Saturday, September 17, 2016

Who's the magician?

The aim of this short piece is to emphasise a point about the conflict between libertarianism and compatibilism, that there cannot be a plausible ‘argument from experience’ for libertarianism.

Think about the following case, which is meant to favour libertarianism, from a leading proponent,  the libertarian Robert Kane. He is countering the frequently-made criticism made by compatibilists that such libertarianism is indistinguishable from randomness or whimsy.  He supposes a woman driving to work who meets an accident and realizes that if she stops she will be late, but if she does stop she may nevertheless be able to lessen the distress of those involved in the accident. Kane says

[U]nder such conditions, the choice the woman might make either way will not be “inadvertent,” “accidental,” “capricious,” or “merely random” (as critics of indeterminism say) because the choice will be willed by the woman either way when it is made, and it will be done for reasons either way—reasons that she then and there endorses…So when she decides, she endorses one set of competing reasons over the other as the one she will act on. But willing what you do in this way, and doing it for reasons that you endorse, are conditions usually required to say something is done “on purpose,” rather than accidentally, capriciously, or merely by chance. (Robert Kane,  ‘Libertarianism’, in J.M. Fischer, R. Kane, D. Pereboom, & M. Vargas (eds) Four Views on Free Will (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing), 5-43. (29, emphases in the original)

Some of this is reminiscent of the late C. A. Campbell’s view of contra-causal freedom, a free act being one that is done from duty and against the causal flow of desire. I won’t go into that view here.  

When the situation is described, as Kane or Campbell describe it,  as one having reasons or conditions, the compatibilist freely claps his hands with glee.  It is obvious that the situation as described by Kane is easily incorporated into compatibilism. For compatibilism has no difficulty at all in allowing for conflicts in the self between one set of desires and another, or of a stalemate between the two settled in time by the preference for one of them; of willing a course of action as a result of settling the claims of competing reasons; of sudden decisions following periods of hesitancy and even of decisions, which when made, surprise the agent. All these are what we may call the phenomena of conscious choice, and cannot be used as an argument in favour of libertarianism. They  are equally open to the compatibilist and the libertarian; when they are described as Kane describes them above then this is obvious. 

But there is more. Libertarianism has the following that it has because it is claimed that it provides a clear criterion of human responsibility, a necessary and sufficient condition of it. But the usefulness of this criterion for that purpose, establishing that a person is morally responsible and what he is responsible for, is in fact impossibly difficult. For such a choice is weird, an instance of human beings having the power in a situation in which A is preferred to choose B instead of A, all other states of affairs except the choice being exactly unchanged. Claims of this type are empirically unverifiable and require us to believe that each of us possesses and exercises such a power when not the least piece of empirical evidence is produced for it. Such evidence as there is is consistent with compatibilism. Can you imagine this criterion of a free choice working in a court of law, or in the family?

This is to underline the point that indeterminism either lapses into an account easily dealt with by the compatibilist, or it is not an empirical theory, verified by an appeal to human experience, but postulates an indeterministic choice a priori, as a metaphysical postulate. But this way of putting things is not equitable.

Jerry Walls (who is not a friend of compatibilism any more than he is a friend of Calvinism) has observed:

Compatibilists, moreover, like Pharoah’s magicians, seem capable of duplicating in their own terms every power and ability that libertarians claim their view distinctively grants to agents. (Jerry Walls ‘Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be a Compatibilist’, PhilosophIa Christi, 13, no.1 (2011), 75-104. 

The presumption that libertarianism is the default position, so common in current philosophy of religion, is clearly visible here. Compatibilists are said to seem to be able (by their dark arts) to  duplicate the supposed clear-as-daylight alternativity already in place, the status quo, like the  hard-hearted  magicians of Pharoah duplicated Moses's miracles. Presumably, indeterminists are assumed to be friends of the people of God,  like God-fearing Moses.

So I agree with the general point that Walls makes, except that it is back to front. Indeterminists are the hard-hearted Egyptian magicians. It is not that compatibilism does any duplicating, but that libertarianism duplicates with its claims that we that we all have a certain unique power, the power of contrary choice. The trouble with this is that the gift of such choice is so well-wrapped that it is impossible to get at it, and the gift employed and enjoyed. We can never identify an alternative of libertarian choice. Philosophers can define it and some of them hanker after it, but we can never isolate it in practice. The situation is reminiscent of the famous passage in David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature.
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception… (Bk I,4,6 of A Treatise of Human Nature.)

