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.
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.