Sunday, November 30, 2008

Seers, Choice, Open Theism, Molinism, and Calvinism

The recent vampire movie, Twilight, contains a cinematic element that is frequently employed: a seer, a character in the movie that can see the future. Most movies that I've seen generally treat the visions of seers in one of two ways:
1) As projections based on a current but mutable stream of events; and
2) As inevitabilities.

Twilight is a type 1 film. The seer in the film is able to see the future, but her visions are subject to change if people make different choices. Other stories employ type 2 seers. An example of such a story is the famous ancient tale of Oedipus. In that story, the king is told that his newborn son will commit various heinous acts. He tries to prevent these acts by leaving the child to death by exposure. However, despite the king's attempts to prevent the inevitable from happening (and, indeed, even in part as a result of the fact that the grown son does not know who his parents are), the seer's vision comes true.

Most people - the average Joe, if you will - would view the type 2 situation as essentially fatalistic. "X" will happen, and there is no way to prevent it from happening. Thus, the average Joe prefers the kind of seer found in Twilight, in which the future is somewhat predictable, but still subject to change at the leisure of the common man.

Now, the charge of "fatalism" to type 2 seers is not necessarily appropriate. Fatalism, properly expressed, views some force as ensuring the important thing seen in the vision, quite without regard to (or perhaps "despite") the way in which the thing comes about. Thus, one could view the chronology of a particular person as a string that is generally loose, but pinned down at one particular point. By their choices, a person can try to to avoid arriving at that particular point, but all they will do is change how they arrive at that point.

To provide a specific example, in a fatalistic outlook, a man be told that he will die in Paris. Consequently, in an attempt to prolong his life, the man may purposely never go to Paris. Nevertheless, fate will bring it about that the man will have a wreck in the French countryside and be airlifted to Paris while unconscious and then die in a Parisian hospital.

The concept of "fate" is not a Christian concept. Christianity does not posit an impersonal force that brings about certain important events essentially in isolation. Instead, Christianity describes a God, who "of him, and through him, and to him, are all things" (Romans 11:36) and "we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28) Thus, Christianity does not view history as a bunch of mostly loose strings pinned down at certain points, but as a tapestry woven together by an Almighty Artist.

Nevertheless, from the standpoint of a person simply learning the seer's vision, the two positions are interchangeable. Unless the seer explains exactly how event "x" will occur, the person listening to the vision cannot distinguish the fatalistic worldview from the Biblical worldview. We see the same thing in Biblical prophecies. For example, the Scriptures clearly teach that Christ will come again in judgment. Still, some people treat that prediction as though it were a fatalistically determined event pinned to the end of the string of history, while others view it as the final act of a most well-written play. It is important to note that either of those views is consistent with the bare prophecy itself.

Reverting for the moment to the type 1 seers, one can see that this form of prognostication is really the only kind fully consistent with view of complete human autonomy. Thus, this view (like modern Arminianism) appeals to the humanistic side of man: the side of man that likes to think that he is the master of his own destiny. It is the view, one might say, of Open Theism. Certain Open Theists would object that God can make fatalistic prognostications, because he can bring about certain outcomes he wants regardless of what happens in the near term. Nevertheless, unless the Open Theist is to deny that God himself has the same kind of autonomy they attribute to man, they must assert that any future prediction that God makes is based on the contingency that he does not decide to do otherwise.

On the other hand, both Molinists and Calvinists acknowledge that God has complete knowledge of the actual future, knowledge that is not subject to being changed. Thus, both Molinist and Calvinist seers see an inevitable future - they fall into the second category.

This may seem a bit odd. Molinism claims to hold to the autonomy of man, and asserts that it holds that man has Libertarian Free Will (LFW). Nevertheless, Molinism also is forced to acknowledge that God's omniscience includes future events, and that consequently, God has advance knowledge of what will be.

There is sometimes an attempt by proponents of Molinism to argue that God's knowledge of the future does not convert to God being a causal influence on the future. While this attempt is doubtless important to the philosophical defense of LFW, it does not address the psychological difficulty that the Average Joe has with what he perceives to be a fatalistic future.

The Average Joe is not fond of the idea that the length of his life is already known and cannot be changed, particularly if that time is short. The idea that the future is - in effect - already written, poses a psychological problem for the autonomous man. If a seer comes to him and says, "You will die in a plan crash tomorrow," you can imagine that the Average Joe would not immediately go and board a plane, but would try to get as far as possible from planes.

