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A Contradiction for Deterministic Reformed Thinkers: Why Election According to the Doctrines of Grace Implies Free Will

A Contradiction for Deterministic Reformed Thinkers: Why Election According to the Doctrines of Grace Implies Free Will

Written by:bcreamer
Published on March 15th, 2011 @ 03:07:00 pm , using 1123 words, 10655 views
Posted in Theology, Philosophy

I don't mean for this post to be combative---an admittedly less than universal intention for me. I'm sure there's something I'm missing here. But as I rode for a couple of hours with a favorite former student the other day, and as we touched on topics of this nature, I found myself unable to grasp how a reformed thinker escapes a certain difficulty which presented itself to me. I doubt this would be a problem to every reformed thinker. But to those who consider themselves strongly deterministic, it seems insurmountable to me. Again, I must be wrong about it; but I can't figure out why. So let me present three things: my understanding of the view I'm critiquing, an apparently inevitable outflow of that view, and the reason that outflow contradicts the view that produces it.

There are almost as many stripes of reformed thought (Calvinism, less euphemistically) as there are reformed thinkers. But the most strident brand carries its claims of fixity not just into theological topics, not even just to human freedom, but to everything. So in its most comprehensive form, reformed thought actually hinges on hard determinism.

A weaker (not worse or better; just less deterministic) commitment to that side of theology might simply claim that God elects whom He will to salvation (and maybe does or does not elect others to damnation) simply because men's souls are too dead even to respond to God's command to repent and believe. That version is not what I'm talking about.

A stronger version, but still not quite the focus here, denies not only that men are free to accept or reject the salvation offered to them but also denies that it is possible for anyone actually either to accept or reject anything. That is, it denies the possibility of any radical freedom in humans. (By "radical freedom" I mean the ability to choose unactualized potentials, or to act independently of or literally creatively within the totality of prior sufficient causes.) This case is not the strongest, though. because its basis is only a limitation on humans because of their inferiority to God. On that view, God could still have radical freedom.

The version about which I'm speaking adds to both of the claims above that God Himself could not have radical freedom---not for any limitation on God, of course, but simply because on this view radical freedom is no more a thing or a possibility than four-sided triangles. Plenty of non-theists hold the position which underlies this version. For convenience's sake, I'm calling it hard determinism. In broader philosophical terms, hard determinism not only rejects radical freedom but also any form of indeterminism. But general indeterminism is neither here nor there for the point of this discussion, so "hard determinism" should suffice as a description of the view I'm critiquing here.

So: the view I am critiquing includes the claim that radical freedom is impossible, even for God.

Among Christians, hard determinism leads fairly directly to the "doctrines of grace," including unconditional election and irresistible grace. Aside from issues of merit and works (theological arguments which can function independently of determinism), everything about man's salvation must be determined by prior sufficient causes, including whatever is in the mind of God. (Prior sufficient causes in the mind actually demonstrate what Leibniz, et al, call the principle of sufficient reason. But for the brevity of this argument, the distinction seems unnecessary.)

Now if even God's actions are to be understood as determined, then election (an act of God) has a determining cause.

But the idea that election is based on prior sufficient cause faces a problem. A hard determinist could simply take it then that election is necessary. It is necessary only in relation to God, but necessary nonetheless. That view seems unlikely to hold, since it would imply that God had no choice available to Him but to elect those whom He elected. In other words, on that interpretation, God could not have chosen to save anyone other than those He actually did choose to save. I'm not sure there's any freight at all in the word "election" in that case. That is, God just did what He had to do, which was save those He had no choice but to save. Perhaps I'm missing something there, but I can't for the life of me figure out how that interpretation could lead to anything but absurdity. That is, I cannot grasp how choice-less election can be election, since election is choosing. (For ironic wording, the argument here is between free-choice election and choice-free election! The former seems essential to election's meaning; the latter absurd.)

So even hard determinists tend to lean on a particular concept, perhaps a mystery, at this point---specifically, that God's electing act is based on "His own good pleasure." I like that concept and it comes from passages like Ephesians 1:5. But it has to remain a mystery, or more accurately, inscrutable, since any explanation would be of a cause which would lead to the problem above. So does the inscrutability of God's "own good pleasure" solve the determinist's difficulty here?

The inscrutability of God's electing act could presumably be due to our ignorance of causes which do exist or, comparably, to the incomprehensibility of those causes. But given causes known or not, the absurdity of election described almost immediately above still obtains.

Alternatively, though, that inscrutability could be related to the "causeless" nature of His electing act---the mystery of the good pleasure of His will. But here, I cannot for the life of me figure out what God's causeless election could mean other than that He elects according to His own radically free will. (It could, I suppose, be not an admission of a radically free will, but of some other "indeterminism" within which God elects whoever He happens to elect. But in my understanding, that view would seem even more insulting to a determinist than that God could have radical freedom.)

So, to abbreviate the argument:

  • determinism (for an evangelical) requires election and precludes radical freedom
  • election requires radical freedom (at least on God's part)
  • Therefore, determinism requires radical freedom and precludes radical freedom

And to clarify the conclusion:

It doesn't seem wise, reasonable, prudent, or correct to hold a view which requires what it precludes. So, barring some clarification of where I have missed the boat, it doesn't seem to me to be wise, reasonable, prudent, or correct to hold any view dependent on determinism.

Now, of course, this argument only applies to hard determinism (e.g., Leibnizian Rationalism). But, as the larger four-part argument of which I'm posting one bit at a time contends, without hard determinism there's really no problem with any of the arguments for freedom.

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