grasping the relevant implications of divinity as it relates to the doctrine of Christ, one might assert the metaphysical possibility of Jesus sinning. Furthermore, it’s not immediately inferable that it’s logically impossible for all possible humans, including Jesus, to sin. Yet if one grasps Chalcedon and incorporates God’s nature into the deduction, one may more modestly concede the latter option, that it is narrowly logically possible for Jesus, a human being, to sin. Whereas the former option lacks the use of relevant information about God’s nature, the latter, although more sophisticated, would have little or nothing to do with the doctrine of Christ’s impeccability, which is a metaphysical, broadly logical consideration. (Moreover, I’ve never seen such a subtle distinction of modality articulated as the basis for one’s denial of the doctrine of the impeccability of Christ, which is not to say that some haven’t had such reflections without having the semantic categories to articulate such a position.)

Those who hold to a doctrine of peccability either are confusing modalities or else they’re latent Nestorians:

Christians who affirm a doctrine of peccability typically do so without any self-conscious reference to a modality maneuver. Notwithstanding, to assert peccability as true doctrine entails a misunderstanding of temptation that in turn undermines the two natures in one subsistence. It’s not as though they affirm only strict logical possibility over possible actuality. Rather, in affirming peccability, they affirm the actual (metaphysical, broadly logically) possibility of an unfaithful Christ (and consequently affirm strict logical possibility too). In doing so, they abstract the human nature from the divine person, which falls to the same type error as positing a solid gas. In confusion, they might additionally attribute distinct personhood to the human being, Christ (Nestorianism).

Further reflection:

Christians embrace the incarnation of the divine Son as a union of two distinct natures in one hypostasis. Yet given a doctrine of peccability, is it further supposed that the human nature could possibly have sinned apart from the Person having sinned? In other words, by sinning would the Second Person (God) have committed sin only in his humanity but not personally? It’s hard to tell whether people like Sproul think that the whole person of Christ could possibly sin in his humanity. After all, Sproul’s position entails an unorthodox abstraction that “Satan was not trying to get God to sin. He was trying to get the human nature of Christ to sin, so that he would not be qualified to be the Savior.”

Wrapping up:

Given the meaning or ontological import of Jesus is Son, we may safely maintain it is metaphysically or broadly logically impossible for Jesus to sin in any actualizeable (feasible) world, which is the only relevant scope of possibility in this regard. Since God cannot possibly actualize a world in which the Son sins, in what Christological sense might Christ possibly sin? Given God’s nature, an implication of Chalcedon is Jesus was indeed impeccable.

There are other missteps Sproul makes. I’ll briefly touch on a few.

“But if Christ’s divine nature prevented him from sinning, in what sense did he obey the law of God as the second Adam?”

False dichotomy: When God prevents us from sinning in the face of temptation, are we not truly obeying? Accordingly, operative grace does not undermine either obedience or true temptation.

Moreover, God’s free knowledge of the divine decree presupposes the causal divine determinism of ordinary providence. Consequently, Sproul’s question smacks of Incompatibilism for God cannot but ultimately and causally determine the incarnate Son’s willful intentions through the intentional ordering of states of affairs, about which God pre-interprets the particulars consistent with a Reformed understanding of concurrence.

“I may be wrong, but I think it is wrong to believe that Christ’s divine nature made it impossible for his human nature to sin. If that were the case, the temptation, the tests, and his assuming of the responsibility of the first Adam would have all been charades. This position protects the integrity of the authenticity of the human nature because it was the human nature that carried out the mission of the second Adam on our behalf. It was the human nature uniquely anointed beyond measure by the Holy Spirit.”

What is it to be “uniquely anointed beyond measure by the Holy Spirit” other than to attribute something additional to the Second Adam that was not granted to our first father by the Holy Spirit? Moreover, how might Sproul capitalize on the Spirit’s anointing in a way that distinguishes it in any relevant sense from the ordinary empowering of the human will that might have come to Christ’s humanity from the Son’s ubiquitous divine nature, which is shared with the Father and the Spirit? How many divine beings are there after all? Moreover, the incarnation entails a perichoresis in the sense that the omnipresent divine nature of Christ penetrates his human nature, as it does ours yet to a lesser degree, though always without a transfer of properties. The penetration is also one directional and never from the human nature to the divine nature.

Lastly, regarding the human nature and Christ’s mission, was it the human nature that kept itself from sinking under the infinite wrath of God? Moreover, did the human nature alone give worth and efficacy to the sufferings of Christ? No to both. A human person could not have possibly redeemed! Accordingly, Sproul is not only wrong for abstracting the humanity of Christ from Christ, he’s also mistaken in thinking that the divine nature of the Son contributes nothing to our salvation. (See my post on strict vs. pactum justice.)

We are saved by a divine Person, not by an abstracted impersonal nature or even a human person. Accordingly, Sproul simply is incorrect that “the human nature carried out the [redemptive] mission.” Rather, it was requisite that a person carry out the mission, and that the person be God incarnate, as Sproul’s confessional Standards rightly teach:

Westminster Larger Catechism:

Q. 38. Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be God?

A. It was requisite that the Mediator should be God, that he might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death; give worth and efficacy to his sufferings, obedience and intercession; and to satisfy God’s justice, procure his favor, purchase a peculiar people, give his Spirit to them…

(As with the false doctrine of Christ’s peccability, so it is with Molinism. As I argue here, Molinism posits true narrow-sense possibilities that cannot be actualized even though there are an “infinite number” of these “logical” possibilities. And here, I made a passing remark about impeccability in a post primarily pertaining to Dabney’s unhappy employment of Middle Knowledge. That passing remark was a seed thought to the current post.)

Simplicity, Attributes and Divine Wrath

A class on attributes might serve as a precursor to this post. Audio addresses: Attributes; Impassibility; Simplicity; Univocal; Analogical.

God is a simple being or he is not. If God is not a simple being, then he is a composite of parts, in which case God’s attributes would be what he has rather than is, making his attributes abstract properties that self-exist without ultimate reference to God. God would be subject to change and evaluation against platonistic forms without origin. Yet if God alone self-exists, then God is a simple being. As such, God is identical to what is in God.

There are at least four traps or ditches we must avoid when considering divine simplicity. One is to say that each attribute is identical to each other because God is his attributes. Another trap to avoid is the denial of divine simplicity on the basis that “God is love” obviously means something different than “God is holy.” A third trap to avoid is trying to resolve the conundrum presented by the first two two ditches by positing a kind of penetration or infusion of attributes using propositions like, God’s holiness is loving holiness. Although helpful and in a sense unavoidable to a point, the infusion of attributes eventually breaks down when we consider, for instance, omniscience and spirituality, or more strikingly love and wrath. Attempts to qualify attributes with other attributes do not save divine simplicity but instead, if taken too far, end in its denial. And finally, a fourth trap to avoid, which is an advancement of the first, is that of saying x-attribute is identical to y-attribute in God’s mind even though the transitivity of attributes is unintelligible to human minds. That particular mystery card reduces each attribute to meaningless predicates when played. Attributes become vacuous terms. The law of identity was never intended for such abuse.

Like creation ex nihilo divine simplicity is derived negatively, not positively. (Creation ex nihilo is deduced by the negation of eternal matter and pantheism.) Given that divine simplicity is entailed by God’s sole eternality, God is not comprised of parts. Accordingly, God’s revelation of his particular attributes is an accommodation to our creatureliness. It’s ectypal and analogical, not archetypal and univocal.

When we consider God’s attributes we must be mindful that we are drawing theological distinctions that pertain to the one undivided divine essence that eternally exists in three modes of subsistence or persons. 

Given our finitude we cannot help but draw such theological distinctions, but we should be mindful that such doctrinal nuance, although proper, does not belong to any division in God.

As a simple being, God has one divine and univocal attribute, which is his essence. Notwithstanding, the God who is not composite we only know analogically, discretely and in part, but that is because God’s simplicity is too complex to take in all at once due to the creator-creature distinction. God is knowable and incomprehensible.

