Mr. Jones And You

Who dresses this way? I mean other than ska musicians.

Who dresses this way? I mean other than ska musicians.

So it looks like lots of other people have had things to say about the attempted internet clampdown prosecuted by former Mighty Mighty Bosstones member theologian-huckster Tony Jones. Lots of people have told me to shut up in my life, but no one until now has had their lawyer try to force the issue, so I’m going to provide all the links I can find for anyone else who has something to say about this act of callow douchery.

The Naked Pastor has a colourful image for us. He also brought something that came to my mind, the “Streisand effect” – trying to squash a minor story can turn it into a big deal.

Stephanie Drury reminds us that this is a completely voluntary request that no one is under obligation to obey.

Brother Maynard echoes this sentiment.

Bill Kinnon points out that he has been asked by Tojo’s ex-wife to take his post down (like everyone else, he’s declining, because, well, duh).

Jasdye reminds us that this is part of a larger problem of big-name religious celebrities getting a free pass all the time. (Hey did you hear? Driscoll’s making a comeback!)

Anyone else I’m missing? I’ll add to the list.

The Tony Jonestown Massacre

It appears that a certain theologian is trying to scrub the internet of any references to allegations that he was an abusive and manipulative jerk. Your humble scribes here at City of God were listed among those that said theologian’s lawyers insisted that his ex-wife (and alleged victim) ask to engage in self-censorship. I don’t actually know what the rationale is behind this court order however I know that said theologian has tried this routine in the past:

…and claimed he was trying to protect his kids or something. (Because they totally read random theology blogs, right.)

It is worth noting that this legal order in no way disputes the basic facts of any of these postings – it is not asking us or anyone else to correct false or misleading information, one imagines if someone was prepared to lawyer up to this degree and not actually sue for libel, then the plaintiff must basically accept that the information being shared is fundamentally accurate.

As for what is supposed to be removed, I can’t speak for what anyone other I wrote, but mostly I just linked to other, convincing (in my mind) accounts and shared my opinion that this would seem to indicate that this theologian is a terrible person, or something to that effect. See? I can’t even be bothered to read my old posts, that some random lawyer in a flyover state thinks should be removed for the sake of children who will definitely never encounter them.

Maybe it’s I’m wrong though, maybe all these allegations are false (they are, after all, only allegations). I do however view with deep suspicion someone who takes this sort of censorious view of the internet, and to that end I say to hell with this, I’m not drinking your Kool-Aid.

Thomas Weinandy on the Suffering of God

In the course of arguing for the classical divine attribute of impassibility, Weinandy suggests there is a sense in which suffering can be attributed to God. I think it is helpful to keep this in mind, as one of the reasons the doctrine sometimes fails to persuade is the intuitive sense that such a view obviously contradicts biblical portrayals of God. However, if the classical doctrine is understood in its fullness, it does not simply reject depictions of God as suffering; it only notes that the sense in which God, as uncreated Creator, “suffers” must be sui generis.

Sorrow and grief are attributed to God not by way of predicating a passible emotional change within him, but rather by way of denoting that he is all-loving and good. Because he is perfectly loving and good, he finds sin and evil repugnant, and so he can be said to sorrow and grieve in the light of their presence. God does not grieve or sorrow because he himself experiences some injury or the loss of some good, nor that he has been affected, within his inner being, by some evil outside cause, but rather he grieves or sorrows only in the sense that he knows that human persons experience some injury or the loss of some good, and so embraces them in love. This sorrow and grief ascribed to God could contain the note of suffering only if we mean that, as all-loving, he is intensely concerned with the reality of sin and evil, and the suffering that ensues from them. To ascribe suffering to God is not to denote a positive passible emotional state as if such a state were distinct from a variety of other emotional states within God, but solely to specify the truth that God, as all-loving and good, is opposed to and finds abhorrent all that is not loving and good. To ascribe suffering to God does not then imply that God experiences inner emotional anguish or distress because he has experienced some injury or the loss of some good, nor that he has been adversely affected by some evil outside cause, but rather it accentuates the truth that God’s perfectly actualized goodness is wholly adverse to all that is contrary to his goodness, and that in his perfectly actualized love he embraces those who suffer because of sin and evil. ‘Suffering’ would then be attributed to God metaphorically since it has been purged of the passible and emotional connotations found within human suffering, but it would retain and might intensify the authentic truth that God, in his goodness, abhors evil and so repudiates it, and in his love, embraces the sufferer. The innocent who suffer injustice know then that God, in his goodness, is adverse to the injustice suffered, and experience God’s love as a love that is deeply concerned and consoling. As a way of expressing God’s repudiation of evil and as a way of accentuating his loving care for the sufferer God could then be said ‘to suffer in love,’ but God could not be said ‘to suffer in love’ in the sense that he himself experiences some form of inner anguish or distress due to some personal injury or the loss of some good. [Does God Suffer?, 169]

