3 Ways to Avoid Accountability in the Christian Life

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“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” Gal. 6:1

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Matt. 18:15-16

“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Prov. 27:17

While Scripture uses multiple words and varied language to describe accountability in the Christian life, the concept of holding one another accountable is itself a fairly straightforward one: are we willing to inspect what we expect from our brothers and sisters in Christ? Will we speak up in love when things appear to be out of sorts or when someone seems to be straying from holiness? Will we ask people difficult, personal questions that they would prefer not to answer so that their sin can remain in the shadows? Will we joyfully submit ourselves to such examination? If we can answer questions like these with a hearty ‘yes’, then we are people who embrace accountability.

You may not believe it, but I’ve heard that there are some people who do not like accountability—I’ve even met a few. I even had a conversation this year with a church member who said, “I didn’t ask for accountability. That is not what I signed up for.” Why though? Why would someone not want such a crucial tool for Christian growth, prescribed by the Bible, to be a prominent factor in their life? While there are many reasons that could account for this (chiefly, pride and desire for autonomy), I’d like to focus on something that is far less discussed in the church scene: the methods that people use to “accountability-proof” themselves: that is, the practical steps some people (you, perhaps?) take to avoid accountability, do “their own thing,” have everyone else just “mind their business,” or otherwise just be immune to correction.

Very briefly, then, let’s look at the top three methods, in no particular order, that people use to avoid accountability in the Christian life—my hope is that this does not describe you, but if it does, I would urge you to honestly examine your heart before the Lord and others.

  1. “No One Understands”

We’ve all talked to this person, but many of us haven’t realized exactly what this person is doing when they provide this response to accountability/feedback/counsel. Imagine someone battling relentless depression who is advised to integrate more comedy movies into their monthly schedule in an effort to push back against the melancholy tone that dominates their life. Despite their genuine desire to be helpful, someone providing this kind of counsel simply doesn’t really understand the situation or how things work within it. They just don’t know what it’s like. Obviously, only a fool would act on the counsel of someone who either didn’t understand or didn’t know what they were talking about, regardless of how genuine they were.  This seems straightforward.

But what happens when someone believes that no one understands, no one has the required experience to analyze their situation well and no one, therefore, is positioned correctly to bring insight or even express concern over them? What happens is that accountability dissolves and that person becomes more and more frustrated with people who “don’t understand,” but who “keep trying to fix” them. Like the naïve counselor, while they are glad people are trying to help, they “know” that no one truly understands the situation (if they did, they obviously would not be saying what they are saying!), and therefore, can’t really offer much in the way of counsel, exhortation or rebuke. Because of this perceived reality, this person, a lone ranger with “exclusive,” “privileged perspective,” will keep on “doing their best” and not change anything because they can’t find anyone who understands enough to help.

Convince yourself that no one truly understands you or your situation (for whatever reason), and you’re well on your way to practically accountability-proofing yourself, though perhaps you might make a hypothetical exception if God spelled out a rebuke in the clouds.

  1. “There Will Be Hell to Pay”

On the off chance you haven’t met a person who “no one” can understand, you have without question encountered this second technique for avoiding everything but hypothetical accountability: the erupting volcano technique. Trying to point out this person’s sin or offer helpful counsel contrary to their desires, even in the most loving and graceful manner, is almost guaranteed to result in a stunning explosion of emotion, attitude or shutdown bitterness. You can be sure that if you have to spend the rest of the day with them, it won’t be a fun one. Sadly, for many people, this is more about who they are than a technique that they explicitly employ—they simply cannot receive any kind of criticism without intense anger, despair or both.

Ironically, these people are the quickest to point out any lack of “gentleness” in the efforts of those who express concern or point out areas of sin in their life. “Maybe if people actually knew how to ‘do’ accountability in a way that wasn’t harsh and judgmental, I would respond better,” is the apologetic refrain for the erupting volcano folks. The problem with the erupting volcano technique (aside from being straightforwardly unloving and sinful) is that practically speaking, no one wants to hold this kind of person accountable—it just isn’t socially worth it for most.

Knowing that questioning this kind of person about their lifestyle runs the chance of ruining the entire day or perhaps even jeopardizing your friendship is an extremely strong disincentive for holding someone accountable. Because of this, erupting volcanoes functionally insulate themselves from accountability altogether, with people only speaking up in the most blatant cases of sin. Want people to mind their own business and stay out of yours? Just make a habit of responding angrily and bitterly to those who try to hold you accountable—they’ll slowly give up on you, even if they probably shouldn’t, and your goal of eliminating probing questions and difficult conversations will be complete.

  1. “Where is the Wise One?”

This final kind of person/technique to avoid accountability is a cousin of the “no one understands” principle. The difference is that in this case, while there are plenty of people who truly understand, there is no one, each for different reasons, who is really competent to give counsel, ask the right questions or introduce correction. “This person is too young and idealistic. That person’s life is too dissimilar to mine. This person is too old. That person is a hypocrite. This person said something judgmental once. That person hasn’t been helpful in the past. This person would think X. I know the Bible better than that person—why would I listen to them? They don’t have enough life experience.” And on it goes. If anything, this kind of person sees themselves as the one who would usually be coaching and helping others in situations like this, not receiving anything from them besides maybe a prayer or two.

This parrying technique is most often employed by people who have a very high degree of confidence in their own abilities (perhaps they are intellectually brilliant), particularly their abilities to discern moral right and wrong and diagnose relational and social problems—they “know” what’s wrong and what needs to be done to fix it, and perhaps even why it happened (all from a distance, sometimes!). Like the “no one understands” technique, there is the element of truth within the distortion that makes it so devilish: obviously, only a fool seeks accountability from people who they believe to be unable to provide profitable insight and correction. The problem, though, is when the pool of people who are “competent” to correct is whittled down to almost nothing, allowing one to preemptively dismiss efforts at accountability as the good-hearted but misdirected attempts of people who don’t have as firm of grasp on things as they do. “You are behind me in this area of thinking, so I appreciate the effort but I need someone who is at least my peer in thinking about this issue,” is what this kind of person frequently thinks, but would never admit. Be wise in your own sight and you’ll give yourself an ever-present justification to “help” others see truth, but never seriously consider receiving it from them.

Consider X, where X is something you consider yourself competent in, something you understand well, something you’re good at, faithful in etc. Now ask yourself, “What, realistically, would it take to convince me that I am mistaken and/or in the wrong, despite my confidence that I am not?

 If your answer isn’t something that could likely occur in the run of everyday life, you have functionally accountability-proofed yourself and have not positioned yourself to really receive instruction from anyone if it doesn’t agree with what you already think or feel.

 “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” Rom. 12:3 

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Who Cares? It Doesn’t Hurt Anyone: Challenging a Popular Ethical Slogan

OldBible“It doesn’t hurt anyone, it doesn’t affect you, it’s none of your business, it’s their life and you have no right to criticize their actions.”

Anyone who has but dabbled in any contemporary ethical discussions will be familiar with this perspective and sentiment. Christians, in particular, run up against this kind of reply often when objecting to homosexuality and gay marriage (why both are problematic on the Christian worldview is for another post). Underlying this reply, however, is a critical presupposition that does all the heavy lifting: something is wrong only if it harms others (or the environment, perhaps). If something does not harm anyone or thing, it is permissible—it is not wrong and should not be criticized.

My goal for this (hopefully) very short post is to present two obvious counter-examples to this consequentialist presupposition. If we have clear examples of wrong actions that don’t harm anyone or anything in the normal sense of the word, then we have strong reasons to reject an ethic built on consequentialism (i.e., an action is right, wrong or permissible in virtue of its effects or consequences). My hope is that these examples will supply religiously neutral ammunition for pushing back against this line of reasoning in daily conversations. So, without further commentary or introduction, here they are.