‘I can never catch myself…without a perception’, Hume said. In the same sense the libertarian says ‘I can never identify textbook alternativity,  without there be a reason for choosing one alternative or the other’. Libertarians cannot give an example of a libertarian choice without falling into compatibilism. It is not that we all know when we experience and use such an indeterminate choice, and then the pesky compatibilists come along and mock it up. The shoe is on the other foot.

Moreover, the operation of a divine decree such as Calvinists maintain does not take away such powers of choice with respect to creaturely causes, because the decreer also decrees that the end should come about by the person making up his mind himself in a state of ignorance as to what his choice may turn out to be.

It may surprise some than no less authentic a Calvinist than John Calvin himself says this:

Hence as to future time, because the issue of all things is hidden from us, each ought to so apply himself to his office, as though nothing were determined about any part. (Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, (1552) trans. J.K.S. Reid, (London, James Clarke & Co. 1961, 171) 

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Thinking Outside the Box?

A few times ago I made the point that by their very nature confessional documents, standards for the regulation of a public body, are compromises. They are in that sense political documents. Within a common subscription to a form of words there may be wide variants still in the minds of the subscribers, questions and ways of thinking, matters of substance as of style. The supporters of a creed of confession are of course free to think and write adjacently to and in amplification of their endorsement of a position that they take a creedal statement to mean, that is, to imply, and to state what  in their view that statement means. Confessional subscription does not stifle or snuff out public comment, though it may be said to discipline such chatter.

Recently I came across two examples  in The Calvinist  International. One from a short document by Mark Jones, the other from William Perkins, posted by Simon Kennedy. These nicely illustrate this, and so I reproduce them here. (Exact links not provided. The interested reader is invited the browse this excellent blog for themselves.)


Each person subscribes to the Nicene Trinitarian formulation.  Among other things Mark Jones provides some doctrinal formulations which are in the nature of part of that formulation, in his eyes providing a gloss on it. Among them are the following.

10. The generation of the Son is both eternal and perpetual (aeterna et perpetua).  By virtue of the fact that the Son’s generation is hyperphysical (beyond physical), the Reformed orthodox could argue against the Socinians that eternal generation is not a movement from nonbeing (non esse) into existence (esse), but rather the consequence of an unchanging activity in the divine essence. Again, this is necessary. 
 11. The Father communicates the whole Godhead to the Son, ‘for Essentiae Communicatio facit omnia communia; the Godhead being Communicated by the Father, all things of the Godhead…only the distinction of the Persons excepted” (Goodwin). The classic Reformed position on the eternal generation of the Son includes the communication of the divine essence from the Father to the Son.  There is no generation of a new essence.  Hence, the Son’s deity, being communicated from the Father, is not derived from another essence, but is identical to the Father’s essence and therefore the Son is divine a se.  On this point, the majority position differs from Calvin’s. We may argue that although the Son is from the Father, he may still be called “God-of-himself,” that is, “not with respect to his person, but essence; not relatively as Son (for thus he is from the Father), but absolutely as God inasmuch as he has the divine essence existing from itself and not divided or produced from another essence (but not as having that essence from himself).  So the Son is God from himself although not the Son from himself” (Turretin). Turretin is making the distinction between aseitas personalis, a trinitarian heresy, and aseitas essentialis.

Some of what this asserts is the following:

1. That the essence of the Son is communicated from the Father, yet may be called ‘God of himself’. This is in accord with the ‘classic’ position, and as Mark says, differs from Calvin, who seems content with the divine essence of the Son existing ab initio, in an 'ordering' of the Persons. without the provision of an eternal ‘narrative’.

2. Communication is the activity of the Father, and thus appears to be distinct from generation. The Son is God from himself even though his divine essence is a divine communication from the Father’s divine essence, and identical to it. Bear in mind that all these relations are timelessly eternal, without duration, beginning or end.

3. We might ask at this point, why insist on the communicated character of the deity of the Son? What truth is it preserving?

4. What is the difference between begetting and communicating?

4. The begottenness of the Son is the consequence of the unchanging activity in the divine essence, (as is true of all the intertrinitarian relations). (Is ‘divine essence’, an abstraction, the correct phrase? Do abstractions act?

5. If it’s the case that ‘The classic Reformed position on the eternal generation of the Son includes the communication of the divine essence from the Father to the Son,’ is that substantially different from the original meaning to the Nicene Creed? Is it possible to know the answer to this question?


The second extract is from William Perkins.

