Category Archives: Philosophy

The Love of Wisdom

SALVATION AND SOVEREIGNTY: A MOLINIST APPROACH

Salvation and Sovereignty

I just finished reading ‘Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach’ by Kenneth Keathley in my ongoing quest to find out exactly what I believe about God’s “sovereignty.” Molinism, often advertised as a middle-ground position between Calvinism and Arminianism, piqued my interest. Keathley is a Baptist who teaches at a Baptist seminary, who adopts the ROSES acronym (against TULIP)… originally presented by Baptist scholar Timothy George. As Baptist theology has always been a curious mixture of Calvinist and Arminian ideas, it seems fitting for Keathley to embrace this “middle position” of Molinism.

Unfortunately, the book is far more about the ROSES acronym and how it plays into the doctrines of salvation and sovereignty (as the title advertises) than it is about Molinism itself. I was left mystified by the more elusive, philosophical details of Molinism and will have to read ‘A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology’ by Kirk R. MacGregor next.

Keathley often states that God “uses his middle-knowledge” in such-and-such circumstances. But how? In what exact way? Also, God “actualizes” a particular world out of all possible worlds. But what does it mean for God to “actualize” a world – does he only actualize a world during the seven days of creation recorded in Genesis and then sit back and watch everything unfold in a deterministic cascade? Or is God in a process of constant actualization? Does the world he actualizes change based on Keathley’s concept of contingency? What specific criteria did / does God use to choose a particular world to actualize? Keathley says little about these matters.

Regardless, Keathley writes well and his attention to certain topics have left lasting impressions on me. He argues very clearly and logically in favor of:

1. Contingency: Scripture repeatedly presents scenarios that turned out one way but could have truly turned out a very different way. The outcome was not set it stone. “Contingency is the concept that things could have been otherwise” (25). “A contingent truth is something that happens to be true but obviously could have been false” (28).

2. Permission: The Bible “presents God’s relationship with iniquity as one of permission. The notion of God’s permissive relationship to evil permeates the Bible” (27). This is opposed to God being in any way the author or cause of sin, even indirectly.

3. Soft Libertarianism: Humans have a limited ability to choose to the contrary – their set or range of possible choices are determined by their character. An unregenerate person has the possibility of making genuine choices between alternatives, even to engage in externally moral behavior, but they do not have the ability to please God because this is not within the scope of their character. Humans do not have the freedom to make any possible choice out of an infinite set of choices, nor are their choices illusions determined by external factors.

4. Agent Causation: Closely related to soft libertarianism, the concept of agent causation states that “a person is the source and origin of his choices” and that ultimate responsibility for decisions lies with that agent (73). “Rather than functioning simply as a link in a chain of events, a causal agent operates as the impetus for new causal chains. This creative ability reflects the imago dei” (75). Our capacity to originate choices is like “a little citadel of creativity ex nihilo.

5. Resistible Grace: Keathley powerfully argues, from both Scripture and logic, that grace (though “monergistic”) is in fact resistible. “God’s drawing grace should and would be efficacious for all. The only thing that could stop it is if, inexplicably, a person decides to refuse” (106). Keathley uses many verses that point to the free and universal offer of salvation as well as the culpability of those that refuse. “[T]hose who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thessalonian 2:10b, ESV).

Has this book convinced me to become a Molinist? No. I still don’t fully understand the nuances of the position. But I got a lot out of reading it and I applaud Keathley’s thoughtful work. If this book can help nudge doubting hyper-Calvinists toward becoming 5-point Calvinists, and 5-point Calvinists toward becoming 4-point Calvinists, and 4-point Calvinists toward becoming Molinists… then I consider that a win!

DOES GOD KNOW EVERYTHING?

knowledge

In a previous post I concluded that God is necessarily an infinite being. The concept of a beginning point no more applies to God than it does to the mathematical concept of infinity. God’s eternal existence is the basic underlying truth of reality. In this post I will seek to answer the question of omniscience – does God have infinite knowledge?

Omniscience is not a biblical term, but it is certainly used regularly in the discipline of theology. The current Merriam-Webster definition of omniscient is:

  1. having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight
  2. possessed of universal or complete knowledge

Does scripture make any statements about the limits (or lack thereof) of God’s awareness, understanding, insight, or knowledge? In fact, it does.

“Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; his understanding is infinite” (Psalm 147:5).