Successful Voyeurism

Voyeurism is the act of secretly (in most cases) observing/spying on people while they are naked or engaged in sexual activities. We might call “successful voyeurism” voyeurism that is completely undetected, and in which the observed subject(s) never know what has happened. In successful voyeurism, no one is physically, psychologically or emotionally harmed in any “normal” sense of the term (i.e., harmful in a sense that almost everyone can agree on). Yet, it would be very difficult for you to find anyone who maintains that there is nothing wrong with the gross invasion of privacy that is voyeurism. A man who somehow manages to routinely spy on his neighbor’s wife during her morning shower is clearly doing something wrong and we all know it—in fact, the awareness that this is wrong is one of the very reasons people go to such great lengths to remain undetected.

Elaborate Lying

Sometimes lies hurt people and cause devastation. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes lies that would cause devastation and hurt require a few layers of lies in order to avoid doing so. A textbook case of such lying would be an affair. Imagine the (typical) affair in which lies are piled on top of lies to maintain a secret, sexual relationship with someone other than one’s spouse. Clever lies pile upon clever lies until the secret relationship is called off and both parties go about their lives—owing to the discretion and elaborate duplicity, no one is harmed moving forward in the normal sense of the term. Perhaps the marriage of the unfaithful spouse even improves for one reason or another as their infidelity remains quietly in the past, and they press forward. In such a case, though no one is harmed in the normal sense of the word, again, you would have a hard time finding anyone who maintains that there is nothing wrong with this kind of systematic, intimate deception of someone who has been promised lifetime fidelity in a loving relationship, regardless of its stealthiness.

If “successful voyeurism” and elaborate lying do not harm anyone or anything in the normal sense of the term yet are still clearly wrong, then obviously there is something deeply flawed with ethical reasoning presupposing that only harmful actions are wrong. So while our foundation for ethical discourse will certainly account for consequences, it must go beyond them to something more fundamental—another topic for another post.

Tyler

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5 Principles for Christians Engaging the Contemporary Social Climate

In the contemporary social and cultural climate, there’s a lot going on, and the voice of evangelical Christians is having a significant impact. In what follows, I offer five general principles (key word, general) as a framework within which Christians can love well, think sharply and reason effectively in such a social climate. My aim is to foster effective, loving and fruitful conversation that promotes the Christian witness in our culture and holds out Christian hope in our world.

 

Understanding the Solidarity Mindset of Minorities

 

One thing Christians must realize about minority thinking is that every member of a minority (which is almost everyone in some respect) has a unique sense of belonging and connectedness with the other members of that community. As such, when one member of a minority excels, particularly when they do so publicly, there is a shared sentiment of “one of us made it” that is not shared by those outside the minority. Likewise, when one member of a minority dies or is killed, for example, the other members frequently feel as though they have lost one of their own and perhaps even that a piece of themselves has been lost. This phenomenon of solidarity is not peculiar to ethnic minorities but is present in every minority group across the board, including the LGBTQ community, the reformed evangelical Christian community, the acting community, the police community and even the family unit.

 

Understanding this dynamic is crucial when engaging minority members who are evaluating related actions and occurrences “from within.” They are bound to be emotionally impacted much differently than those on the outside of things, and that’s perfectly okay—you would be too. What’s not okay is to act like their experience of excitement, joy, sadness or heartache should approximate your own as a “level-headed” evaluator of things standing outside of the community.  Not only is such an expectation ignorant, but it comes across as arrogant and cold—a far cry from the Christian mandate to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Coming to terms with this principle can help Christians take a meaningful step forward in conversations with minority members, even if they vehemently disagree with their beliefs.

 

Understanding Group Decision-Making

 

One mistake people frequently make when engaging in discussions with minority groups about related issues is the assumption that group decision-making is just a scaled-up version of individual decision-making: everyone considers their own reasons for and against a proposition and then, having formed a stance, looks around to see if everyone else agrees. Unfortunately, this is just not how it (usually) works. Like it or not, there is an unavoidable herd mentality that permeates minority (and group) thinking, partly due to the sense of solidarity discussed above. Propositions favorable to a group will be widely adopted by members of that group while unfavorable propositions will be widely opposed, but there is more to it than just the obvious and expected leanings on both ends of the spectrum.

 

Unlike individual decision-making and thinking, groups (usually) make decisions by first looking around to see what everyone else in the group thinks, paying particular attention to prominent members. Then, with a desire to avoid being a minority within a minority and a “stand together” mentality, individuals consider their own reasons and form their own views. With this dynamic in the background of the thought process, it is unsurprising that the vast majority of minority members share identical or very similar views about issues that affect their own community (and even some that don’t). In my judgement, this “group bias” is a natural tendency that cannot be totally eradicated—only 1) honestly admitted and 2) kept in check (reduced?) by a multitude of voices. Again, realizing this phenomenon is extremely helpful in discussions with minority members (not just ethnic minorities), who do not see you as a source of sound thinking about their community and issues affecting it (regardless of whether you actually are or not). This leads to our next point.

 

Understanding Platformed Reasoning vs. Truth-Slinging

 

Early on in my college days, I became fascinated with theology. As a freshman/sophomore, I burned through Grudem’s systematic text cover to cover and got my hands on Tozer, Sproul, Packer, Luther, Calvin—basically anything that was reputable and reformed.  Then something very frustrating happened. Equipped with truth and filled with excitement, I attempted to teach those in my church’s college group the things I was learning, much of which went against the grain of popular thought in that particular Southern Baptist church body.

 

It didn’t go well.

 

No one really listened to a thing I said, and those who did were put off by the idea that a college freshman would disagree (in any way) with the college pastor. To add insult to my injured pride, there were a few instances where the pastor said the exact same thing I had said, yet when he said it, it was accepted almost immediately by the same group of people. What was wrong with these people? Why would they not just listen to truth?

 

I learned a valuable lesson during that season of life: speaking truth articulately does not equate to persuading people effectively. I was missing a critical piece of the puzzle: I had no legitimate platform. By platform, I am (generally) referring to a recognized right, respect or position to speak and be heard. Although platforms often come with a title of some kind (e.g., college pastor), they certainly don’t have to. Sometimes platforms are gained by earning a tremendous amount of respect over time; sometimes they are gained by being well-liked; sometimes they are gained by being endorsed in some way by someone who already has a platform—platforming takes many non-formal forms. But without some kind of platform, it is unlikely that you will reason persuasively with any group.

 

The general application of this principle should be obvious: do you have a platform with the group with whom you are trying to communicate? If not, I would ask you to consider your goal in communication—particularly public communication (e.g., Facebook, Twitter etc.). Are you seeking to merely express your views to the world? Are you attempting to provide helpful material for those who agree with you already? Are you seeking to encourage? Teach? Lament? None of these things are necessarily bad (depending on the issue), but I can’t shake the impression that many people have a different goal in mind and fall into a category of people I call truth-slingers:  those who lob grenades of truth towards a group of which they are not a member in hopes to “send a message” and “bring them to their senses.” Unsurprisingly, truth-slingers don’t have a very high persuasion rate. Instead, their target audience is just further put-off by their message.

 

Enter the platformed reasoner. A platformed reasoner may say the exact same thing as the truth-slinger, but something amazing happens—people actually listen. Perhaps they don’t agree, but they listen and carefully consider what is being said. The takeaway is this: if the goal of your communication is persuasion and teaching, particularly to a (minority) group, rely on the platformed reasoners to do most of the “talking.” Let people hear from their own. Pray for and help equip the platformed reasoners. It’s just a wiser way to campaign for the truth in love.