With that as a backdrop, we may consider that many of God’s revealed attributes are further distinguished by their relation to creation, which are sometimes called relative attributes (or secondary attributes, which is not the happiest of terms). Although all God’s attributes are eternal and ultimately one, at least some of God’s revealed perfections are inconceivable to us apart from considering them in relation to something other than God. For instance, God is long-suffering, but what is it to be pure patience in timeless eternity without objects of pity? That an attribute such as long-suffering is revealed in the context of created-time and patience toward pitiful creatures does not imply that God is not eternally long-suffering in his being. The same can be said of God’s holiness, for what is holiness without created things? God cannot be separate from himself; yet God is eternally holy. That is to say, God does not become holy through creation, or long-suffering through the occasion of sin and redemption. Is omnipresence a spatial consideration dependent upon creation or is it an eternal reality that is expressed or not expressed apart from creation?

We are limited in our creaturely understanding, but we can be certain God’s Trinitarian self-love includes love of his relative attributes, such as his patience towards sinners he’d instantiate, and his creativity apart from having yet created. God loves himself for who he is, not what he does (or what we might imagine he was eternally doing).

We understand this even by analogy. One reason I love my wife is because she is a self-sacrificing servant of God and his people. My love for her as a servant isn’t released by her actions of serving. I love her as the servant she is even when she is not serving or even being served. I love her for who she is, not what she does.

Wrath is an attribute no less than long-suffering and holiness. It’s a perfection of God without which God would not exist. If it is not, then what is it?

I’ll now try to address some common rejoinders:

1. To say wrath is not a divine perfection because there are no objects of wrath toward which wrath may be expressed within the self-existing ontological Trinity proves too much. Such a criterion would undermine other divine perfections such as holiness, mercy, creativity, patience etc.

It also confuses God as timeless pure act with a notion of God’s timeless doing. That there’s no potential with God does not mean God’s existence entails an eternal expression of his divine attributes – for our only conception of expression entails time-sequence, which in turn entails creation! So, that God does not “express” wrath in the ontological Trinity in a way that we can understand does not undermine wrath as a divine perfection, for neither can we begin to conceive how love is expressed in a timeless eternity! So, just as relative attributes are only understood in relation to things outside of God, what are classified as absolute attributes (e.g., Love) cannot be conceived other than analogically and relatively.

Since time is created, and eternal expressions of love in the ontological Trinity are human contemplations of the eternal in temporal terms, it’s special pleading to dismiss wrath as an eternal perfection while simultaneously affirming love as an eternal perfection. To do so on the basis of analogical contemplations of time-function intra-Trinitarian expressions of non-temporal Trinitarian existence is philosophically arbitrary and inconsistent. It ends in Social Trinitarianism by introducing time into the eternal life of God.

2. Others have pointed to the the impassibility of God as a reason to reject wrath as a divine attribute. That also proves too much. If wrath is akin to human passion, then God cannot release wrath (or take on a mode of wrath) whether it’s an attribute or not. Therefore, since wrath is part-and-parcel to evangelical doctrine, then if it is to be orthodox doctrine at all it must be a passionless wrath, leaving no place for an orthodox-evangelical to deny wrath as a divine attribute strictly on the basis of God being without passions. The line of reasoning that dismisses wrath as an attribute this way confuses the spontaneous reactions of humans with the determinately measured responses of God. It implies God can be acted upon.

3. Others have suggested wrath is merely an outworking of God’s holiness and justice. The problem with such a construct is that when God exercises wrath, he must exercise wrath (lest he deny himself). Where there’s occasion for wrath, there’s an eventuality to it. In other words, wrath is not purely a free act of the will but has a necessary aspect to it, in that it must be freely discharged against transgressors (or in vicarious substitution). Furthermore, if the dispensing of wrath has this necessary quality to it, then given a freely determined state of affairs that contemplates sin, how is wrath itself not a necessary property of God? To suggest God necessarily expresses wrath because of his holiness and justice is ambiguous. It’s either to divide the one essence of a necessary being, or else it affirms the one essence and is distinguishing the logical relationship of how particular attributes are revealed.

Given that it is necessary that God respond to sin in his wrath, we either have to reduce wrath to a covenant property that God necessarily takes on or becomes, which is heresy, or else we we should conclude that wrath naturally flows from himself like other attributes such as holiness and justice. So, either we end up denying God’s immutability by implying God necessarily becomes the consuming fire he actually is, or else we must infer wrath to be no less an attribute than those attributes from which wrath would naturally arise alongside in full expression in the ultimately one attribute of God, which is himself. To say that God necessarily becomes wrathful because he is holy and just is heresy. Whereas to say that in the context of sin God doesn’t become but rather is necessarily wrathful because he is holy and just is to affirm logical (not temporal) relations with respect to three analogically understood attributes. In sum, God either becomes or is.

(In anticipation of those still pointing to wrath not being eternally expressed in the ontological Trinity, see rejoinder #1 above, which addresses the arbitrariness and inconsistency of the special pleading for the eternal perfection of love while dismissing wrath as an eternal perfection.)

4. Some have wanted to label particular attributes essential, and others non-essential. That’s a philosophical howler because divine attributes are properties without which God doesn’t exist. Accordingly, non-essential divine attributes is an oxymoron. (God has no accidental perfections.) The so-called non-essential attributes are either attributes or they are not. If they are attributes, then they are not only essential but necessary.

Maleness is an essential property I possess. In all possible worlds in which I exist, I am male. It’s not a necessary property because I do not exist in every possible world. God’s essential properties are necessary properties because God is a necessary being.

The employment of “contingent attributes” functions similarly. God being a necessary being can have no contingent properties. .

5. It’s a contradiction to posit a divine perfection that is not an attribute of God. They are terms that pertain to God’s nature, his very essence. Accordingly, we mustn’t try to parse divine attributes from divine perfections or properties, for there is no relevant difference between these headings:

God reveals Himself not only in His names, but also in His attributes, that is, in the perfections of the divine Being.

Louis Berkhof

The perfections of God are called his attributes, because they are ascribed to him as the essential properties of his nature.

Robert Shaw

To the divine essence, which in itself is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, belong certain perfections revealed to us in the constitution of our nature and in the word of God. These divine perfections are called attributes as essential to the nature of a divine Being, and necessarily involved in our idea of God.

Charles Hodge

There are indeed precise theological distinctions we can make regarding divine attributes – like communicable and incommunicable, absolute and relative – but we may not invent a taxonomy that undermines sound philosophical theology.

Wrapping up:

Scripture is clear that God can only swear by himself because there is none greater by whom he might swear (Genesis 22:16; Hebrews 6:13). Added to this we can know that for God to swear by his holiness and in his wrath, God is swearing by himself since what is in God is God (Psalm 89:35; 95:11).

Lastly, if God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29), then wrath is indeed a divine attribute. (Apply modus ponens.)

Let’s hear from some others:

Some [relative] attributes are related purely to sin: wrath is the prime example…However, the relative attributes, as well as the absolute ones, are characteristics without which God would not be God.

Robert Letham

A third element in the idea of holiness is the element of wrath. [The biblical writers] spoke of God’s wrath, obviously considering it one of God’s perfections.

James M. Boice

Though divine wrath presupposes the existence of sin, it expresses what is always true of God’s will: he abhors evil. Divine wrath is indeed a divine perfection.

Scott R. Swain

D.A. Carson calls wrath an secondary attribute, but then stumbles by denying that God is wrath, which of course denies that wrath is an attribute at all. Carson then tries to draw a distinction between God is love and God is not wrath. Carson is initially correct, then contradicts himself per rejoinder #4 above.

Kevin DeYoung recognizes the philosophical sophistry of such semantic gymnastics employed by Carson and others, noting such attempts as “distinctions without a difference.” DeYoung draws attention to the folly of saying God is love but that God only has wrath.

Ligon Duncan quoting J.I. Packer favorably could not be more clear that he believes wrath is a divine attribute.

