A few months ago, I went to a regional meeting for the Evangelical Theological Society at Southwestern Seminary, and while I was only able to attend one day of it, I got to hear some interesting papers. One presentation was by a Reformed philosopher who advanced an argument against the consistency of believing in eternal security–the belief that once someone is truly saved, he cannot lose his salvation–while also believing in libertarian free will (positions that are arguably held by the majority of conservative Southern Baptists). It was an interesting paper and he presented it with passion, though I ultimately did not find it very convincing. I think his mistake is that he presented a false analogy with another argument that he believed people make against Calvinism, which makes his parallel argument against eternal security unsound. Keep in mind that he believes in eternal security; he only presented the latter argument as a way to show that Christians can’t have both libertarian free will and perseverance.
I’ve written several articles critiquing the interpretation and logic of those who advocate limited atonement, the contention that Christ died only for the elect. I’ll now discuss their use of verses that they think give a positive case for limited atonement.
Intellectually honest Calvinists will admit that no text in Scripture explicitly teaches limited atonement: There is no verse that says that Christ died for the elect only or at least explicitly denies that Christ died for everyone. However, many Calvinists will argue that this is no big deal. There is no verse, after all, that explicitly spells out the Trinity or Incarnation, yet those are considered not only clear scriptural teachings but central doctrines of the faith. The reason that the Incarnation is certain, for example, is that there are texts that teach that Christ was a man and others that teach that he was God. It takes only a small step of logic to put them together and conclude that Christ was both fully God and fully man. Likewise, all it takes, according to Calvinists, is a small logical step from certain passages to reach limited atonement.
The texts they typically use are passages that teach that Christ died for a select group of people. Here are a few examples:
John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”
Acts 20:28: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”
Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her…”
Other verses can be offered, but these are enough to get the picture. While none of these verses state that Christ died for the elect only, Calvinists argue that it is nonetheless reasonable to make this conclusion.
The Republicans in Congress are seemingly trying to remove federal funds from Planned Parenthood, which is reigniting arguing and anger over the abortion issue. Once again, we’re hearing the nonsense 3% statistic being thrown around to go along with a host of other common arguments to defend abortion and Planned Parenthood. Much of these arguments miss the central point of this debate, being red herrings that distract from the key issue: Do we have good reason to believe that the baby is or is not a human life? Does the mother have the “right” to end that life for any reason of her choosing? Even if we aren’t sure, is the chance that the baby is human great enough to make elective abortion morally wrong? It is frankly frustrating how many people, unfortunately including many confused Christians, use the following arguments when they are all simply irrelevant.
Last week I drove to San Antonio to attend the annual national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. It’s the first time I’ve been to a national meeting; the other time I went to an ETS conference, it was a regional one. I initially wasn’t going to go, but my professors encouraged me to make the trip in order to meet people and listen to contemporary evangelical scholarship. I came back early from it in order to teach class on Thursday and Friday for my professor, so I was only there Tuesday and Wednesday, but it was nonetheless a great experience of learning.
For those who don’t know what it is, ETS is an academic society for evangelical scholars. It has its own journal and has regional and national meetings where scholars present their research in a short session and are then questioned and critiqued by their colleagues in the room. The topics are very wide ranging: There are papers presented about philosophy, systematic theology, hermeneutics, Greek verbs, history, social issues, pastoral issues, Asian-American theology, etc. Pretty much any topic under the sun remotely connected to theology. Even within a particular subject like philosophy, there can be topics as diverse as discussing Berkleyan idealism to leveraging superhero movies to discuss biblical morals (yeah… I’m not kidding). The bad part is that there are literally dozens of sessions one can choose from, so it was sometimes hard to make a choice; still, at least there was always a lot of options.
To prevent this from being too long, I’ll just stick to talking about some of the presentations I went to that were more notable. There are several sessions that I simply have a hard time remembering well or didn’t get too much out of, so I won’t talk much about them. Hopefully, this will still be a decent picture of what I got to listen to. For the most part, I stuck to philosophy presentations, though I made a point to go to a few others that were of other disciplines.