Well, that seems to wrap it up pretty easily! We do not even have to mention the myriad verses that testify to God’s knowledge about the exact number of hairs on our head (Matthew 10:30), our inner thoughts and motives (Jeremiah 20:12), the exact length of our individual life spans (Psalm 139:16), or how the basic physical properties and forces of the universe operate (Job 38:4). We certainly confess that his thoughts are “higher” than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9) and we realize that his understanding is inscrutable (Isaiah 40:28b).

Any Christian within the bounds of orthodoxy should be able to agree with this basic statement – “God knows everything that can be known.”

But here is where we move into controversial territory. Can the future actually be known? At least in regards to soteriology, it seems that a lot of arguments and mysteries boil down to this subject of foreknowledge. What exactly does God know about the future and how does he know it?

There are five main perspectives within Christianity that I will very briefly list:

  1. Process Theology – God’s knowledge is evolving along with the rest of reality.
  1. Openness – It is impossible to know the future decisions of free creatures, and therefore even God cannot know.
  1. Actual Foreknowledge – God can actually observe the future somehow.
  1. Molinism – God innately knew all possible versions of reality involving the decisions of free creatures and chose to create one of those versions (a hybrid of actual foreknowledge and determinism).
  1. Determinism – God controls every detail of what happens in the future.

Which of those five perspectives do I find most convincing at this point in my theological quest? God knows the answer to that question, but you will have to wait until my post on foreknowledge!

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).

IS GOD INFINITE?

infinityI understand that this may be perceived as arrogant, but I have almost perfect ‘belief’. Perhaps it is a “gift of faith” (1 Corinthians 12) – God has allowed me from a young age to accept many claims about him as true without any creeping shadow of doubt. There have been only five minutes of my life in which I experienced doubt regarding the overall Christian proposition of reality. I do not profess perfect faithfulness, or understanding, or knowledge, but as far as the believing aspect of faith, I recognize a God-given strength.

I am defining faith here in the sense of the classical Christian Theological Virtue, described by Thomas Aquinas –“faith is the habit of the mind, whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent.”

Even before I experienced personal spiritual rebirth, I had no problem intellectually assenting to many biblical propositions – the Earth was created in six days, Jonah was swallowed by a great fish, Jesus Christ bodily rose from the dead, etc. My shortcoming lies more in the Theological Virtue of hope, I do not always live as if what I assent to will come to pass (in my own life); in other words, I am still working on trusting – “I know God can provide anything to anyone, but will God REALLY provide for ME?”

There was only one claim about God that I had significant trouble grasping, even after becoming a Christian. It was not that I did not believe it, but rather I had trouble comprehending it- that God has always existed. Contemplating a self-aware being that was not created or begun but has always existed, forever, would send me into deep existential crisis. How could something never have had a beginning? What would such a being think of itself? Wouldn’t God find it odd that he had always existed and always been conscious of that existence… stretching backwards into eternity? I could not wrap my mind around it. I found it haunting.

This crisis was solved for me in the ‘infinite regress’ argument of Aquinas. His basic cosmological proof states that, in our experience, “everything we know is caused by something else. There cannot, however, be an infinite regress of causes, for if that were the case, the whole series of causes would never have begun. There must, therefore, be some uncaused cause (unmoved mover) or necessary being” (Erickson 1998, 130).

The simple solution to an infinite regress is an infinite being. It is, in fact, the only logical explanation. The idea of an uncaused cause is not the impossible thing, but rather the idea of no uncaused cause!

Upon reflection, I have never had a problem grappling with the mathematical concept of infinity. I can easily conceptualize it in the abstract. Even as a young child one instinctively understands it:

“My G.I. Joe’s power shield is 100 times stronger than yours!”

“Oh yeah? Well mine is a MILLION times stronger!”

“Oh yeah? Mine is stronger times INFINITY!”

Argument over.

I realize that there have been a number of counter-arguments put forward in response to the cosmological proof, but it satisfactorily works for me. God is a necessarily infinite being, and like the abstract mathematical concept of infinity, he does not have a beginning or end as an irreducible part of his essence. Infinity minus one is still infinity. Infinity minus a million is still infinity.

In our next posts, we will more specifically examine certain claims about the infinite nature of God:

1. Omniscience – Does God have infinite knowledge?

2. Omnipotence – Does God have infinite power?

3. Omnipresence – Is God everywhere (spatially infinite)?

4. Omnichronological – How does the infinite God experience time?

CALVINISM / ARMINIANISM

The debate between Calvinism and Arminianism is nothing new. However, after decades of seeming obscurity in the religious marketplace, Calvinism has had a resurgence. The rebirth of Calvinism in America may be a reaction to “superficial, seeker-sensitive theology … the God of Calvinism is far from a cosmic bellhop. He is not obliged to do anything for you except send you to hell, and if he chooses to do so, he is glorified by your damnation” (Walls and Dongell 2004, 17).

