Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sovereignty, Sin & Culpability: Part 1 Q&A

There were some very good questions raised in response to the first installment of this series, and rather than chance them getting over-looked in the comments section I thought I would bump them up to a main posting.

Let me start to respond by saying that what I am presenting here are thoughts and musings related to philosophical theology and a not a systematic dogma that I intend to make disciples by. That said, I am glad to hear about any holes in my thinking—I see them as helps to troubleshoot the ship I'm building as opposed to cannonshot to sink the ship I'm riding in!

  • Justin said: "Your model seems to answer the issue of evil in general, but don't you find that it is not [just] any evil at all that causes problems, but the gratuitous or excessive evil that many stumble over?"

I wonder why you make a distinction between evil and gratuitous evil. Is one ok for the networks and the other only for cable? I jest, but I sincerely don't understand why the distinction is made. I assume you are thinking of things that are just completely repugnant to normal people, as well as to God—I think of the holocaust, or the rape and murder of children, or really most violence done to innocents. Even radically pagan people find such things done to innocents to be hideous evil. That said, the most gratuitously evil act in the history of the world—the violent, unjust death of the only truly innocent man in history—is ascribed to both evil men and holy God. I reject that there is any chaos in this creation which God merely allows since He knows He can reign it in and still accomplish His purposes. I will delve into this in a later post and so won't support it here other than to say my reasoning is tied up in God's omnipotence, and is well supported by scriptural evidence. For now, I will simply reiterate Rom 8:28, that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God. I take the "all things" to mean truly every act. Which I find comforting, that there is no pointless evil.

  • Justin said: "Will you address the problem middle knowledge seems to cause in your paradigm"
  • And, "I am a bit confused as to how God is bound to his own determined plan. I understand that you distinguish between the universe in the mind of God and the actualized universe that is created, but isn't this a false distinction? Why would the truth aspects of the non-actualized creation be any different from those which are actualized?

I am a bit acquainted with middle knowledge, and frankly find it wanting, at least in Craig's formulation, which seeks to presume exactly the idea that I called silly in the original post—i.e. that the imagined creature might express an imaginary will which he exalts over the real will of the real God (who is doing the imagining) and in the process exert his own free will at the expense of God's freedom. The idea that this "solution" distances God from responsibility in sin is what I was referring to as silly (I will deal at length with my solution for removing culpability for sin from God in a future post, so stay tuned). The problem I see is that Craig is presuming that God runs scenarios in order to see how free men will act in order to decide the best plan. This is how I read him at least, and I could use a refresher so please correct me if I am wrong. If you happen to be referencing Only Wise God in relation to the discussion on middle knowledge, I'd like to point you to page 130, where Craig asserts that (the as-yet imaginary) Peter is "entirely free" in the scenario God is imagining He might place Peter in. Please explain to me how an uncreated idea of a man in the mind of God (a man who may or may not ever actually exist) can behave autonomously according to his own will, even (as some might assert) imagining evil acts that God is unable to imagine, and exalting his own will over and against the will of the God who is imagining him—to say nothing of the power of the actual man exalting his will over and above the God who empowers his every action, who is sovereign over his every circumstance, and has every right to overcome the creature at any time!

I agree with Craig that God's logically prior knowledge, which he calls natural knowledge, is exhaustive. For everything God creates He knows not only every aspect of the item's composition and every interaction it will have, but also every possible interaction between it and every other created item. He knows that much about everything He could create as well. He has ultimate knowledge about His own power as a creator and sustainer.

Skipping the second phase of God's knowledge for a moment we come to God's actualized knowledge, what Craig labels free knowledge. This amounts to God's knowledge of His divine plan for creation which He has foreordained. It is His certain knowledge that based on His choice of initial states and divine intervention that all that He has foreordained will come to pass (though Craig would be sure to point out that it only will, not must, come to pass—another point on which we differ).

