Sunday, September 25, 2011

Impossible Worlds, Absolute Necessity

Almost a year ago, I wrote a post which, for me, was unique in that I prefaced the thoughts stated therein with a bit of hesitation. Recent reading and a guest post on Molinism have caused me to reconsider those thoughts.

In that post, I was trying to provide a Reformed reply to the following question put forward by Carl Henry: "Does the very notion of "events which could have been otherwise" violate divine omnipotence and omniscience?" Notwithstanding my attempt to answer in the negative, even a few weeks after writing the post, I frustratingly wrote to a friend:

I cannot say that I am quite satisfied with it. For instance: why did God choose to effect this possible world? Presumably because it pleased Him. Why did it please Him? Presumably the answer has something to do with His nature. But it seems to me such an answer implies that God must have effected this possible world, since God's nature is not itself effected but rather that by which all other things are effected. God's nature is determinative. That in turn implies this is the only possible world, in which case the problem reasserts itself: how does God know counter-factuals if this is the only possible world? Vexing...

It wasn't until recently I discovered that there is precedent in the history of Reformed theology for rejecting the concept of counter-factual knowledge (cf. Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics pgs. 428-432). I may write a separate post on this. Here, however, I will only be concerned with explaining why I have come to think - in contrast to an assumption of the aforementioned blog post - that this is the only possible world. In so doing, I will be providing an alternative Reformed defense of the biblical doctrine of divine omniscience.

At the same time, I do not wish to imply that I think everything I wrote in my post from a year ago is wrong. I still believe God's righteousness and the manifestation of His glory are correlated in that God's righteousness is demonstrated in what John Piper would call His unswerving commitment always to preserve the honor of his name and display his glory. I still believe God's decree must be non-arbitrary. I still believe that:

God's decree to effect this possible world implies that this possible world is entailed in God's decree to maximally manifest His glory; that is, given God's purpose to maximally manifest His glory, God necessarily must have decreed to effect this possible world.

What I have reconsidered is whether or not there could be "possible worlds" - worlds God could have instantiated - other than this actual world. There are several reasons for this:

1. As my remarks to a friend indicated, I believe there is reason for everything God has decreed. That would include the teleological end of all things, God's glory. Ironically, I wrote a post 3 years ago (republished here) in which I made a statement very much in line with what I think now:

For God to act in a manner which would not bring Himself maximal glory… 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].

Why did God decree to maximally manifest His glory? I don't see any other possible conclusion than something similar to this or what I said to my friend. In fact, to say there are multiple possible worlds is simply to say God's instantiation of this possible world was not necessary. On this supposition, can there be a reason God instantiated this possible world? Would not such a reason imply the necessity of the instantiation? If not, then is not the alleged reason an arbitrary one?

2. Let us suppose God had actualized a different possible world; after all, if God's actualization of this world wasn't absolutely necessary, He could have chosen to actualize a different possible world. But this means God's knowledge is not eternal, since His knowledge [of what is the actual world] would not be necessary.

God knows that this is the actual world. But if God has a libertarian free will, it cannot be denied He could have chosen to instantiate (and therefore could have known as actual) a completely different possible world. Making God's knowledge contingent on a "free" choice - even His own - requires a succession of ideas in His mind (knowledge of possible worlds -> choice -> knowledge of the actual world), and that destroys His eternal omniscience. Not only is God's instantiation of this world non-arbitrary, but God also didn't compare multiple possible worlds in order to come to a decision as to which to put into effect.

This is a most important objection because it cuts across all [Christian] systems which believe in an eternally omniscient God.

3. Suggesting God's knowledge could be other than it actually is also contradicts His immutability.

Conclusion: God knows who He is because of who He is. He knows this world is possible both because He has the power to effect it and because effecting it would not contradict who He is. He necessarily effected this possible world because no other world fits this criteria. This is not to say God's will is under any external compulsion; rather, His works are intrinsically determined by His nature.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Guest Blogging on Molinism

I have written a post on Molinism as a guest blogger here. Some time in the next few days I will write a follow-up post on the - or at least a (!) - Reformed position regarding God's "types" of knowledge.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Justified by Faith Alone, but not a Faith that is Alone

I was listening to a debate on justification between a Reformed Protestant and Roman Catholic, and in the course of the debate the question was asked what an often repeated Reformed phrase - "men are saved (justified) by faith alone, but not a faith that is alone" - actually means. The Roman Catholic was having some problems understanding how this statement is compatible with the doctrine of sola fide (justification by faith alone).