It’s worth considering, too, what it would mean if biblical depictions of God suffering were taken literally without any qualification. Weinandy explains:

Eternally God is immutably and impassibly adapted to every situation and circumstance, not because his love is indifferent and unresponsive, but because his love, with all its facets, is fully in act, and so he is supremely and utterly responsive to every situation and circumstance. God is unconditionally adaptable in his dynamic and passionate love because his love is immutably and impassibly in act. If God needed, sequentially in a potency/act manner, to adapt and re-adapt and re-adapt himself again to every personal situation in every momentary instance, he would be conceived as an infinite mega-computer … continuously and simultaneously processing trillions of conflicting bits of emotional data. He would then be seen to be perpetually entangled in an unending internal emotional whirligig. [162-163]

And being perpetually entangled in an unending internal emotional whirligig is a far cry from biblical descriptions of God as the makarios theos: “—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.”

Theodicy and the Goodness of God

The “problem of evil” has been around for a while, as have responses to it. One of the most perennial (appearing in places such as Job) is these days called “skeptical theism”, or else a “mysterian” reply; putting it simply, it questions the question, pointing out that God’s incomprehensibility, the limits of our knowledge, and the fallibility of our moral sensibilities, along with the positive reasons to believe in God’s power and goodness, and argues these should lead us to conclude God has sufficient reason to allow evil, though we cannot necessarily see what it is. It is a conclusion that God is trustworthy, though his ways sometimes seem inscrutable.

Sometimes, when this response has been provided, the natural question will arise: if this response is correct, what does it mean to call God “good”? I want to provide a brief answer to that question here.

Aristotle provides an intuitive definition of good which covers the various uses human beings have for the word beyond and inclusive of the ethical: “the good is that which all things desire.” In light of this definition, the classical conception of God is that God is the most desirable reality. As Thomas puts it:

But all things, each according to its mode, desire to be in act; this is clear from the fact that each thing according to its nature resists corruption. To be in act, therefore, constitutes the nature of the good. Hence it is that evil, which is opposed to the good, follows when potency is deprived of act, as is clear from the Philosopher inMetaphysics IX [9]. But, as we have shown, God is being in act without potency. Therefore, He is truly good.

I’m not here concerned to provide the arguments for the classical view of God, just to explicate what it said about his goodness. If we follow it’s roadmap, we will also say that God’s goodness means God’s desirability. To put it plainly, God is the kind of thing that, when we might see him (whether with the eyes, or in the figurative sense, with the eyes of the mind), we would want him. Or perhaps to say it yet another way, God’s goodness is what leads us to worship him, to be struck with awe and joy at the sense of his presence.

Now we can connect this back to theodicy. Questions of God’s justice focus more specifically on the moral character of God, i.e., his goodness in the more narrowly ethical sense. But the general doctrine of God’s goodness has implications for this more specific sense, too. It means, at minimum, that nothing in God’s character implies God is anything less than the ultimately desirable reality.