The second phase, that of middle knowledge, attempts to answer how God can have sure knowledge of what would have happened were some event to have occurred, even though the event never occurs. The answer is that God knows every conceivable world, every possible world, and the only actual world—each relating to the three logical phases of God-knowledge. The middle type, every possible world, is constrained by the free choices of men—suggesting that there are many other, more perfect worlds God could conceive of but was unable to create since free men would not cooperate (also p. 130). Mind you, all of this resistance and autonomy is happening in the mind of God by imagined men prior to His foreordination and creation. I assert that the problems middle knowledge seeks to answer are instead answered in the exhaustive natural knowledge of God, i.e. His knowledge of every possible contingency, and have no reliance on foreseen free acts of men. Craig seeks to make free choices of men normative and the intervention of God occasional. I refute this, and assert that God is omnipotent and could create any world He conceived of and is in no way bound by creatures, real or imagined.

If the whole of the design of creation is prior to the act of creation, as I assert, there is no real freedom expressed in the design except for the freedom of the designer since there are no other real entities at the time of the design to be represented. To put it another way, consider a lone novelist considering his next book. He creates the characters, sets the scenes and controls the whole sweep of the plot. As he writes he decides who will perform which acts to move the plot along. He may decide that the protagonist should not perform a certain action, that it would be out of character, and instead have another player do it instead. Or, he can have the protagonist do something out of character to dispell predictability! I think of all the good deeds God allows god-haters to perform, it is out of character. The bottom line is that the playwright is at complete freedom to write the play any way he wants to. The characters are figments of his imagination and have no ability to protest the way they are being written. Once the book is published and a reader takes it up, the characters come alive in the reader's mind. He has no idea what events will transpire next, and the characters become real and their actions seem free enough even though the words are indelibly stamped on the page. The only real escape from a deterministic creation is open theism (I'll post more on this later, too).

I do think there is a function of middle knowledge, though. Middle knowledge is not that sphere in which God might explore the free acts of imagined men, but rather where He might explore the free choices of God in how He might limit and express Himself in His creation. Ultimately that is the only real variable. It is by God's self-restraint that evil is possible, and it is by His self-disclosure that good is possible. And that is the subject of a future post.

  • Justin said: "[your model] sets into motion a "regression of omniscience" (similar to the infinite regress in Epistemology) that makes the creation a necessary event. However; a paradigm with a "limited" sense of free will endowed by the Creator, and resultantly, some type of middle knowledge will avoid this and thereby provide a greater fit of the available evidence.

I do not agree that any created thing is a necessary being. As I said in the original post, God was under no compunction to create. He was at liberty to consider every world possible and then to choose to not create. This knowledge of possible worlds would not be violated by His non-creation, just as His knowledge of other possible worlds is not violated by His creation of this one. In fact, I will go so far as to say that this natural knowledge of all potentialities is not so much a facet of knowing external things but the self-knowledge of God and His powers of creativity and sovereign control. Frankly, I am consistently amazed by the suggestion that God is unable to know possibilities, whereas ours is rather developed. Who is the all-wise-One here? God has infinitely more knowledge about possibilities than we do. He does not create without knowing and He knows intimately and exhaustively everything He can create.

As for the concern about infinite regression in the omniscience of God… who is sufficient for these things!? I will stand with Craig and say that just because there is a logical priority to these phases of knowledge (one is dependent on its predecessor) there is no need for chronological succession, since God is not time-bound. Do I know how to explain non-hierarchical thought in the mind of God? At this point I'll cry "mystery"!

I do, finally, agree that in this world God has endowed us with a "'limited' sense of free-will" to which I will say a hearty amen! I have a sense of free will since I have no awareness that I am being coerced into doing anything by God. I quoted you to be sure of what we are agreeing about. I suspect that you meant to say that a preferable system would employ a limited free-will in some sense (how's that for a "sharp rebuttal" ;-) As I alluded to above, any system that allows for less than complete determinism employs some form of open theism, about which more later.

  • Jeff said: "Those seeking to preserve the free will of man, such that [they] can choose God over sin, eternal life over eternal death, holiness over godlessness, and adoption by God over the biblical witness that we are children of wrath, by playing slight of hand tricks with the attributes of God in eternity past are erecting a philosophical castle on the [shifting] sands of human certitude rather than the strong biblical witness of God's beautiful, independent but awesomely dependable, monergistic work in salvation.

