Westminster Civil Ethics vs R2K Natural Law on Kidnapping

Christians and non-Christians alike have grieved this past week while also trying to process ethical questions regarding longtime convicted kidnapper Cleotha Abston who is being charged with abducting and murdering Eliza Fletcher.

Many ethical questions are at hand and convictions run passionately deep regarding how those questions might best be answered through a Reformed Christian world and life view. As strange as this might sound to many, some Reformed Christians have little regard for “worldview type” answers to ethical questions that intrude upon the sphere of civil government. Among the leading critics of a confessionally Reformed view of civil government are those who subscribe to what is called “Reformed 2 Kingdom” (R2K).

R2K is a position that posits that Christians are citizens of the spiritual kingdom of God along with inhabiting the earthly kingdom of this world, which includes as fellow members all people without distinction. R2K has been opposed by those who would define it not as a species of a distinctly Reformed 2 Kingdom model but instead an offspring of a Radical 2 Kingdom paradigm because of a non-Reformed balance between Scripture and Natural Law. Although R2K rightly appreciates that there is a law of nature that is revealed to all humans in conscience without distinction, the R2K movement is increasingly radicalized by denying Scripture its rightful place of influence in the civil kingdom, which too falls under the governing domain of God. Consider one leading proponent of R2K:

Scripture is the sacred text given to God’s covenant people whom he has redeemed from sin. . . . Given its character, therefore, Scripture is not given as a common moral standard that provides ethical imperatives to all people regardless of their religious standing.

David Van Drunen

With their Natural Law paradigm, R2K proponents deny that Abston ought to have been executed according to Exodus 21:16 for his first kidnapping. In theory, R2Kers could advocate for capital punishment for kidnapping, just as long as they don’t justify the penalty on the authoritative word of God!

The task at hand:

Questions before all nations include…

  • Which sins ought to be considered crimes?
  • What should be the punishment for criminal acts?
  • How might we best justify our answers?

Civil magistrates are governing authorities established by God for the punishing of wrongdoers. In light of this awesome God ordained responsibility, Natural Law proponents tell us that the Scriptures are neither necessary nor permitted to inform civil magistrates on the details of how to govern society in a manner pleasing to God. (Noodle that one around in your head for a moment.)

For the R2K crowd, God requires civil magistrates to govern society according to the “Book of Nature” alone. It would be displeasing to God for Christians to desire and pray that the general equity of OT civil law be implemented today because capital punishment finds its NT fulfillment in excommunication. (More on that later.)

Because there are no theocracies today, we’re told that civil magistrates may not glean from Old Testament law which sins should be deemed crimes. Nor may civil magistrates seek to determine suitable punishment for criminal acts by searching the Scriptures. Natural Law is exclusively sufficient for the task.

Natural Law and fallen autonomous reasoning:

Natural Law informs us that the least of all sins deserves God’s wrath. Yet R2K proponents also maintain that civil magistrates should not punish some sins at all and all remaining sins should not be punished equally severely. Accordingly, God’s preceptive will is for civil magistrates to determine by the light of fallen nature alone whether bestiality, homosexual acts and abortion (just to name a few sins) are to be considered purely sins, criminal acts too, or simply amoral. (Even if nature were to inform us that these sins should also be illegal, how successful and unified have the nations been over time on deriving a “Natural Theology” of sin, crime and penology to that effect?)

First principles:

Natural Law began with creation and was operative during the time of Moses through today. Natural Law could not have contradicted Israel’s civil sanctions lest God could deny himself. Furthermore, neighboring nations would not have violated the “Book of Nature” by executing kidnappers according to the God of Israel’s wisdom during the Mosaic era. Accordingly, there’s no reason to believe that Natural Law in any way forbids putting a kidnapper to death today, (lest the cross of Christ has altered Natural Law). Therefore, why think that non-theocratic nations today ought not govern in a way that would have been more exemplary for non-theocratic nations during the Mosaic era? Should we believe that God would be angrier with non-theocratic nations today if they turned to Scripture to try to determine which sins should be considered crimes? Would God be angrier with non-theocratic nations if they were to execute kidnappers according to Special Revelation rather than justifying the loosing of kidnappers after limited incarceration based upon Natural Law inference?

