My Free Grace Mea Culpa – Part 2

This is part two of two posts that I am writing on this topic, to read part one click here.

A few years ago I accidentally got myself involved in a rather heated debate with another Christian on a blog that we both frequented. I had begun to realize that we Christians used the same vocabulary but often meant different things by it. The topic involved the concept of grace and I wanted to make sure that the man I was exchanging ideas with understood where I was coming from. Now, I knew that his definition of grace went something like this:

Grace is unmerited favor.

That definition is fine as far as it goes but I had a more expansive idea of grace in mind so I gave him this definition:

Grace is God doing as much for us (the human race) out of His love as He can without compromising His justice.

In this way began the most intense internet debate I have had to date. His response was immediate and powerful; I could almost feel him spitting out his Coke as he read what I had written. I had unwittingly written something which had apparently impugned God’s sovereignty.

During this running battle of opposing theologies I was accused on several occasions of holding to “libertarian free will.” I wasn’t completely sure what that was but I knew it was not a good thing to him. So, I decided to rectify the situation and get myself a reference work that would expose me to current theological thought on free will, sovereignty, and foreknowledge. Don’t get me wrong, I had a very solid understanding of these subjects as my pastor taught them. The problem was that I didn’t understand how my antagonist was using the terms.

I did some research at Amazon and in a week my copy of “No One Like Him” by John S. Feinberg arrived at my home. It was an excellent choice. Dr. Feinberg is a Calvinist who, in 800 pages, does a very good job of explaining the many heavy doctrines which are currently being debated in evangelical Christendom from a Calvinist perspective. Of course this included the topics of sovereignty, free will, and foreknowledge which are the topics I wanted to “hear the other side” of.

I am going to quote heavily from Dr. Feinberg and then chip in my two cents looking to highlight where my theology disagrees with his. Before I go on I want to let it be known that under Dr. Feinberg’s definitions I do fall into the “libertarian free will” camp. However, I want to be very clear on one point here. From what I have learned, I am not comfortable with the philosophical approach used by scholars. God and mankind are philosophically reasoned about, and manipulated, as if they are mathematical quantities. I strongly believe that this methodology is not up to the task of providing insight into God and His relationship with His creation. Please don’t misunderstand me about this. I am all for mathematics and theorems (I have an M.S. degree in applied mathematics) but I believe all this approach does is codify the presuppositions we already bring to the table and does not provide new insight. I also believe that this approach strips God of much of His essence and turns Him into the One that winds the clockwork cosmos.

From here on out I will provide some of Dr. Feinberg’s quotes and highlight where our disagreements are. By doing this I can hopefully highlight my doctrinal differences with much Calvinist theology and let my readers know “where I’m coming from.”

Sovereignty

Divine sovereignty can be defined as God’s power of absolute self-determination. This, of course, needs explanation and amplification. God has this power in virtue of his ability to deliberate and make choices, as opposed to others deciding for him. Moreover, self determination means that god does his own actions, and that they are in accord with his choices.

What has been said so far is also true of humans and angels (assuming that they are free in some sense), but of course, they are not sovereign. What differentiates divine self-determination from human and angelic is that God’s self determination is absolute. This involves two main things. On the one hand, God’s choices are determined only by his own nature and purposes. In contrast, human and angelic decisions are often decisively influenced by factors other than their own nature or purposes, by others’ actions and by various events that happen. To say that God’s sovereignty is absolute also means that his choices and control cover all things [my emphasis].

John S. Feinberg
No One Like Him
p. 294

In this quote Dr. Feinberg begins building his case for God’s absolute sovereignty. Here you can begin to see that he takes a view of divine sovereignty that I view as a zero-sum game. What I mean by that is that if God were to permit humans to make independent choices then He would somehow be less than absolutely sovereign. You can think of this as there being a fixed amount of sovereignty which is all God’s (God has a monopoly on sovereignty). Now, if God were to take some of his sovereignty and give it to mankind so we could make independent decisions then He would no longer have a monopoly on sovereignty and He would be diminished (this would mean God is not immutable).