Um, wow… I mean, Amen! (That Jeff, once you get a bee in his bloomers he really takes off! ;-) Certainly my hope is in the firm foundation that Christ has laid and not in my philosophical musings, or those of Craig, or Aquinas, or any other. Indeed, as I pursue these topics I am genuinely looking to get as big a picture of God as I can, which is much opposed to the attempts of many to get as big an understanding as possible so that they can comprehend God (in the classical sense, that is, to fully understand; to envelope). So, while I do seek to broaden my own understanding, I also seek to see God magnified far beyond my own comprehension.

Finally, for any who don't know, Jeff, Justin and I are close friends and are in accountability with one another, lest our jesting and jousting be taken for backbiting. Sincere thanks to each of you for sharpening me and taking the time to present such compelling considerations.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sovereignty, Sin & Culpability: Part 1

First, allow me to apologize for my long absense from posting. Though I have been silent here, I have been hammering out several ideas. This post is an excerpt from about 10 pages I have written regarding sin and sovereignty. So, there will be more in short order, I promise.

There are many who would seek to subordinate foreordination to foreknowledge. They do this, as I undertand it, to preserve free will and to distance God from culpability for sin. I assert that foreknowledge and foreordination are commensurate: God does not create that which He does not know, or as Albert Einstein put it, "God does not play dice." Before creating, God considered the world He would create, including every action that every man would commit. I can hear the cries already, "He's making God the author of sin!" I will deal with this objection more fully in a latter post, but for now I will respond that the retort "God is not the author of sin" is not a Bible quote, and I can find little support for such a contention, though I can find much support for the assertion that God is the designer and sustainer of all creation, even of calamity, and that in His ordaining every action in this creation God does not sin. Again, more on this later.

In considering the world He would create, God chose His own level of interaction, whereby He restrains evil (by oppressing freedom, by the way!), and the instances where He would harden the sinful hearts of men. He chose when to use supernatural signs and wonders and when to be eerily silent. Ultimately, all of this relates to how God chose to restrain Himself. He is the all-powerful source of goodness, and the light of His goodness would fill all creation if unrestrained (which is the picture of heaven). Who then might restrain this light? Who has the power to shield the glory of God? Satan? Sinful man? Heaven forbid! Only God can restrain God, for He has no equal. For what purpose does He do this? I dare not presume to know the secret counsels of God, but we can consider the results of this creation. When all is said and done this creation will have yielded a heaven filled with glorified men and sinless angels, both impeccable, and a lake of fire filled with sinful men and devils, both beyond redemption. The earth we know and the whole sweep of starry heavens above will dissolve away and be replaced. All of this is so He can gain us!

With His divine plan fully before Him, He spoke the word of Creation. He was not under any compunction to create at all, much less to create any particular world with any particular actions. He was at complete liberty to change His plan, altering any event, by restricting evil more, or permitting more freedom, by hardening more or less, by bestowing grace or withholding it, by using supernatural means or not. The simple fact is that while the still un-created universe was nothing but a thought in the mind of God it was ultimately malleable, He could reshape it in any way He cared to. This is not to say that He does not have the power to still change anything He cares to, He does, but that He will not change His plan now since to do so would violate His omniscience. How? For God to have known a future event at the beginning of creation and to alter the future so that this previously known event does not come to pass causes His prior foreknowledge to be wrong. Prior to creation there is no violation of foreknowledge in the weighing of contingencies since there is no actual thing to know.

The persons He was considering creating were not yet people, but mere thoughts of people. These as-yet-imaginary people had no real wills, but only the wills God imagined they might have, if He created the man He imagined, and influenced by the situations in life He might permit. To suggest that the imaginary wills of imaginary people might exalt themselves over the real will of the real God and win personal freedom at the cost of God's own freedom is silly. But God, seeing the end from the beginning, spoke the word of creation, placing His seal of approval on it, judging the results worthy of the cost. This is necessarily so. If God did not approve, He could have changed the plan, or scraped it altogether. Again, God created not under compunction but according to His own good pleasure. We can rest in the fact that His intention (and, necessarily, the result) for every action is for good (Rom 8:28, Rom 11:36). In the next installment of this series I will be discussing the relation of intentions to actions, and how this affects culpability for sin.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A prickly hypothetical

At our Thirsty Theologians meeting last evening we skipped across the surface of many deeper waters but one that has stuck in my thoughts was the question of whether any of us would accept a pastorate in a KJV-only church. I answered that I would be willing to, but gave little qualification to that answer. The more considered answer I wish I had given is that while I would not disguise myself as a KJV-only advocate in order to get the appointment, I would be willing to teach out of the KJV so long as the church is willing to have me preach according to conviction. Both points develop out of the fact that true ministry cannot proceed out of inauthenticity—how can fresh and sulpherous water both flow from one fountain?