At the very least, if Natural Law has not changed over time and God’s two forms of revelation are complementary and never antithetical, then why should we accept the claim that God would not have the nations adhere to the general equity of Old Testament civil law, which is fundamentally the moral law applied to the civil realm?

Various reasons have been given why we are not to govern society according to OT equity. 

“In other words, the Old Covenant, Mosaic death sanctions typify and anticipate the eschatological manifestation of God’s righteous judgment against his enemies.”

Lane Tipton

Much can be said. First off, the death penalty preceded Moses. Did the death penalty that preceded Moses typify and anticipate the same eschatological manifestation? Secondly, what about the non-capital offenses that were not sanctioned by death? For instance, I can possibly see how OT civil restitution might typify eschatological judgment in a Roman Catholic sense, but how in a Reformed sense in which there’s no doctrine of purgatory that can identify as the anticipatory eschatological manifestation of OT restitution?

Finally, since the death penalty preceded Moses and was instituted for violations against God’s image bearers, why should we suppose there is no lasting and intrinsic temporal value for such civil sanctions? Why, in other words, should laws that would be so useful for governing any OT society be considered secondary to typology, or so devalued by the cross of Christ that they lose timeless societal value? After all, if every transgression or disobedience received just retribution, then mustn’t civil sanctions still serve a functional societal purpose simply by virtue of all nations requiring governance before and under God? In a word, is biblical typology all that antithetical to biblical penology?

“The civil codes have lost their context now that salvation is in Christ, in a spiritual kingdom, and not in Israel, a temporal nation.”

Rick Phillips

Aside from a false disjunction that would implicitly presuppose that Israel’s civil code and spiritual kingdom are somehow mutually exclusive concepts – the Reformed tradition has always maintained that salvation was always spiritual; hence not all Israel was Israel. Secondly, why should we believe that God’s wisdom and righteous judgment loses practical applicability upon King Jesus’ commissioning the church to disciple the nations under the whole counsel of God? How does the cross make foolish and passé the wisdom and general equity of civil laws that were intrinsic to a nation that would seek God’s wisdom in civil justice? Is the Son of God no less King over the nations than Lord over the church?

“I’ll say it again, since Paul spent so much time addressing the differences between Jews and Gentiles, and also said that Gentile were not bound by Israelite norms, then his instruction in Rom 13 is hardly a reaffirmation of OT civil laws.”

Darryl Hart

We cannot logically deduce that which is not deducible. Nor is it wise to require God to provide answers in the exact places we might hope to find them. That is to come dangerously close to putting God to the test.

Scripture is replete with examples of Jesus not providing answers in the context in which people often sought them. Accordingly, citing Romans 13 in an effort to refute Westminster civil ethics through the employment of a fallacious argument from silence is on par with concluding that (a) Jesus was not a teacher sent from God; (b) Jesus was not good and, therefore, not God; (c) Jesus intended to establish Israel as a political power but failed with the passing of John. (Mark 10:17-18; Acts 1:6,7; John 21:20-22)*

The Westminster Confession describes them as “sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require” (XIX. 4).” In other words, these laws were for regulating the nation of Israel, which was then but no longer is the particular people of God. While there is an undisputed wisdom contained in this civil law it can not be made applicable to any nation today, since there are no biblically sanctioned theocracies now.

Rick Phillips

How can “undisputed wisdom… not be made applicable…”? Wisdom not relevant? Something seems intuitively doubtful about such claims. Are the Proverbs no longer applicable because there are no theocracies today? What about the Ten Commandments? Aren’t civil laws the application of moral laws in the civil sphere, after all?

Plain and simple, the Confession does not teach that the civil law “can not be made applicable to any nation today…” Rather, it teaches the very opposite! It teaches that nations are obliged to implement the judicial law as the general equity of it may require.

R2K types misread Westminster Confession 19.4 by saying that the preservation of the general equity of the OT civil code now applies solely to church discipline.

“They are transformed into the judicious application of church discipline.”

Rick Phillips

By this miscalculation, when the Divines advocated for the preservation of the general equity of Israel’s civil law, they weren’t allowing for anything like maintaining an equity of civil justice. Nor were they establishing biblical principles of accommodation by affording freedom to rearrange and substitute non-essential aspects of the law such as stoning for hangings (or today lethal injection, and DNA for the principle of two or three witnesses.). Rather, we’re asked to believe that the Divines were actually teaching the preserving of the general equity of capital punishment by applying the death penalty to ecclesiastical excommunication!

