Monday, August 22, 2011

The "Dark Side" of Calvinism revisited

George Bryson's reappearance on the blogosphere reminded me of a response I wrote a little more than a year ago to the twelfth chapter of his book The Dark Side of Calvinism. It was meant to interact with Bryson's examination of the logical relationship between divine sovereignty and so-called human freedom. Unfortunately, the blog for which I wrote the piece seems to be enduring a little bit of difficulty as of late, so I looked through email archives and found it. I deal with three objections Bryson makes against Calvinism throughout the chapter:

Objection #1: Nominal Freedom

Mr. Bryson begins the chapter by asserting that Calvinists cannot consistently “affirm freedom of choice for a lost man regarding where he will spend eternity… [due to] a seriously flawed definition of [divine] sovereignty” (page 287). The difficulty in dichotomizing freedom and sovereignty in this manner lies in the fact that the semantic domain of each term contains a multiplicity of possible meanings which, if not specified, can lead to equivocation or straw man argumentation. Hence, when Mr. Bryson substitutes an analogy of his own creation (cf. page 294) for an actual, confessional definition of the sense in which Calvinists believe man is free, it is not hard to understand why Mr. Bryson thinks the Calvinist‘s beliefs are antinomic. Section 9 of the London Baptist Confession – a confession to which James White, an exegete Mr. Bryson gives special attention in his book, adheres – includes the following account of free will:

God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.

One may find a similar formulation in the Westminster Confession. Now, Mr. Bryson did not sufficiently explain what would constitute a “meaningful” definition of freedom (page 294), but even if he had, given that the above repudiates, among other heresies, Manichaeism, philosophical mechanism, and, noteworthily, any intelligible notion of “monovolitionalism” (page 173), what reasonable criteria could Mr. Bryson require that would enable him to honestly deny that Calvinists can consistently believe any “meaningful” statement of human freedom? Christian monergists as far back as Augustine have elaborated on the fact that freedom, like slavery, is relational: if one is free, he is free “to do” something or free “from” something. Mr. Bryson too seems to understand that human freedom is “relative” (page 290) rather than “absolute,” “limited” rather than “autonomous” (page 313). Men make choices within a covenantal framework. We may either choose to believe and have life in Christ, or we may choose to reject Christ and be condemned. We cannot choose to reject Christ and be saved. The relativity of human freedom must be remembered when we read Mr. Bryson attempt to smuggle in his own understanding of freedom into the discussion and pass it off as historical. For example:

“In Calvinism, if man were free to accept or reject salvation, God could neither graciously give salvation nor could He be sovereign in the salvation He gives” (page 313).

“…when a Calvinist says that unregenerate man is free to reject the gospel, as they often do, they mean something very different than does the non-Calvinist Evangelical. Free to reject, according to Calvinism, actually means exactly the same thing as bound to reject. When freedom and bondage mean the same thing, they mean nothing” (page 290).

Fallen men are free to choose all kinds of depravity, insofar as their choices stem from their own nature and desires rather than a natural necessity or because their wills were “forced” (a contradiction in terms). All men without exception possess real desires, intellects, motives, feelings, &c. according to which they choose; there is more than one volitional being in existence. [This is key when Mr. Bryson will later accuse Calvinism of affording sinful men excuse from their sin on the grounds that Calvinism implies monovolitionalism. The argument “If humans were not the cause of their own free actions, then the actions would not be their actions” (page 326) does not address the qualifications of the means by which God causes men to will.] However, as Augustine notes in Enchiridion, fallen man‘s freedom “to act rightly” has been “destroyed” such that fallen man is said to be in bondage to sin rather than free from it.