I definitely disagree with Dr. Feinberg on this. Any sovereign, including God, has the right to delegate decisions to subordinates without diminishing their sovereignty in any way. I know that Calvinists have their arguments but I can’t see the zero-sum concept of sovereignty being taught in the bible. Dr. Feinberg spends the rest of the section on sovereignty going through passages like Romans chapter 9 and Ephesians chapter 1 (follow my link at the top of this post to my first post on free will to see how I interpret some of these passages) which he uses to support his understanding of absolute sovereignty.

Of course, if God is absolutely sovereign then that raises the specter of who is responsible for sin. If He has “choices and control cover all things” then doesn’t that mean He has choice and control over sin? It is in regard to divine sovereignty versus human free will (and responsibility) that the heavy philosophical reasoning comes into play.

Choice and Free Will

Dr. Feinberg’s extensive discussion of the different views on human free will has certainly clarified my understanding of the different sides of this philosophical debate (this is why I purchased his book in the first place). As it turns out there are four basic approaches to free will: fatalism, hard determinism, soft determinism (compatibilism), and libertarian free will. The first three are different forms of determinism which means that “for everything that happens, there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could occur.” Indeterminism basically holds that “the state of the world up to a given point plus all existing natural laws are not sufficient to guarantee only one possible future.” Once again I am going to point out how uncomfortable I am with the framing of these definitions. This is most definitely how a researcher in the physical sciences would frame the question. Is the initial state completely determinative of the final outcome? Have I controlled for all the variables? Is there a random component? I hold that such framing from the get go makes God the distant clockmaker and all of his creation the intricate clock which is a shallow, one dimensional view of God.

I should probably state that I do not hold to determinism since I don’t believe that God foreordained all events (but He did foreknow them). By definition I then fall into the “libertarian free will” camp. How convenient!

I am going to provide short definitions of the three deterministic views as best I can. Remember, Dr. Feinberg spends many pages on this so I know I am giving short shrift to these. Fatalism holds that no matter what we do that certain outcomes are inevitable. The best way to think about this is that it is like what happens in some of the old episodes of the Twilight Zone television series. The protagonist of our story gets a newspaper showing tomorrow’s headlines and a terrible train crash is going to happen. Our hero then tries to stop this tragedy but no matter what he does, the events unfold exactly like they are foretold in the newspaper. Every action on his part is futile and cannot change the predetermined events.

Hard determinism seems to me to be best explained as we are all puppets following a pre-set script. There are no choices for the actors (or puppets if you prefer), the play just goes on and on according to the script.

Now we finally come to soft determinism which is what Dr. Feinberg believes is God’s modus operandi. In this situation God will move people away from certain actions if they are not part of the divine decree (God has multiple ways of influencing these actions). However, if a person is going to make a choice that is in agreement with the divine decree then God allows them to go ahead with it. So, once again, God’s desired outcome happens exactly as decreed. Some human choices come via free will and some God has to move people to do against their will.

Dr. Feinberg goes to great pains to make sure we understand the differences between the different types of determinism:

The mere fact that both fatalism and determinism affirm the fixity or determinedness of future outcomes has led some indeterminists to infer fallaciously that determinism is committed to the futility of all human effort. The determinist maintains that existing causes determine or fix whether certain efforts will in fact be made at certain times, while allowing that future outcomes are indeed dependent on our efforts in particular contexts. By Contrast, the fatalist holds falsely that such outcomes are always independent of human efforts. But the determinist’s claim of the fixity of the outcome does not entail that the outcome is independent of our efforts. Hence determinism does not allow the deduction that human intervention or exertion is futile in every case.

Adolf Grünbaum
as quoted by John S. Feinberg
No One Like Him
pp. 633-634

I will state at this point that I am one of the “fallacious” indeterminists when it comes to this. The book spills a lot of ink claiming that hard and soft determinism (especially soft determinism) are different than fatalism. I have never come close to being convinced by any of these assertions.

I am now going to cut to the chase and explain why soft determinism is so important to most Calvinists in my own words. I brought up this subject to explain how those who believe in “absolute sovereignty” can also hold that man is responsible before God. This is accomplished through soft determinism by noting that some free decisions by mankind are allowed by God as long as they are in accordance with His will. That doesn’t necessarily mean a lot until you understand what a Calvinist believes the will of the fallen to be. Orthodox Christians hold to the belief that mankind was corrupted and became sinful because of Adam’s fall. To a Calvinist this does not mean that mankind’s conscience was merely seared or defiled, nor was our conscience obliterated, rather it was turned into what I like to call the anti-conscience. Fallen mankind will, in every situation, choose to fight God’s will and do the opposite of what He commands of us. So, left to our own devices, no one would ever freely accept the offer of salvation. The elect are the ones that God coaxes into accepting the offer of salvation against their fallen will. Those who do not believe did not want to be saved and freely chose to plunge off the cliff with the other unregenerate lemmings into the abyss. Rejection of salvation is always an act of free will and acceptance of the offer of salvation is never an act of free will. So the unbeliever is always responsible for their unbelief.