The Logical-Possible Chasm of Molinism

Consider counterfactual of creaturely freedom (CCF) p: If person S were in state of affairs C, S would freely A.

C represents the relevant history of the world prior to S freely doing A. Within Molinism, given C, S always As. Therefore, if God wills S would freely A, God need only actualize S in C since S in C never results in ~A. This necessity is not true of Augustinianism given that within divine causal determinism p is an object of God’s free knowledge, which is grounded in God’s creative decree and not his Middle Knowledge of fixed brute facts. Of course, Molinism does offer a way around such sufficient-condition necessity, which requires indexing the set of all might-counterfactuals that do not intersect would-counterfactuals to un-actualizeable infeasible worlds. The aim of this post is to explain why Molinism needs such possible-infeasible worlds and seal up such an escape hatch.

The two-fold ambition of Molinism:

For Molinism to lay claim on the doctrine of God’s exhaustive omniscience, there must be a fixity to future contingencies. This requires that some might-counterfactuals of creaturely freedom also identify as would-counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. Simultaneously, Molinism also seeks to maintain indeterminism, which requires that some might-counterfactuals of creaturely freedom not identify as would-counterfactuals. After all, if all such counterfactuals are true in every possible world, they would be necessary truths. So, Molinism requires within the set of all possible worlds a subset of infeasible worlds that God is incapable of actualizing. That’s where un-actualizeable contingencies that would never occur can be parked.

Entailments of Molinism:

Given S in C, Molinism entails that ~A might happen but never would happen. Moreover, Molinism entails that if p is true, then p exists in all feasible worlds – all worlds God is capable of actualizing. Conversely, p is false in some infeasible worlds (i.e., possible worlds God is incapable of actualizing). {Note: p needn’t be false in all infeasible worlds given that what makes some possible worlds infeasible worlds are future contingents other than p. In other words, ~p is sufficient for an infeasible world, but it is not necessary.}

Molinism entails that CCFs like p are contingent truths, which is to say, the freely chosen A that p contemplates is a future contingent. Given C, S would not necessarily freely A; though necessarily, S would always A in C if p is true.

Molinism has no claim on future contingents of creaturely freedom:

How is p not necessarily true given that God believes ~p is universally false within all possible worlds God is capable of actualizing? What is a true possibility that God cannot make truly actual, after all?

If a CCF like p is contingently true, then it follows that there is a possible world in which p is positively false or at least does not exist as true (depending on one’s take on the principle of bivalence). Given that Molinism allows for infeasible worlds within the set of all possible worlds, Molinists believe they have made room for the actual possibility of p being false (even if it is true that God is incapable of weakly actualizing ~A by strongly actualizing S in C). In other words, Molinism entails the actual possibility of future contingents that God cannot possibly actualize, (e.g, ~p). This invites the question, if God is incapable of actualizing a possible world because of an uncooperative future contingent such as ~p, then in what sense is such a future contingent a meaningful possibility? (Or, if God believes p is false only in infeasible worlds, then in what sense is p possibly false?)

Molinist semantics and the logical-ontological or possible-actual chasm:

These creaturely dependent possibilities exist in the semantic land of possible-infeasible worlds. Therefore, Molinism entails some logical possibilities that are purely theoretical – so much so they are impossible for God to know as actualized realities, unless uninstantiated essences – the ultimate source of such true possibilities – would make them so. So, Molinism entails true possibilities that could be actualized a whopping zero number of times, even though there are an “infinite number” of these possibilities. This is all the more striking when we consider the spontaneity of the pure contingency (randomness) of libertarian freedom.

No matter how any world can be arranged, if it contains the actuality of the potential of what p abstractly contemplates, then <S freely As> always obtains as a concrete reality given the actualization of S in C. Accordingly, p as an abstract entity is true in all feasible worlds whether the concrete reality that p contemplates is actualized or not.

The irony of the quest for divine foreknowledge apart from determinism:

Now regarding logical necessity, if a particular truth exists in all possible worlds, it exists necessarily. Added to this, if something is logically necessary, then there is no possibility of it being other than what it is. This has little impact upon the Molinist position but only because within Molinism possibility is not necessarily God dependent. Molinism includes the claim that CCFs such as p are contingent truths because of a supposed logical possibility of p being false even though an instantiation of ~p is a sufficient condition for an infeasible world, i.e., a world which cannot become actual along with ~p! Therefore, for the Molinist some logical possibilities are admittedly impossible for God to actualize, yet those possible impossibilities are supposedly what prevents CCFs from becoming necessary truths. The potential for actualization of might-counterfactuals that are not also would-counterfactuals are supposedly real and creature dependent although God is incapable of actualizing the worlds in which they are true counterfactuals. They are abstract truths about possible realities that God cannot bring into actual existence, which would seem to undermine their actual possibility, which in turn would make their negation (e.g., ~~p —> p) necessary truths. Therefore, the contingency of CCFs and exhaustive divine omniscience Molinism seeks on the basis of indeterminism ends in the brute fact necessity of all CCFs.

As intimidated here, a necessary truth is one that exists in every possible world. And although Molinism upholds a theory of possible worlds that affords room for contingent CCFs, if we maintain that necessary truths are truths that exist in every possible world that can possibly be actualized, then the truth values of CCFs in infeasible worlds are irrelevant in evaluating whether a counterfactual is a necessary truth. At the very least, could God believe such counterfactuals are possible?

Divine Causal Determinism saves future contingencies:

From an Augustinian perspective God freely determines what a person would freely do in any state of affairs. God is capable of actualizing a world in which I freely do not type this post under the same state of affairs in which I freely do type this post. Therefore, from an Augustinian perspective p is a contingent truth. Yet such future contingents are inconsistent with Molinism. The trajectory of Molinism leads to the untenable position that some logical possibilities are impossible for God to know as concrete, actualized realties. Accordingly, Molinism cannot bridge the logical-ontological / possible-actual chasm.

Compatibilist Freedom and Properly Basic Beliefs, an analogy of unlikely bedfellows

It’s interesting that many incompatibilist libertarians subscribe to properly basic beliefs that are formed in us but not strictly by us, which they’d say we are nonetheless morally responsible to live by. But how can such incompatibilists consistently maintain that we can justly be held responsible for such unwilled beliefs if we may not be held responsible for unwilled intentions? After all, wouldn’t unchosen beliefs be causally formed in us beyond our ultimate control no less than any caused intention? From an evangelical libertarian perspective, why would an infidel be responsible for a causally formed belief in God but not a causally formed intention to reject God? In fact, she heartily approves of the latter whereas the former is an inconvenience, which she suppresses because it doesn’t meet with her approval!

Plain and simple, we are responsible for what we believe and what we intend because they are our beliefs and our intentions. I maintain that it’s not the freedom of compatibilist freedom that’s so objectionable to libertarians, but rather it’s more likely to be God’s determination of the intentions of such freedom that they find so distasteful.

Natural Knowledge or Free Knowledge of CCFs?

Natural Knowledge: God’s knowledge of all necessary truths, including all possibilities logically prior to his creative decree.

Definition from Divine Foreknowledge Four Views, Edited by Beilby & Eddy, page 211.

God knows all possible worlds according to his natural knowledge. Yet many Reformed thinkers tend to extend natural knowledge to the objects of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs) within possible worlds. I believe John Frame and Paul Helm are representative:

When God knows possible worlds, does he not also, by virtue of that knowledge, also know all possible creatures and their possible actions? So, from a Reformed point of view, there is no reason why we shouldn’t regard God’s knowledge of contingencies under the category of necessary knowledge.

John Frame, The Doctrine of God, page 503. (By “necessary knowledge” Frame means natural knowledge. He equates them along with knowledge of intellect, page 500.)

Paul Helm is perhaps more precise:

But if God knows what Jones, if placed in circumstances C, would do, then this is surely part of God’s natural knowledge, his knowledge of all necessities and possibilities.

Paul Helm, Shunning Middle knowledge.

