Jun 17, 2015

Reprobation, free will, and skeptical theism

-"how can we reconcile a God of love with the (Calvinist) belief that He decrees some (or so many) people to perish?"

At the end of last Saturday's conference on the problem of evil, wherein I presented on "Calvinists and Arminians on the problem of evil: who can say what?", a thoughtful gentleman came and asked me the above question—definitely an important one for Calvinists like me to think about. We briefly discussed the matter, and it made me realize I had some things to say about the topic, which I hadn't read elsewhere before, so it called for a post. Here is what I have to say in response.

Love and the divine will
The question is raising the worry that there may be an incompatibility between the Calvinist doctrine
of reprobation, and a certain attribute of God, namely the (undisputedly biblical) fact that God is love. When you phrase the objection as an argument, you see that it is really a special case of the problem of evil that would go something like the following syllogism I shall call “mercy for all”:
-Premise 1: if God is love, then He will most want to prevent eternal damnation for everyone,
-Premise 2: if Calvinism is true (i.e. humans do not have a libertarian free will such that God cannot determine the outcome of their choices), then God could have everyone freely repent and believe.
So given that God is love, it follows that everyone should freely repent and believe. But in fact not everyone repents and believes, so one of our presuppositions has to give.
The response from the Arminian is of course to reject the antecedent of premise 2 and its affirmation that Calvinism is true: they respond instead that God does not save everyone because God cannot save everyone, in virtue of humans’ having libertarian free will. On the opposite side, the response from the Calvinist is to reject the first premise instead, namely that if God is love, then He will most want to prevent eternal damnation for everyone. First, notice the word “most” in that premise. For the argument to work, it must be the case not only that God has some degree of inclination toward saving all individuals—something that many Calvinists, myself included, affirm (which renders Arminian uses of 1 Tim. 2:4 irrelevant to the controversy, I should add)—but rather, for the “mercy for all” argument to work, it must be the case that saving sinners is always what God most wants to do in all cases. That is the part Calvinists must dispute. Calvinists do agree that the attribute of divine love inclines God toward mercy to some extent (after all, He does, on their view, gratuitously elect undeserving sinners onto salvation through no merit of their own!), they just maintain that His love doesn’t entail that saving them is always what He most wants to do in all cases. And in that regard, keep in mind that technically, Arminians also affirm that God’s highest will isn’t to save sinners in all cases: on their view, He eventually does condemn many of them. Yes, they are those who freely reject Him using their libertarian free will, but it remains that He wants to give them libertarian free will more than He wants to save everyone. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what Arminians would respond to Universalists who press divine love against them, saying that if God really loved everyone, then He’d just save everyone regardless of their Christian faith or lack thereof. When they’re not Universalists, Calvinists and Arminians thus respond in one voice: “God is love, but it doesn’t follow that He shall forgive all sinners at the expense of everything else”. Arminians say He values libertarian free will more, and Calvinists must say He has other reasons instead.

Justice and skeptical theism
So what can be said about those “other reasons”? First, Calvinists say that divine love inclines God toward salvation, but they maintain that God has other attributes that come into play as well when assessing eternal judgment for a given individual. In particular they say that God is just, Holy, righteous, wrathful against sin, etc… all attributes that are uncontroversially biblical, of course—the controversy isn’t there. But accordingly, Calvinists maintain that for any given sinner, God has the freedom to exercise His love to save him, or His justice to condemn him. One sinner receives mercy, another receives justice, and both are consistent with God’s character.

In this light, Calvinists might even offer a rebutting defeater to the “mercy for all” argument, in the form of a reductio ad absurdum based upon the attribute of divine justice. They might say that there exists a relevantly similar (and equally unsound) argument based upon divine righteousness and justice, to the conclusion that no sinner will ever be saved. It would go as follows, the “and justice for all” argument.

-Premise 1: If God is just, then He will most want to condemn every guilty party
-Premise 2: God will be the one sitting in judgment over all guilty sinners
Therefore, all guilty sinners will stand condemn. Of course that argument is unsound, as Premise 1 is false, but it is intended to highlight what is wrong with the “mercy for all” argument above: we can’t take one attribute of God in isolation from all others, and speculate on what the Lord would do based upon that attribute alone.
Now as it so happens, I think Arminians could offer a pretty decent response to maintain the “mercy for all” argument, while coherently rejecting the “and justice for all” argument. They could say that when God saves sinners, His justice isn’t in fact at all compromised, since even though the sinner who receives mercy doesn’t get condemned for his sins, justice is still exercised in punishing Jesus for them on the cross. That response is fine, and if Arminians do make that move, I think Calvinists will be hard-pressed to refute the Arminian “mercy for all” argument on the sole basis of the “and justice for all” reply, but here is the crux: the burden of proof isn’t on the shoulders of the Calvinists. They need not demonstrate that the “mercy for all” argument is unsound, they only need to defend the coherence of their rejection of its first premise. To do that, they accordingly need not provide the reason(s) that incline(s) God toward justice rather than mercy for a given sinner. Calvinists can (and I think should) provide to some degree the so-called “skeptical theism” response here: “God has morally sufficient reasons for this choice of His, and even if I personally can’t give you all these reasons, it doesn’t for a moment follow that those sufficient reasons don’t exist”.

“What if God…?”
In fact, when God eventually does give us some degree of explanation in Romans 9, it turns out to be based precisely upon the demonstration of God’s attributes of justice and power, as I suggested above. In that infamous chapter, Paul anticipates that people will object to his difficult teachings on God’s sovereign choice of election, and responds as follows: “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory”.
This seems plainly enough to say that God’s wrath against vessels prepared for destruction, to some degree glorifies Him and magnifies His mercy to those He has prepared beforehand for glory. What I find fascinating, though, is that even Paul phrases that answer with a “what if?” His careful formulation is more modest than: “here is the one and only, fully satisfying answer to the objection, or here is the reason for reprobation”; rather, He seems to employ somewhat of the “skeptical theist” approach himself, doesn’t He? He seems to give a defense rather than a full-fledged theodicy. He says “you’re objecting against the doctrine, you’re taking on this ambitious burden of proof, but what if ‘so and so’ were the case?” If “so and so” were the case, the objection would fail to establish that there is any inconsistency in Paul’s teaching, and Calvinists need not even be committed to the idea that the display of God’s justice is the sole response to why He passes over the reprobate. So even though I think Paul’s response in fact provides a rather solid starting point for an explanation based upon the display of divine attributes, it’s also fine to say “I don’t fully know God’s reasons, but I have independently good reasons to think on the one hand that He is love, and on the other that He elects some and not all, so I will just trust that these fit together”. After all, the best way to show that two propositions are compatible remains to show that the two propositions are true! The Bible teaches that God is love, and the Bible teaches that God chose us before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1), predestinates, justifies, sanctifies and glorifies all those He calls (Rom. 8), shows mercy to whomever He wills and hardens whomever He wills, not based upon human will or exertion but on His mercy (Rom. 9), etc. So even though I hope my above discussion has offered more by way of explanation, I don’t think it’s inappropriate for one to say “I believe God has revealed these things, and even if I lack the full explanation of how they fit together, I will trust that He is Holy and righteous, and come judgment day, ‘will not the judge of all the earth do right?’”
That strikes me as a biblical thing to say or sing: God is mighty to save, and His love endures forever.