Believe that if you want but I never will. The fallen can recognize their need for reconciliation with God. The problem is that there is nothing they can do about it of their own works or initiative. Salvation comes through the gracious offer of salvation from God and the acceptance of that offer by man though non-meritorious faith.

Foreknowledge

I would like to quickly touch on foreknowledge because this is also used as an argument for God’s foreordaining all events through His divine decree. The Calvinist logic is very simple: if God didn’t predetermine everything that is going to happen then it is impossible for Him to foreknow anything. Basically, God cannot know the future without the script. There are, of course, alternatives to the Calvinist conception of foreknowledge. I have read over these alternatives in general and some, like Molinism, have a lot to recommend them. The approach that I have found the most appealing is what Dr. Feinberg calls the Boethian Resolution:

In discussing the divine eternity, we saw that Boethius proposed atemporal eternity as the way to solve the problem of freedom and foreknowledge. According to this approach, God is outside of time, so temporal distinctions between past present and future do not apply to him. Moreover, it is not correct even to say that he is simultaneous to all times, for simultaneity is itself a temporal notion. Nonetheless, he sees all of time at once it is all there before him just as a whole parade is entirely in view of someone standing atop a mountain near the parade route. Things that are past, present, or future from our perspective, are all within God’s view. This allows God to know what is future to us, but since all from his perspective, Boethius thought there really is no problem of foreknowledge and freedom.

John S. Feinberg
No One Like Him
p. 742

I lean toward God being immanent and transcendant both in space and time but Dr. Feinberg’s definition is certainly more accessible. But, alas, Dr. Feinberg doesn’t have much use for Boethius and his crazy ideas:

Let us consider, however, whether this proposal even solves the problem it was intended to answer. On the positive side, this approach does allow God to know our future. Hence, it upholds the foreknowledge side of the question. On the other hand, the solution runs into trouble with libertarian free will. Though the solution is ingenious, it is unconvincing [to whom?]. Even though God sees all these things as present, he sees things that are from our perspective are still future. Even if he doesn’t know exactly where we are temporally now in that stream of events and actions [my emphasis], he still knows things which from our perspective are future. So, with the Boethian solution we are back to the same problem. How can the things God sees be avoided, and how is it within our power to do otherwise than what God knows? Libertarian free will seems to be sacrificed in favor of divine foreknowledge. Hence, this solution does not render internally consistent belief in libertarian freedom and divine foreknowledge of our future free acts, since it seems to negate the former.

John S. Feinberg
No One Like Him
pp. 742-743

Wow! If Boethius was right then God wouldn’t know where we are in that stream of events or actions! Either Dr. Feinberg knows something about our infinite God that I don’t or he is being dismissive of a viewpoint he doesn’t like. You say po-tay-to and I say po-tah-to.

I don’t understand why God would lose us temporally. I also don’t understand why knowing what will happen automatically destroys libertarian free will. We all know with confidence that events will happen in the future and that they can only happen in one way. The crucial point is not that events will happen but who is making the choices that go into determining the outcome of those events. If God is not determining all events by an act of will then it sure looks to me like “libertarian free will” is being preserved.

I could go on but see no point at this time (I may come back to this in the future) and I am really not wed to any particular theory especially since I think that our theories about how God works in time and space are bound to be wrong to one extent or another. I try not to be dogmatic about things which we really have no scriptural support for. Since I do believe in non-deterministic free will in the context of personal salvation, I will be dogmatic about that.

Summary

Dr. Feinberg has done an impressive job of explaining a wide range of issues currently being debated in evangelical Christianity. I learned a lot of details and background information that will help me to more clearly communicate with other Christians in the future. However, for me the entire vocabulary and philosophical framework of these debates is suspect from the very beginning. I put no confidence in the methods used or the “results” that are found. The Calvinist philosophical framework holds no more promise for me now than it did before I bought Dr. Feinberg’s book. If you want to convince me of something you will need to do it through scripture, quoting chapter and verse.