The Son is the second person, begotten of the Father from all eternity. Although the Son is begotten of his Father, yet he is of and by himself very God, for he must be considered either according to his essence, or according to his filiation or sonship. In regard of his essence, he is autotheos, that is of and by himself very God, for the deity which is common to all persons is not begotten. But as he is a person and the Son of the Father, not of himself, but from another, for he is the eternal Son of his Father and thus he is truly said to be very God of very God. For this cause he is said to be sent from the Father. This sending taketh not away the equality of essence and power, but declareth the order of persons. For this cause also he is the word of the Father; not a vanishing, but essential word, because as a word is, as it were, begotten of the mind, so is the Son begotten of the Father; and also because he bringeth glad tidings from the bosom of his Father. 
Perkins asserts the following:

1.There are two ways of considering the Son, as to his essence and as to his person. The Son as to his essence in divine. This has no narrative. His divinity is a basic fact, it seems. This looks to be closer to Calvin.

2. In contrast, his person is ‘from another’. But no suggestion that his essence is also from another. What are the implications of this asymmetry.

3. Note Perkins’ language. He includes a metaphorical expression: ‘bringeth good tidings from the bosom of the Father’. And he makes a comparison, a simile: ‘as a word is, as it were, begotten of the mind, so is the Son begotten of the Father’.

4. He connects the immanent trinity and the economic trinity, the Trinity as it is itself, and as it 'organised' in redemption. The good tidings that he brings are the good tidings also brought by the angel at the birth of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Perkins’s emphasis at this point is on the Son as the sent word of the Father. So his begottenness ‘fits’ with the Son’s being the divine logos and his Messiahship.


And  of both extracts, and of such extracts generally  we may ask

1. What is actually going on in these paragraphs cited? Are the authors attempting to explain the Trinity? How do they know what to say? Is this speculation? What are the grounds for what they say?  Are there biblical grounds?

2. Perhaps they are not so much explaining as  safeguarding. Safeguarding what? The mystery of the Trinity?  Is not that mystery better safeguarded by keeping quiet? If Paul was content with apophatic exclamations, as in Rom 11.33f. for example,   ought not  Christian theologians to be similarly content?

2. Is it not strange that a commitment to the mystery of the Trinity leads to the uttering of so many words? Has Scripture been left behind? Has practical religion been left behind? What would the application of any of this be to a congregation?

These are not intended to be rhetorical or complacent questions. I admire such as Mark Jones and William Perkins. But I think sometimes that we need to call the auditors in. But who are the auditors?

Monday, August 01, 2016

'Once Saved Always Saved'

To get a grasp of a central Reformed doctrine such as perseverance one needs to understand both its grammar, and its operational logic. By grammar is meant what the doctrine means, what is a correct statement of it, and what it makes sense to say in explication of it; and (I don’t mind saying) what it means from God’s point of view. By its operational logic is meant how this doctrine is to be appropriated  by a professing believer. So – in a nutshell – this helps to handle the doctrine, and to avoid some pitfalls.

What perseverance is

Is it true that ‘once saved almost saved’? (OSAS) If so, this must imply ‘once justified always justified’.  This in turn must  imply ‘once an exercise of saving faith, always an exercise of such faith’,  and ‘once regenerate always regenerate’. When we draw these inferences what are we doing? We are limning the logic of OSAS, indicating its grammar. There’s more, such as: ‘once Christ died for a person he always died for that person’. And no doubt even more.

This is what OSAS means, at least that is what it means according to the tenets of the Reformed faith. About all the gracious acts of God in the soul, and some more, it can be said that there is a permanence, an unconditionality. Nothing can separate the believer from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The ‘once…always….’ Formula applies to the exercise of God’s decree in this particular.

Someone I talked to

These thoughts have been prompted by the remarks of someone I was talking to recently who observed that those who denied the tenets of Calvinism were not altogether at odds with the Reformed faith, since many of them upheld OSAS. So there is, he implied, this much common ground. As he talked it came to mind that this is also a case of ‘unconditional’ perseverance,  OSAS no matter what. But also that there are many people around who don’t simply affirm unconditional OSAS at a point of theological grammar, but who readily apply it their own case, and that of others, as a consequence of a past profession of faith. In other words such people extend the grammar to its functional logic, to the personal appropriation of perseverance. I don’t know whether my interlocutor meant to say or imply this: that there are people around who understand the doctrine of perseverance in this way.

Owen on Apostasy

We can get further at what I am trying to say by thinking a bit about ‘apostasy’, an ugly word for an ugly malady. Think of that well-known passage in Hebrews 6.

