Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Friday, June 14, 2013

Calvinism and Arminianism: 5 views

For those of you who don't know what Arminianism and Calvinism are, that's good.  This is a knotty theological debate and there's been many a Bible discussion I've been in where a Calvinist and Arminian have butted theological heads.  To sum up the debate quickly, a Calvinist is like 'See those non-Christians?  That's not God's incompetence, that was intentional' and an Arminian is like 'Why, oh why, does humanity resist the gospel?'

Here are 5 kinds of views about this difficult theological debate that I collected earlier.

'Compatibilist' Calvinism
'Free Will' Calvinism
‘Mysterious’ Arminianism
'Works-Response' Arminianism
'Semi-Pelagian' Arminianism

Here's a chart summarising each view, with more of an explanation below:

Compatibilist Calvinism

We can totally define free will and that free will is 'compatibilist' free will.  That is, although humans have the freedom to choose our desires within the personality God gave us, we can’t go outside our original personality and choose what desires to have outside of that.  We can only do what's in our nature, which creates our desires, and God is the author of our nature.  Regardless, God is not responsible for our sin because free will = choosing within our desires, which creates human responsibility.

My comments: it explains free will at the cost of making it into something that isn't that great (compatibilism).  If I was a Calvinist I would choose the position below.

Free will Calvinism

People have a kind of free will that we can't define rationally, so there is an ability for people to do other than they in fact do.  This doesn't contradict, however, Ephesians 2:5 which says that we are dead in trespasses and sins.  As we can't think in a totally loving way, so then no one wants to join God's heavenly kingdom - although they may think they do, no one could choose such a thing.  Everyone freely chooses to be separated from God in a CS Lewisian sense of hell, or the Twilight Zone's 'A Nice Place to Visit' (episode) sense.  But for some people, God violates our desire to spend eternity in our own style and makes us desire to be with Him forever, according to a selection of grace which is not based on works.

My comments: I think this is the most reasonable Calvinism, because we do have a genuine kind of free will, so we are responsible even though no one comes to Jesus without God calling them, and when God saves us He's actually going against our free desire to be separated from God.

(I would also add (if I was thinking of being a free will Calvinist) that if humanity had been in the Garden of Eden we would all have made Adam's choice.  Therefore, our desire to separate from God isn't a result of God being a bit ‘inconsiderate’ and letting us 'Soz guys, Adam represents y'all'-style fall under original sin, but it would have also been our choice if we had been there.  I think of it like Adam's free will was more protected than our free will, but he can still go off the railway tracks.  E.g. in Adam's style of freedom God is sort of like a good angel sitting on our shoulder and saying, 'Really Adam?  Do you really want to light fire to that forest?  What about all those animals?' (for example) in favour of a free will where there is no shield, no protection given internally in our thoughts from God against selfishness, so we can become the worst devil quite easily with nothing to hold us back).

‘Mysterious’ Arminianism

People have a kind of free will that we can't define rationally, so there is an ability for people to do other than they in fact do.  Like the free will Calvinist, a ‘mysterious’ Arminian accepts Ephesians 2:5 which says that we are dead in trespasses and sins, and so we cannot choose to come to God.  But here is the difference with Calvinism: God performs a miracle on everyone when they hear the gospel, so that in that moment and only after that moment do they have the ability to accept Christ - i.e. everyone but by miracle.  And here is the difference with other kinds of Arminianism: the choice to come to Christ has nothing to do with our personality or character.  So no one gets an advantage in accepting Christ over another person, or suffers a disadvantage in accepting Christ compared to another person.  A really nice guy doesn't get an advantage in accepting Christ over a psychopath.  Someone who loves blindly accepting everything their culture says doesn't get an advantage of an inveterate skeptic.  The decision to accept Christ completely transcends (goes over and above) personality and character.  A person rejects or accepts without respect to their personality or character (works).  And yet the response comes from them.