Of course, if the seer is a true seer, the event will come to pass. What the Average Joe has overlooked is that the seer has seen what will be, and what will be, will be. What would be more puzzling for the Average Joe is if the seer not only announced the day and means of death, but also all the events leading to that death.

A sufficiently knowledgeable seer could even tell our Average Joe whether Average Joe will like the fact that events will unfold just as the seer said. Imagine yourself in the Average Joe's shoes. One feels a bit helpless knowing what will happen, without being able to bring it about that the seer's prognostication is wrong.

Indeed, between the two extremes of simply knowing the date and manner of death, and knowing every event leading to that death, the Average Joe would really rather not know what will transpire, so that he can maintain the illusion that what will be is not a fixed concept.

One might even note that while knowledge of the day of one's death is useful for planning other things (such as when to write one's will, whether to invest in a long-term investment, or the like), having an exhaustive knowledge of the future doesn't seem to have any particular use from a planning purpose.

From a Molinist standpoint, this result is somewhat paradoxical. Knowledge of the actual future doesn't help one to plan - more importantly it doesn't even help God to plan. Molinists try to avoid the idea that God causes the actual future to be the actual future, but they cannot escape the fact that God has exhaustive knowledge of the actual future.

Calvinism has a ready explanation for this difficulty. God's exhaustive knowledge of the actual future is logically the consequence of God's decision. That is to say, God knows what the actual future is, because he planned it to be that way. The exhaustive knowledge of the actual future is as useless for God's planning purposes as it would be for us. Nevertheless, this is not problematic because the actual future is logically the result of God's plan, not the premise of God's plan.

Molinism relies on this same explanation, but attempts to evade the impact of God's deciding what the future will be, by asserting that God has a special category of knowledge known as "middle knowledge." The basic premise of middle knowledge is that God knows what a particular person would do in a particular situation, prior to God's decision as to what the future will be.

In other posts we have discussed (for example, here) and will discuss how "middle knowledge" is not only an unbiblical concept, but also an incoherent philosophical concept. Suffice to say, however, for the purposes of this article, that whether "middle knowledge" is correct, Molinism does not and cannot escape the "Average Joe" concept of fatalism, since now - after the decree - God has an exhaustive knowledge of the future.

Molinism (like Calvinism) does not permit type 1 seers, and consequently movies like Twilight should be recognized as portraying a mistaken (albeit) popular view of "free will" in contrast either to LFW of Molinism or the simple Calvinistic model of free will.

-TurretinFan

7 comments:

Albert Medina said...

Hi TF,

Since last year, I have been watching Hollywood movies on the big screen regularly. I have realized, however, that doing this on a regular basis is neither good nor beneficial. In most of these movies, one would find scenes in which the discerning Reformed Christian would not find himself very comfortable. All of us know this. Bad language and implicit sexual content are almost never absent. I find both (but especially the latter) extremely troubling.

So I thought of asking other people beforehand about the merits/demerits of any particular movie before going to see it for myself. I heard some people in church talking about it. This might seem off the topic, but would you recommend that I watch the movie for myself?

Thanks for this insightful post. :)

Rhology said...

Since you mentioned "Twilight", maybe you'd be interested in the Push trailer.
See the Dakota Fanning quote near the end of the trailer.

natamllc said...

TF,

what I find within this "tension" is this and please chime in if it isn't sound doctrinally and therefore Biblical:

That is this, the Arminian position of the future deals with the immediate issue that comes out of the Council of Dordt while the Calvinist position deals with the immediate issue of the Resurrection and the "Life" of Christ, even before His natural Life knowing now by revelation it is always in the here and now. After the disposition that came out of the Council of Dordt against Arminius' confusing theology what are we left with? The same God, who is the same, yesterday, today and forever.

When I came alive in Christ, it was then that His Life becomes as helpful to me as to all alive today in the immediate circumstances we are always in, seeing yesterday has passed to never be and tomorrow, when it comes, is today! The "Joseph" Story is a good case in point. Everyday is that story. We can know the outcome of it, that is, "all things work together for our good", but only after the outcome, not before it. That puts me at ease with every circumstance I will face. Now I am freed up to "live" by His Faith, not mine.