Last week, I went to the annual ETS meeting, which was held in San Antonio this year. I will get around to writing a summary post about it, but for now I’d like to focus on one particular session that was interesting but that ultimately made a failed argument, in my estimation.
Matthew Barrett, a Reformed theologian, gave a presentation titled, “Should We Read the Bible Theologically? Debating Whether Dogma Should Inform Hermeneutics.” He argued that, contrary to many biblical theologians who decry allowing prior theological commitments to guide the interpretation of a text, Christians should read Scripture theologically. Barrett presented well and he is very intelligent, and I appreciated his clear speech. On the face of it, I agreed with his general point. However, for him, “reading theologically” means having a full blown system in mind, and while that may not be always wrong in itself, he gave very little instruction on how to evaluate any system because he conflated issues and gave a murky methodology.
A while ago, I wrote about John Owen’s famous trilemma argument in favor of limited atonement and criticized its shortcomings. I noted that it is reliant on a commercialist view of the atonement, which is faulty, and that it diminishes the importance of faith. Philosophical arguments like that one are not out of bounds by nature and can guide interpretation, but it is not nearly strong enough to overturn better interpretations of passages such as 1 John 2:2 that speak against limited atonement.
Now, I want to discuss another problem for Calvinists who advocate the double payment argument. Many of them insist that though there is a sense in which Christ did not die for everyone, there is another sense in which he did. In other words, while Christ’s blood and sacrifice is sufficient for everyone, it is efficient only for the elect. I think this, along with the double payment argument, leads to a contradiction. Even for those few Calvinists who reject Owen’s argument, this distinction is meaningless and confused.
In my systematic reading seminar last fall, we read through several systems of theology: Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, liberal, etc. A common theme tended to pop up among the conservative Protestant authors, and that is to denigrate philosophy while upholding some supposed pure theology of Scripture. In fact, virtually every conservative Protestant author would take potshots at other systems, seeing them poisoned by philosophy, while claiming that his system was the one that was based purely on Scripture. This sentiment is very common today, even among (or especially among) professional theologians. Philosophy bad! Scripture good!
On a certain level, this conservative Protestant suspicion of philosophy is understandable, given the downright nonsensical roads that liberal theology has taken. However, as pious as this sounds, it shows a lack of self-awareness and a lot of presumption. Though all of those authors claimed to jettison philosophy for the sake of Scripture, every single one of them would then sneak his own philosophy through the back door, seemingly without realization. This remains true today, and it is both aggravating and amusing. Christians need to realize this: Philosophy and reason are unavoidable when interpreting Scripture and developing theology. That does not mean that they displace Scripture as the lead, but it does mean that pretending that one does not engage in philosophy at all is a quick way to adopt underlying philosophical ideas without awareness or critical thought.
Observing political and social discussion may lead one to think that America has descended into madness. What was once common sense and undeniable fact–one’s sex and gender–is under attack based upon what an individual identifies as. Even if someone is born male, if he feels female, then society must cater to his preferences by allowing him to go to girls’ bathrooms and otherwise participate in female-only activities (though as of now, opposite sex sports teams are off limits, a clear indication that there is something really wrong here). If schools do not follow this, this current administration will threaten loss of federal funding. If businesses do not follow this, they risk getting punished. If individuals express disagreement, they are labeled as bigots, “transphobes,” haters, and the like. This is par for the course for the left, as they have followed these tactics for gay marriage, abortion, and virtually any other issue.
Most arguments from transgender advocates appeal to people’s feelings and emotions. These people identify as a different gender, regardless of the biological facts of their sex. They feel hurt when they are told they are confused or when they are not allowed to go to the bathroom meant for the opposite sex. This is mean discrimination. We are to be “inclusive” and “loving,” liberals say, and make everyone feel comfortable. Who are you to dictate what is true, they ask. Asserting biological facts and moral truths is arrogant and hurtful.