My comments: because this last part is so hard to understand I call this 'mysterious Arminianism'.  It does, however, avoid the 'Pelagian issue'.  My view.

Works-Response Arminianism

People have a kind of free will that we can't define rationally, so there is an ability for people to do other than they in fact do.  Like the free will Calvinist, a Works-Response Arminian accepts Ephesians which says that we are dead in trespasses and sins, and cannot choose to come to God.  Similarly to 'mysterious' Arminianism, God performs a miracle on everyone when they hear the gospel so that everyone can come to Christ despite our deadness in trespasses and sins.  But unlike with mysterious Arminianism, our ability to respond to God's offer of salvation does relate to our personality and character.  So the person who loves blindly accepting everything people tell them does get a better shot at eternal happiness than the skeptic.  The good person gets a better shot than the psychopath.  It's not a really reliable correlation, so yeah, feel free to go and preach to that crazy guy, but our own goodness does help us accept God.  That is, our works do come into whether we reject God's grace - but only after God's power makes the offer available.

Semi-Pelagian Arminianism

People have a kind of free will that we can't define rationally, so there is an ability for people to do other than they in fact do.  Unlike the free will Calvinist and the other forms of Arminianism above, we are not so dead in trespasses and sins that we cannot initiate a relationship with God.  We have a desire for God and seek Him out.  People want His grace even though they haven't been offered it yet.  We still need grace to be saved, of course, but we don't need grace to accept the offer of grace, if that makes sense.  It's like accepting a briefcase with a million dollars in it - I don't need help receiving the briefcase full of cash, but I definitely couldn't have gotten it on my own.

Monday, February 18, 2013


Four Areas of Grace translated into Chinese (Simplified)

I've been learning Chinese for a while now, so I thought that I would try translating some of my favourite posts into Chinese.  This one, called 'Four Areas of God's Grace', is one of them, click this link to see the English version.




马太福音26:39 祂稍往前走,俯伏在地上祷告:我父啊!如果可以,求你撤去此杯。然而,愿你的旨意成就,而非我的意愿."

约翰19:30: 耶稣尝了那醋酒,然后说:成了!就垂下头来,将灵魂交给了上帝.

启示录21:6: "祂又对我说:一切都成了!我是阿拉法,我是俄梅加 ;我是开始,我是终结。我要将生命泉的水白白赐给口渴的人."





以弗所书2:4-5: 然而上帝有丰富的怜悯,祂深爱我们, 5尽管我们死在过犯之中,祂仍然使我们和基督一同活了过来。你们得救是因为上帝的恩典。

罗马书11:6: 既然说是出于恩典,就不再基于行为,不然又怎能算是恩典呢?




腓立比1:6: 我深信,上帝既然在你们心里开始了这美好的工作,祂必在耶稣基督再来的时候完成这工作。

希伯来书13:21: 在各样善事上成全你们,好使你们遵行祂的旨意,并借着主耶稣在你们心中动工,使你们做祂喜悦的事!愿荣耀归给上帝,直到永永远远。阿们!



歌林多前10:13: 你们遇见的诱惑无非是人们常见的。上帝是信实的,祂绝不会让你们遇见无法抵挡的诱惑,祂必为你们开一条出路,使你们经得住诱惑。


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Can we subject God to questioning?

Something that always perplexed me about the Book of Job is that it seems God doesn't consider Himself accountable to His creatures.

From Wikipedia:

God's speech also emphasizes his sovereignty in creating and maintaining the world. The thrust is not merely that God has experiences that Job does not, but that God is king over the world and is not necessarily subject to questions from his creatures, including men. The point of these speeches is to proclaim the absolute freedom of God over His creation. God is not in need of the approval of his creation. It is only the reader of the book who learns of God's conversations with Satan; Job himself remains unaware of the reason or source of his sufferings. The traditional interpretation is that, humbled by God's chastising, Job turns speechless, giving up and repenting his previous requests of justice. However, another interpretation is that Job's silence is defiant, and that what he gives up is not his belief that justice be done, but his confidence that God will behave justly.

