Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Deflating Assumptions Regarding Free Will - A Response to Ben Witherington

Ben Witherington has written an interesting post on the freedom of God. It actually meshes somewhat with my ongoing discussing with Godismyjudge (Dan) in other posts, and so it is fitting that I respond to some of the issues Ben raises in his article (link to article).

Ben writes: "I take it that the primary attribute of God is not God's will but rather God's love, which is a holy love."

I respond:

The primary attribute of God is being. God is the I AM. All other attributes of God are predicated (logically) on his being. Foremost among God's attributes are his primary attributes. Among God's primary attributes are his wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. Love is not properly a primary attribute of God. God is Love, Scripture tells us, but Love is God acting. Love is transitive, it requires an object. Therefore, Love cannot be a primary attribute of God, with (perhaps) one exception. In God's wisdom, God loves Himself with a perfect, eternal love. The persons of the Trinity love one another, and have always loved one another. God's love can be viewed as a secondary attribute of God, proceeding from his wisdom, holiness, goodness, justice, and truth. God deserves His own love, and He properly loves Himself.

Ben states: "I say this because God's will has primarily to do with his doing, but what is prior to that is God's being or character, and in my view God's willing is dependent on his character."

I don't have any particular problem with God's will being viewed as subservient to his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. We can even say that, at least in some instances, God's love logically precedes an act of God's will. Thus, for example, our election is motivated by God's love.

Ben states: "There are certain things which, while theoretically God might be able to do, God would never do because it would be 'out of character'. For example God is light, and in God is no darkness at all. This I take to mean that God would never do evil nor commit sin. "

Again, this is not particularly objectionable, except for the underlying idea that "theoretically God might be able" to act out of character. I'm not sure what Ben's trying to do there ... perhaps he's just trying to speak loosely.

Ben continues: "There is supposed to be a reflection of the divine character in us, and indeed in all of creation. This in turn means that God, having set up the universe in a particular way, is not free to be capricious and redefine the meaning of holy in the middle of the game."

I think this is intended to simply be supporting proof for the idea that God's nature is holy in a fixed way, and not in a "whatever I happen to do is holy" way. As such, it would not be objectionable. If Ben is trying to suggest that God is stuck with a free choice to create, and that he cannot change the rules of the created order mid-game, then Ben would seem to have a problem with special miracles.

Ben continues: "God has chosen to express the divine nature in a particular way and has chosen to limit himself such that God as well as all of his creation is subject to certain standards of truth, holiness, love, and so on."

This claim seems to suggest that Ben believes God's standard of truth, holiness, love, and so on is not intrinsic but voluntary. God chose to define "truth" this way, and now he is stuck with it. This is out of accord with conventional Christian thought on the matter. God's primary attributes are intrinsic, not voluntary. God is true, because he is God, not because He chooses to be true, or because He has defined truth a certain way. That is not to suggest that there is a category of "truth" that is logically precedent to God, but rather that our very idea of truth comes from God's own character.

Ben states: "This is a complicated matter, but the bottom line is that once God set up a universe with other free agents other than himself, God is not free to do just anything without violating his revealed character and will."

Here Ben seems to assume that created agents are "free" in some similar sense to that in which God is free. There is no particular basis for that assumption. Man is (and angels and the animal creation are) "free" in some sense, but calling them "other free agents" raises a number of serious problems, foremost among them being: God is other. God is not a man. God is not part of creation, and although man bears the image of God, God is infinite where man is finite.

Ben states: "This is not an absolute limitation. I am assume God could set up a definition of sin and could violate it, but if God did, he would cease to be the good God of the Bible."

Unless God's character is voluntary, or God's character is not holy, it is an absolute limitation. God cannot sin. That's intrinsic to God. God would cease to exist if he sinned - therefore God absolutely cannot sin. Also, a just and truthful God cannot call sin good

Ben continues: "[I]t is terribly false to predicate of God sins that he prohibits us from doing, say for example destroying innocent human lives for no good or appropriate reason."

Our relationship to other humans is necessarily different from God's relationship to human beings. Thus, it is incorrect to make the comparison between God doing something to His creation and us doing something to God's creation. God has an owner-chattel relationship to the world (the cattle on a thousand hills are his), whereas we have more of a fraternal relationship - our fellow man is not our creation, but God's creation: he does not bear our image but God's image (I am of course leaving out certain human relationships like father-son, master-slave, husband-wife, or king-subject).

Ben continues: "I assume that when human beings were created in the image of God this meant, among other things that Adam had libertarian freedom to either obey God or not."

This assumption cannot be justified exegetically. Exegetically, the primary characteristic of man that is God's image is dominion over God's creation. One might argue that a will is necessary to that end, or even that a free will was part of the package (included with rational thought) that God's image entails. There is, however, no Scriptural reason to step beyond that and make it a libertarian free will rather than a compatible free will.