Clearly, the prima facie rendering of 19.4 and the associated proof-texts don’t support such a fanciful interpretation. (Genesis 49:10; 1 Peter 2:13-14) These verses have nothing to do with church discipline but rather everything to do with civil magistrates.

The OT reference pertains to the scepter not departing from Judah along with the future obedient allegiance of the peoples. Whereas the NT reference pertains to a secular punishing of evil doers, not ecclesiastical censure of professing believers!

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and to him shall the gathering of the people be. Genesis 49:10
Submit yourself to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake; whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that to well. 1 Peter 2:13-14

The way in which modern day R2Kers interpret the preserving of the general equity of the law cashes out not as preserving the general equity of the law but an utter obliteration of it.

Not to belabor the point but given this pervasive perversion of 19.4, probably more should be said:

There was excommunication under the older economy, a “cutting off” as it were (an exile of sorts), which was not accompanied by OT execution. Yet in God’s wisdom both were operative, presumably with distinct purposes. Accordingly, it seems a bit dubious that excommunication is equitable to execution. Moreover, it is simply fallacious to argue for a repeal of directives that pertain to the state from directives that pertain to the church. Yet we are asked to believe that OT capital punishment for wrongdoers is equitable to and swallowed up by excommunication. What then is the general equity for capital punishment for those already outside the church and, therefore, cannot be excommunicated, non-ecclesiastical warning? Moreover, what is the general equity of OT civil sanctions for the Christian who warrants a lesser penalty than death, ecclesiastical admonishment?

It’s not just arbitrary, it’s simply silly to think with the expiration of Israel’s theocracy that the Divines actually thought the wisdom of the civil law was no longer to resemble the original penal sanctions in their general equity, while also maintaining that the civil law is perpetually binding in its general equity! The linguistic gymnastics is astounding.

Let’s not force the Divines into contradiction. Excommunication and capital punishment aren’t close sisters. They’re not even distant cousins. To see how distantly disanalogous they are, one need only consider that repentance lifts the penalty of excommunication, which was not the case for capital crimes under the older economy.

Consider the following R2K attempt to reduce Westminster civil ethics to absurdity:

“The public high school teacher may be able to teach algebra but because she doesn’t know where the truths of math come from, she doesn’t really understand math. Or the elected official may understand that human life should be protected and vote for harsher penalties for manslaughter but unless he understands that human beings are created in the image of God, his vote is inauthentic.”

Darryl Hart

Actually, Algebra teachers do know without discursive reasoning that truth in general and the intelligibility of algebraic truth in particular presupposes God. (Developing this apologetic insight, especially as it relates to the moral pressure of not thinking false thoughts, extends beyond the scope of this article.) Moreover, Algebra teachers are also held accountable for suppressing God in the classroom by not taking every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5b)

But aside from the implicit and rampant Thomism of the day that misunderstands the epistemological underpinnings, limitations and implications of natural law and natural theology, it’s hardly controversial, nor terribly relevant, that one can possess warrant for belief x while not being able to offer it. After all, even if one can know something apart from being able to offer warrant for her true-belief (epistemological externalism), why is the ability to offer internalist epistemic justification somehow superfluous, let alone forbidden?! Are beliefs that are not self-consciously justified always as defensible as those that are self-consciously justified? Is the ability to justify civil laws from special revelation morally and functionally irrelevant? Why should we accept that self-conscious epistemological justification that comes from (propositional) special revelation lends no force to the justification of penal sanctions, or that such revelation is implicitly forbidden by God to be invoked in “earthly kingdom” discourse?

Regarding manslaughter and murder, a significant reason why man is to be held responsible by civil magistrates to honor and protect human life is because man is uniquely created in God’s image. (Genesis 9:6) Yet defiantly, R2Kers have dismissed this OT revelatory justification for “harsher penalties” as an irrelevant divine tidbit that is implicitly forbidden to be invoked in the earthly kingdom. Although all men everywhere know in conscience something of the dignity of human life, natural law doesn’t reveal that humans are God’s image bearers. Accordingly, why shouldn’t unbelievers be instructed in the Scriptures according to a fundamental reason why capital punishment is required by God? In other words, apart from invoking Scripture’s teaching on the dignity and relevance of the imago Dei as it relates to capital punishment, what is the natural theological basis for execution? Was Natural Law sufficient for Moses? What’s easier to interpret, discuss and debate, the propositions of Special Revelation or General Revelation, (Systematic Theology or Natural Theology)?