There are many differences as well as similarities (e.g., the doctrine of Total Depravity) between the two theological perspectives, but regarding the issue of salvation the heart of the argument is found here: The Bible tells us that God desires the salvation of all. God is all powerful. Why are not all saved?

The simplistic Arminian answer is “free will.” The simplistic Calvinist answer is “God chose in advance some to be saved and others not to be saved.”

I recently read ‘Why I Am Not A Calvinist’ by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, and the counterpart book ‘Why I Am Not An Arminian’ by Robert Peterson and Michael Williams. Both are thoughtful and irenic treatments of the subject matter and what the authors view to be at stake in the debate. I will give brief impressions on both:

WHY I AM NOT A CALVINIST

notacalvinist

Walls and Dongell absolutely nail the underlying philosophical arguments. They helpfully define concepts such as libertarian free will, determinism, compatibilism, and point out our axiomatic beliefs and philosophical judgments that play into the development of theology. Beyond this excellent analysis, however, the “fundamental dispute is [over] God’s character.” Is the Calvinist gospel truly good news?

Distancing themselves from modern Arminianism-lite, the authors instead advocate for Classical Arminianism, which they believe is more faithful to scripture. God enables the possibility of salvation like a surgeon operating on an unconscious crash victim, seeking consent for further operations once the patient is partially stabilized, but not out of the woods. Regarding the crucial point of God’s foreknowledge, they survey three main perspectives – Actual Foreknowledge, Molinism, and Openness.

The authors poke holes in the logic of prominent Calvinists such as John Piper and R.C. Sproul, and even show inconsistencies in Calvin and the Westminster Confession. In general, “too many biblical passages must undergo heavy modification according to Calvinist precepts before they can be understood in Calvinist ways.”

One complaint I would have is that the Arminian concept of God giving every human at least one opportunity for salvation is brought up (although not specifically advocated). Experientially this does not feel true. I have met many people who do not seem to have ever had the slightest glimmer of a spiritual awakening. If such people exist, such as the proverbial unreached native in the jungle, we are somewhat back to square one – why did God not give them that opportunity to respond to the light? I wish the authors would have specifically addressed that.

WHY I AM NOT AN ARMINIAN

notanarminian

“Human beings are utterly dependent upon the saving grace of God. And apparently, God has not acted on behalf of all … Calvinism is predicated upon a divine discrimination regarding the recipients of saving grace.” Peterson and Williams argue heartily for the untarnished sovereignty of God, at least as the word sovereignty is defined by Calvinists (that God always gets exactly what he wants), and show many scriptures that indicate a favored group of individuals identified from “before creation.”

The authors helpfully delve into the historical issues of the Arminian / Calvinist debate, including Augustine, Calvin, the Synod of Orange, Arminius, the Synod of Dort, and the later development of so-called Calvinist positions that perhaps went beyond the intent of Augustine and the early Reformers (e.g., TULIP). This overview spans more than half of the book. The authors also refute the claim that Arminians are Semi-Pelagian, rather identifying them as Semi-Augustinian.

I appreciated this background, as well as the distinction between Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism and how those relate to Calvinism, which I had not thought about since my seminary days. Ultimately, the authors settle on a sort of moderated Calvinism, saying that few actually live at the logical extremes of their beliefs (does that mean that the authors embrace an illogical version of Calvinism?) Preferring Infralapsarianism, they argue that God is not responsible for the original sin of Adam, but essentially for everything else. Sinful mankind get exactly what they deserve; the elect are mercifully spared from their justified damnation.

I have two main complaints with this book. One is that Peterson and Williams often proclaim that such-and-such a point is the “clear” meaning of a verse, whereas the correct interpretation has been debated for hundreds of years by God-fearing Christians. A second is that they on occasion retreat into mystery – God’s criteria for choosing the elect from eternity past is totally unknowable. Of course, it can’t possibly be because of any foreseen positive quality in the elect! But, if the criteria for divine discrimination is truly a mystery, why couldn’t that be one of many possible actualities?

SALVATION AND SOVEREIGNTY

Next up I am reading ‘Salvation and Sovereignty’ by Kenneth Keathley. Keathley argues for a Molinist understanding of salvation and election, claiming that Molinism is the only system that logically holds human responsibility and God’s sovereignty in balance without contradiction or paradox. Ironically, Molinism is decried by Arminians as “too Calvinist” and by Calvinists as “too Arminian.”