Essentially, Mr. Bryson confounds freedom with necessity because he is equivocating on the meaning of freedom. It is true that a consistent Calvinist should believe God has “causally determined” man‘s will (page 295), since God has causally determined man‘s desires according to which he wills. It is therefore true that “a consistent Calvinist could and should also be able to say that even the non-Calvinist misunderstanding of the biblical doctrines of salvation and damnation and the non-Calvinists‘ rejection of Calvinism are also determined and decreed by God,” although it is obviously not true, as Mr. Bryson would wish it to be, that “no Calvinist suggests such an interpretation for the potter and the clay” (page 289). But I ask: so what? That merely proves Calvinism is incompatible with a definition of freedom which entails a capacity to choose apart from extrinsic antecedent causation. That‘s not how Calvinist‘s have defined human freedom, and I would think that those Calvinists which Mr. Bryson cited who distinguish between “free will” and “free agency” are simply trying to distance their own, Reformed stances from Mr. Bryson‘s.

Further, if Mr. Bryson denies that man can be free if he, by his nature, acts necessarily, it is strange to think that he affirms that God is not only relatively free, but He is also “absolutely free” (page 287). After all, we know that God cannot lie or deny Himself. It is not in God’s nature to sin. God is, then, as Mr. Bryson might say, “bound” to not-sin. His nature necessarily dictates His actions. If Mr. Bryson’s charges against Calvinism carry any weight, how then can God be “meaningfully” free? Is God “meaningfully” free because He is not limited by others? But this is a quantitative difference in freedom, not a qualitative one – our nature can be affected by God, whereas His is immutable, but in both cases the persons still act according to their respective natures. Or is God “meaningfully” free because His actions are not determined? This would constitute a qualitative difference, and yet I would object that, as John Piper has effectively argued in his exegesis of Romans 9:1-23, “the righteousness of God must be his unswerving commitment always to preserve the honor of his name and display his glory.” For God to act in a manner which would not bring Himself maximal glory, then, would constitute a contravention of the divine nature, and since God cannot deny Himself, God’s actions too are determined [by His own, immutable nature]. Mr. Bryson almost seems to suggest this himself when he correctly writes:

“God’s holiness ensures that all of His acts and interactions will be holy. Hypothetically, if we could get out in front of God’s decrees, knowing what we know about God from Scripture, we could predict with absolute accuracy that all of God’s decrees or sovereign deter­minations would be in accord with His absolute holiness” (page 307).

In any case, if the reader is uncomfortable with the thought that God does not act arbitrarily, let him at least note that Mr. Bryson’s accusation – that a “consistent Calvinist” cannot affirm men are free to choose their eternal destinies – is true only if one anachronistically applies his own, non-Reformed, non-confessional understanding of free will to Calvinists.

Objection #2: Epistemic Repercussions of Determinism

Mr. Bryson makes several miscellaneous arguments throughout his twelfth chapter which are only given mention in passing but, since all of them are or should be directed at the doctrine of divine determinism (not fatalism), are relevant nonetheless. Prefatorily, I think this is an appropriate time to explain a little more about my own beliefs.

I unhesitatingly believe God is the ultimate cause of all things because Scripture affirms God cause all things [according to His good pleasure] (cf. Job 23:13-14; Psalm 115:3, 135:6; Isaiah 46:10-11; Lamentations 3:38; Daniel 4:35; Ephesians 1:11). He is active in effecting that which He desires, and everything that occurs is so according to His desire. While God can use instrumentalities or “second causes” to achieve His purposes as well as direct efficiency, the ultimate or first cause of all things stems from God’s direct, efficient, and determinative purpose. The extent of God’s proactive determination is borne out in specific cases as well as general testimony (cf. Deuteronomy 2:30; 1 Kings 22:19-23; Psalm 105:25; Isaiah 10:5-15, 19:17; John 12:37-40; Acts 2:23, 4:27-28). Moreover, as the reader may discern for himself, these passages indicate God causes wickedness as well as moral peace. Isaiah explicitly corroborates this in Isaiah 45:7, a passage in which Gordon Clark pointed out in his “Predestination” that the Hebrew word for “calamity” denotes or is synonymous with “[moral] wickedness” approximately 50 times in the Old Testament (e.g. Genesis 6:5). This fits the juxtaposition between peace and calamity nicely, as God obviously creates moral well-being as well as natural (Romans 8:28-39).