Moses' prayer, Psalm 90, is also a good case in point:::>

Psa 90:8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.
Psa 90:9 For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
Psa 90:10 The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Psa 90:11 Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?
Psa 90:12 So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Even here, it is well with my soul not knowing the outcome but by the Hand of His Grace, Mercy and Peace upon it, it now is His Faith that the "Life" before and after the Resurrection is wisdom. Paul the Apostle describes it this way:::>

1Co 1:30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,
1Co 1:31 so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."

I too have autonomy and LFW! I also have now been touched by the Hand of His Grace, Mercy and Peace and consequently, by His Faith, I am now distancing myself from both, in light of the "touch" which is better described by Paul the Apostle here too:::>

Col 2:9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,
Col 2:10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.
Col 2:11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,
Col 2:12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
Col 2:13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,
Col 2:14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

The fear of Arminius, it seems to me, is "the loss His work on the cross brought him" and a fearful full understanding some have now because of it ahead of its crucible work. They realize it's effective and realize the Truth, that the Cross kills one's autonomy or rebellion, which truthfully is like the devil's. My predetermined expectation of my future according to my predetermined expectation of my future is put to death! I am no longer god. I am now God's creature and everything is in His Hands.

It does seem the Arminian position fights to hold on to some good within oneself so that the focus shifts from the Goodness of God alone, the "five" solas, to God plus that part of me that is good that brings about my salvation now and in the future! Yuck!

I am faced with this delimma, "how do I live in such a way that my outcome will be a blessed end"?

The Bible describes some very difficult circumstances and suffering. How do I know that? I have read my Bible and things like this:::>

Heb 11:35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.
Heb 11:36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
Heb 11:37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated--
Heb 11:38 of whom the world was not worthy--wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

Oh, doesn't that inspire you to want to embrace the Lord? :)

I like more and more the understanding I receive from the Calvinist thought and point of view!

Thanks!

TheoJunkie said...

But what would Joe the Plumber think?

You gave a basic premise statement regarding Molinism... can you provide a corresponding direct basic premise statement regarding Calvinism? Your post hints at it, but does not come out and say it.

You said that the basic premise of middle knowledge is that God knows what a particular person would do in a particular situation, prior to God's decision as to what the future will be...

It seems clear that you would not state the Calvinistic premise in exact opposite terms from the Molinist premise, i.e.: that God knows what a particular person would do in a particular situation, AFTER God's decision as to what the future will be. For this statement falls somewhere between nonsense and the fatalistic "floppy string" idea.

Your post suggests that the basic premise of Calvinism is that God knows what a particular person will do in a particular situation, because God decided that is what the person will do in that particular situation (which of course is informed by God's decision as to what will occur in the future).

However, this statement-- without elaboration-- appears to affirm the accusations of "puppetry" that some levy against Calvinism.

We know the bible says God directs a man's steps. Yet we observe that those steps are the steps we choose to take.

Do you consider that God directs the will in each decision, or is it possible that God directs circumstances (the particulars of a particular situation) in order to bring about the steps he has chosen for the man in advance? Or would you agree it is a little of both (or either/or depending on what needs to be done in the moment)?

Is it even possible to incorporate that into a basic premise statement?

Turretinfan said...

I wouldn't really recommend it. I don't recall there being much (if any) profanity and not much (if any) extreme immodesty. On the other hand, it is generally hard for me to recommend pure entertainment materials for anyone's edification. If you must watch a movie, it is beautifully done.

Basically, it is a lovely film, but it is hard to get me to recommmend anything that's not explicitly edifying.

-TurretinFan

Ken said...

What you say about the "Average Joe's" discomfort with theological truth is too true.

I'm almost finished with a survey course in British Literature. Naturally, one of the texts we spent time on was John Milton's epic Paradise Lost.

Even though Milton demonstrates Open Theism (anachronism, sorry), and spends much of his epic attacking a straw-man variety of Calvinism, almost everybody in class discussion felt that Milton's God was unfair and limiting because he has omniscience and if he knows what Adam/Eve/Satan can do based upon any number of variables known to him, he might as well be pulling their strings. Part of the implicit argument that went around is that if God creates a being that has the capacity to sin, he has essentially decreed that that person will end up sinning and it isn't fair for God to make such inferior beings and then punish them for failings he endowed them with.

Obviously, a secular class at the U of M is going to come up with all sorts of presuppositions to get away from their responsibility to acknowledge God and their own sinfulness, but it is still revealing that even a LFW advocate like MIlton can be accused of imagining a "limiting" fatalistic God.

Turretinfan said...

TJ,

I have responded to your comment in a new post.

-TurretinFan