I don't mean that God has no good reason to allow suffering. God may have a fantastic reason. My concern was I didn't understand why we can't hold God to account.

For example, surely if you had a child who was suffering, while their parent was standing around and could seemingly assist that child, then it would be reasonable to demand that the parent explain their inaction. Maybe the parent has an excellent reason, e.g. the pain involved in the medical operation was necessary for the child's future health. But, at least with parents, courts can demand an explanation for apparently negligent actions.

It occurred to me that one way to justify the Book of Job's position might come from the definition of God.

Consider these verses:

James 1:13: "When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone"

Titus 1:2: "in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago"

Hebrews 6:18: "God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged."

They seem to say that God is unable, not just unwilling, to sin (maybe because sin means acting on some untruth, and truth is so firmly planted in God that He cannot so act).

If you define God as a being who is unable - not just unwilling, but unable - to commit evil, then asking God whether or not He is committing evil seems a bit silly. It would be like defining a triangle as an object with three sides and then asking why there is no fourth side. E.g. the answer why there is no fourth side is that a triangle can only have three sides. Similarly, if God is defined as unable to do evil, then you already know whether that particular God has committed evil before you even ask the question.

Under the definition of God as a being who is unable to commit evil, it's fair to say that you shouldn't demand that God tell you whether He is committing evil. Why? Because, with that assumption, the question doesn't make sense. If you already accept that God is unable to do evil, then the answer has to be: God didn't commit evil.

So I suppose you can make an argument that if you are running with view that God is unable to commit evil, then you shouldn't question God because the question is nonsensical.

Applying this to Job, one main difference is that even though the Bible tells us that God is unable to commit evil, by looking at the world we can have some doubt about that. So are we really in the position of being able to say God cannot commit evil before we discuss the problem of suffering?

If we can't start off with that assumption, then you can't say that questioning God is nonsensical.

I would say that if we look at the world, then yes, we don't know that God is a being who is unable to commit evil, but consider the issue from the point-of-view of a God who is unable to commit evil and created the world. According to this God's point-of-view, He is allowed to disagree with our negative impression. For this God knows the real situation. So from that God's point-of-view, maybe He is allowed to say, 'Well, if you knew the truth, then you would know it is nonsensical to question me', and put forth this view to His creations.

In summing up, I think that for people who don't know that God cannot commit evil, I don't think it's necessarily wrong to question God. But this doesn't take away from the fact that from God's point-of-view, questioning His goodness is literally nonsensical (assuming us Christians are right), on the basis of inability. That is, on the basis that God is unable to do evil, it makes no sense to ask whether God did evil. So I suppose that God could in this way have a right to tell people they are unable to question His ethical conduct.

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Saturday, March 03, 2012

Analogies and weak atheism

A lot of atheists make a distinction between 'strong' and 'weak' atheism. 'Strong' atheism is where you claim there is no God. 'Weak' atheism is where there is no evidence for or against a God's existence, so the 'default position' is you go about life without any belief in God, with the help of Occam's razor (note that specific ideas of God may have lots of evidence against them, but the general idea of a God is neutral).

Atheist thinkers have given us a number of analogies to support weak atheism. A famous one is that we all assume there is no teapot flying around the Sun because there is no evidence for any such teapot. Not thinking there is a teapot flying around the Sun is the default position. Some argue it's the same with God.

But I don't think this analogy is appropriate because the claim, 'There is a teapot flying around the Sun', is not a 'no evidence for, no evidence against' 'default-position' issue. In addition to no evidence in favour of a teapot, there is a lot of evidence against it.

One piece of evidence against the teapot claim is that there seems to be no way for a teapot to get out into space unless some astronaut has put it there. But it seems unlikely that an astronaut has ever thrown a teapot into space which has found a stable orbit around the sun.