 

Understanding the Relationship between Emotions & Facts

 

Sometimes people feel certain emotions when they shouldn’t. Often this is because they believe falsehoods that would naturally lead to those emotions if true. At some point, then, counseling people who are hurting (or perhaps who are ecstatically happy when they shouldn’t be) because of distorted thinking involves helping them see the truth. All too often, however, pointing out truth, or even purported truth, is done in a much different way and with a much different purpose. That way goes something like this: “I realize you’re hurting and upset, but we really need to wait until all the facts come out before we get all upset about (fill in the blank).” Or, “I realize you’re hurting and upset, but legally or statistically what happened was (fill in the blank).”

 

Most of the time, responding to hurting people, regardless of the reason for their pain, with facts and arguments is like fighting fire with gasoline: things only get worse. The sad thing is that many people who engage in such mismatched responses are genuinely trying to help, they just don’t know what else to say, when saying nothing would have been much better. I’ve cringed at the sight of sharp thinkers responding to the problem of evil with philosophical argumentation after being told through tears by a doubter that they were raped as a small child and that if God existed he wouldn’t have let that happen. I’ve cringed when thoughtful Christians hear about tragedy in a minority community and their first response is, “We really need to wait until all the details emerge before we decide if this is a tragedy,” as they take another bite of their hamburger.

 

Hurting people need solace, not syllogisms—at least on the front end. And solace, in times of tragedy, rarely comes in the form of explanations, statistics or arguments. Instead, it comes in the form of mourning with those who mourn. It comes with expressions of hope. It comes with a desire to listen and be present. It comes with prayer for peace and unity. Speaking wisely means speaking the appropriate truth at the appropriate time.  The latter can never be sacrificed on the altar of the former.

 

Understanding the Distinction between Words, Communication and Effect

 

In the study of semantics and philosophy of language, it is widely acknowledged that verbal expressions can be analyzed on a number of different levels.  I’ll save you the technical jargon of speech-act theory (see J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, for example) and distill the most important elements relevant to our discussion in ordinary language.  For our purposes, an “utterance” is a word or set of words written or spoken by an agent (Austin’s “locution”), the “message” is what is communicated by those words, and “effect” is what those words “do” or accomplish (Austin’s “illocution”). For example, if I see my son reaching for a hot iron and say, “No!” I say “No!” (locution), I communicate “Don’t touch that” and I accomplish (hopefully) changing my son’s reaching behavior and preserving his safety (illocution). Similarly, when I said, “I do” during my wedding, I said “I do,” I communicated “I am committing to the aforementioned promises” and I brought about a covenant union that did not previously exist (no theological nitpicking allowed).

 

So what does this have to do with engaging in social issues? Quite frankly, everything. Take for example the #alllivesmatter reply to the #blacklivesmatter trend on social media. Let’s break it down. What is being said is “all lives matter,” what is being communicated is something like, “stop emphasizing and drawing particular attention to black lives above other lives,” and what is accomplished is engendered bitterness and further division between BLM supporters and everyone else. Notice that that the vast majority of #alllivesmatter promoters are primarily focused on the truth of the locution (“all lives matter,” which is of course, true—and almost all black people would agree), without paying attention to what the slogan communicates or accomplishes.

 

As Austin suggests, words “do” things. This should come as no surprise to the Christian familiar with Scripture, where words are said to do things like “pierce to the division of soul and spirit (Heb. 4:12),” act like “sword thrusts (Prov. 12:18),” “build up (Eph. 4:29),” encourage and instruct (1 Jn. 2:1). So, the next time you post, tweet, blog or speak, consider the following: 1) is what I’m saying true? 2) if so, is what I’m communicating loving and wise? 3) what will these words accomplish? Carefully thinking through these distinctions will undoubtedly serve the Christian well in public witness as we seek to use words to build up in love and instruct in wisdom.

 

Tyler Krug

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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6 Things Sales Has Taught Me About Ministry

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As a senior account manager at Dell, the world of sales is the ocean in which I swim on a daily basis. Of course, I didn’t plan it this way. After graduating from college and seminary, I was unable to secure a full-time job in ministry and therefore, secured a job in serving, then insurance sales and then finally, sales at Dell. Of course, selling software and hardware to small businesses was not (and is not) my passion, but I joyfully trust the Lord’s goodness, timing and wisdom and continually pray that he would not only make me a light in the workplace, but also use my experiences at Dell to help me minister better to others.

Not only has the Lord prospered me beyond belief at Dell, but he has been gracious enough to teach me invaluable lessons about ministry that I never planned on learning while selling computers and chasing a quota. With the qualification that rarely are comparisons perfect and a plea for the most charitable interpretation of drawn similarities between ministry and sales, here are six things that God has taught me about effective ministry to others during my time at Dell.

People Buy Into You First, Then What You Offer

In sales, one’s success is very closely tied to being a likable person. Sure, a customer can grit their teeth and endure a horrible experience because they really need a new server in their office, but more often than not, people will go elsewhere to have their needs met—another employee, another company, etc. Someone who demonstrates a care for people, loves them well, is concerned for their business and is committed to understanding and helping a customer in their current situation will almost always be more successful in sales. That’s because customers who feel valued, understood and cared for are open to what you have to say and straightforwardly encourage your suggestions for purchase. Additionally, they will keep coming back to you for their computing needs because of how well you have treated them. Ministry is very similar. The old adage that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” rings true in most cases. Credibility in your walk with God generally precedes people’s interest in your thoughts about God. I’ve known people who are walking theological dictionaries who could never gain a genuinely interested audience because they did not appear to genuinely care about people—just the facts. I’ve found that similar to sales, the more you are willing to walk with people in holiness, bear their burdens, love them well, help them and understand their concerns, the more open they are to considering the truths you have to offer, and the more comfortable they become with seeking you out for counsel and wisdom.

Control What You Can Control

When I started at Dell, I was on a phone queue—you know, the “Thanks for calling Dell, how may I help you today?” kind of queue. Of course, I never had any control over what kind of customer was going to end up on my line. This degree of randomness provided a very unique kind of tension for someone expected to hit an extremely demanding sales quota on a daily basis. What if I just got bad calls? What if they were all transfers to customer care? Very quickly, I realized I could only control one thing: my own actions and behaviors, with a desperate dependence on God. Every representative was at the mercy of the queue’s randomness, but the most successful reps were the ones who controlled everything within their power to respond well to the randomness, maximizing every opportunity and consistently practicing proven sales techniques. In ministry, there are relatively few things I can directly control. I certainly am unable to control the transformation of anyone’s heart or what they do when they are alone in front of a computer, or when someone decides to leave their family, for example. I cannot simply grab someone by the ears and shake them out of sinful habits and into godliness—it doesn’t work that way (as much as I would like it to, in some cases). What I can control, however, is my own grace-fueled, faith-driven, Gospel-compelled effort and behaviors in the Christian life. I can persevere in the Word and prayer for people, I can show acts of love and kindness, I can speak tenderly to my wife, and I can ask that God’s Spirit would work powerfully within my weakness to make an impact for the Kingdom that is grossly disproportional to the person I am. And then, I trust God to work. At Dell, controlling what you can control and being able to explain away any performance gaps outside yourself is called “managing your story.” In the Christian life, controlling what you can control means living properly in light of the Story—one that starts and ends with the tree of life (Gen 2; Rev 22) and has a God-man hanging on a tree of death in between. It means that no matter my circumstances, I can strive to love God and people well as I pray for wisdom and love to help them address today’s difficulties with today’s promises and trust God to somehow work out all things for his glory and for the good of those who are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28). .