Here’s the crux:

R2K reasoning leaps from the premise that (a) people know things they aren’t prepared to justify to the grand implication that (b) offering a robust justification for beliefs is of little use if only we can muddle through without having to give one! In other words, R2Kers confound (c) the common grace ability of societies to “function” (no matter how badly) according to a subjective standard of “good enough” with (d) the ethical question of whether there is a moral imperative to apply the objective standard of Scripture to society whenever possible. (In passing, we might consider how well societies are doing with the R2K ethicist’s hope that “the elected official may understand that human life should be protected…”)

One more for the road. Now fasten your seatbelts!

“Nero did not violate God’s law if he executed Christians who obeyed God rather than man. If Paul continued to preach after the emperor said he may not, then Nero was doing what God ordained government to do. Christians don’t get a pass from civil law just because they follow a higher law…If a law is unjust or if we must obey God rather than men, then we suffer the consequences of disobedience. That’s what the apostles did. They didn’t form political action committees to overturn Roman laws. Paul doesn’t mention justice. He doesn’t mention God’s law. He doesn’t qualify the magistrate’s authority. They are God’s ministers – period. So you disobey God’s word. You refuse to do what Paul says. Submit to the unjust emperor.I am saying that I follow what Paul said in Rom 13. God wants his people to submit to those in authority, those whom he has established. If I break the civil law, I should be punished. God gave us authorities to uphold the law and maintain order We and peace. It’s disorderly and unpeaceful if you think you can pick and choose which laws to obey because you have Jesus in your heart.”

Darryl Hart

No, you are not losing your mind!

Apparently Christians may not protest unjust laws that persecute Christians because our kingdom is not of this world. Is campaigning for a particular political candidate who embraces Christian values permissible? Or, is that too close to mentioning justice while forming an unservile political action committee? Does this professor ever try to vote a candidate out of office, or is that to disobey political status quo that is established by God? Oh, and Nero cannot break God’s law because he gets to submit to himself?! The logical trajectory of a position can often be its best refutation, as in this case.

Common misguided arrows about Westminster Civil Ethic:

  • Westminster civil ethics are not eschatologically dependent. Which is to say, a doom and gloom amillennialist can hold to a Westminster civil ethic because the question turns not on how things might end up but on how things ought to be.
  • Contrariwise, a postmillennialist can believe that we are to be governed by solely natural law in the civil realm.
  • Westminster civil ethics are not inexorably tied to cultural transformation. Which is to say, one can believe that such civil laws will never possibly be legislated until the church first believes that they should. And even then, there’s always the eschatological question of future Christian influence in society.
  • That Muslims might want to see the world oppressively governed by the Koran is irrelevant to whether God’s people should desire that the general equity of God’s civil laws be legislated lawfully and not by force.
  • Capital punishment is not contrary to the Great Commission, for anyone on death row should be pleaded with to turn from their sins and receive Christ as he is offered in the gospel.
  • That some Christians find the prospect of certain civil sanctions repulsive for today raises the question of whether these same Christians would have delighted in such laws had they lived under Moses. It seems to me that Christians who mock the notion of such laws for today have shown themselves incapable of contemplating the intrinsic wisdom and goodness of such laws prior to the cross. Their disdain is trans-testament.

Closing Remarks:

There will always be additional theological, philosophical and confessional arguments that can be levied against the proffered position. I do hope, however, that I have addressed at least minimally the more common ones.

Full circle, how might one go about justifying whether a convicted kidnapper who violates the imago Dei should be punished? Secondly, what is the “natural theology” consensus for the penal sanction, assuming there should even be a penalty?

As I’ve argued on the subject of the Christian Sabbath, if one wants to deny Westminster’s civil ethic, then by all means do so yet without claiming the imprimatur of the Westminster Divines.

In closing, let’s hear from some opponents to Westminster civil ethics who at least acknowledged the Divines’ civil ethic.