Of course, they quickly realize that it is not possible to make everyone happy; after all, what about the many women and girls who feel very uncomfortable with a known man being in the girls bathroom with them? What about the small, but very real, chance that such laws will be taken advantage of by men who do not really identify as female but will say so just to get into the girls bathroom? What about a woman who has been sexually assaulted in her life who gets “triggered” by the presence of a man in the girls bathroom?
A while ago, I wrote about how it seems that Calvinists cannot consistently claim that God is all-loving in their system, which at least some Calvinists agree with. I posted an online comment from a Calvinist to illustrate this, and also noted in passing that he utilized the author analogy to remove moral responsibility from God: Just like authors aren’t held accountable for writing characters that get raped and murdered, it makes no sense to pin evil on God, who is the author of creation. I have seen this analogy several times, including recently where the poster stated that blaming God for horrific evils that he causes is like blaming Shakespeare for Claudius’ betrayal in Hamlet. Since nobody thinks Shakespeare is guilty for Claudius’ sin even though Shakespeare wrote Claudius in that manner, it is equally silly to think that God is implicated in sin and evil even though he is the cause of it all.
It is important to review why this argument is even necessary: An all-determining and all-causing view of God’s sovereignty is foundational for classical Reformed theology, which leads to the idea that God causes evil. Many Reformed theologians shrink from this and try to say that God only allows evil but doesn’t directly cause it, but as I have argued before, this option is not legitimately available to them and certainly wasn’t an option that Calvin himself thought highly of in his Institutes. Those who are a bit more consistent bite the bullet and say that God indeed unilaterally causes sin and evil, so then this author analogy becomes relevant to them: Because God is the Author of everything, he can do whatever he pleases with his “novel” and that does not impugn his goodness. The “God as Author” analogy is very common among Christians who merely want to affirm that God is the Creator, but here, it is used very specifically as a way to show that God can be the cause of evil but remain blameless.
This seems straightforward, but a little digging shows that this analogy is very inadequate. All analogies break down at some point, as many people often simplistically intone, but that doesn’t mean analogies cannot be evaluated for their usefulness and accuracy, and in my estimation, this one falls way short.
A popular philosophical viewpoint regarding the relationship between God’s knowledge and human free actions is Molinism. I will attempt to keep this simple and non-technical, so Molinism can be roughly defined as the view that God not only knows what people will do in the future but what they would or would not do in any given circumstance. In fact, the former is more or less based on the latter; God knows what every single person would or would not do in any world he could create, and then he decides to create a particular world, of which he then knows all future actions and events (“world” here does not mean the earth but rather a possible “universe” or state of affairs).
The reason this view is popular among Christian philosophers is that it promises to harmonize two common aspects of Christian theology: Human free will and God’s sovereignty/providence. More specifically, it seeks to harmonize human libertarian free will and a meticulous view of God’s providence. Arminians and other non-Calvinists tend to espouse human libertarian freedom, the idea that external causes (such as God) do not determine a human choice because otherwise it would not be free. Many therefore often conceive of sovereignty in more general terms: God is in control, but that does not mean that God decides every little detail of creation. A plethora of Bible verses can be mustered for their position, though of course that does not necessarily mean they are interpreted rightly.
Reformed theologians, on the other hand, have built an entire system based upon an all-causing view of God’s sovereignty; R.C. Sproul famously argued that if God did not directly control every last molecule of the universe, that one molecule could lay waste to creation. They therefore seek to change the typical understanding of free will by advocating compatibilism, the belief that determinism and free will can be compatible if free will is understood a certain way. God ultimately determines human choices, but human beings are still morally responsible for their actions, not God. Needless to say, such a view of freedom gives them decided amounts of trouble in explaining evil, but they too are armed with a host of Bible references (though again, it is up for debate if Reformed people interpret these correctly).