Believe In The Value of What You Are Offering Amidst Competitors

Selling a product that you have not completely bought into yourself is an incredible challenge, mostly because your passion and enthusiasm in sales conversations are notably muffled. The most effective sales people are huge believers in what they are selling—they are completely convinced that what they are selling is extremely valuable and effective (I think of people on Facebook marketing essential oils and skin care products that have greatly impacted their lives). At Dell, I rarely have this problem, as Dell is premier in business computing, but in cases where I am required to sell something I am not enthusiastic about, my conversations seem anemic at best and duplicitous at worst. Sadly, sometimes we (I) present the Christian worldview and lifestyle this way as well—something we almost want to apologize for having to discuss with people, but conscience compels us do so anyways. Of course, our fear of man plays a large role here too—we want to appear competent, intelligent and be respected, and the prospect of even mentioning the name “Jesus” around certain people makes us cringe. But, confessional belief + actual practice = operative belief. If we always, deeply believed that the Christian worldview was infinitely valuable, the true story of the whole world and that God sings over us (Zeph 3:17) as we beckon people to come sing with us, we would not live out or present our faith as a social apology—we would passionately advocate for it. And so, I pray that God would continue to remind my man-fearing, sinful heart, which on some days would just be content with going to heaven alone, that I steward riches into which angels long to look (1 Pet 1:12), and people desperately need to hear (Rom 10:14-15). There is nothing in the entire world that even approaches what I bring to the table—why would we not want to advocate for an offer like that?

The Importance of Following Up

In my position, rarely is a sale made on the first offer, first phone call or first bit of email correspondence. Instead, I have to follow up with all of the quotes I have sent out in a calculated and organized fashion to ensure that no potential leads fall through the cracks. Sometimes, it may take three days of following up to close a deal; sometimes, three months. But no effective sales person can fail to follow up. “I’ll get back to you when we’re ready to purchase” is an understandable plea for distance, but it just isn’t a workable response to a good sales person. The follow-up is an extremely effective and extremely underutilized tool in ministry. In my experience, there is an incredible difference, for example, in saying, “I’ll pray for that situation,” and saying, “I’m going to pray for that situation over the course of the next few weeks and I’d like to follow up with you about it, is that okay?” Of course, you actually have to pray and follow up for it to be effective, but that follow-up conversation is many times like sweet salve to the person for whom you are praying—you have not forgotten about them and are genuinely concerned about how things are going in their life. This is what steadfast love looks like. I have begun to use a calendar app on my phone and am beginning to log my prayer follow-ups to be intentional about letting people know I love them, that they matter to me, and that I have a genuine commitment and interest in their welfare, both in the short and long term. Failure to follow up is likely to leave “I’ll pray for you” talk as nothing more than empty words in the minds of others; the follow-up demonstrates that your talk goes much deeper than vacuous cliches.

The Art of Persuasion

Inevitably, sales involves persuasion. Persuasion in sales, at core, is simply providing people with (hopefully) compelling reasons to purchase what you are selling. In persuasion, appeals can be made to a variety of factors from price point to performance, but ultimately, the goal is to win business. Persuasion is also extremely person-relative. That is, you must take a different course in seeking to persuade each individual by understanding them and their situation. Although people frequently get nervous about talk of persuasion in ministry due to a seemingly interminable fear of undermining the work of the Spirit, persuasion is extremely biblical and is a fundamental part of ministry; it is actually a means through which the Spirit works. When we speak to others, particularly in cases of teaching, preaching, accountability and counseling, we are asking them to accept new truths or see old truths in a new light; both of these require persuasion. Paul realized this as he sought to persuade people that Jesus was the Christ, reason with them from the Scriptures, and even incorporate quotations from pagan poets in an effort to winsomely present truth. Regardless of context or effort, whenever we seek to speak new truths to people, we are seeking to persuade. How we speak truth, however, is often times just as (or close to as) important as what truth we speak. While persuasive ability will often times greatly depend on trustworthiness and credibility (see the first point), speaking persuasively is still very important. For example, I have seen people whose sharpest points are blunted because they are extremely disorganized in their communication, are profoundly unlikeable or are incredibly boring. There a lot of variables that go into persuasion, and understanding them is important for skillfully wielding and applying Scripture in ministry, as you seek to point others to Christ again and again and meet them where they are in life.

Understand What’s Important to People

In sales training, people are often told to probe for a customer’s “hot button,” and then push. A hot button refers to something that is extremely important to the customer, is most likely the controlling factor in the purchase, and elicits from the customer a strong emotional response, sometimes capable of closing a sale instantaneously. For small outfits, that hot button is frequently an incredibly low pricing special. For a firm using their workstations to design skyscrapers, the hot button will likely be superior performance that they must have. For someone who needs to design skyscrapers on a tight budget, perhaps their hot button is attractive financing options. Whatever it is, understanding what is important to a customer is critical, and without it, a customer will never feel understood and a disconnect will remain. In the context of ministry, understanding what is ultimately important to someone is critical in ministering to them effectively. Is it success? Money? Power? Status? Attractiveness? Being thought of a certain way within the church community? Godliness? Discovering what drives someone—what fulfills someone—will give you a head start in ministering to them. In biblical categories, whatever we ultimately hope in, ultimately long for, ultimately trust in and ultimately delight in other than God is an idol—a pseudo-God that is part of creation itself and not the Creator (Rom 1:25). Created things were not designed with the intention or ability to satisfy our deepest longings nor ascend to the position of most important allegiance in our lives. Pushing (gently and gracefully) on these spiritual “hot buttons” will, Lord willing, allow people to see the true object of their faith, trust and hope. Idols are nothing (1 Cor 8:4), and if we worship nothing, eventually we will come to nothing. A knowledge of spiritual “hot buttons” in a person’s life will prove invaluable in loving well and providing wise, conversational counsel in the service of accountability and sanctification.

In closing, it seems necessary to mentioned that just as “sales” concepts are not merely applicable to professional salesmen, the above principles are not just for “professional” ministers and elders. The Bible makes no distinction between “sacred” and “secular” work and therefore, all those in Christ should seek to be ministering worshippers united under the Gospel of Jesus. If you work full-time outside of a church/parachurch context, these principles are no less for you. I, like you, am simply a church member seeking to live out these principles within the context of my local church and workspace (however imperfectly). May God grant us the love and wisdom to minister to others well as we point them to the Word, along with courage and passion as we image him in the world.

 

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That’s Just Your Interpretation: Responding to People Who Don’t Take the Bible Seriously

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“But the Bible clearly says that homosexuality is wrong in Romans chapter 1!”

“Well, I know you feel that way, but that’s just the way you see it. Others interpret those verses differently.”

 

“The Bible clearly prohibits someone from divorcing their spouse just because they are unhappy in their marriage.”

“That’s how you interpret the Bible, but other people who are equally intelligent and equally well-informed beg to differ.”

 

“The Bible clearly states that those who do not repent and believe will spend eternity in Hell.”

“Well, there have been very smart people who disagree with that, so I wouldn’t be so certain.”

 

At one point or another, most Christians have experienced the above refrain when attempting to demonstrate truth from the Bible: “that’s just your interpretation.” This response usually comes from 1) people who have spent little time seriously studying the Bible themselves, and 2) who find “your interpretation” unintuitive, impractical, inconvenient and/or repulsive. Often, these objectors feel constrained by conscience and/or social pressures to confess that the Bible is “right,” but don’t know it well enough to demonstrate why what you are saying is wrong. In effect, the answer is a dismissive one that doesn’t engage with the issue at all: “Other smart, equally-informed people think you’re wrong, so it’s slightly stubborn and maybe even a bit arrogant of you to insist that you actually ‘know’ the truth and everyone else just lacks your interpretive skill.” In what follows, I briefly examine the philosophical underpinnings and implications of this response, as well as suggest a few succinct, conversational replies for Christians who are rendered speechless by this popular slogan. My hope is that this will be helpful in casual conversations with friends, family and in the workplace as we seek to proclaim the whole counsel of God’s word with love and clarity.

 

Philosophical Underpinnings

 

In order to gain a proper understanding of where the “that’s just your interpretation” reply goes wrong, it will be helpful to examine the presupposition that implicitly lies behind it. First, it’s important to realize that this reply is really just a more specific form of a more general rebuttal: “that’s just your opinion.” Seeing that an interpretation is merely one’s opinion about what something means, the legitimacy of one would seem to stand or fall with the other. Second, it’s important to realize the assumption that does the heavy lifting behind the scenes in this kind of reply. The assumption is something like this: “When there is disagreement over X among people who are equally confident and competent, we can’t really claim to know whether X is true or false—we really should just be agnostic with regard to X.”