It would seem that Frame assumes the premise that Helm asserts. Frame infers God’s necessary knowledge of CCFs from God’s necessary knowledge of all possible worlds. The problem is, CCFs are would-counterfactuals and as such do not merely pertain to all possibilities that God would necessarily know. A contingent aspect is being overlooked. To know what is generally possible is not to know what would be specifically true. That God necessarily knows all possible worlds does not imply that he knows counterfactual particulars within possible worlds other than freely and as contingently true.

By cataloguing CCFs under God’s natural knowledge as have Frame and Helm, such counterfactuals are relegated either to necessary truths or possibilities. CCFs are either like laws of logic that actually exist in every possible world and could not have been false, or they are akin to potential realities that necessarily exist as possible, though might never actually exist (other than as abstract possibilities.)

Although my actual existence is not a necessary truth, that, P, <I would, in this possible / actual world (Wp/a) freely type this post if placed under circumstance C> is true. Given that God believes all truth, God eternally knows P. This particular bit of counterfactual knowledge of my typing this post, X, should be considered transworld by such Augustinians. The transworld object of knowledge can be dropped into any relevant states of affairs, C, in any possible world, Wpn, so that in Wp1, Wp2, Wp3… God would know X would occur under equally similar Cs in any Wpn given the implied intrinsically causal power of C, which in the thinking of some is relegated to an object of Natural Knowledge. (We will table the question of whether X in C could be contingently related to which Wpn is in view, which I hope will become obvious later.)

This sort of intrinsically causal necessity is understandable among Causal (Nomological) Determinists, but it is an unnecessary and improper concession among Causal Divine Determinists. Has Christian determinism been so influenced by secular philosophy? (See James Anderson site for the various stripes of Determinism.)

When Augustinians catalogue such would-counterfactuals under God’s natural knowledge, what is implied is some sort of necessity for CCFs without which counterfactual knowledge could not obtain. What is implied is that CCFs are logically, metaphysically or in some other sense still indeterminately caused. After all, if some sort of necessity for there to be natural knowledge is not maintained, then C need not result in X, my freely typing this post, under C. In which case, the fixity of the result of C (i.e., the free choice of X) would defy truth value and, therefore, could not be an object of natural knowledge. Hence the need for some sort of necessity within the confines of natural knowledge. Yet, if the grounding of the counterfactual is God’s will, which it is(!), then the counterfactual would be contingent truth, an object of God’s free knowledge! (NOTE: This is not to posit the metaphysical contingency of libertarianism, which might be confusing some. True counterfactuals are not necessary truths, otherwise they’d exist necessarily. Notwithstanding, they don’t fall out purely contingently in a metaphysical sense, but rather they become causally necessary by decree, which is not to be confused with something being a necessary truth.)

Like with Molinism, such Augustinians as these, if consistent, are consigned to a view that would entail that any actualizable (truly possible!) world that includes equally similar Cs (i.e., similar relevant states of affairs), always results in X , my freely typing this post. (In passing we might note, even Middle Knowledge entails causality that Molinism cannot avoid. Molinists engage in a type of special pleading when they introduce might-counterfactuals and insist the set of all possible worlds include infeasible worlds!)

Scott Christensen has this to say:

Determinism refers to the idea that all things that occur in our world are necessarily and causally determined by prior conditions. Thus, given specific prior conditions, only one outcome could possibly take place.

Scott Christensen, What About Free Will page 12. (Scott makes a similar error on page 170 and perhaps elsewhere: “God could ordain any variety of outcomes that transpire in the natural world and the human plane of that world. But if he ordained something different to occur, then the preceding conditions would be different as well.” Page 170 (emphasis mine).

What these Augustinians are suggesting is that it’s the relevant states of affairs, circumstances or prior conditions that necessitate free choice. By cataloguing CCFs under natural knowledge, it is (unwittingly?) implied that the effect is ultimately caused by something intrinsic to the nature of C, otherwise God would not know X like he naturally knows all necessary truths and possibilities! Unlike Dabney who wrongly, I argue, attributed this knowledge to “Middle Knowledge” (yet of non-libertarian choices, gratefully!), these Augustinians would like to attribute God’s knowledge of CCFs to his natural knowledge, which would reduce the object of such natural knowledge either to (i) a brute fact or (ii) a reflection of the divine essence (if they’re not freely determined).

Christensen goes on to liken the causality of choice to our living in a “cause-effect universe…” Even offering as an analogy, “When the temperature cools to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it causes water to freeze.” (Page 13.)

Now clearly Christensen is not a physical determinist when it comes to the mechanics of choosing. He’s a soft-determinist. One of the good guys(!), along with Helm and Frame. Notwithstanding, what is implicitly denied by more than a few is that God pre-interprets the particulars that comprise any C, and in doing so freely determines the causal relationship and truth values of counterfactuals. Therefore, with respect to CCFs, these too are a matter of God’s free knowledge, whereas possible counterfactuals are part of God’s natural knowledge. What must be remembered is that from a consistent Augustinian perspective CCFs are would-counterfactuals, not might-counterfactuals. They have definite truth values (albeit they are contingencies), which presuppose a truth maker. As contingencies, these eternal truths cannot be grounded in God’s ontology or natural omniscience, nor in anything outside of God, which only leaves his will of determination, making Divine Knowledge of CCFs a species of free knowledge.

Take liquid water freezing at 0 degrees C. (No need to get into pressure, additives, purity and nucleation centers etc.) Does God know this according to his natural knowledge? Consider that water at 4 degrees C is at its highest density, which means it will expand whether it is heated or cooled. Must that causal relationship necessarily hold true given all relevantly identical circumstances? Could not God have determined that water continue to become increasingly dense as it is cooled below 4 degrees C? (We could just as easily consider the direct relationship of temperature to gas viscosity and the inverse relationship it has to liquid viscosity.)

Now, of course, there are physical “explanations” for these sorts of phenomenon in this world, but the point should be obvious. “Laws of nature” merely map God’s will, which is to say his pre-interpretation of how new facts introduced into relevant states of affairs, fixed circumstances, or existing conditions would effect outcome. If this is true in the material world, how much more should we expect it to hold true when considering what must be considered pre-interpreted facts that are introduced into fixed circumstances…, which result in free choices? The resultant or subsequent abstract thoughts, motives, desires, intentions etc. are not randomly triggered but rather “caused” – yet according to God’s pre-interpretation of the variable(s). God gives causal facts their interpretive meaning. There are no brute facts. As I’ve noted elsewhere, can’t God determine that the same song introduced into equally similar states of affairs, within different possible worlds, result in different formed intentions, ending in, say, freely writing a letter, making a phone call or something else?

By cataloging CCFs under God’s Free Knowledge we rid ourselves of unnecessary, improper or unintended nods toward brute particulars, while being able to maintain that God is the only eternal propositional truth maker. To maintain what I’ve argued against is to imply that God must know that I would type this post under identical circumstances in any possible world! It would imply that necessarily, ice cubes float under identical circumstances in all possible worlds, and fish must necessarily have a place to live under frozen ponds.

In sum:

I argued that the knowability of CCFs are matter of God’s free knowledge, not God’s natural knowledge. Accordingly, given the exact same state of affairs, it is false that antecedent influences for any intention of the will necessitates the same choice in all possible worlds. The contingency of the outcome would not be due to libertarian freedom or a brute fact but rather a matter of God’s preinterpretation of antecedent particulars, which can vary from possible world to possible world according to God’s will. A non-theistic determinist obviously cannot make that claim. She is consigned to the objects of influence as being brute facts. I find many Christian compatibilists have followed that lead by mapping effects to metaphysical causal influences, overlooking God’s free determination of those relationships. Accordingly, they catalog knowledge of CCFs under natural knowledge. *I am inclined to think this misstep would readily be conceded by those who’ve made it. I tend to think their goal is to remove CCFs from Middle Knowledge. The reason CCFs might have been unwittingly parked in Natural Knowledge is because Free Knowledge is often associated merely with God’s eternal decree, not counterfactuals per se. Yet what tends to be missed is counterfactuals are decretive truths that pertain to possible worlds whether actualized or not.