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have  shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the Word of God, and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm, and holding him up to contempt. (v.4f) 
In his commentary on Hebrews John Owen takes each of these conditions – (1) being enlightened, (2) having tasted of the heavenly gift, (3) have shared in the Holy Spirit, (4) have  tasted the goodness of the word of God, and (5) (have tasted of) the powers of the world to come – as each and together  not amounting to the effectual work of regeneration, but only take a person as far as the conviction of sin. Such a person may fall away. And if they do,  the author of the Letter says that it is impossible to be restored to repentance.  Owen thinks that the entire passage applies to ‘fruitless professors’. He does not see the prospect of apostasy from true faith in Hebrews 6, only of a depiction of a fate of a barren professor. So Owen takes the passage to apply only to professed believers.

But at first glance it is difficult to see how the writer can make such a case  as a warning to his readers who, he assures them later on, give evidence of regeneration, but who are sluggish. (v.12)

It seems churlish to ask Owen for more, given the seven volumes he has already given, but nevertheless I was surprised that he does not refer to the clause which mentions crucifying Christ again: ‘they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt’. (v.6) What do those words contribute to the argument? Owen does not tell us. Do these strong words only apply to the tribe of Judas? To the person that is without charity, whose life is nothing ? (I Cor. 13)

Treating the apostasy as affecting ‘fruitless professors’ only, means that the words do not apply to the Hebrew Christians. For they are not fruitless, as the writer goes on to say (v.9f.)

Well, mercifully (I think), Owen is not altogether consistent. He does (despite this) see the passage as perhaps a mild warning to his readers.  He says (Vol. V of the Goold edition, 71-2)

Only it was necessary to give them this caution, that they might take due care not to be such [i.e. like the people he was characterising, ‘fruitless professors’]….he lets them here know the danger that there was in continuing in that slothful condition.

Not so much a warning but a ‘caution’.

If Owen and the first readers of the Letter to the Hebrews knew that those being referred to in v.4-8 are ‘fruitless professors’ then there’s no problem. We remember the parables of the seeds in the ground. There seems to be allusion to that parable in the language of 7-8. There are fruitless professors. But in fact the writer goes on to say that he believes better things of his readers, and proceeds to say why. But then why is he mentioning this case of the sower if it may not apply to them?

Conditionality and perseverance

We need to try to get clear on what this passage doing. What is its operational logic.  Is it not a ‘warning passage’? For whom then is it a 'caution'? Presumably those being written to.  Maybe the answer is to think some more about perseverance. So we must think about what it is like to persevere. It is to attend the means of grace and contend against sin and weakness in the strength of the Christ who the professed believer is united to. It is keeping on, enduring to the end,  keeping on keeping on. Not to ‘fall away’ (Heb. 6. 6) The way to persevere is simply to persevere, and the assurance of one’s perseverance is provided by the evidence that one is persevering. Doesn’t the New Testament write about fighting, running, contesting? The boxer is only as good as his latest fight. And what about other warnings, to ‘take heed’, not to look back, and so on.  All such activities are highly conditional.

Unconditional OSAS

It is natural for the holder of OSAS to hold that view unconditionally, an insurance policy with a paid-up premium. So then what Hebrews 6 would be saying is that no one ever does fall away from true faith, only from fruitless faith.  The ‘if they shall fall away’ is a condition never to be fulfilled by any professed believer. Once enlightened always enlightened. Once a taster of the heavenly gift always a taster. And so on.

But that is stretching things, I think. Here’s what I think instead. That there is certainly an unconditionality to perseverance, to OSAS. This is the God’s point of view that I had the temerity to mention earlier. Aside from this there is in the church a mixed multitude of people who, in the early stages of their profession are indistinguishable the one from the other. So, if you think that the words of warning/caution in Hebrews 6 apply to you, they do. If the cap fits, wear tt.

In general the assurance that the professed believer will persevere to the end is grounded in the fact that he able (or enabled) to persevere. Present perseverance is the only guarantee for the processed believer of future perseverance, of ‘standing’. The professed believer must not take it for granted that he stands, but to take heed lest he fall. He must exercise watchfulness.  Paul said on one occasion, ‘I discipline my body, and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others, I myself should be disqualified’. (I Cor. 9.27) Was he only referring to his role as a preacher?

This is what I called the functionality of passages like Hebrews 6. The professed  believer must ask what this and similar warning passages are intended to do. How are we to treat them in real time, living as professed Christians? The answer is obvious, at least to me!

[Owen has more to say on this matter in his Commentary on Hebrews 6, some of it rather surprising. I shall try to reproduce it in a later post]