Ben states: "It is not appropriate to judge this matter on the basis of the attributes of fallen human beings who indeed in various ways can be said to be in bondage to sin or addicted to sinful behaviors. No the question is, how did God make us in the first place, and how in Christ does God restore us in Christ as we are renewed in the image of Christ? Does grace restore the power of contrary choice in redemption or not?"

Ben here seems to be confused about his categories. The distinction between the will bound by sin and the will freed by grace is not the difference between no free will and free will. It is, instead, a change in the character of the man. A fallen man sins constantly, but freely. He sins in accordance with his fallen nature. A regenerate man does good freely.

Suggesting that the ability to do both good and evil is what characterizes free will creates some serious problems. First, it creates the problem that fallen man would not have a free will. This would tend to wreak havoc on libertarian views of the responsibility of fallen man. If man has no free will, he would seem to be unable to sin (if, as it is claimed, sin requires a free will). On the other hand, and secondly, God is unable to sin. Thus, if free will requires the ability both to sin and to do good, God does not have free will, in which case the "image of God " assumption (made without warrant by Ben above) is logically inconsistent.

Ben: "Of course much depends on one's view of grace. Some people think grace works rather like an escalator-- it does all the heavy lifting and we are just along for the ride. I disagree with this. Grace is not irresistible, it is rather a form of enablement from a gracious God which gives us a further chance to freely love and obey God. In other words, we must indeed work out our salvation with fear and trembling, God's grace does not do it all for us and in spite of us."

Of course, we would reject the elevator analogy in favor of the Lazarus analogy. Grace is irresistible because, well, how is a dead man going to fight resuscitation? It's irresistible because it circumvents man's will - not because it drags man kicking and screaming up to heaven.

Ben: "Another of the major issues which affects this discussion is the nature of love. Now I understand love to be something that is the most personal act of either God or human beings."

It is interesting that Hen here seems to acknowledge love is action. As such, it is not a primary attribute of God, just as "willing" (being an action) is not a primary attribute of God. I, of course, would not limit love to God and man, but extend it to other creatures at least including angels, and more than likely including animals. Numerous dog owners can testify to the apparent love of their pets. Furthermore, mother birds and bears are notorious for their love for their offspring and their zeal in sacrificing themselves for them. But that is tangential.

Calling something the "most personal act" is a bit vacuous. How does one compare the personality of actions? The words seem to be designed to laud love (and who but the strongest cynics among us could oppose the praise of love), but the words don't seem to convey anything particular.

Furthermore, love can be totally impersonal. In fact, sadly, the love of God as portrayed in the popular media these days is mostly impersonal: "God loves you," we read, and maybe even, "You are special to God," but the same is true (according to these sources) of each and every person. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that this converts to "God loves everybody," and "you are as special to God as the next person." This sort of promiscuous love is the kind of love we often have to our neighbors in the next country. We do not know any of them personally, but we love them all and wish them well.

Ben states: "And furthermore it is the most free and freeing act of all beings."

If it is free in the sense of voluntary, then the will takes logical precedence over love, which seems contrary to Ben's thesis. If it is free in some other sense, then the connection to the rest of the post doesn't seem very clear.

Furthermore, we can say from experience and Scripture that human love is not free, in the sense of voluntary. Men and women fall in love - often without any apparent control over their love. Furthermore, trying to make oneself love something one detests is, at least for most, a hopeless task. Finally, getting back to Scripture, we find that human love has causes: for example, we love God because He first loved us.

Calling love "freeing" is also somewhat odd. Love unites. It united David and Jonathon. It united John and Jesus. Love unites us to Christ. It is binding. A man's love for his wife binds him to a life of her service. A woman's love for her husband binds her to a life of obedience. A dog's love of his master binds him to the household more tightly than any chain.

Ben continues: "It must be freely given and freely received."

As to "received" this is plainly wrong. We can love our enemies, and they will receive our love either passively or with hostility. If one imagines the non-Calvinist view of salvation, God's love for mankind is likewise not always freely received, but received either passively or hostilely.

To suggest that love must be "freely" given is a bit misleading. One cannot coerce love - because that is not how love works. On the other hand, love can be obtained: it can be caused. Heroes like David earn the love of the nation. Young men attempt to perform their own heroics, whether it be flowers, poetry, or athletic feats of prowess to win the love of their heart's desire.

Love has to come from the heart to be love, but the heart can be changed. God himself declares:

Proverbs 21:1 The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.

Ben states: "It cannot be coerced, co-opted, manipulated, and it most certainly does not work in an impersonal manner, like say the way iron filings are attracted to a magnet."