 

Epistemologists (philosophers who specialize in knowledge and justification) refer to this as the problem of (peer) epistemic disagreement. To show the intuitive force of the claim, imagine that you and two friends who are equally competent mathematicians all solve the same (single solution) mathematical equation with different values. Because you are all equally competent, knowing all the same equations and mathematical procedures, the position you would likely assume after discussing your solutions is agnosticism—none of you really know the answer. The same might be admitted by three people who each claimed to see a different breed of dog run by a window. Given that they are all equally adept at canine identification, it seems that the most reasonable stance in the presence of such disagreement is agnosticism with regard to the dog breed.

 

In cases of sensory perception, the case seems strong for the idea that peer disagreement undercuts claims to knowledge and justification—in such cases we should suspend judgment. But what about in other realms? It is at this point where the case begins to weaken. What about disagreement over political views? Race relations? Scientific hypotheses? Applied ethics? Pervasive disagreement is just that—pervasive. The reality is that disagreement among equally competent peers occurs in almost every possible field of inquiry. This fact leads to (at least) two untoward implications for those in the “that’s just your interpretation” crowd.

 

Philosophical Implications

 

First, those who call into question someone’s opinion about what the Bible means at a particular point (i.e., their interpretation) on the basis of peer disagreement will need to somehow come up with a non-arbitrary way to avoid radical skepticism in every other field of inquiry where disagreement is present. Unsurprisingly, suggestions are not forthcoming. The chances are high that your interlocutor will hold very strong views about race, abortion and governmental rights, for example—all truth claims that float in a sea of peer disagreement. Of course, you won’t find them giving up those views any time soon, so why is disagreement in the realm of biblical interpretation perceived as a unique challenge for Christians? It isn’t at all clear. In order to be consistent, such an objector should adopt agnosticism with regard to most of their cherished beliefs. If this seems unreasonable, it’s because it is, and absurd consequences count strongly against the truth of claims that entail them.

 

Second, there is a rather unfortunate empirical fact facing those who that believe peer disagreement undercuts genuine knowledge claims: the philosophical literature on the implications of peer disagreement is filled with peer disagreement. In other words, epistemologists are strongly divided over whether or not peer disagreement undercuts (most) claims to knowledge (e.g., Van Inwagen, Plantinga, Goldman). But this leaves our objector in an extremely awkward position. Having become convinced that peer disagreement undercuts claims to knowledge, our objector must immediately reject this belief in light of the vast peer disagreement over whether or not peer disagreement does, in fact, undercut claims to knowledge. The result is a dizzying self-defeatism from which there is no foreseeable escape—consensus about the implications of disagreement for knowledge are not on the horizon.

 

Conversational Responses

 

To briefly recap, we’ve seen that the “that’s just your interpretation” objection (perhaps more aptly described as a “technique”) is just a re-wording of the “that’s just your opinion objection.” This objection usually comes from people who do not take the Bible seriously (imagine “serious” chemistry professors responding to one another in like manner) and who find what you are claiming the Bible says to be unintuitive, impractical, inconvenient and/or repulsive. The “objection” subtly presupposes a certain view of how peer disagreement relates to knowledge claims, one that we saw leads to radical skepticism and that is self-defeating in light of the philosophical literature on the topic. Therefore, in addition to being completely devoid of positive argumentation or reasons of any kind, the “that’s just your interpretation” response is a very poor one, and is really more of an evasive tactic than anything else.

Now, if you’ve read this far, you might be saying to yourself, “All this sounds great, but I don’t have time to spout off all of this in ordinary, casual conversation.” I agree, you do not. So, what you need are some street level, rough-and-ready replies. I hope I can deliver for you. What I would suggest is that immediately upon hearing the “that’s just your interpretation” response, graciously and lovingly ask your interlocutor, “What do you mean it’s just my interpretation?” After all, it’s likely not just your interpretation—surely there are others who agree with you. Inevitably, however, this question will send people down unchartered epistemological/philosophical waters that you have already thoughtfully traveled:

 

“Well, I mean I know you think that but there are other people who think otherwise. It’s just up to individual interpretation.”

“Oh, okay, I think I see what you’re getting at. You’re saying that my opinion is just one among many conflicting opinions, correct?”

“Yes, exactly.”

“Yeah you’re right, it is. Are you saying that that’s significant with regard to whether I’m right or wrong?”

“Yeah, I mean because there are so many conflicting opinions, it seems like no one really knows.”

“Hmm. I’m not sure I share that intuition. Let me ask you—give me an example of something you know is wrong.”

“Murder.”

“Okay. So, are you aware that there are many very intelligent people who don’t even believe there is such a thing as ‘wrong’ and that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are just social constructs that have emerged as spin-offs of evolution and natural selection?”

“Yes/No.”

Okay, do you tend to hold liberal or conservative political views?”

“Very liberal.”

“Are you aware that there are many very intelligent people who have opinions that conflict with yours?”

“Yes/No.”

“My point is that if I’m understanding the core of what you are saying correctly, you’re saying that if there is a lot of disagreement about something among equally competent and confident people, we can’t really know one way or another about it.

“Yes.”

“Are you, for the sake of consistency, willing to give up all of your beliefs that are subject to disagreement and live intellectually and functionally in agnosticism about most things?

“No.”

“Well then why should anyone shy away from a careful biblical interpretation just because there are people who disagree?”

“Hmm.”

“Also, it seems to me after having thought about this issue myself is that your suggestion is kind of self-defeating.”

“How so?”

“Well, it turns out that philosophers who study this stuff for a living disagree a lot over whether or not disagreement over an issue means we can’t really know about it. So if we take what you’re saying seriously about how widespread disagreement undercuts personal knowledge, then you can’t really claim to know that widespread disagreement undercuts knowledge in the first place, because there is a lot of disagreement on that topic.”

I hope this is helpful.

 

In Love with Faith,

 

Tyler

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Glory in the Highest: A Dialogue on God’s Sovereignty

(This dialogue is a response to a dialogue posted by Roger Olson. His dialogue can be read here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2013/08/a-conversation-between-a-calvinist-and-an-arminian-about-gods-sovereignty. Through a great act of literary creativity, I have named one interlocutor ‘Calvinist’ and the other ‘Arminian’. However, I suspect that almost everything argued by the Calvinist in this particular dialogue could/should also be advocated by a Molinist, because the emphasis is on meticulous sovereignty in general—as I define it—which Olson rejects, not Reformed soteriology.)

Calvinist: God is sovereign and Scripture seems clear about this. God is the author of all of history, declaring the end from the beginning and accomplishing all of his purposes (Isa. 46:10); he turns the hearts of man however he pleases (Prov 21:1; Ex. 7:3); he moves the will of man to work and act (Phil. 2:13); he is sovereign over nature and animals, weather and seasons (Ps. 148; Num. 22: 28-30; 1 Kgs. 17: 2-6; Matt. 10:29; 5:45); he brings about life and death (1 Sam. 2:6; Job 1:21; Ps. 139:15-16; Heb. 9:27); he plans the rise and fall of nations and carries it out (Job 12:23); he brings about the smallest details of creation (Prov. 16:33; Matt. 10:30). No one can thwart his word, plan or will (Isa. 55:11; Romans 9:19; Acts 4:28). God plans every event, actions and detail of creation according to his will and in one way or another, infallibly brings that plan to pass. We’ll call this ‘meticulous sovereignty’, and the Bible seems to teach it clearly.

Arminian: When we approach these passages describing God’s sovereignty, I think the primary difference between how you and I interpret them is our understanding of God’s character.