That said, I doubt that any KJV-only church would have someone who expresses the mere acceptability of that version, insisting instead on a minister who holds to the unique authority of it. But, should such a church allow such a one, I would be willing to minister God's truth there, with no agenda but to share the word of God. I would seek to build them up in a base of doctrine out of non-contested scripture over perhaps a period of years before daring to tackle anything contested. Indeed, so long as I could sense an intractable spirit on this matter I would preach series of texts that avoid seriously contested passages (½% of the NT). But, I would not find myself in Isaiah 34 preaching about unicorns and satyrs! When the translation errs in any substantial way, I would have to begin with the KJV, transition into the Greek and explaining my own translation, and draw much as support for the correct translation from other scripture as possible (out of that doctrinal base that had been developed in many years of ministry).

Finally, suppose there was a tremendous uproar and division as the result, is that necessarily bad? If this translation has become an idol then isn't it a good thing to bring some, who are willing to lay down that idol, out of that place? I don't know, but I tend to think that doctrine is more important than unity. If not, then what makes the church distinct from the Moose Lodge? Isn't it truth that unites us?

Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Case for (Abandoning) Faith?

Often heard are the accounts of Philosophy Profs polling their freshman classes to see if there are any Christians in the mix. Perhaps he will then ridicule them by asking if there were any evidence which, once shown to be incontrovertible, might cause them to relinquish their faith. Most, wanting show fidelity to their convictions will answer no—proving them to be hopelessly unteachable and intractable. The better answer of course, the biblical answer is, "if Christ is not risen my faith is futile and I am most pitiable" (which is the thrust of 1 Corinthians 15:16-19). Well, it seems the Philosophy profs have been talking this over with the Archeology profs because here comes the latest wave of "incontrovertible evidence" against the resurrection.

You have doubtless already heard about the 'hard-hitting' documentary from producer James Cameron (documentary≠James Cameron?!) and director Simcha Jacobovici (who brought us the Discovery Channel's documentary on the ossuary of James). The yet-to-be-named drama unfolds around 10 ossuaries, dated to about 2000 years old, found in old Jerusalem with the names Jesua, son of Joseph, Mary, Mary, Mathew, Jofa and Judah, son of Jesua on them. And DNA proves that it is the historical Jesus! Well, not exactly. The producers of the show insist they have hard DNA evidence which establish familial relations, evidence that somehow made it to Hollywood before Harvard.

It is interesting to note that archaeologists in Jerusalem are rolling their eyes at the crypt craze just unleashed in the US, and even the British tabloid press has been rather lukewarm. After all, the same evidence was examined on the BBC eleven years ago. The findings in the cave, including the decipherment of the inscriptions, were first revealed about ten years ago by internationally renowned Israeli archeologist Professor Amos Kloner, who dismissed the hypothesis as conjecture pointing out that a poor family from Nazareth would be very unlikely to be buried in this style. These compelling New Testament names were so popular at the time of burial that the Israeli Antiquities Authority suggests that this cluster is only "coincidence", rather like finding Tom, Dick, and Harry together in an American family tomb of the 1940s. Cameron countered this assertion at his press conference by quipping: "If you found a John, a Paul and a George, you're not going to leap to any conclusions... unless you found a Ringo." The sticking point is whether this purported Mary Magdalene bone box is equivalent to finding a Ringo.