I still hold that we choose whether or not to accept our savior’s gracious offer of salvation and that grace is best defined by God doing as much for us (the human race) out of His love as He can without compromising His justice.

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4 Comments on “My Free Grace Mea Culpa – Part 2”


  1. Feinberg:
    The mere fact that both fatalism and determinism affirm the fixity or determinedness of future outcomes has led some indeterminists to infer fallaciously that determinism is committed to the futility of all human effort. The determinist maintains that existing causes determine or fix whether certain efforts will in fact be made at certain times, while allowing that future outcomes are indeed dependent on our efforts in particular contexts.

    Dan says:
    Some 5-point Calvinists seem to find it easier to speak of fatalism and determinism, rather than of divine fatalism and divine determinism, these latter the only phenomena— indeed, divine phenomena—their doctrine of Irresistibility in fact allows. This way the Calvinist, by speaking of fatalism and determinism in the kind of abstract way philosophers tend to do, that is, as though these two were 3rd party entities, the problem of determinism seems, compared to fatalism, more removed from Irresistibility. Thus Feinberg aims to remove God from the problem of evil by invoking non-divine “efforts” despite “determinism.” Thus he defines “determinism”against the normal sense of its dictionary meaning. Says Feinberg:

    “The determinist maintains that existing causes determine or fix whether certain efforts will in fact be made at certain times, while allowing that future outcomes are indeed dependent on our efforts in particular contexts.”(emphasis mine)

    By “certain” and “particular” is meant “some.” But how, then, can determinism, if it is really determinism, merely engage some human efforts but not all? How sad, that the Calvinist theologian Feinberg has to present such a non-standard definition of the word “determinism.” And how subtle for him to infer choice without having to invoke the actual word, preferring instead the slippery word “efforts,” which, like his treatment of “determinism,” prepares to define the word in contradiction to its normal dictionary meaning. For note the definition of “determinism” according to the free online dictionary:

    The philosophical doctrine that every state of affairs, including every human event, act, and decision is the inevitable consequence of antecedent states of affairs.

    Note that it is “every state of affairs, including “every human event, act, and decision” that determinism encompasses, not just some. Note also that “inevitable consequence” can only imply antecedent cause.)

    What then? Only this—until Calvinists experience more shame in their overthrow of standard dictionary meanings, it will be impossible for Evangelical theology to present God as anything other than non-sensical. The real tragedy, of course, is that this does not have to be the case.

  2. Glenn Says:

    Hi Dan,

    Thank you for commenting. I struggled for a long time when interacting with Calvinists because we do use words differently. I was very frustrated for a long time wondering what I was missing. It took me a while to put it all together. In fact, as you mention in your book, I don’t think that many Calvinists realize that they use words differently from other Christians.

    Please feel free to stop by and comment any time!

    Glenn

  3. Darin Says:

    I think Charles Spurgeon should be our example in this debate as he saw both views as non debatable. The failure to see both truths is not in God, but in our limited “veiled” understanding. I see Calvinist perspectives, which go too far, and I have seen Arminian perspectives not go far enough, denying to me what is clearl scriptural teaching.

    Many of us hold to a Trinitarian point of view, which logically doesn’t make sense, but we are forced by scripture to come to this conclusion.

    I think the best representation of these points are in the story of Joseph. “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”. I’ve heard all kinds of explanations for this, but bottom line, it says what it says. A true reconcilation of God’s Providence and man’s responsibility I think is left for eternity.

    By the way, I’m a 5 point calvinist and love my arminian brothers. We need to quit dividing on this issue and calling reformed brothers heretics.

    We need to know nothing except “Christ Crucified” and with that as our foundation, love one another as Christ loved the churh.

  4. Glenn Says:

    Hi Darin,

    Thank you for your gracious comment. I won’t disagree with anything you said however I will say that I have seen accusations of heresy thrown around by all sides in this debate. I reserve the word “heretic” only for those who preach a false gospel.

    Feel free to stop by again. I have taken a bit of a hiatus from regular posting (maybe that will be permanent and maybe it won’t) but I always make an effort to reply to any comments or questions.

    Glenn


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