Protestants believe [saving] faith is that alone which accesses us to Christ by whom we are justified (declared righteous). This is why it is called the instrumental cause of justification. When a Protestant says faith alone justifies, then, does he mean men don't need grace? No, because grace is rather the efficient cause of justification insofar as it alone produces, for instance, the faith within an individual by which he is instrumentally justified. Similarly, when a Protestant says Christ alone justifies, does he mean men don't need grace or faith? Again, no, because Christ is rather the sole ground of justification, i.e. He by whom the righteousness is merited according to which God declares the believer righteous. These "solas" all refer to different functions of one event: justification.

Now, when the Protestant says faith alone justifies, but not a faith that is alone, one must distinguish between the function of the faith and the nature of the faith. The function of the faith has already been explained: it accesses men to Christ. It consummates union to Him such that the believer may be said to be in Him and He in the believer. Faith alone is how one has recourse to the ground of justification.

But what is this faith? What is the nature of this saving faith which is alone that by which we are [instrumentally] justified? Is it a mere profession? Is it simply understanding the gospel? No. It is understanding and assent to or, equivalently, belief in the gospel. Why is this important?

As was pointed out, the reason anyone understands and assents to the gospel is by grace alone, the efficient cause of faith and, in turn, justification. By God's grace one receives a new nature in regeneration which causes justificatory belief in Christ (Romans 8:7-9, 1 John 5:1). But moreover, this new nature will, subsequent to belief and justification, incline one to practice righteousness (1 John 2:29-3:9). Both saving faith and good works follow from grace (Ephesians 2:8-10). One can't produce good works without a new nature, and one can't come to Christ without a new nature. Or, at least, so says the Reformed Protestant. Expressing the Reformed motto logically is simple. For example:

1. If you have saving faith, then you will do good works.
2. You do not do good works.
3. Therefore, you do not have saving faith.


1. If one has saving faith, he will have received it immediately upon being given a new nature.
2. If one has been given a new nature, he will yield good fruit.
3. If one has saving faith, he will yield good fruit.

The main point is good works don't justify in any sense. They merely serve as indicators or evidences to men. What do they indicate to men? Whether or not one who professes to have saving faith actually has saving faith or if they are just lying. Whether or not one possesses that faith alone by which men are instrumentally justified correlates with whether or not he does the good works which follow from a faith which justifies.

It may be asked what if one does not show forth good fruit because he is backsliding. Of course, since works don't save, a temporary absence of them does not automatically mean one isn't saved. What it does mean is that another who has not seen a person's good works has no reason to think the person has saving faith. Nevertheless, a new nature "naturally" (!) yields good works, so such backsliding should not be or remain the case if one truly believes in Christ.

There is always room for nuance. If a person dies immediately after believing so that no one can have seen him do a good work, he will be saved. If I have just introduced myself to you and you identify yourself as a Christian, it may take some time for me to evaluate your profession of faith. Etc. The above syllogisms, therefore, may be restated for the practical benefit of men:

1. If you have saving faith, then you will do good works.
2. I have not seen you do good works.
3. Therefore, I have no reason to suppose you have saving faith [other than, perhaps, your own profession].

Monday, September 5, 2011

Paradox, Contradiction, and Justified Beliefs

A paradox is a seeming contradiction, i.e. when one believes two statements which may superficially appear to conflict but, in the last analysis, can be shown to be compatible. A contradiction occurs when one believes two mutually exclusive statements are both true.

One might think it obvious that there must be a process one must follow in order to differentiate between paradoxes and contradictions, but in practice, laymen - and, unfortunately, "experts" too - will sometimes attempt to excuse themselves from explaining how their beliefs which at least are paradoxical are not actually contradictory. One common theological example is the tension between the doctrines of divine sovereignty and human freedom. Both are common beliefs which at least seem to conflict. Yet sometimes a pastor will, after alluding to this tension, simply encourage his flock to have faith that these are both true and trust that God has it all figured out.

The most obvious problem with this lax approach is that it gives heretics room enough to justify belief in anything. Paul might as well have said, "if Christianity is unreasonable, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain." A faith which cannot be defended is a faith not worth defending. This isn't to suggest that a Christian ought to know everything. What it does suggest is that to justifiably believe any two doctrines which appear to conflict, the Christian must at least be able to present a speculative resolution compatible with Scripture.