In his entire book, the only passage of these that Mr. Bryson references in Ephesians 1:11, and even in that case he does not think it important to note that it reads God works out all things according to the counsel of His will and good pleasure. Mr. Bryson does not (in this chapter, at least) biblically support his contention that God merely allows human to “act freely” – by which he means “choose apart from extrinsic antecedent causation” – although he agrees with Norman Geisler that such is biblical. He does mention that “When the Bible uses the word predestination, it is always with regard to the future of a be­liever” (page 320), but surely Mr. Bryson wouldn’t suggest that where a word is not found, its concept also cannot be found (e.g. the Trinity). He also does not explain, as I have (and am about to again), why a holy God would cause or allow sin.

There is still more to be said in favor of the idea God has actively caused all things. It was mentioned that all of God’s actions stem from His desire to manifest His glory (Ephesians 3:8-10, 20-21, Romans 9:23). Romans 9:15 functions as an argument for the righteousness of God because God’s unconditioned distribution of mercy and compassion manifest His glory, honor, and name (cf. Exodus 33:18-19). Without sin, we could never stand in awe of the multiplicity of His excellences, including His power (cf. Romans 9:11-17; Exodus 33:15-20), compassion, love, and wrath (cf. Romans 9:19-23). All things have been created so that, through the salvation of the church, the heavenly powers might understand that wisdom of God which is deserving of praise and glory (Ephesians 3). There is no redemption where there is no sin. In order to maximally manifest His glory, men must sin, providing the occasion by which God can fully reveal Himself to His people. Here, however, we are beginning to turn to the reason God has ultimately caused all things and not the proof.

One final, related evidence bears mentioning: as predestination involves intention, and as the success of one’s intention is limited to one’s extent of knowledge, predestination is possible only to the extent that God knows His intentions can be fulfilled and that the particulars relevant to that which He is predestining will not deviate from His plan. That God eternally knows that the purposes of His decrees – predicated on His good pleasure – will be effected (Isaiah 46:10-11) also implies He must know that the means by which His decrees come to fruition will not thwart His decrees (Isaiah 14:24-27; Romans 9:19); if God did not know all things eternally – proximate means as well respective ends – He would have no basis upon which to validly claim that means which He did not know could not possibly thwart His decrees. Mr. Bryson agrees that God is omniscient, but grounds God’s omniscience in passive allowance of freely chosen sinful events as opposed to God’s efficacious, sovereign will (page 301). What Mr. Bryson does not explain is how God possesses knowledge of what humans will “freely” choose [apart from extrinsic antecedent causation] in the first place.

This is a critical problem for those who believe God “allows” rather than “causes.” For God to know a given proposition is true apart from His own determination means His knowledge would be contingent on contingencies: in this instance, the wills of His creatures. Because we as creatures are temporal, for God’s knowledge to be contingent on our “free will” would deny His eternal omniscience. It is unfortunate that Mr. Bryson – who agrees that God’s sovereignty is nothing if not His “right… to do as He wishes (Psalm 50:1; Isaiah 40:15; 1 Tim. 6:15) with His creation. This implies that there is no exter­nal influence upon Him and that He also has the ability to exercise His power and control according to His will” (page 307) – [partially] predicates God’s knowledge on human freedom rather than [completely on] His sovereignty. Mr. Bryson obviously does not intend to deny God’s eternal omniscience, but his position can yield no other conclusion. God’s determination of all things is the only position consistent with His eternal omniscience, so it must be true.

Finally, I do not find any of this to be paradoxical to the definitions of human freedom expressed by Augustine and the aforementioned Confessions or to the fact that God commands what He does not will. As a holy God, He cannot demand anything less than perfection. As a righteous God, He cannot cause anything less than that which will maximally manifest His glory. There is no conflict or tension in these statements. Against these plain proofs and clear harmonies, however, Mr. Bryson has argued that divine determinism leads to an epistemologically untenable position. Briefly examining each of his short arguments in turn:

“Assuming Calvinism is true, how can man (even an Arminian man) do anything to offend God, or please Him for that matter, that God did not sovereignly predestine that he would and should do?” (page 288)

The question “is everything as it ought to be?” lacks specificity. “Ought” implies responsibility, and while it may be jumping the gun to talk about what responsibility presupposes, all Christians should at least agree that it presupposes one to whom one is responsible. Men are responsible to God. God is responsible to Himself (Hebrews 6:13). If the question, then, is “is sinful man as he ought to be with respect to the laws of His sovereign?” the answer is unequivocally “no.” On the other hand, if the question is “ought God to have effected this reality?” the answer is “yes,” as Mr. Bryson can contend – but not substantiate, since one can only know counter-factuals via divine revelation – that a counter-factual world would more greatly manifest God’s glory. Depending on the emphasis of the [currently equivocally worded] question, the answer will vary.