(*After private interaction with one Augustinian thinker, it has become clear to me that it is believed by some that by virtue of God decreeing a counterfactual true it, therefore, becomes a necessary truth, which in turn makes it an object of natural knowledge. That is simply wrong by definition and entails dualistic implications, not unlike Molinism. Perhaps the renown Reformed philosopher doesn’t recognize that non-necessary contingent truths can be decreed as causally necessary. Other Augustinian thinkers more steeped in contemporary taxonomy, analytic philosophy and philosophical theology will grasp the error and its implications immediately.)

I alluded to in this post and have developed elsewhere that molinists have no claim on contingent CCFs, whereas compatibilists do in that qualified sense I mention above having to do with God’s giving states of affairs their causal interpretation. There’s somewhat a delicious irony here given the fixity of CCFs in all feasible worlds for the molinist position. Their use of Middle Knowledge requires a fixity of causal influences that compatibilism does not. In other words, Molinism entails an impossibility of contrary choice under identical circumstances once we establish that infeasible worlds (ie, unactualizeable worlds) are statistically irrelevant when considering the possibility of choosing otherwise. Jones freely chooses X 100% of the time in an “infinite number” of actualizeable worlds in which Jones freely chooses between X and ~X given C. That’s a necessity quite foreign to Augustinianism.

Molinist Counterfactual Backfires

Christian compatibilists and incompatibilists agree that man is morally responsible for his choices, and God has exhaustive foreknowledge of the same. Therefore, if man has free will, it must be compatible with God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. “It seems to me much clearer(!)” – and to the rest who desire to make sense of God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs) – to maintain that any true CCF must have as its propositional truth-maker God’s free and sovereign determination. The only other option, lest we deny God’s sole eternality by positing ungrounded CCFs, is that CCFs are necessary truths, like laws of logic that are grounded in God. In other words, unless we are willing to accept mysterious propositional dualism, we are consigned to accept some species of determinism with respect to necessarily or contingently true CCFs being reflections of God’s attributes or will respectively, the latter being more theologically sensible. In sum, since God’s foreknowledge is inconsistent with indeterministic freedom, we either are not free at all or else we are free in some other sense, a deterministic sense. If there is to be creaturely freedom, and if CCFs are contingent truths, then God knows them according to his free knowledge.

(Somewhat ironically, and as I’ve argued elsewhere, Middle Knowledge reduces true CCFs to necessary truths – true in every possible world that could be actualized (i.e. all real possible worlds!) – given that might-counterfactuals, which are contrary to would / would not counterfactuals and, therefore, never true, can neither be known nor actualized. [Obviously I reject the Molinist distinction of possible and feasible worlds. Though I entertain the distinction when considering modality of logical vs metaphysical possibility.])

Libertarian free will would destroy moral accountability, for how can pure spontaneity or agent causation (metaphysical concepts that detach influences, reasons and relevant history from willful actions) produce morally relevant choices? (More on that in a moment.)

Molinists like to point to Jesus’ rebuke of the inhabitants of Chorazin and Bethsaida as proof of God’s Middle Knowledge – for had Jesus performed the same miracles in Tyre and Sidon that he had performed in Chorazin and Bethsaida, Tyre and Sidon would have repented. The prima facie interpretation of the parallel passages is not that Jesus was revealing how others would have responded to those same miracles. Rather, the immediate inference is that inhabitants of Israel were even more hardened to revelatory truth than pagans (and will accordingly be counted more culpable on the day of judgment). It was a rebuke, not a nod toward Middle Knowledge. Yet aside from the obvious, let’s run with the Molinist interpretation and see where it gets us.

Consider possible world Wp with the exact same relevant state of affairs as actual world Wa up to time t, which is shared in both worlds. At t in Wp, Jesus performs in Tyre and Sidon the same exact miracles from Wa that he performed in Chorazin and Bethsaida at t. The result in Tyre and Sidon is repentance. If that is not causality, what is? Remove the miracles, no repentance. Introduce the miracles, repentance. Remove the miracles, no repentance. Introduce the miracles, repentance… Like a light being switched on and off, the miracles would have causally triggered repentance. If not, then what? Would the miracles have triggered (nebulous) agent causation? If so, how would that not entail divine causal determinism given exhaustive omniscience? The only escape hatch is that the miracles trigger nothing in Wp, which would only serve to highlight the morally irrelevant nature of libertarian free choices per the passing reference above. For what reason(s) would repentance obtain if not for the causal connection of the miracles?

Now of course, from a Reformed perspective, God could effect repentance and index such to immediate or secondary causes of either ordinary acts of providence or miracles. God freely knows all such counterfactuals. Notwithstanding, given a Molinist use of the alleged counterfactual in view, it proves too much. It either undermines the spontaneity of agent causation Molinism contemplates, or else it underscores the compatibilist premise that libertarian freedom brings to naught the influences, reasons and relevant history that make our choices ours, rendering them morally irrelevant, not unlike purely random movements.

A Robust Depravity – A Return To Calvinism

Total Depravity ill-defined:

In the Reformed tradition, total depravity does not mean utter depravity. We often use the term total as a synonym for utter or for completely, so the notion of total depravity conjures up the idea that every human being is as bad as that person could possibly be… As wicked as Hitler was, we can still conceive of ways in which he could have been even more wicked than he actually was. So the idea of total in total depravity doesn’t mean that all human beings are as wicked as they can possibly be. It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person…The will of man is no longer in its pristine state of moral power. The will, according to the New Testament, is now in bondage. We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts. The body, the mind, the will, the spirit—indeed, the whole person—have been infected by the power of sin.

R.C. Sproul

To change the metaphor, God’s reflection in us has become distorted like a face in a carnival mirror. Such is our depravity that every part of every person is warped by sin. Sin corrupts our hearts so that we set our affections on unholy desires. It corrupts our feelings so that we are in emotional turmoil. It corrupts our wills so that we will not choose the good. Our whole nature is corrupted by sin. This is what theologians mean when they speak of “total depravity”—not that we are as sinful as we could possibly be, but that we are sinners through and through.”

Phillip Ryken

These accounts of Total Depravity are somewhat typical. I believe they are also lacking. If Total Depravity is true, the rest of Calvinism is a mere footnote. Therefore, we do well to get the “T” of TULIP right. After all, our understanding of the glory of God’s grace is directly proportional to our understanding of man’s fallen condition.

Let’s look at this doctrine a bit more closely by considering whether that which we read in most contemporary explications of Total Depravity overlooks a profound insight that did not escape traditional Augustinians.

Agreement gives way to oversight

Indeed, many unbelievers lead impeccable lives, even engage in philanthropic work – even work that benefits the kingdom of God! Yet has that ever been a bone of contention or a misunderstanding of the doctrine? What is striking to me is that we rarely read what was understood by Augustine and echoed by Calvin, that all the “good” unregenerate man does is merely the result of one lust restraining another. In other words, what is absent from contemporary Calvinism is the idea that man’s so-called good, not wrought in regeneration, suits him for totally depraved and sinful reasons. The miserly man does not spend his money on licentious living, but the reason for such respectable refrain is attributable not to man not being as bad as he can be, but to man’s sinful lust for money (if not also an insatiable desire for self-respect and the respect of others). But is that what we typically hear when this doctrine is explained? Or do we hear that we are in “emotional turmoil” and not as bad as we could possibly be in this world? Emotional turmoil? That the will is no longer pristine and even in bondage does not begin to address the profound moral affects of the fall. My hope is that a largely forgotten theological insight will become unearthed below, that we might recognize how watered down this doctrine has become.