“At the same time it must be said that Chalcedon is not without roots in respectable ecclesiastical tradition. It is in fact a revival of certain teachings contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith — at least in the Confession’s original formulations…Ecclesiastical courts operating under the Westminster Confession of Faith are going to have their problems, therefore, if they should be of a mind to bring the Chalcedon aberration under their judicial scrutiny. (Kline in Westminster Theological Journal 41:1 [Fall, 1978]: 173)

Meredith Kline

The view is not really new; it is just new in our time. It was the usual view through the Middle Ages, was not thrown over by the Reformers and was espoused by the Scottish Covenanters who asked the Long Parliament to make Presbyterianism the religion of the three realms — England, Scotland and Ireland.” (In Presbuterion: Covenant Seminary Review, 5:1 [Spring, 1979]: 1)

Laird Harris

“Essentially, Bahnsen accepts the doctrinal orthodoxy of the original text [of the Confession]. Whether or not this is in conflict with the intention of the American Presbyterian emendation of the Confession, it is certainly in keeping with the traditional Scottish Reformed understanding of it.” (In Will S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey, Theonomy: An Informed Critique[Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 323-324]).

Sinclair Ferguson

“The words of Chapter XIX, iv can be understood to include the view that the Mosaic penalties may be applied by the Christian magistrate (if “general equity” so dictates). We have already noted that such views were widespread among the Divines in relation to specific crimes. But this is simply to recognize that there may be common ground in practice between the Confession’s teaching and theonomy.” (Ferguson, 346-347)

Sinclair Ferguson
*Footnote for the hazardous appeal to Romans 13 to argue R2K from silence: 

Mark 10:17-18: When a rich young ruler called Jesus good, he neither affirmed nor denied that he possessed that quality of person but instead said nobody is good but God. Depending upon one’s pre-commitment it might be inferred that Jesus was not good and, therefore, not God; yet the text neither affirms nor denies either conclusion.

Acts 1:6, 7: When the apostles asked Jesus whether he was at that time going to restore the kingdom to Israel, he neither affirmed nor denied such an intention but instead said that it was not for them to know the times or epochs that the Father has fixed by his own authority. Dispensationalists, given their pre-commitment to a restored national Israel, infer from the answer a confirmation of their theology, that the kingdom will be restored. Notwithstanding, no logical conclusion can be deduced from the text with respect to the restoration Israel’s kingdom.

John 21:20-22: When Peter asked Jesus whether John would be alive at the time of Jesus’ return Jesus told him that if he wanted John to remain until such time it was no business of Peter’s. Jesus then put to Peter his task, which was to follow Jesus. Jesus’ answer did not logically imply that John would remain or not, let alone whether Jesus would even return one day! The answer even caused a rumor among the brethren that John would not die (John 21:23). John in this very epistle (same verse: 23) remarked on the unjustified inference that caused the rumor: “Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, ‘If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?’”

Links to quotes by David Van Drunen , Lane Tipton, Rick Phillips and Darryl Hart

https://www.amazon.com/Biblical-Case-Natural-Law/dp/B000UIKAXO

https://www.kerux.com/doc/1501a1.asp

https://www.tenth.org/resource-library/articles/which-old-testament-laws-must-i-obey/

https://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/new-warrior-children-thread/

https://oldlife.org/tag/ted-williams/

https://oldlife.org/2017/01/04/is-donald-trump-mainstreaming-apostasy/#comment-151575

The Philosophical and Moral Impotency of Natural Law in Refuting Homosexuality

Although all men know by nature that homosexuality is sin, it’s only through Scripture that one can adequately defend the claim. (Natural theology types are free to try sometime.)

Since most people are autonomous in their thinking, it’s understandable why most cannot justify with any consistency and without avoiding arbitrariness, the claim that homosexuality is morally wrong.

IMG_4125.JPG

Although many straight people still find homosexuality unnatural – unnatural does not imply moral deviance. Even the claim that something is unnatural presupposes a network of beliefs about reality, truth, and ethical standards that cannot adequately be justified apart from Scripture. Whether homosexuality is sin is indeed a worldview question.