Ah, but - in some senses - love does work that way. One need only look to Holywood for examples. Physical beauty (found so abundantly there) is one of the principle causes for people falling in love. The number of beloved stars in Hollywood, drawing adorers like so many iron filings is numerous. That is not to say that it is mechanical - surely not. Each person reacts differently to different stars - and some are hardly influenced at all by a pretty face or well-developed musculature.

Now, again, love must come from the heart. Man has little ability to influence the heart. Nevertheless, the common wisdom: "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" applies to love as well. That is one reason you see so many followers of preachers of joviality: preachers who do not present the uncomfortable truth of sin and coming judgment to their hearers. People have itching ears: scratch them and you will win their hearts.

Advertisers are well aware of this. Look at so many ad campaigns. Normally they will not tell you directly that men who refuse to wear their perfume du jour are simpleminded losers, but rather that those who use their products are sophisticated chick-magnets. They do not wish to offend but woo their listenres.

Those who love the products because of the advertising have been successfully manipulated, perhaps for their own good - but certainly for the financial benefit of the company who paid for the advertising.

Successful advertising, however, knows its limitations. It cannot directly change man's hearts: it can only act on what exists there. Thus, knowledge of human nature is key to the success of advertising.

God is not limited to these crude tricks and external manipulations. God is able to change the heart. In regeneration, by grace God changes the character of man, from one who loves sin to one who loves God. This fundamental change in man's nature produces his love of God and trust in Christ.

Ben: "God is not a magnet, and he does not treat his creatures in an impersonal way that makes their behavior inevitable, and if he did, it would cease to be personal and loving behavior on our part for sure."

First, such a picture is a non-Calvinist picture we frequently see. We hear the verse about Jesus drawing all men to himself portrayed as though he drew each and every man to himself impersonally. We reject this as clearly improper.

Second, nevertheless God does draw men to himself. They are actually drawn. God draws certain men (by the work of Christ on the cross and the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts) from all nations to himself. These surely come. That's deeply personal: it's targeted, individual, and done with the eternal good of the person in mind.

The idea that it ceases to be personal and loving behavior on our part "for sure" seems simply to be Ben's own view, motivated by his philosophical assumptions. It would not be loving behavior if it did not come from the heart: but it does. It comes from a changed heart. Thus, we reject Ben's criticism as unfounded.

Ben finally concludes with a point that is, intellectually speaking, suicide to his position:
Ethics in the Bible are largely what are called virtue ethics. ... Now virtue ethics require that a person has the capacity to be virtuous, by which I mean, the person has the capacity to either freely behave in this way or not. Otherwise there is nothing virtuous about the behavior. The flight or flight pure instinct of a deer, for example, is not an example of making a conscious choice to "do the right thing". I am utterly convinced that the Bible calls us to be virtuous beings, or as Paul suggests in Phil. 4 to be creatures who can not merely reflect on what is noble and excellent, but seek and attempt to do it. The commands to love as we are loved, to forgive as we are forgiven, and so on, presuppose that grace actually enables us to freely attempt to imitate Christ and do what he commands us to do, at least approximately. God is an ethical being and he wants Christians to reflect the highest and best behavior a human being can muster. Indeed, he commands us to do it, but as Augustine says, God gives what he commands, he enables us to believe and behave as we ought to do.
The intellectually suicidal aspect of this argument may not be immediately apparent. The problem is that if "virtue" required the ability to do the unvirtuous, then God's sinless perfection is not virtuous, because it is impossible for God to lie, impossible for him to sin, and so forth. Furthermore, likewise assuming that Ben acknowledges that there will naturally be no sin in heaven, such sinless perfection again would not be "virtuous" because there would no longer be the ability to sin. This is enough to sink the "virtue ethics" battleship.

But not only is this absurd as to its consequence with respect to God, it is absurd in application. We view God as more virtuous than any of his creation, and he is the least able to sin. We view those in whose hearts God has greatly worked, who strongly hate sin, and yet who may nevertheless occasionally sin to be more virtuous than those who are relatively indifferent to God's law, but do the same sins. Therefore, our intuition and common sense weigh in against the idea of "virtue" ethics as framed by the libertarian free will advocate. So, along with the battleship, a libertarian free will advocate loses his entire armada when he seeks to argue for "virtue ethics."

The issue of whether a "conscious choice" is made to do right or wrong is certainly an aggravating factor, but perhaps it is not the only factor. Recall that Jesus said that lusting after a woman is sinful, and yet many will confess that such lust springs forth unconsciously.

Ben states: "I[n] short, the discussion of the freedom of human beings should never be undertaken in isolation from the discussion of the freedom of God, and the ways God has chosen to limit himself in order to allow us to be beings with a limited measure of freedom, and so a small reflection of the divine character."

But recall above, that the idea that libertarian free will is a "reflection of the divine character" was simply Ben's assumption above. One does not get that from the Creation account or from the banishment of Cain. One simply does not get that from Scripture. One brings it in eisegetically from one's philosophical attachment to the idea.