Returning to the “mysterian” theodicy, then, we can explain it this way. The character of cruel and evil people is repulsive; people with healthy consciences find such behaviours morally disgusting, not desirable at all. The argument claims that if we knew all the relevant truths about God and the world, which we do not know, we would be able to see both God and all the evil in the world simultaneously, and still see God as the perfectly desirable reality. Nothing in his character provides grounds to react to him as morally sane people do toward evil dispositions.

For those who want to read further on how the classical conception of God relates to the problem evil, you could do worse than to start with Ed Feser’s various posts on the subject.

Without Any Gaps

I stumbled across the podcast, History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps and thought that the readers of this blog might find it illuminating. As anyone who has taken an undergrad survey course in philosophy might have surmised, this podcast is meant as a corrective for the usual course of (Western) philosophy that goes something like Plato, Aristotle, assorted other classical Greeks and Romans up to Augustine, then a brief medieval stopover with Aquinas and then onto the Enlightenment.

How careful is host Peter Adamson about gaps? Well, to give you an idea, there are now over 200 episodes and they are still on the medieval period. Indeed, there are over twenty episodes on medieval philosophy and they haven’t even gotten to Aquinas yet! If you work and/or have kids, then you don’t really have time to hunt for medieval thinkers to understand, so for the non-academic (or the otherwise-occupied academic) this is a great way to at least get an introduction to some of these thinkers.

What exactly falls into these gaps? Here’s an example: Now I know some Christian traditions argue that the medieval period gets a bad rap, but even so, I rarely see Christian thinkers even acknowledge that thinking on topics like election was not, as seems to be popularly thought, essentially untouched between Augustine and Luther. This was apparently a serious topic of discussion in the time of Charlemagne.

I’m sure that someone who knows these all these philosophers might quibble with how Adamson portrays one or another of them, but I imagine that for many who are curious about these topics and outside the halls of academia, it will be exciting just to get an introduction.

Happy Easter

I’ll just leave this little ditty here:

Don’t Fall In Love With Yourselves On Good Friday

zizek toilet

These are excerpts from a talk that Žižek gave four years ago during the Occupy Wall Street movement:

“There is a danger. Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then? I don’t want you to remember these days, you know, like ‘Oh. we were young and it was beautiful.'”

And again at the conclusion of his talk:

“The only thing I’m afraid of is that we will someday just go home and then we will meet once a year, drinking beer, and nostaligically remembering ‘What a nice time we had here.’ Promise yourselves that this will not be the case.”

When I think about the crucifixion, one of the striking aspects of it was that in the most crucial moments, Jesus’ followers and friends abandoned him. They said they wouldn’t, but they did anyway, no one was prepared to go all the way to death alongside him. What they (and we) were denied was any kind of romantic notion about how they were with him and that they had had some kind of “nice time” together. Surely this must have been one of the things that spurred on the early church: the abandoning of Jesus to his fate. The disciples could not return to their daily lives with nothing but a warm nostalgia, they were left with something very different, the sense of an event (by the time Sunday roles around) but also a gnawing realization about how poorly they conducted themselves.

The easiest way to sap a movement of its power is nostalgia, especially with a myth that allows everyone to participate by proxy that so many events generate. For baby boomers the archetype might be Woodstock or the Summer of Love – everyone gets to pretend that they were there – at least in spirit and it is a good nostalgic feeling that gives them some kind of leave to go back to doing whatever it is that they are doing. Who would want to be there on Good Friday? Your leader dies and everyone cowers.

We live in an age where it is easier than ever to fall in love with ourselves. One doesn’t need to travel anywhere or do anything other than repost a clever graphic on Instagram, or like something on Facebook, or follow the right people on Twitter and retweet their sagacious insights, or upvote the right AMA thread on Reddit. I get the sense that many readers of this blog care about various causes (of a really wide range, I gather), but what is it that anyone does about them? If I try to think of a concrete action that I have taken, there aren’t that many, but then I get the feeling of having participated by merely retweeting stuff that I found agreeable.