Sure, in general revelation there is natural law that pronounces guilt for sin upon all mankind, including guilt for homosexuality. Notwithstanding, natural law can grow increasingly dim in the minds of the ungodly. Yet even when natural law was shining more brightly upon social conscience, it was never to be interpreted apart from special revelation. With the rejection of the Bible, mankind is left to grope in darkness but not in search for moral standards – rather for moral standards that are philosophically defensible in the context of a larger worldview context that should be consistent, coherent and explanatory. On the authority of God’s word, we know it cannot successfully be done, which has been corroborated and verified since the time of creation.

Accordingly, two unhappy alternatives:

Apart from viewing homosexuality through the lens of Scripture, one is left with two unhappy alternatives: (i) a bigoted rejection of homosexuality or else (ii) condoning what is known in conscience to be morally deviant. In other words, apart from Scripture one either can judge correctly yet for sinful reasons, or else violate conscience (and live in moral conflict) by condoning in the name of love, no less, that which is an abomination in God’s sight.

Regarding natural theology, the church needs to wake-up from its Thomistic slumbers and distinguish (i) the universal knowledge of sin through natural law from (ii) the sole basis by which we might adequately defend the possibility of such knowledge. The former pertains to knowledge that permeates all moral creatures regardless of one’s worldview; whereas the latter relates to an epistemological defense that is unique to the Christian worldview. Without God’s word as the foundation for the only worldview that can reconcile moral absolutes with life experience, in whose name might we dare judge any behavior as sinful?!

In order to avoid imposing personal preference upon others, one is left to condone a practice that is contrary to God’s word. In other words, the “open minded” (to everything but God’s word, that is), if they’re to remain free from such bigotry, are constrained to not object to deviant behavior, “for who are we to judge?” Without God’s word, through the illumination of the Spirit, confirming to us that which we indeed know by nature to be sin, our beliefs would be reduced to subjective doubt and philosophical skepticism. Indeed, apart from the propositional revelation contained in Scripture we cannot adequately justify the knowledge we have, at least in any robust philosophical sense, that there even is such a thing as natural law. If that is not true, then God has not made foolish the wisdom of this world. (Again, Natural theology types are free to try sometime.)

In closing:

An insurmountable natural theology conundrum is that apart from special revelation, we’re consigned to non-authoritative personal preference, even though the Spirit unambiguously and universally testifies that homosexuality is sin. Perhaps the biggest irony in all of this is that without God’s word, ultimate autonomous virtue leads to defending deviant behavior against conscience. That’s where the world lives today. It doesn’t have a good enough reason to condemn sinful practice without being bigoted, so the world defends what God condemns.

In sum, apart from Scripture one is left either to go along with ungodly behavior to avoid personal prejudicial preference, or else undergo the conflicting guilt that comes with arbitrarily disapproving of a practice that is known to be morally wrong. At the end of the day, the Christian’s righteous disapproval of ungodly behavior is not available to us apart from values informed by Scripture and no amount of natural law can get us out of that Thomistic, humanistic predicament. No amount or natural law can get us to a defensible natural theology of sin. We must distinguish knowledge from the justification of the possibility of knowledge.

Yet Christians can rejoice in at least this: God is not mocked; the fool is confounded once again.

Jonathan Edwards on the “necessity” of the divine decree

Our acts are free, though triggered by intentions that are caused according to God’s sovereign determination of the relationship between prior states of affairs and our intentions to act. Moreover, we approve of our intentions that cannot be other than what they will be.

Like us, God approves of his intentions and cannot act contrary to them. Yet, unlike us, God is most free, at least because his acts proceed from intentions that are not the effect of preceding states of affairs. So, unlike us, God is ultimate sourcehood and can do anything he can possibly desire.

There is no time in eternity, but even if time were uncreated, there could not have been enough time to have sequentially chosen a decree according to an intention that was chosen according to a previous intention ad infinitum. No, the divine intention is eternal, and a chosen intention is unintelligible.

Unsatisfactory objections with no solution:

With respect to Richard Muller and others, the world from an Edwardsian perspective is not (from itself) necessary but given the eternal decree, it is not narrowly-logically necessary but causally necessary being secured by the divine intention. Notwithstanding, creation itself isn’t essential to God, for creation is not a property of God, and God existed without creation. Should we find it strange that God cannot exist without some eternal intention to create or not create? Can God have no intention, even an intention not to have an intention? Surely God must exist with an intention he never did not have. That’s just built into God being God! Notwithstanding, that which God’s free intention contemplates is not a cause that acts upon God or his intention.