It then displays a most turgescent attitude to demand that such an idea be constantly brought into the discussion of the freedom of human beings. Surely we would agree that man's freedom must be understood in the context of God's freedom, but we must not confuse the Potter with the clay. He does whatsoever He pleases: we must do as He pleases. We serve Him and exist at his whim, as it were. If God did not will our continued existence, we would vanish.

Ben claims: "Here we must return at the end of this discussion to the matter of God's will and knowledge. Notice how in Rom. 9-11 God foreknows things that he did not will, for example the apostasy of Israel and the rejection of its savior by most early Jews. God not only did not will this, it breaks his heart in the same way it breaks Paul."

But this claim is not exegetically supported. In that very passage God affirms that He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy. There is no mention of God being broken hearted, and not the least reason to suppose that the apostasy of Israel and rejection of the savior was not in God's will. Indeed, to the contrary, Scripture explains that it was God's will:

Romans 11:8 (According as it is written, God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear;) unto this day.

Ben concludes: "What this tells me is that Calvin was wrong about the relationship between God's will and God's knowledge. God does not merely know it because he wills it."

Ben really hasn't made a connection in his post to support that conclusion.

Ben continues: "There is some other relationship between knowing and willing in God and they are not inexorably linked."

Again, Ben has not made the necessary connection to support this claim.

Ben states: "At the end of the day I believe whole heartedly in what John 3.16-17 says, God loves the whole fallen world, and Jesus died for the sins of all human beings as 1 Tim. 2 also says."

Neither of those is actually what the verses say. John 3:16-17 displays God's love for "the world" by pointing to his action for "all the believers" (John 3:16). In the unrelated passage of 1 Timothy 2, Paul exhorts Timothy to pray for "all men" (listing various categories of men) because this is agreeable with God's will, which we understand to mean that men of all sorts (even politicians) will be saved.

Ben claims: "This in turn means there are other agents in play in the matter of redemption, human agents who can either positively or negatively respond to the Gospel, and the eternal lostness of some is in no way willed or destined by God."

Ben's argument, however, is contradicted by the plain assertion of God's monergistic role in Scripture. God claims that salvation is of the Lord, and that those whom the Father has given to the Son will come to him. Furthermore, God declares that he will both have mercy on whom he will, but also that God will harden whom he will. God does not have to wait at man's beck and call. Rather, the Shepherd calls his sheep, and the sheep hear his voice.

Furthermore, it should be plain that is only by converting the personal love of God into an impersonal love (by misapplication of John 3:16-17 and 1 Timothy 2) and by forcing his assumption of libertarian free will into the discussion that Ben arrives at this conclusion in the first place. Since he's not obtained his conclusions from Scripture but by imposition on Scripture, we don't have any reason to accept his conclusions. They are warrantless, and do not commend themselves to our belief.

Ben continues: "Were the matter otherwise, our God cease to be a good God, by God's own definition of goodness."

Ben makes that claim, but he has not given any reason for us to accept that claim. In fact, Scripture contradicts it. Doesn't the potter have power over the clay to make of the lump a vessel for destruction? Can we really try to claim that a potter has that power, but God (our creator) does not have a similar power over us? If we do, we simply find ourselves arguing with Scripture: which is never a good place to be.

Ben wraps up with two parting sentences: "One final reminder-- as the prophets told us God requires of us that we reflect the divine character-- to do justice to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God."

This, of course, is a red herring. The verse says:

Micah 6:8 He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

We all accept this to be true. Furthermore, we acknowledge that in doing so we are being good, and goodness is a primary attribute of God. From none of that do the conclusions claimed above by Ben follow.

Ben finally states: "What God requires of us, he enables us to do, so that in small measure we may reflect the virtuous and free character of our God."

It's unclear whether Ben here refers to regenerated man or unregenerate man. Regardless, it is not a general proposition that God enables man to do as God requires of man. In fact, there is a clear and indisputable testimony to the contrary: Pharaoh. God commanded Pharaoh to let the people go, and God hardened Pharaoh's heart

Exodus 7:13 And he hardened Pharaoh's heart, that he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said.

That should give us pause. God is just and God is merciful. God is not only just, and God is not only merciful. God is the Most Exalted, He is the Almighty.

As Scripture says:

But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased. (Psalm 115:3)

Let us praise him saying, "But we will bless the LORD from this time forth and for evermore. Praise the LORD." (Psalm 115:18)


Monday, June 09, 2008

Evangelical Manifesto Reviewed

B.J. Buracker at Stupid Scholar has provided an interesting and insightful review of the so-called "Evangelical Manifesto." (link) His conclusion is about right, which is why I do not anticipate myself providing a more detailed critique of this document.