I have neither the learning nor the authority to tell you the Meaning™ of Good Friday (and certainly there are lots of people who can and have). But I think one thing that stood out to me this year is the idea of our absence from it. There is no proxy that we can align ourselves with who really stands out in classic heroic fashion here (Jesus doesn’t even bother to defend himself, Socrates at least did that), there is no way to gather round and wax romantic about this event. It stands as a rebuke to every kind of mega Christian conference and gathering and every giant display of the church’s power by stained glass or by klieg light. These are all things that make it easy to fall in love with ourselves, these are the sort of events that are the opposite of Good Friday.

EDIT: The conclusion, that now seems obvious to me, but evidently eluded me whilst writing the original post, is that this is an argument for the centrality of celebrating the eucharist, there is nothing else in broad Christian practice that so effectively reminds us how easily we betray, and how we should not fall in love with ourselves.

Packer on Our Moral Ill-Desert

This comes from chapter 13 of J. I. Packer’s classic book Knowing God, there he talks about God’s grace. This is a very lucid, insightful, and damning description of modern man:

1.  The moral ill-desert of man. 

Modern men and women, conscious of their tremendous scientific achievements in recent years, naturally incline to a high opinion of themselves.  They view material wealth as in any case more important than moral character, and in the moral realm they are resolutely kind to themselves, treating small virtues as compensating for great vices and refusing to take seriously the idea that, morally speaking, there is anything much wrong with them. They tend to dismiss a bad conscience, in themselves as in others, as an unhealthy psychological freak, a sign of disease, and mental aberration rather than an index of moral reality. For modern men and women are convinced that, despite all their little peccadilloes – drinking, gambling, reckless driving, sexual laxity, black and white lies, sharp practice in trading, dirty reading, and what have you – they are a heart thoroughly good folks.  Then, as pagans do (and modern man’s heart is pagan  – make no mistake about that), they imagine God as a magnified image of themselves and assume that God shares his own complacency about himself.  The thought of themselves as creatures fallen from God’s image, rebels against God’s rule, guilty and unclean in God’s sight, fit only for God’s condemnation, never enters their heads.

J. I. Packer, Knowing God, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2005), 146-147.

Carol Ann Duffy’s Poem for Richard III

Today is the reinterment of King Richard III (1452-1485) at Leicester Cathedral. I wish I could have been there, how many opportunities do you have to witness the burial of an ancient king? Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s poet laureate, wrote these words for the occasion:

Richard

My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,

a human braille.  My skull, scarred by a crown,

emptied of history.  Describe my soul

as incense, votive, vanishing; your own

the same.  Grant me the carving of my name.

 

These relics, bless.  Imagine you re-tie

a broken string and on it thread a cross,

the symbol severed from me when I died.

The end of time – an unknown, unfelt loss –

unless the Resurrection of the Dead…

 

or I once dreamed of this, your future breath

in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;

or sensed you from the backstage of my death,

as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.

 

For more, see here.

 

Calvinism and Choice

Note: I inadvertently posted this in unfinished form when I intended merely to save an edit. Please take the updated version below as the final. Forgive me if this causes any confusion! 

The philosophy department at Tyndale University College has a blog called Every Thought Captive that is worth having on your Feedly (or whatever blog reader you use). I have had the privilege of meeting Dr. Paul Franks, one of the members of the department, a number of times, and brief though those times were, I enjoyed our conversation. I have not met Dr. Rich Davis yet, but his reputation among students of his whom I know is high. I am thankful that they teach at my local Christian university and are having an impact for the gospel in my locale and abroad.

Drs. Franks and Davis have done of a number of good series on their blog. I’ve particularly appreciated the detailed critique that they have provided of Brian McLaren’s work called “The McLaren Files.” I look forward to reading their critique of Dave Fitch in “The Fitch Files.” They are also writing a series of posts critiquing Calvinism, their most recent is what I would like to offer some thoughts on.

In “The ‘C’ in Calvinism,” Dr. Davis shares his concerns with the notion of choice and whether it is a real option given Calvinism. He asks whether choice and “determinism” are compatible. The Calvinist of choice (pardon the pun) who functions as the foil for this essay is R. C. Sproul of Ligionier Ministries, a well-known popular expositor of Reformed theology. At hand is Sproul’s notion of “Edwards’ Law of Choice” (ELC) that was outlined in his influential book Chosen By God. ELC is so-named due to its earlier articulation by the New England theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) in his work Freedom of the Will.