Room for freedom:

In conditional (Classical Compatiblist) terms, God could have not created this world had he so willed. Or, rather than contemplate hypotheticals that change a fixed future by altering the past, we might contemplate a different future that would entail a different past: Had God not created this world, he would have intended not to create. Either way, God’s intentions and acts are most free and agreeable to God according to a “mesh” of undivided will.

What’s the alternative, (i) a non-eternal intention? (ii) An eternally chosen contingent-intention (according to an eternally chosen or unchosen intention)? (iii) An eternal yet metaphysically contingent intention? But how does (iii) not make creation and God’s eternal will contingent, which is bound to lead back to (ii).

Impassibility of the contrary?

If nothing outside God acts upon God resulting in an intention to create, then God’s ultimate freedom to create is intact. That said, what’s the problem with Edwards on the necessity of the divine decree? What does the charge against Edwards even mean, that God is not most free unless another eternal intention could have been formed in God contrary to the eternal intention God eternally approved of for himself? Again, what’s the alternative to such freedom? If libertarian freedom is a philosophical surd, then how can God be libertarian free and not free in an Edwardsian sense?

As we teach our children, God can do all his holy will. (WSC 13)

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

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 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 saying that 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 use.

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.

Theology and the creator-creature distinction:

When we consider God’s attributes we must be mindful that we are limited to drawing theological distinctions that pertain to the one undivided and 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 in its place, does not belong to any division in God.

God is unequivocally knowable yet incomprehensible. Notwithstanding, the God who is simple we only know analogically, discretely and in part. Because our understanding of God is analogically theological and not original or intuitive, we shouldn’t expect our compartmentalized creaturely understanding of God is love and God is holy to imply that at the univocal or analogical level love = holy.

As a simple being, God is one divine, undivided and incomprehensible essence – yet revealed to us through created things (e.g., language) because God’s simplicity is too complex to take in all at once due to the creator-creature distinction. Accordingly, God’s self-disclosure comes to us as particular attributes, in an accommodation to our creatureliness. Indeed, we’d have to share in the divine essence to know God originally or intuitively as a simple being. It may be said that we can apprehend God, but we can never comprehend God. To comprehend God is to know God exhaustively, as God knows God.

Theologizing of special revelation:

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 in a limited sense by analogy. One reason I love my wife is because she is a self-sacrificing servant of God, family and neighbor. My love for her isn’t released by her acts or temporal acts of serving. I love Lisa 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 to wrath as an attribute:

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. It presupposes a criterion that 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 also 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 it is possible for God to exhibit wrath it must be passionless wrath, which leaves 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 if 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 divinely-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 rightly affirm the one essence while distinguishing how particular revealed attributes relate theologically.

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 in relation to 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, or merely has wrath (because he is holy and just) leads to mutability and parts in God. Whereas to say that God doesn’t become wrathful but rather is wrathful and, also, takes aim with his eternal wrath in the context of sin because he is holy and just is to affirm, under good regulation, logical (not temporal) relations with respect to three analogically understood attributes. In sum, God either has, 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.) 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. What can be contemplated as God’s essential properties, if they are divine properties at all, are necessary properties because God is a necessary being.)

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

5. Although rare, some have denied wrath is an attribute while wanting to affirm wrath as a divine perfection. Attributes and perfections 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 terms:

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 walks it back when 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 such inconsistency, 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.

This SS class addresses: Attributes; Impassibility; Simplicity; Univocal; Analogical.

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.

Libertarian 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.

From whence come intentions, and how is compatibilism any better in this regard?

This post aims to address how unchosen intentions can be rational and person-relevant from a compatibilist perspective but not from a libertarian perspective. Even though morally significant intentions are formed within the agent, they are not formed by the agent, being caused from without the agent. Secondly, libertarian freedom would undermine moral accountability.

An unhappy choice for libertarians, infinite regress or ex nihilo:

The will is the faculty of choice, or that by which the mind chooses. If the will itself forms intentions to act, then intentions are a result of the mind choosing. We may add that if an intention to act is produced by the will (rather than formed in but not by the will), then it would have to be a result of a previous intention because definitionally the will cannot produce an unintended act. Yet if the mind chooses intentions intentionally (according to a preceding intention), then intentions would be a product of the will ad infinitum, as argued here. There would be what I’ll call a regress conundrum.