Calvinist: Why do you say that?

Arminian: Well, because if these verses mean what you say, that would imply that God plans and contributes to bringing about every rape and murder that takes place, in addition to bringing about, in one way or another, the eternal fate of all those in Hell. This is completely at odds with Scripture, which teaches that God loves all people and desires for everyone to come into a loving relationship with him.

Calvinist: Well, why can’t both be true? That is, why can’t God love all people and desire all people to come into a loving relationship with him, while simultaneously bringing about, in one way or another, every evil action and state of affairs? I’m not aware of a text of Scripture that says these things are incompatible, and they certainly are not explicitly contradictory.

Arminian: The idea that God genuinely loves all people and desires for them to be saved but willingly ensures, in one way or another, that certain people will not be saved makes about as much sense as me saying that I genuinely desire for you to succeed, but have taken steps to make it absolutely certain that you will not. It’s just double talk, pure and simple.

Calvinist: I disagree and think we can even find regular examples that call your contention into question. Suppose, for example, that I am a just judge, who, for whatever reason, is presiding over a case in which my best friend is facing the death penalty for murder (never mind how that happened!). Suppose further that it becomes clear after testimony from both parties that my best friend is unquestionably guilty. As a just judge, what will I do? Certainly, I will have a deep and genuine desire not to convict him and send him to certain death, but this is certainly what I will do. Anyone who told me afterwards that I did not really want to spare him because if I did I would not have sentenced him to death would be profoundly mistaken. So, here we have a case in which I genuinely desire for my friend to live, yet act so as to make his death certain. Why could we not say the same kind of thing about God?

Arminian: In your example, as a perfect judge, you have a desire to spare your friend but a stronger desire to uphold justice, and they are in conflict. What could even begin to parallel that in the case of God desiring all people to be saved?

Calvinist: That’s a great question. As I see it, the most natural and straightforward reading of Romans 9:22-23 gives us the answer: “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.” It seems that the most magnificent display of God’s glory for his people includes a display of his awesome wrath. Without a display of his wrath, the text says that the “riches of his glory” would not be known to the vessels of his mercy. So, we know from Scripture that God genuinely desires the salvation of all, but we also know from this text that he desires to fully display the wonder of his glory to his sheep, which includes a display of wrath and therefore, vessels prepared for wrath. It seems that God’s desire to display his glory takes precedence over his desire for all to experience salvation, despite the fact that both are genuine desires, similar to our courtroom case above.

Arminian: But that makes God out to be a slave to his own nature, the victim of an internal divine dilemma. Surely you don’t really think that God is tied up in such an internal conflict.

Calvinist: I’m not sure words like ‘slave’ and ‘victim’ really describe what’s going on here. Those are both very emotionally charged words that need further explanation in order to avoid misrepresentation of what seems to be the clear teaching of the text. One great example of what you are calling “double talk” is the crucifixion of Christ. Scripture clearly teaches that murder and injustice are evil, yet Acts 4:27-28 records the following with regards to Christ’s death: “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” Acts 2:23 records something very similar: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” So, it seems we have a clear of example of God planning beforehand that certain evils would happen, despite clearly condemning those evils and exhorting people through Scripture to avoid them. What Scripture would you point to in order to show that this kind of “conflict” (your word, not mine) is non-existent?

Arminian: There’s not a chapter and verse that I can cite that denies what you are saying, but that doesn’t mean it is at all plausible to believe in such an internally conflicted God who is stuck in his own cosmic web of divine commitment.

Calvinist: Well, until you can show me biblical support to the contrary, I am quite justified in interpreting the text in this way, even if the conclusion opposes our natural intuitions, in which I don’t place much confidence in these matters. At any rate, what do you understand the Bible to teach with regards to why some are not saved despite God’s genuine desire that all be saved?

Arminian: Well, God desires to save all people, but some people freely (in the libertarian sense of freedom) reject him and therefore, are not saved of their own free choice.

Calvinist: Why doesn’t God just save them in a way that doesn’t involve libertarian free will or even override individuals’ libertarian free will? Even we as humans override people’s free will if we know it is in their best interest, such as when we institutionalize a suicidal relative.

Arminian: Well, because although he desires to save everyone, he also desires that individuals be morally responsible agents with free will, not determined automatons. God can’t force people to love him, because forced love isn’t real love, and that’s what he desires.

Calvinist: So it seems to me that we both agree that God truly loves all people and desires that all be saved—it’s just that we believe he does not save everyone for different reasons: Following Romans 9:22-23, I believe that God does not save everyone because he has an overriding desire to make known the riches of his glory by displaying his righteous wrath to the objects of his mercy; you believe that God does not save everyone because he has an overriding desire to preserve individuals’ libertarian free will. Both of us believe that God truly desires that all be saved, and both of our theologies explain why some people are not in terms of “conflicting” (as you call them) desires within God, so your position is no better off than mine on that front. More importantly, though, are you able to point to any Scripture indicating that God made us with libertarian free will, that it is required for moral responsibility or that he doesn’t save all people because he desires to preserve it?

Arminian: Well, no, but each of these things stand to reason. If everything we do is, in one way or another, already decided or determined, then we are really nothing more than puppets or robots bobbing along to a string of causes and divine decisions that have already been made, with no more control over our own actions than trees have to grow branches. Obviously, this is not compatible with moral responsibility on any meaningful understanding of the term, no more than me holding you responsible for getting shoved into a pregnant woman and causing a miscarriage. Not only this, but presumably, God would be the one doing the causing or deciding, at least at some level, which means that he would somehow bring about peoples’ rejection of him and then punish them in Hell forever for doing just that! It would make a mockery of the truth that God is love—or just, for that matter. So, although there are no explicit scriptural references articulating these incompatibility claims, they follow from clear biblical principles about God’s just and loving character. If God does these kinds of things, then calling him ‘good’ no longer has meaning.

Calvinist: Can you point to any Scripture indicating that God would be unjust to somehow bring about unbelief and then punish it, or that if someone could not act other than how they in fact do, that they would be like a robot or puppet?

Arminian: Well, no, but again, these are our most basic intuitions, and you have to start somewhere when you interpret the Bible, at least if you want to do so coherently! You can’t seriously be more confident in your interpretation of those “meticulous sovereignty” passages than you are of the idea that God would be an abominable double-talker if he commanded everyone to repent and believe, prevented some people from doing it and then punished them in Hell forever for it!

Calvinist: You’ve brought up a crucial point upon which I believe this discussion turns, so let’s discuss it further. We seem to fundamentally disagree on the following contention: meticulous sovereignty is incompatible with the perfect love and goodness of God, because it implies that God, in one way or another, intentionally bring about all evil and disobedient actions and then punishes people for them. Now, Scripture clearly teaches that it would be inconsistent for me, or any human, to claim that they are good and loving while intentionally and knowingly, doing or bringing about evil (e.g., Rom. 2:21-24). But do you know of any Scripture that teaches that it would be inconsistent with God’s perfect, kind, merciful, gracious and loving character to, in one way or another, bring about all evils actions and then punish people for them? Because it seems to me that inerrant Scripture teaches both.

Arminian: I don’t have a Scripture reference to tell me that and I don’t need one. Anyone who understands language and the concepts involved knows that they are incompatible.