Dr. Davis’ piece is, as to be expected, from a philosophical point of view. I have a keen interest in philosophy, but I would like to reply to this theologically. Not because I think that free will and sovereignty are questions that only theologians can answer, but because theology is the discipline whose methods I am most familiar with. I do not think this keeps us (that is, the philosopher and the theologian) from coming to shared conclusions because the question posed by Dr. Davis, and indeed Calvinism (whatever that is), is relevant to both the philosopher and the theologian. I also think that some of the problems in the essay are theological, and need to be addressed as such. I come at this as someone sympathetic to Reformed theology, and so my thoughts are largely critical.

First, when I read the essay it struck me that it was a sophisticated way of asking a simple question, one that most Calvinists and non-Calvinists who have reflected on the question of choice have asked: Is there such thing as free choice if God is sovereign? This is something we have all wrestled with, I know that I certainly have. The essay takes this a step further by evaluating the Edwardsean answer, the so-called ELC. But it is important to remember that this is not a new question and that there are plenty of resources available giving various answers to the problem.

Second, I am not totally sure why Dr. Davis has decided to take on this particular answer (ELC) to the question of free choice. My suspicion is, due to some of his comments at the beginning of his essay about the Young, Restless, Reformed (YRR), that he might see in Sproul, and by extension Edwards, a key element and that a criticism of him/them is a de facto criticism of the broader movement. If this is the case, I do not value this kind of argument as it tends to make a movement like YRR seem monolithic, which it is not. Nor is Reformed theology, historically or at present. Arguments such as this can unfairly paint a disparate group of people with one brush. But it may not be the case that Dr. Davis has taken this approach.

Third, ELC is not the only answer given in the history of Christian theology to the problem of choice and sovereignty. In fact, it is not one that all Reformed people buy into. Even those Reformed theologians who do, also buy into other arguments. Popular conceptions of Calvinism may not make this apparent, but there is an at-times sharp distinction between Edwardseans and traditional Reformed theology. The former is generally viewed as “deterministic,” due to the influence of thinkers like Hobbes and Locke on his thought. As we will see, Reformed theology should not be tarred with determinism. Whether Edwards can be viewed this way is up for debate, but it’s significant that this distinction be made. If Dr. Davis is aware of this, I wish that it had been stated, because it can run the risk of making unsuspecting readers think that to knock down ELC is to knock down Calvinism (whatever that is) as a whole.

Fourth, what is Calvinism? Is the Edwardsean version of Calvinism the only one? Is it the true one? Is Dr. Sproul’s version? Is Calvinism even a legitimate term to use? There are a host of assumptions in Dr. Davis’ essay that make readers such as myself wish that the sophistication of the philosophical language had given way to a more sophisticated understanding of the theological issues. This is not meant as an insult, Dr. Davis is much smarter than I am, and I have the fullest confidence that he has the chops to do more.

The term Calvinism is fraught with historical and theological problems. It assumes that Calvin is the sole progenitor of this brand of theology. Historians of the Reformation have put this misunderstanding to rest, and is why many of us do not particularly like the appellant “Calvinist.” We get stuck using it because of its general, popular use, but it is a term that would be better left behind. This might sound like a mere semantic quibble, but it poses serious definitional problems. How does one define Calvinism? Is it Edwards’ version? There is a lack of evidence in Edwards’ corpus that Calvin was a significant influence. The Reformer’s writings do not even appear in the catalogue we have of Edwards’ library. I would argue that the best place to go for such answers about the nature of Reformed theology—a more satisfying term—is the confessional documents of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. We also need to take into account the broader range of Reformed writers who contributed to the development of Reformed theology such as Bullinger, Musculus, Junius, Ames, Ussher, Owen, Turretin, and a host of others. There are a goodly number of theologians today who have done this, why not interact with them to get a truer picture? Or at least acknowledge that this is the case so that readers are not given the idea that Calvin is it for “Calvinism.”