“If Calvinism’s view of God’s sovereignty is true, then every thought (correct or in error), every feeling (good or bad), and every statement (either for or against Calvinism) have been sovereignly determined and decreed by God. If Calvinism’s view of God’s sovereignty is true, we could never actually know it, test it, or argue its merits—we could only “go through the motions” that look like real thinking and arguing but which are actually merely the sovereignly determined and decreed acts or thoughts of God working themselves in, through, and out of us” (page 289).

“To even engage in a discussion about free will presumes that a person is free to actually have such a discussion.” (page 323)

Interestingly, William Lane Craig made a similar argument in his recent diatribe against Calvinism. Both his and Mr. Bryson’s arguments are dubious, however. There is simply no apparent reason that a man who has been caused to believe a given proposition cannot evaluate whether or not his belief is sound. The origin of the desires according to which one chooses is, at worst, irrelevant to the question of whether or not one has actually followed the logical principles according to which one may know that his belief is justified and shows, at best, that God is as unconditionally sovereign in His dispensation of justified knowledge as He is in all other matters. Of course, this also has implications as to whether or not evil can be “morally…traced to God” (page 300), but I will deal with that next section.

Objection #3: Responsibility

On page 303, Mr. Bryson uses “blame[worthy]” and “guilty” as interchangeable words for “responsible” in the context of having caused immorality. The final objection Mr. Bryson consistently purports throughout this chapter is that if divine determinism is true, humans are exonerated from any immoral behavior, and God is automatically responsible for it:

“Man becomes excused from moral culpability by any view that sees man only doing what God makes him do...” (page 292).

“If God only knows what will happen in the future because He causes the future to occur by His irresistible decree, it would make God the primary and morally responsible cause of everything bad, wrong, and wicked…” (page 302).

Why must it be that “…in the primary and morally responsible sense, a consistent Calvinism teaches that God causes everything, including sin and the refusal of some men to embrace Calvinism” (page 288)? Mr. Bryson is clear: because divine determinism is incompatible with his (!) definition of human freedom. If God ultimately causes all things rather than ultimately allows them, that which responsibility presupposes is shifted from man to God; equivalently, Mr. Bryson believes one must be the ultimate cause of his own actions in order to be responsible for them:

“It is the very freedom that our sover­eign God gives us and for which He will hold us accountable that allows us to appreciate and appropriately respond to God’s sovereignty” (page 327).

“Moral acts are not uncaused or caused by someone else. Rather, they are caused by oneself” (page 324).

“Unless we recognize that man, even fallen and spiritually dead man, possesses and retains something that allows him to make decisions which are really his decisions and not God’s (or caus­ally determined by God in the Calvinist sense), then God by definition is morally responsible for all of the ungodly conduct of ungodly men” (page 322).
Mr. Bryson’s statements are neither persuasive nor sound. We must be “free” by definition? By whose definition and for what reason? Why does Mr. Bryson believe responsibility presuppose the ability to choose apart from extrinsic causation? It is remarkable throughout this whole chapter, Mr. Bryson really only has one argument that this must be the case. On page 316, Mr. Bryson has to employ another analogy. The situation: a writer directs a screenplay in which the actor commits a crime. The audience and writer, says Mr. Bryson, would, if the crime was real, attribute the crime to the ultimate cause of the screenplay (the writer) rather than the [immediate] actor in it. This is apparently supposed to be analogous to what the case would be if God (the writer) directed (ultimately caused) men (the immediate cause) to commit a crime (sin). Think about this for a moment. Mr. Bryson’s whole argument for the idea men are responsible only if they are “free” (by his definition) rests on the idea that Mr. Bryson thinks his illustration is analogous to Calvinistic reality (it is not, since the writer is not the sovereign over his audience and actors), that the writer and audience would hold the writer responsible if the crime were real (it would be humorous if Mr. Bryson had polling data to substantiate this), and that the opinions of the writer and the audience matter (no reason is given for this). Remarkable.