Calvinist: You seem to have a great deal of confidence in your intuitions about what kinds of actions are compatible with a perfectly good and loving God (not man) that significantly affects your biblical interpretation. But should you really have that degree of confidence? Let’s look at a short list of actions performed by our perfectly good and loving God and observe how they are in conflict with our “ordinary” concepts of love and goodness. For example,  it would be evil (for me) to knowingly and intentionally plan to sell someone into slavery, yet this is exactly what God does in the case of Joseph and his brothers (Gen. 50:20). It would be evil, for any reason, to turn someone’s heart against God, yet this is what God does to Pharaoh (Ex. 4:21). It would be evil to watch a child drown while easily being able to save them. Yet, despite being easily able to do so, God lets children drown all the time. It would be evil to live for our own glory and fame, yet God created everyone for, and lives for his own, glory (2 Sam. 7:23 Ps. 106:7-8; Isa. 43:6-7; 48:-11; Ez. 36:22-23; John 12:27-28). It would be evil to knowingly and intentionally lead someone to be tempted, yet the Spirit leads Jesus to be tempted (Matt. 4:1). It would be evil, for any reason, to command the slaughter of women and children, yet God commands just this (1 Sam. 15:3). It is far from obvious that a perfectly good and loving God would punish people eternally who die without ever hearing the gospel, yet this is clearly what happens to those who do not know God (2 Thess. 1:8-9).  Finally, and most alien to our “normal” understanding of love and goodness, is the plain fact that God hates certain people: “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man” (Ps. 5:5-6). Notice that no mention is made of God loving the evildoer, but hating their evil. Rather, it is the evildoer that he hates and the bloodthirsty that he abhors. Yet, all of this is compatible with God’s perfectly good and loving character. So, it seems that we have good reasons to doubt our “pre-Scriptural” intuitions about the kinds of actions that are compatible with a perfectly good and loving God.

Arminian: Well if you’re free to define what is compatible with ‘love’ and ‘goodness’, then I guess Adolf Hitler could have been a good and loving person for all we know. That’s just silly!

Calvinist: Again you’re missing the point and using an example where a human being is attributed God-status and then evaluated accordingly. More often than not, “God” in these examples will turn out to be a moral monster because his goodness and love are being evaluated the same way in which we evaluate the goodness and love of one another. Closer to reality is something like the following:  it would be evil for me to give my employer’s merchandise to my friends for free. However, if the owner of the store gave my friends free merchandise, this would not be evil. Although we are both performing the same action, the moral status of each action is different because of the position, status and prerogatives of the person performing it. What for me is inconsistent with being a good steward of company resources is not at all inconsistent for my boss or owner. Furthermore, I haven’t even attempted to offer a synthesized definition of God’s love as you have charged. I have just pointed out clear scriptural truths that, at the end of the day, must be compatible with it. These examples give us good reason to doubt our initial, pre-Scriptural intuitions about God’s character and what actions would be consistent with it.

Arminian: Why do you think you have better reason to believe that you have interpreted Scripture correctly in this case than your most fundamental moral intuitions?

Calvinist: Great question. Besides the fact that I am reasoning across the Creator-creature chasm, there are multiple reasons to have (more) confidence in our ability to correctly interpret the language of Scripture, including the language that apparently portrays God as meticulously sovereign. First, Scripture claims to be able to be understood by even the simple and uneducated (Ps. 19:17; 1 Cor. 1:26). Second, The NT was written in common Greek for common people and was often addressed to relatively uneducated church congregations who were expected to understand the language of the letters, including references to the Old Testament (e.g., Matt. 8:17). Third, because of our depravity (Rom. 3:10-18), even our creature-to-creature moral intuitions are distorted and are regularly less accurate than our ability to understand natural language. Even among Christians, disagreements about morally acceptable actions are far more rampant than disagreements about the meaning of most sentences outside of a theological agenda. So, because we have good reasons to doubt the accuracy of our pre-Scriptural, moral intuitions about what kinds of actions a perfectly good God could perform, combined with a solid measure of confidence that we can regularly interpret the language of Scripture correctly, including the language that apparently portrays God as meticulously sovereign, it is best to conclude just that—that God is meticulously sovereign.

 

 

 

 

 

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Jerry Walls, Calvinism and the Character of God

As many of you know, I do not consider myself a “blogger” (see the “most recent” post before this) or internet theologian and rarely contribute to theological discussion on the web. This is because, for the most part, such discussions take place on a very “popular” level, are fueled by emotion as opposed to careful argumentation and aren’t very helpful in advancing understanding of the issue at hand. Occasionally, such poor discussion looms in the wake of an issue or figure that deserves a thoughtful treatment. In my judgment, one such figure and issue is Jerry Walls and his attack on reformed soteriology/Calvinism (historically speaking, “Calvinism” involves more than just a particular view of God’s sovereignty in salvation, but since Walls uses the term in the more narrow sense, so shall we). Unlike most very vocal, public opponents of Calvinism, Walls has an extensive background in philosophy (Ph.D from Notre Dame) and has has quite a number of academic books, lectures and interviews to his credit, many of which discuss and argue for his militant opposition to Calvinism. In virtue of his background, publications and internet exposure, Walls’s argumentation has made a much bigger splash than anti-Calvinist Youtube theologians and disgruntled blog warriors of internet past.

While Walls has been responded to in peer-reviewed, academic journals, to my knowledge there have not been many, if any, careful replies to Walls at a popular level on the web. Most replies, even by a few prominent Calvinists, are philosophically bankrupt and appear to be nothing more than passionate pleas. So then, upon reading the latest anti-Calvinist interview of Walls, it seemed opportune to lay out a careful and substantive response to Walls that could be “shared” and accessed easily on the web. While I will be using http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/bound-to-eternally-suffer-an-interview-with-philosopher-jerry-walls/ as my primary foil, Walls has been consistent in his criticism of Calvinism, so those familiar with his work may find reading the interview superfluous. If you have no knowledge of Jerry Walls, reading the interview along with a cursory Google or Youtube search will be beneficial prior to reading this response. Of course, there is a great deal that could be said in response to Walls, but in what follows I wish to focus on what seems to be the lynchpin of the whole discussion. I feel that Walls would agree and can only hope that he would approve of my tone and clarity, despite disagreeing with my conclusions.

The Love and Character of God

That the God of Scripture is portrayed as good, loving and holy needs little argumentation. What it means to say that God is good, loving and holy in His character and actions is not as clear. At the center of Walls’s critique of Calvinism is the contention that Calvinism sacrifices God’s loving and just character on the alter of iron-fisted sovereignty. If God plans every action, event and detail of creation and, in one way or another, infallibly brings about His plan, then God cannot be  good and loving (whether a Molinist could honestly embrace this articulation of meticulous sovereignty is a different question for a different day) . This is because if God is meticulously sovereign, then in one way or another he wills and brings about all evil actions, including rape, murder, child molestation and ultimately, eternal suffering. How could a being that knowingly and willing brought about any of these things voluntarily be considered good and loving?

As Walls says, “Is he truly a God of love who is perfectly good? You cannot claim this with any plausibility if you believe God determines people to damnation, people he could have just as easily determine to salvation… God is more glorified by unconditionally choosing to save some and damning others than he would be by determining all to accept salvation. Such claims make shambles of the claim that God is love.” After all, if a human being did these kinds of things, while telling others to avoid them, would he not be considered a monstrous hypocrite? Indeed, Walls thinks that it would only show that “God’s ways that are ‘higher’ than ours are actually lower than the standards we expect for a decent human being.” In subscribing to Calvinism, you sacrifice your “moral intuitions in the name of worshipping a God whose ‘goodness’ is utterly at odds with the normal meaning of that term.” Finally, if God is meticulously sovereign, then it follows than we cannot act other than we do. This “flies in the face of how we understand justice. A person is considered culpable only for things over which he has control. And what would we think of a judge who determined a criminal to willingly murder someone and then sentence him to death for murder. We would hardly think such a judge was just. Yet, that is just how Calvinists see God.”

Analyzing the Presupposition

Walls’s “character argument” against Calvinism seems to hinge on one primary contention: namely, that when understood in the “normal” sense of the words, a perfectly good and loving God would/could not do certain things that Calvinists claim He does and remain perfectly good and loving.