How can libertarian philosophy avoid regress, other than by agent causation? In agent causation the willing agent becomes the first cause. Pure spontaneity of intention saves freedom and moral responsibility, or so it’s said. Yet such autonomous independence would detach influence, reason, and relevant history from intentions and willed actions. We’re asked to believe by implication that the agent rises above all influences, wherefrom a posture of equilibrium forms intentions from a functionally blank past. In other words, given the liberty of indifference that agent causation contemplates, choices would be unmapped to personal history, entailing a radical break from the person doing the choosing, as argued here.

Libertarianism’s dead end:

So, libertarianism is a project that entails acts of the will that bring into existence intentions – while simultaneously denying chosen intentions because of the regress conundrum. The libertarian commitment to the causal contingency of agent causation leaves libertarianism with unintended intentions mysteriously formed by the will, an internally inconsistent notion for libertarianism that would render unintelligible a libertarian claim on moral responsibility based upon ultimate sourcehood and regulative control.

A challenge to Christian compatibilists:

Augustinians should acknowledge that intentions are not chosen. Contingent beings neither choose nor cause the intentions of the will. However, with that acknowledgment comes significant challenge. What makes intentions any more rational and morally relevant from an Augustinian perspective? In other words, what’s the relevant difference between a conception of an intention that springs from nothing and an Augustinian conception that posits that intentions are caused by unwilled states of affairs that are the consequence of causal influences that don’t originate with us and are outside our regulative control? As the title of this post asks, “From whence come intentions, and how is compatibilism any better in this regard?” After all, neither philosophy adequately accounts for agent willed intentions, though only libertarians try to do so. (*Libertarians need it for moral responsibility. Compatibilists do not(!), as explained here.)

What makes unintended intentions sensible?

If you’re Augustinian I would suggest you not read on until you feel the weight of the philosophical problem from the previous paragraph.

Nobody rationally determines intentions in a libertarian construct. There’d be no reason to guard the heart for we’d be able to kick bad habits spontaneously, according to a will that’s impervious to causal influences. Such radical spontaneity would result in pure randomness of choice, destroying moral relevance by detaching choice from person. In a split moment we should expect to see saints behaving like devils, and devils like saints. The implications of pure contingency of choice demand it! And any libertarian appeal to will formation doesn’t comport with the metaphysical or causal contingency of libertarianism. Libertarians may not have their cake and eat it too.

The Augustinian solution:

The problem restated: If we don’t sovereignly instantiate our intentions but rather they are formed in us, then how can intentions be morally relevant to the person?

Although intentions are formed in us, they are not formed by us. Notwithstanding, our intentions are rationally relevant because when God maps the cause of our intentions to providential states of affairs, he determines that our resultant intentions remain consistent with our person. They fall out naturally and by design, even with our approval! This uniformity is not a guarantee for libertarianism since it would not be normative that intentions have any relevance to the person given the contingency entailed by libertarian freedom. Whereas in the real world, one who experiences anger flare ups likely will be given over to outbreaks of anger given similar states of affairs, or trigger points. God is not mocked. There is a sowing and reaping principle by design. So, if the life practicing thief finds a billfold loaded with cash, from an Augustinian perspective the formed intention will likely result in a free act of ditching the wallet and pocketing the cash. However, God could also trigger a childhood memory resulting in an intention to freely do right given identical circumstances. Unlike with the implications of libertarian spontaneity, from an Augustinian standpoint either intention would be causally relevant to the person’s past. Also, both outcomes could be actualized by God, which is not the case with Molinism, and profoundly undermines the contingency of CCFs that Molinism seeks on the basis of indeterminism, in turn exposing Molinism for the brute fact necessity of all CCFs, as argued here. Given compatibilism, there’s hope for repentance and change, whereas with libertarian free choices there’s no hope for the will whatsoever. Free will becomes an illusion

*For Augustinianism, moral responsibility is sufficiently obtained by other factors whereby agent-willed intentions are unnecessary (not to mention, philosophically inexplicable). As long as intentions are formed within the agent, even though they are are not formed by the agent, they can be morally relevant. They are morally relevant when they are the agent’s intentions of which she even approves.

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.