God’s common goodness restrains fallen man through the providential employment of man’s sinful passions in conjunction with man being created in God’s likeness. Accordingly, I for one may not say that Hitler’s judgement will be more severe than any of the popes or many of Rome’s sacrificial nuns. How could I possibly know? Such speculation is beyond my pay grade. What I do know, however, is that Hitler was obviously evil; yet it was the popes, not Hitler, who for centuries promulgated doctrines of demons that paved the road from self-righteous indulgences to eternal torment. Some bad guys wear white hats, even a mitre at times. God judges righteous judgement taking all into account. I’m finite and my judgement worthless, but what I do know is “all have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Romans 3:12

When we say that “man isn’t as bad as he can be,” or that “man can always do worse” or that “Hitler had some affection for his mother,” have we adequately reflected on the sinful restraining-motives that keep men and women respectable? (Pause)

Do we appreciate that man is unable to do other than what God has decreed? Are we aware that in this world, contrary to what we typically read from those who try to uphold Total Depravity, that man is as bad as he can be – both in a metaphysical sense as it relates to the intentions of the heart but also in a decretive sense, which in fact secures our metaphysical intentions? By affirming that man isn’t as bad as he can be, how do we not eclipse that it is for sinful reasons that depraved men and women don’t desire to behave more sinfully?

So, why is it that we so often hear that man is not as bad as he might be? What is hoped to be communicated by this mantra?

For one thing, that assessment is usually based upon works alone – that which we can observe. Yet God judges motive and the intentions of the heart. Surely we would not say that “Satan isn’t as bad as he can be.” Yet why not say the same of man since God has man on the same restraining leash of providence as Satan? Satan doesn’t devour more than he does, but isn’t that because God has determined to restrain him? Is fallen man any different in this regard? Can either Satan or man do other than God has determined, or contrary to what either chooses according to his own evil intentions? In what sense can either be worse?

Satan and image bearers

Let’s be critical in our analyses. There are vast differences between man and Satan. Man is created in God’s likeness and when effectually called, recreated in Christ’s image. Another distinction is most men most of the time are restrained by conscience whereas Satan is not. Satan is evil personified. Satan might be constrained by his creaturely confusion but unlike man, not by conscience. Satan is confounded and utterly unconscionable. Whereas man can have natural affection, Satan has none. Man, though evil (per Jesus), doesn’t typically pursue that which intrinsically evil; whereas with Satan it is his ultimate delight. (Matthew 7:11; Luke 7:13) Indeed, there is a difference. Humans are not Devils. Notwithstanding, we have it on biblical authority that God’s providence restrains both the serpent and his offspring so that none can commit worse acts than she does, “for who can resist His will?” (Romans 9:19) That human creatures are providentially restrained through being God’s image bearers is certainly a distinction, but this is no relevant difference pertaining to the question of whether man or Satan can commit more heinous acts than God has determined, or whether anyone is as bad as she can be or desires to be. (One fascinating difference pertains to the means by which God restrains man includes conscience, whereas with Satan that is not a means of restraint. Notwithstanding, even man’s conscience is totally depraved. Depraved consciences often produce acts born out of fear of God, but never out of reverential fear.)

Man’s natural affection is utterly self-serving and when judged by God will be found purely and totally sinful. Again, man desires not to sin more than he does, but only because his desire for restraint suits him for sinful motives, which too will be judged sinful on the last day. Yet to be thoroughgoing we must also maintain that God can cause man to become increasingly hardened, but not any more depraved. Man’s depravity is indeed total. He is as bad as he desires to be and as bad as God will allow him to be.

Jesus is the light that is given to all men who come into the world. (John 1:9) Yet the light in man will accuse him on the last day apart from repentance. Ultimately it is God alone who allows the candle to continue to flicker and not go out. God alone restrains the unregenerate man either directly or through secondary causes. God restrains man through conscience, for a time, but there will be no such restraining goodness in hell.

Lord over motive and sinful good

When conscience restrains unconverted free moral agents from behaving worse than they otherwise would, such self-control is no less due to sinful motives than when one violates conscience and externally breaks God’s moral law. Even motive not to sin is sinful for the lost. The Reformers and the Divines captured this distinction by noting that outside regeneration in Christ and pardon, man can do no spiritual good. In other words, external good is internally sinful. It is that essential component of Total Depravity that is absent in contemporary Calvinism. Perhaps it is too unpleasant to think of our respectable friends and neighbors in this way. What we forgo, however, is standing in awe of God’s meticulous providence as it relates to man’s immoral intentions behind his conforming choices. (We lose out on praising God in our appreciation of the delicious doctrine of concurrence).

If the account of the rich man and Lazarus teaches us anything it is that unconverted man in his depravity will try to correct God forever. In hell man’s depravity will be fully manifested. Man won’t become more depraved, just like the converted cannot become more regenerate. The blackness of man’s heart finally will be on full display in the life hereafter.

I hope we might see a bit more clearly that in contemporary Calvinism the accent has been placed on “common grace” and how wonderful it is that the “unchurched” do such wonderful things. Little to no reflection is given to God’s wisdom and power as he meticulously restrains the utterly evil intentions of the ungodly by their sinful passion for respectability and enlightened self-interest. God doesn’t just work externally evil acts for good (as most Calvinists recognize, citing Joseph and his brothers), but also God ordains sinfulgoodacts from those who are perishing, for his own glory and the benefit of the called according to his purpose. (We mustn’t confuse the two. The former contemplates sinful actions that are sinfully motivated, whereas the latter is more subtle as it relates to non-sinful actions that are sinfully motivated.)

When we water down Total Depravity, grace isn’t so amazing. In many respects, grace was more amazing 150 years ago among Arminians than it is described by many Calvinists today.

The profound truth of this doctrine is the very backdrop for the glory of God’s saving grace in Christ; yet do we confess the totality of Total Depravity? I believe we are in need of recouping the biblical teaching that there is no mild antithesis between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. The antithesis is a deep-seated enmity inflicted by no other than God Himself. (Genesis 3:15) Man’s hatred of God often manifests itself in indifference, but that shouldn’t fool us. I suppose “splendid pagans“ aren’t really all that splendid after all.

Evidence And The Resurrection

Induction, the basis for all scientific inference, presupposes the uniformity of nature, which is to say it operates under the expectation that the future will be like past. From a Christian perspective, it is ordinary providence that explains how the scientific method is possible. Therefore, to argue for the miracle of the resurrection according to evidence and human experience is “foolish” (Proverbs 26:4). Resurrection is a phenomenon that contemplates an exchange of ordinary providence for the miraculous, which pertains to God working without, above, or against ordinary providence (WCF 5.3).

The resurrection of Christ from the dead is contra-uniform. It does not comport with experience. Our experience is that people die and are not raised three days later. Also, we have all met plenty of liars and those deceived into embracing false beliefs (even dying for false beliefs!) but nobody living has ever observed a single resurrection of the body. Given the uniformity of nature coupled with personal experience without remainder, a more probable explanation for the empty tomb is a hoax put on by liars rather than a miracle put on by God. (The same reasoning applies even more to the virgin birth I would think.)

We do not come to know the Savior lives by examining evidence according to alleged neutral posture, for the facts do not demand the conclusion that Christ has risen. So, at the very least, Christians should not argue from evidence to resurrection lest we lie by implying that we know Christ lives because of evidence upon which our belief does not rest.

When well-meaning Christians remove the extraordinary claim of the resurrection from its soteriological context, the resurrection is anything but credible. Yet, the resurrection is perfectly sensible within the context of things we know by nature and are awakened to by the Holy Spirit working in conjunction with Scripture. Namely, God’s wrath abides upon all men and God is merciful and loving. In the context of man’s plight and God’s character, the preaching of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ can be apprehended as not just credible, but the very wisdom of God. Our full persuasion of the resurrection unto knowledge of the truth is gospel-centric. The good news of John 3:16 is intelligible only in the context of the bad news of Romans 1:18-20 and Romans 3:10-20. The former presupposes the latter.