This contention, however, relies on a crucial presupposition: that God is good and loving in the same, or similar, way in which we consider one another good and loving. Surely we would not consider someone who willingly and voluntary brings about rape and murder “good” or “loving,” at least not in the normal sense of the words. I must confess that it seems fairly clear to me that God fails the “love” test on a Calvinistic (and Molinistic) understanding of things when evaluated in accordance with our “normal” understanding of love. The real question, then, is whether or not God’s goodness and love are to be understood in the “normal” sense of the word, or in another sense, perhaps one that is quite contrary to our a priori moral intuitions about morally acceptable divine action and love. What support does Walls give for understanding God’s goodness in the “normal” sense of the term (i.e., how we regularly use the term when we refer to one another as human beings)? As far as I can tell, he doesn’t–not in this interview, not in his books and not in his lectures.

Let’s look at a short list of actions performed by our perfectly good and loving God and observe how they are in conflict with our “ordinary” concepts of love and goodness. For example,  it would be evil (for me) to knowingly and intentionally plan to sell someone into slavery, yet this is exactly what God does in the case of Joseph and his brothers (Gen. 50:20). It would be evil, for any reason, to turn someone’s heart against God, yet this is what God does to Pharaoh (Ex. 4:21). It would be evil to watch a child drown while easily being able to save them. Yet, despite being easily able to do so, God lets children drown all the time. It would be evil to live for our own glory and fame, yet God created everyone for, and lives for his own, glory (2 Sam. 7:23 Ps. 106:7-8; Isa. 43:6-7; 48:-11; Ez. 36:22-23; John 12:27-28). It would be evil to knowingly and intentionally lead someone to be tempted, yet the Spirit leads Jesus to be tempted (Matt. 4:1). It would be evil, for any reason, to command the slaughter of women and children, yet God commands just this (1 Sam. 15:3). It is far from obvious that a perfectly good and loving God would punish people eternally who die without ever hearing the gospel, yet this is what happens to those who do not know God (2 Thess. 1:8-9).  Finally, and most alien to our “normal” understanding of love and goodness is the plain fact that God hates certain people: “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man” (Ps. 5:5-6). Notice that no mention is made of God loving the evildoer, but hating their evil. Rather, it is the evildoer that he hates and the bloodthirsty that he abhors. Yet, this is compatible with God’s perfect love.

What these observations help us realize is that while our “pre-Scriptural” intuitions about what kinds of actions are consistent with a good and loving person are fairly accurate, our pre-Scriptural intuitions about what kinds of actions are consistent with a good and loving God are quite inaccurate. This is the Creator-creature chasm. In light of the Creator-creature chasm, we may formalize Walls’s argument and our reply as follows:

Against Meticulous Sovereignty

1. If God is meticulously sovereign, then he, in one way or another, intentionally brings about all evil actions. (Definition of Meticulous Sovereignty)

2. If God, in one way or another, intentionally brought about all evil actions, then he would not be perfectly good and loving.

3. God is perfectly good and loving. (1 John 4:8 et al.)

4. Therefore, it is not the case that God, in one way or another, intentionally brings about all evil actions. (2, 3 MT)

5. Therefore, it is not the case that God is meticulously sovereign. (1, 4 MT)

 

For Meticulous Sovereignty

1. Inerrant Scripture seems to portray God as meticulously sovereign. (Gen. 50:20; Isa. 46:10; Prov. 16:33; Phil. 2:13 et al.)

2. If 1), then we should accept that inerrant Scripture teaches God’s meticulous sovereignty unless our confidence that we have interpreted the relevant passages correctly is lower than or equal to our confidence in the truth of other beliefs that are mutually exclusive with our interpretations. (Principle of Rational Decision)

3. We should accept that inerrant Scripture teaches God’s meticulous sovereignty unless our confidence that we have interpreted the relevant passages correctly is lower than or equal to our confidence in the truth of other beliefs that are mutually exclusive with our interpretations. (1, 2 MP)

4. We have no beliefs in whose truth we are more or equally confident in than our interpretations of the relevant passages and that are also mutually exclusive with our interpretations. (Divine Action Skepticism)

5. Therefore, we should accept that inerrant Scripture teaches God’s meticulous sovereignty. (3, 4 MT)

While one might possibly challenge multiple premises of each argument, it seems to me, and I believe Walls would agree, that the discussion comes down to whether one finds premise 2 of the “Against” argument or premise 4 of the “For” argument more compelling. In light of this, what can be said in favor of each?

I think we have already sufficiently presented Walls’s defense of premise 2 of the “Against” argument. If God, in one way or another, plans and brings about every evil action, including eternal suffering, he cannot be perfectly good and loving, because such action is antithetical to goodness and love. For Walls, this seems to be a fundamental, moral intuition, and as far as I can tell, he doesn’t say much more about why we should have confidence in the accuracy of this intuition, either in this particular interview or in his written work. Alternatively, I’m not aware of any justification Walls gives for thinking that our “normal” understanding of love and goodness should control or give boundaries to our understanding of God’s love and goodness, particularly when Scripture appears to suggest divine actions that are at odds with such a “normal” understanding.

In contrast, what can be said in defense of premise 4 of the “For” argument? Through a sampling of divine action throughout Scripture, we have seen that our ordinary, normal, creature-to-creature understanding of love and goodness are in need of revision when applied to God. This means that prior to approaching Scripture, we should not have a great deal of confidence in our natural ability to discern what kinds of actions a perfectly good and loving God (not person) could perform while remaining as such.

Comparatively, there are multiple reasons to have (more) confidence in our ability to correctly interpret the language of Scripture, including the language that apparently portrays God as meticulously sovereign. First, Scripture claims to be able to be understood by even the simple and uneducated (Ps. 19:17; 1 Cor. 1:26). Second, The NT was written in common Greek for common people and was often addressed to relatively uneducated church congregations who were expected to understand the language of the letters, including references to the Old Testament (e.g., Matt. 8:17). Third, because of our depravity, our moral intuitions are regularly less accurate than our ability to understand natural language. Even among Christians, disagreements about morally acceptable actions are far more rampant than disagreements about the meaning of most sentences outside of a theological agenda.

So, because we have good reasons to doubt the accuracy of our pre-Scriptural, moral intuitions about what kinds of actions a perfectly good God could perform, combined with a solid measure of confidence that we can regularly interpret the language of Scripture correctly, including the language that apparently portrays God as meticulously sovereign, premise 4 is extremely justified, more so than premise 2 of the “Against” argument, it seems.

Conclusion

This concludes our brief, but hopefully, substantive, response to the core of Walls’s main anti-Calvinist argument based on God’s character. We examined his presupposition that it is the ordinary, person-to-person sense of words like “goodness” and “love” according to which we are to understand God’s love. As we have seen, for a number of reasons it isn’t clear why Walls (or anyone) believes this. On the contrary, there are good reasons to think that, while still a communicable attribute of God, God’s goodness and love are to be understood in ways that are often times unlike our ordinary use of the terms. This is due to the Creator-creature chasm. To provide a dim analogy to this chasm, it would be evil for me to give my employer’s merchandise to my friends for free. However, if the owner of the store gave my friends free merchandise, this would not be evil. Although we are both performing the same kind of action, the moral status of each action is different because of the position, status and prerogatives of the person performing it. So, because we have confidence in our ability to correctly interpret the natural language of Scripture that portrays God as meticulously sovereign, and because we have good reasons to think that our “pre-Scriptural” intuitions about morally acceptable divine are unreliable, we should embrace the apparent, most natural reading of Scripture and advocate meticulous sovereignty.

Of course, there is much more that needs to be said in order to comprehensively respond to Walls. Such a response would necessarily include a discussion of God’s revealed and decretive wills along with a discussion of moral responsibility and the (lack of) ability to do otherwise given meticulous sovereignty. Nevertheless, if the concerns we have voiced here are correct, then the driving force behind Walls’s Calvinistic polemic falls to the ground.

Tyler Krug

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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