Fifth, why use a secondary source to tell us about so-called “ELC”? Dr. Sproul’s ministry has been of incredible use to the church in popularizing Reformed theology, making some of the tough language easy for the lay-person to understand. Indeed, when I wrestled with these issues over a dozen years ago, it was Chosen By God that was a key book that helped me come to grips with the doctrine of election. My comments here are not meant to disparage Dr. Sproul at all. I am only making an historians’ point that when telling us about Edwards’ views it would be better to use Edwards’ own work. In the case of Edwards, this is particularly easy to do because Freedom of the Will, where ELC comes from, is readily available online at Yale’s site dedicated to Edwards’ Works (here). This is not say that Dr. Sproul misinterprets Edwards’ view of choice. It is to say that Edwards’ treatise is much longer with more detailed argumentation and defenses than Chosen By God because they were written for entirely different purposes.

Sixth, Dr. Davis, in his discussion of the power of contrary choice, seems to assume libertarian free will (LFW). This is not surprising, as most contemporary evangelical philosophers hold to this view (think Plantinga). This assumption contrasts LFW with Reformed theology. But is this necessarily the case? The answer to this depends on the view one takes of Reformed theology. While I do not personally espouse this, Oliver Crisp has recently argued that libertarianism can be consistent with the theology outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). At the very least, we can say that WCF statements on these matters allow for either a necessitarian or non-necessitarian view (see here). It would have been good for Dr. Davis to acknowledge this to see how it may have augmented some of his conclusions.

Seventh, Dr. Davis at a number of points refers to the Reformed view as “determinism.” This is an unfortunate use of terms and does not accurately reflect the way the Reformed tradition views itself on these matters. This is so because the term was not known in the early-modern period; opponents of Reformed theology referred to it as “Stoic fate.” Ironically, this puts more clearly the misconceptions that critics of Reformed theology have. However, to use that language would be as bad as me calling Dr. Davis a “Pelagian,” as the Reformed sadly would refer to their opponents. Such terms are unfortunate, and I hope that moving forward Dr. Davis (and others) would refrain from the term determinism when describing Reformed theology generally, because it does not accurately reflect our self-understanding and the nature of our argument.

Eighth, Dr. Davis  suggests that Calvinism (I’ll use this term as it’s the one he uses) makes no sense of Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37. Erasmus made this argument as well in his debate with Luther. Dr. Davis says, “If the reason for Jerusalem’s being unwilling is God’s not having given them I[rresistable] G[race], why chastise these people for their unwillingness? … Here the people are simply acting in accord with those desires.” Some thoughts: First, this does not take into account that this is Jesus in his human nature speaking. It says nothing of the divine will. Second, were it to speak of the divine will, Dr. Davis does not take into account the notion, as argued by John Piper, that God has two wills. This is well-reflected in Luther’s distinction between the hidden and revealed will of God. Third, it is exegetically misguided to think that this text has any bearing on the question at hand. Jesus has outlined in a series of parables and confrontations the hypocrisy of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. In Matthew 23 he pronounces a series of prophetic woes against the hypocrites. It is not a text like Romans 9, which would be a much thornier text for Dr. Davis to deal with, that has direct bearing on this question. Specifically, it answers the “control problem” that he points up later. A helpful rejoinder to the Arminian understanding of Matthew 23 is given over at Triablogue that I would suggest readers consult.