Let me just concur with these points raised by Andreas Köstenberger of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (cited from BaptistPress):

  • The claim that Mary Magdalene's bones were found in one of the ossuaries on the basis that the name "Mariamne" (Mary) is inscribed on it is bogus; the connection drawn here is pulled completely out of thin air.
  • The use of statistics and DNA "evidence" to support their case is highly suspect. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary were among the most popular names in first-century Palestine, and, of course, people buried in the same family tomb would for the most part be related. As Witherington rightly points out, we "would need an independent control sample from some member of Jesus' family to confirm that these were members of Jesus' family" -- but, of course, we have no such thing.
  • All the earliest accounts of Jesus' death and burial indicate that Jesus' body could not be found and had not been moved. There is no ancient evidence whatsoever for Jesus' family tomb.
  • Why would this family tomb have been in Jerusalem? Jesus was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth.
  • There is no historical evidence for Jesus having a son named Jude. There also is no credible historical evidence that Jesus was married, to Mary Magdalene or anyone else (see the first point above).
  • If Jesus died and a year later his bones were transferred to an ossuary, and this ossuary was placed in a Jerusalem family tomb, this would mean that all the early Christian martyrs, including the apostles, knowingly died for a fraudulent religion. That is highly implausible.

Köstenberger continues, "The problem with Jacobovici's evidence, however, is that he is connecting the dots far too quickly to arrive at his desired conclusion. Surely it will take better evidence to overturn the well-attested fact of Jesus' resurrection."

As with the Last Temptation of Christ, The Search for the Historical Jesus and The DaVinci Code this too shall pass.

Mortification of Sin

Our Thirsty Theologians (Ps 63:1) are beginning to read John Owen's classic work Mortification of Sin, which is one of three works in Overcoming Sin & Temptation from Crossway Publishing (you can read it for free here, though in a slightly less modern form). I've barely begun to scratch the surface of this work and already am under much conviction. Also immediately apparent is the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, which as John MacArthur has said is evident in almost every biblical doctrine. Consider it: who is the author of Scripture? Who accomplishes sanctification? Who enables repentance, evangelism, faith, and so on? Owen makes clear, using Romans 8:13 (For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live), that the putting to death, mortification, of sin is the responsibility of the Christian, but that it is accomplished only by the power of the Spirit.

He makes clear also that this is not a cause-effect relationship, but a ways-means-ends relationship. God has ordained this means (the striving of man against temptation) and provided all the power of this striving by His Spirit, to assuredly accomplish the ends which He has also ordained, the complete work of salvation. Just as conversion is the sole work of God, yet he chooses to use human preachers as a means to accomplish the gospel ministry. And as is the case whenever I consider how God uses us as a means I am humbled that He should deign to use such weak and meager tools. What glorious privilege! How far indeed from drudgery and bondage, which the unknowing heathen attributes to this life lived in service to Christ. How contrary to fatalism is this assurance that despite our failings God's good purpose is always accomplished, and when we do in some small way succeed in obedience He attributes it to us as righteousness! Glory and praise be unto His name, amen.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Free Will Song

What can I say but, "Oh my word!?!" I thought this was a joke at first, but alas, no. You've got to see it to believe it.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Divination, Inclination, Indigestion?

I know that most Christians pray for God's leading, or wisdom, or even signs and visions. I certainly pray often for wisdom and the providential opening and closing of opportunities. The thing I am struggling with right now is how do you authenticate the answer? Is that knot in your stomach "God stealing your peace" as you consider this major life-decision or is it stress causing indigestion?

I used to blame every alien, pietistic thought on God, thinking "it's not like me to think such things, it must be the move of God". I have spent far too long giving God the "credit" for my lame-brained ideas. It seems far safer to stick to the responsibilities of personal obedience, to law and love, and leave the planning to providence, as it were. But then you have cases like Acts 13:2, where the leading of the Spirit is so clear that the instruction is in quotes!* Does God still speak with such clarity today? I don't mean about the things already revealed in Scripture. I mean, can our pastor search team expect a fresh word from the Lord, "Set aside unto me Anthony for the work to which I have called him."

Is it individual inklings that add up to authenticate the message? Couldn't several godly men have the same inclination toward a man, and agreeing on their warm-fuzzy thoughts attribute this to a word from God? And suppose they did get a clarion message, why in the world would we not add a chapter to Acts and record it for the rest of Christendom? I hope I don't sound flip. This is something with which I am struggling; please help me to know better how to pray for guidance, and how to know that the answer I receive is from the Lord, not from my own inklings or indigestion!


*Yes, I know the quotation marks are not in the Greek, but the structure indicates that this is a quote, thus the marks.