He does not stop at one bad analogy, however. As one might expect, he makes a token reference to the “robot/puppet” argument, the emotional-pleading that men are “mere puppets controlled by divine strings” (page 317) if God causes them to will whatsoever He pleases. In rejoinder, Scripture teaches that men, in relation to God, are mere pots, axes, and other instruments God uses as He pleases. What besides emotion could be the underlying objection laced in this analogy? Furthermore, it too breaks down in comparison to Calvinism. God is much more sovereign over mankind than a puppeteer is over his puppet. God controls everything we do, whereas a puppeteer is confined by strings and joints. God made us as we are (Romans 9:18-23). Finally, puppets do not have minds, wills, emotions, intellects, feelings, &c. Again, Calvinists are quick to point out that men are not “forced” to will; that is a contradiction in terms. Rather, insofar as man always chooses in accordance with his most strongest desire, and insofar as God determines our desires (directly or indirectly), our will is determined and yet voluntary. It is certainly we who choose, feel, think, and act – and yet it is all in accordance with God’s determinative purpose. Hence, when Mr. Bryson writes:

“…there is something about those who are responsible that makes them responsible. That something God sovereignly included or predestined for man, we call volition” (page 320-321).

I agree. For one to be held responsible for choices, they must be his choices. I only believe God is the author of good and sin in the same sense He is said to be the author of life, Scripture, and faith. God ultimately caused and sustains each, but He is not the immediate cause of each. Men live, men wrote Scripture, and men have faith. I furthermore agree with Mr. Bryson that:

“The bad things… that a man does cannot be traced back to God, and do not have a relationship to God the way we can trace good things to God” (page 304).

“It cannot be overemphasized that some things can legitimately be traced to immoral beings in a way they cannot be traced to God. God is not thereby less than in control of all things. Control of all things is not the issue. Cause is the issue” (page 322).

Cause is the issue, but not in the sense Mr. Bryson imagines. God causes all things, but the means by which He causes all things varies according to what is being caused. God may directly effect our desires in, say, regeneration, but God never tempts (James 1:13). As was noted earlier, God can use secondary causes (like evil spirits) to achieve His purposes. In order to substantiate the claim that causing evil spirits or the like to tempt, it must be demonstrated that such contradicts God’s own nature. In anticipation of such an attempt, I would note that trying to analogize God’s own actions to man’s actions (as Mr. Bryson did in his “writer” illustration) is fallacious. For example: God can’t murder, because no man is innocent in His sight; God can’t steal, because He owns all. There is no higher law than God, and as I have already shown that causing sin functions as a means by which God’s glory is more greatly manifested, it remains to those opposed to provide positive evidence to corroborate their accusations that God is morally responsible (guilty, blameworthy) if He causes sin.

As one last observation, I earlier alluded to the idea that responsibility implies one to whom one is responsible. Hence, not only does responsibility not presuppose Mr. Bryson’s conception freedom, but responsibility also must actually presuppose God’s sovereignty. I hope Mr. Bryson sees this point. While there is no self-evident reason that one who has broken a law (sinned: 1 John 3:4) is excused from law-breaking because he was unable to do otherwise, one must obviously be sovereign to subordinate another to a law which, if broken, holds him responsible to the law-maker (God). This is clearly seen in Romans 9. The fact that we are subject to God’s law should not be surprising, for the fact that He made us for His own ends and glory functions as the very means by which Paul substantiates his claim that God is sovereign and man is responsible.


mick said...


Impressive work. Thanks for taking time to help open blind eyes and make seeing eyes see more clearly.


Ryan said...

Sure thing. Thanks for the encouragement.