The place of evidence:

Evidence indeed corroborates the resurrection and is useful within a Christian context. We read in Scripture that a man named Saul who once opposed Christ became the chief apologist for the Christian faith. The way in which one will interpret the transformation of Saul to Paul will be consistent with one’s pre-commitment(s). Christians take the fanaticism of the apostle as corroborating what they already believe to be true about the resurrection; whereas naturalists will find an explanation for the apostle’s transformation and empty tomb outside the Christian resurrection interpretation. Similarly, the way in which one interprets Joseph Smith’s claims will be according to one’s pre-commitment(s). If one is committed to a closed canon, then the claims of Smith’s Mormonism will be deemed false.

There’s a vast difference between:

If resurrection, then evidence

and

If evidence, then resurrection

The first refers to evidence as something we would expect given the resurrection. Whereas the second construct employs evidence as sufficient for resurrection. The first is biblical – the second, fanciful.

Of course the tomb is empty, for Christ has risen. Of course the apostle Paul preached the resurrection of Christ with all his heart, soul and strength, for Christ has risen. Of course the Mormon religion is a cult, for Jesus is the eternal Son of God and the canon is closed. Do we come to believe these things by evaluating supposed brute-particulars in an alleged neutral fashion, or are our beliefs already marshaled according to our pre-commitment to God’s revelation of his love for condemned sinners? Do the “facts” speak for themselves or has God already exegeted the facts for us?

The only way one ever will savingly embrace Christ’s resurrection is if the Holy Spirit gives increase to the work of the cross as explicated in the context of God’s solution to man’s dilemma.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and wisdom of God.

1 Corinthians 1:22-24

Assent Alone And The Gospel

image-5

Most of the things we assent to, whether a priori or a posteriori, are not volitional. One does not will to believe that God exists any more than one wills to believe the rose is red. These are mental assents that are not discursive; they are immediate and without reflection. The will is bypassed.1 However, the gospel always engages the will as the unbeliever counts the cost and by grace abandons all hope in himself while looking to Christ alone, finding rest in Him. Accordingly, it is inadequate to reduce justifying faith to belief alone when belief is reduced to assent without remainder.

Clarkians and easy-believism advocates promote that we are justified by belief alone. One is justified by assenting to “Jesus died for me.” Another extreme comes from “Lordship Salvation” advocates who define trusting in Christ in terms of commitment of life, which eclipses the gospel and redefines how one might appropriate Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel. The focus of this post is on the former error.2

Clarkians will assert that assent is synonymous with resting in or relying upon Christ. In this context it is suggested that to assent to Christ dying on the cross for my sins is to “trust” the proposition is true. Albeit the premise is true for true believers, this observation turns on a subtle equivocation over the word trust. Indeed, to trust a proposition is true is no different than to assent to its truth. So, in that sense trust and assent are synonyms. However, to trust that something is true is not the same thing as to trust in something because it is believed to be true. The latter idea of trust carries the meaning of reliance upon, whereas the former use of trust merely conveys an intellectual assent that might or might not be accompanied by reliance. Accordingly, to argue that trust and assent are synonyms in this way is to deny implicitly the need to trust willfully upon Christ alone for salvation.

Clarkians redefine trust so that they might appear confessional since the Westminster standards clearly speak of not just “accepting“ the gospel as true but also relying upon (i.e. trusting in) the finished work of Christ. (It’s not just equivocal but also a downright case of special pleading to define “trust” as a synonym for assent and then on top of that limit its use to assent. Clarkians should out rightly deny trust rather than suggest they affirm it. The trust they equate with assent is not the trust of the Reformed tradition for that trust is metaphysical and volitional. It does not mean assent. It presupposes it!)

Assent pertains to accepting something as true, even possibly with no reflection, whereas trust (or lack of trust) pertains to the degree of relevance a person might assign to the “assented to” proposition. Assent is a mental act that need not be accompanied by volition; whereas trust in Christ is always volitional in nature. Assent always pertains to accepting the truth of a proposition, whereas how one might respond in light of assent (e.g. trust, rest, exuberance, etc.) is commonly classified under the philosophical heading of disposition (which is not propositional assent). Whereas trust and other dispositions can evidence assent, dispositions need not accompany any given assent since assents can be mundane, occur without reflection and, also, be subjectively perceived as inconsequential. (This is why philosophers consider disposition to be a poor indicator of the presence of assent. Dispositions are sufficient but not necessary for assent.)

Assents or beliefs are propositional attitudes that can be distinguished from volitional, metaphysical movements. For instance, choices are mental activities that engage both the intellect and the will. This is more recognizable once we consider that choices involve both judgment and reliance. What one deems as true can result in a choice to rely upon that which the judgment contemplates, but the intellection of belief need not give way to volition. This is sufficient to demonstrate that belief and volition are not the same things though they often go together. This observation would seem rather uncontroversial in the Reformed tradition. It was presupposed in Jonathan Edwards’ writings and was taken up by men like R.L. Dabney, A.A. Hodge and even William Cunningham. Yet contra this popular view, Gordon Clark believed that it is an illusion (an illusion, mind you!) to think that such acts of intellection differ from volition. Clark went so far to say that belief in a chair is volitional.

If assent and trust were synonyms, then either both would mean cognitive conviction or else volitional reliance. Conviction of truth (assent) could never give way to reliance upon truth (trust). If assent and trust are indistinguishable concepts and, therefore, mean the same thing, then it would be unintelligible to say that we rely upon anything we believe; nor would it be sensible to think that we believe anything we rely upon. Intellectual assent without reliance leaves no room for relying upon Christ; whereas reliance without conviction paves the way to trusting in Christ while not assenting to the gospel. Obviously, the concepts are indeed distinguishable as well as distinct principal acts of saving faith.

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1 Even when the will is engaged in choosing, we don’t will belief. Doxastic Voluntarism is a philosophical surd.

2 In the not so distant future I plan to address the gospel according to John MacArthur and the nature of faith as the instrumental cause of justification. MacArthur fails to distinguish and ends up conflating the disposition of reliance upon Christ with the sanctifying grace that inevitably produces a faithful commitment of life to Christ.

The Free Offer Of The Gospel

This class addresses the Free Offer.

This class addresses the same but in the context of God’s three wills of decree, precept and wisdom. I’d probably recommend this one over the other if only one were to be listened to.

WSC Q&A 31:
Q. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

Canons of Dort 2.5:
Moreover, it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel.

The free offer of the gospel (abbreviated “free offer”) has meant different things at different times. From a confessional standpoint, it can only mean that God sincerely offers salvation to all who repent and believe. The meaning is at best narrow. The confessions do not speak in terms of God’s desire for all men to be saved; they merely teach that God promises the gift of everlasting life to all who would turn from self to Christ. This promise of life through faith is sincere. It is a genuine offer. If you believe, you will be saved. This gospel is to go out to all men everywhere.

Arminians are often quick to point out that the free offer is inconsistent with Calvinism. They reason that if the offer of the gospel is sincere and to go out to all people without exception, then God must desire the salvation of all people without exception. Otherwise, they say, the offer isn’t sincere. How can God desire the salvation of all men without exception if God as the ultimate decider of man’s salvation chooses to pass over some? In other words, Arminians reason that unless God desires to save all men, which they observe does not comport with Calvinism, the free offer of life through faith is insincere when given to the reprobate. Their axiom is that a sincere gospel offer implies a sincere desire to see the offer accepted, a well-meant offer. More on that in a moment.

The OPC’s Majority Report

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), representative of possibly most Calvinists today on the matter of the free offer, under the leadership of John Murray and Ned Stonehouse, adopted as a majority position the Arminian view that God desires the salvation of all men. While still holding fast to the Reformed view of predestination, the OPC affirmed the view that that the free offer cannot adequately be disassociated from a divine desire of salvation for all men without exception. In other words, such Calvinists assert that the genuineness of the gospel offer presupposes God’s desire that all embrace Christ.

Subsequently, the free offer has taken on the additional meaning of a well-meant offer, or desire, that the reprobate turn and be saved. Accordingly, a major difference between Arminians and such Calvinists as these is on the question of consistency.