Ninth, Dr. Davis takes up the Old Testament figure of Gideon as an example of the power of contrary choice. Gideon was given a command to knock down his father’s idols in Judges 6:25, 27, but only did so at night out of fear. Dr. Davis argues that Gideon’s most powerful impulse was fear, but he acted contrary to this impulse in obedience to God’s command. “Why, otherwise, did he do it at night? Still, he obeyed the Lord—contrary to his most powerful impulse.” It strikes me that Dr. Davis has misunderstood ELC in his illustration of Gideon of what we might call Gideon’s Powerful Impulse (GPI). Is it the case that GPI is fear? If Gideon knocked down the idols, irregardless of doing so at night to mitigate his fear, he still acted on the the command to knock the idols down. Is it not the case the GPI is always manifested in the action? Dr. Davis is aware of this answer, but accuses it of question-begging. This is not question-begging, it is simply the relationship between one’s desire and action. GPI overrode his fear and enabled him to follow the command. His will was governed by his desire. It seems as though GPI affirms ELC.

Tenth, Dr. Davis quotes Dr. Sproul as defining ELC as: “The will always chooses according to its strongest inclination (desire) at the moment.” The corollary of this, that appears contradictory but is not (according to Dr. Sproul), that every choice is both free and determined. This appears incompatible, but it is is not because coercion is not involved. Dr. Davis does not agree. He argues that due to the coercive nature of “irresistable grace,” choice is not really free. There is a lot here to unpack, so for the sake of space in an already long post, I would like to offer some brief thoughts. First, if a person is dead in trespasses and sins as Ephesians 2 tells us, how is that person made alive? Is it the spiritually dead person who does it? If not, who? It must be God because Jesus tells us in John 3 that we are born from above (or again) by the Spirit. Was I born according to my own will when I was physically born? No, I had no choice in the matter. Likewise, I do not have the choice in this matter, because of my spiritual deadness, I need to be made alive by force outside of myself (extra nos). Second, coercion here is a change of nature, not a forcing upon me of something against my will. This is called grace for a reason. God, in regeneration, changes my nature so that I can freely choose what before, due to my sin, I could not. I have been released by shackles of sin so that I can now choose the good. In my deadened state, I made free choices, but they were always in conformity with my sinful nature. This is a good thing. Why take it as something bad? Even if it does in fact violate or vitiate my free will, I am glad it does! Third, I am not sure that Dr. Davis has proved the point that coercion (in the sense of regeneration, which is really what we are talking about) violates freedom. The philosophical idea of “compatibilism” gives us the categories to articulate how two seemingly opposed propositions are both true. See the helpful essay by philosopher James Anderson on Reformed views of determinism and compatibilism here for more. Fourth, and related to the third, is that a more helpful way to express this language is that of J. I. Packer in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God where he spoke of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility as an “antinomy.” In this case, both seemingly opposed views are held in common because both are clearly revealed in scripture. We see this in the story of Joseph’s description of God and man’s role in his captivity (Genesis 50:20), or in Peter’s description of God and man’s role in the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:23).

I conclude with a book recommendation. A helpful book on the subject of Reformed theology and the freedom of the will is that edited by William J. van Asselt, J. Martin Bac, and Roelf T. te Velde entitled Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Modern Reformed Theology. In it we learn that the Reformed orthodox were very concerned to maintain human freedom, yet they did not want to do so at the expense of God’s freedom as their opponents did. The editors’ introduction opens with a quote by Francis Turretin (1623-1687) that illustrates this: “We establish free choice far more truly than our opponents.” After the (excellent) introduction, there are chapters devoted to freedom in the thought of Zanchi, Junius (my favourite), Gomarus, Voetius, Turretin, and de Moor. The book is a primary source reader for each. It is helpful because it ranges over the stages of orthodoxy and thus addresses variously situated theological and philosophical problems. Despite the different figures involved and the contexts they were addressing, the conclusion the editors come to is that Reformed theology self-consciously upholds the freedom of the human will and does so better than its opponents. This should not be surprising as they are part of the broader anti-Pelagian tradition rooted in Augustine (354-430), who very clearly affirmed libero arbitrio (see especially his “On Grace and Free Choice”).

I hope that this post is taken by all as a friendly rejoinder offered by one brother to another. I am thankful for the chance to rethink my own position due to the challenge that Dr. Davis poses. May my thoughts shared above go some small way towards giving greater understanding between two Christian positions as we work out our theology together in the kingdom of God. Soli Deo Gloria.