Back to first principles. What makes an offer genuine or sincere?

Can we judge whether an offer is genuine or sincere simply based on whether it is true or not? If God intends to keep his promise, then isn’t the offer genuine? With respect to the gospel, if one meets the condition of faith, he will one day enter the joy of Lord. Isn’t that enough to make the offer of salvation sincere?

Let’s do some basic theology…

What does it mean that God desires the salvation of the reprobate? Are we to believe that God desires the reprobate to do something he cannot do, namely regenerate himself and grant himself union with Christ? Or, is that to check our Calvinism at the door? Isn’t it Jesus who saves? Isn’t salvation of God after all? At best, if we are to remain consistent with our Calvinism, then wouldn’t it follow that to argue for a well-meant offer of the gospel we’d have to posit that God desires that he himself would regenerate the reprobate unto existential union with Christ? After all, when God desires the salvation of the elect, his desire is fulfilled through recreating sinners in Christ according to his predestinating decree of salvation.

Aside from the question of whether God desires that unchosen persons act contrary to God’s decree, what does it mean for God to desire that he himself act contrary to how he decreed he would act? Of course, I know no Calvinist who affirms the well-meant offer of the gospel who also would say that God desires that he elected reprobates unto salvation, or anything like that. Yet if man cannot turn himself, as Calvinism clearly affirms, then isn’t the implication of a well-meant offer that God desires to turn those he has determined not to save?

Simply stated, since Calvinism affirms total depravity and compatibilism, wouldn’t it stand to reason from a Calvinistic perspective that if God desires someone’s salvation, God must desire that he save that person? Accordingly, the questions that should be considered in this regard are either (a) “Does God desire the reprobate to turn himself and live?” Or (b), “Does God desire that he himself turn the reprobate so that he can live?”

Given that man is blind and deaf to spiritual things and cannot do anything to to turn himself Godward, how are we not strictly dealing with the theological plausibility of (b), that God desires to turn the reprobate contrary to what he has already decreed? If TULIP is true, then (a) is a non-starter.

Now then, is it reasonable to think that the Holy Spirit desires to turn the reprobate Godward when the Father, in eternity, did not choose the reprobate in Christ? Moreover, if Christ did not die for the reprobate and does not pray that the efficacy of the cross would be applied to the reprobate, then in what sense does God desire the reprobate’s salvation? Does God desire that for which Christ does not pray? Does the Trinity desire that persons of the Godhead work at cross purposes? Does God desire true contradictions after all? Or is this a matter of mystery? Does God have multiple wills, let alone multiple wills that are at cross-purposes? Or is this a matter of two truths that we should accept by faith? Apparent contradiction or true contradiction?

Not only can God not save the reprobate whom he did not elect in Christ; 2000 years ago didn’t God act in time sealing that inability by securing salvation only for the elect? If so, then does it not follow that for God to desire the salvation of the reprobate, we should be willing to say that God, today, desires that Jesus would have died for the reprobate 2000 years ago?

In our refutation of a well meant offer, we may easily develop and apply the principle of accidental necessity as it relates to God desiring as true that which is now past and consequently necessarily false! Can God desire things He has now made impossible to obtain?

Or is there a third way of living looking at this? Does God live with a sense of regret or un-fulfillment? Is God passible or impassible?

The OPC is quick to point out that they are not advocating a position entailing God both desiring and not desiring his decree. Fine, but then what does it mean for God to desire that men act contrary to his decree? Can God desire his decree while also desiring men to act in such a way that would thwart it? No amount of mystery can salvage metaphysical (or broadly logical) contradiction.

Mystery cannot salvage contradiction. Accordingly, any appeal to exegesis should not make God out to be internally incoherent. It’s to put forth a passible and a non-omnipotent God to declare to the loss that God desires their salvation. God desires to save only those chosen in Christ – those who are called according to His purpose – those for whom Christ desired to save! For this is love, that Christ laid His life down for His sheep. Did God desire to lay His life down for those He ordained unto goats?

Let’s go a bit further:

Let x = God’s decree.

Let y = The reprobation of some.

If y is a fact of x, then y is essential to x. If God (as God) desires x (and is aware that y is essential to x), then we may infer that God’s desire for y is entailed by His desire for x. (I’m speaking in terms of God as God in order to inform our discussion of God with orthodoxy, that we might avoid strict logical possibility that is not ontologically or broadly logical.)

Can God desire x while not desiring y? If not, then in what sense does God desire the converse of y (salvation of the reprobate) given a desire for x (a plan that includes the reprobation of some)?

Competing desires and unfulfillment

John Piper has posited that God desires the salvation of the reprobate but that he desires their damnation for his own glory even more. There’s something attractive about Piper’s theory. It makes no apology for God positively desiring his decree, which includes his decree of reprobation. The downside is that it implies competing desires within the Godhead, a priority or ordering of pleasures within the same decree. Although perhaps an improvement upon John MacArthur’s view that in some sense God is “unfulfilled“ in his desire for the reprobate’s salvation, it nonetheless leaves God wanting. It’s an affront on God’s impassibility. So much for a well-meant offer.

Abstractions, perhaps a useful tool…

If I desire to go to the doctor but it requires I get soaking wet in the rain, which ordinary I would not desire, then in one sense I do not desire to go out in the rain but in another sense I do. I do not want to go out in the rain if we consider going out in the rain as an abstraction from the overall plan of going to see the doctor. Yet I do desire to go out in the rain given that is what is necessary to get to see the doctor. The notion of abstracting particulars from the whole can be useful in this context. Although God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, God most certainly takes pleasure in his eternal decree coming to pass. He desires all the components of his comprehensive plan because it serves his purposes. As a matter of an isolated instance, God takes no pleasure in punishment. As an abstraction without purpose salvation is pleasurable, judgement is not. Yet in the context of all things – God himself, his plan, his glory etc., God takes the highest pleasure in himself, which includes his just indignation against the impenitent who have been ordained to judgement (Jude verse 4) for his own glory. God answers to no one.

God does not consider isolated instances outside the whole. In isolation we can consider something evil, but God who transcends time and space ordains evil for good. Therefore, as an abstraction, God does not desire reprobation for the mere sake of reprobation. Rather, God desires reprobation for his own glory and the good of the elect in the context of his one plan and purpose for this world. God’s desire for the many serves his desire for the one. The plurality and unity of the decree are equally ultimate, a reflection of Himself.

Although God does not desire the salvation of the reprobate, we may declare without equivocation: “God came to save sinners, like you and like me!”

God’s love and ours…

God hates the reprobate (Psalm 5:5; 11:5) and, therefore, has an active love only for those who love him. We may safely say that a necessary condition1 for God’s love to be presently active in the life of a sinner is for the sinner to love God (Proverbs 8:17) and love the Savior (John 14:21,23; 15:10; 16:27). But for sinners to love God, they must first be loved of God (1 John 4:19), which is the cause of the love relationship. Therefore, for the sinner to love God in order for her to experience God’s love in her life, she must first be the object of God’s predestinating love (Ephesians 1:4). Does God desire to grant predestinating love to those he has ordained to wrath (Jude 4)? If not, then in what sense does God desire to save them?


 

1. Condition in this context is not causal. The converted sinner’s love for God does not cause or produce God’s love for the sinner. Neither is the relationship between the two a quid pro quo. It’s a relationship predicated on pure grace. To say that the believer’s love for God (x) is a necessary condition for God’s active love in the life of the converted sinner (y) is simply to say that it is impossible to have y without x. Which is to say, the absence of x guarantees the absence of y. It’s also to say that the presence of y guarantees x.

God’s active love in the life of the sinner, which is a transforming love, is also biconditional. Not just only if the sinner loves God does the sinner experience God’s Iove but also if the sinner loves God. (The latter being the prima facie rendering of the texts.) The sinner’s love for God are necessary and sufficient conditions for receiving God’s love (and likewise for God’s active love in the sinners’s life as it relates to the believer’s love for God). And again, conditions pertain not to cause but state of affairs.