This means the teapot analogy is not really a good analogy to express weak atheism, because it doesn't express well the situation of something having no evidence for or against it. The teapot analogy is a situation where there is overwhelming evidence against something (the teapot's existence). But God's existence, in weak atheism, is a claim where there is no evidence for or against, and then Occam's razor gives you a bit of evidence against and that's it (although specific ideas of God may have more problems).

So the 'teapot' analogy only works if the idea of God has a lot of evidence against it and no evidence for it.

But if the idea of God's existence receives little evidence either way, then an analogy which is supposed to show what belief in God is like needs to be the same.

But it's actually quite hard to find such analogies, because most claims with no evidence for them also have evidence against them. Such as the fairies at the bottom of the well analogy (how could fairies come to exist except by divine intervention?) and the flying spaghetti monster analogy.

I think an appropriate one would be that believing in God if there's no evidence either way is like someone believing that there exists a place in Melbourne where an standard sized cappuccino cup of coffee costs $6. On the one hand, that is extremely expensive for an ordinary cup of coffee, but, on the other hand, Melbourne is a large city and maybe there's a place somewhere that charges that much. So perhaps this is an example of a claim with no real evidence for or against it.

Do I believe that such a place doesn't exist? Well, I don't really know. I wouldn't say that I believe no such place exists, because the truth is I just don't know. I wouldn't tell anyone that no such place exists in Melbourne because I don't have enough information either way to judge. I must be very agnostic about whether that place exists.

Another example would be someone believing there is an ocean-going cruise ship currently docked in Melbourne's harbour right now without having consulted any information. According to the Port of Melbourne website it is a common occurrence but there are more days without an ocean going cruise ship docked than with one (although the website can actually answer my question, but let's imagine it can't). But if someone forced me to give an opinion, although I would say there probably isn't one docked, my confidence about it would be very low.

I think this shows that if we are really careful to use an analogy where there is little evidence for or against the existence of something, then we are pushed towards a very agnostic view. Our confidence will not be great.

Also, we can see that many analogies used to support weak atheism often involve a fair amount of evidence against and not just a lack of evidence for, and that these analogies indicate a less agnostic, more confident position than more evidence neutral analogies would.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Why can't God just forgive sin?

People sometimes ask: why can't God just forgive sin? Why did Jesus have to die on the cross for us?

My answer to this would be that there are two kinds of forgiveness, one of which is a lot more 'powerful' than the other, and God needed to use this second, more powerful kind of forgiveness. Moreover, giving this kind of forgiveness required Jesus to die on the cross.

How so?

Imagine a thief who keeps stealing some guy's stuff - let's say John's stuff. John is so nice that whenever the thief steals from him, he forgives the thief. But the thief never changes his behaviour. John can forgive the thief all he wants, but it doesn't stop the thieve from stealing. Forgiving the thief doesn't make the thief a better person.

John's kind of forgiveness could be called the first kind.

The story shows that John's kind of forgiveness doesn't do that much. John's forgiveness won't make the thief stop stealing, it will only prevent John from seeking justice and might also relieve some emotional tension from his anger. John's kind of forgiveness won't change the thief's behaviour.

If God's forgiveness is like John's forgiveness then God's forgiveness won't change people's behaviour. If God's forgiveness is like John's forgiveness then we'll act in heaven the way we do on earth. This could lead to heaven having such things as people really disliking one another, splits between different groups, cliques, and so on. Not really a great picture of heaven.

The Christian idea is that to solve humanity's problems, God needed a more powerful 'second' kind of forgiveness - one that changes behaviour. That's the kind of forgiveness you need to really deal with humanity's issues.

See Col 2:13: "You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins."

The Bible says that when God forgave us He managed to change our behaviour as part of the forgiveness. Our sinful nature was 'cut away' by God's forgiveness, although we will still fight against it until Jesus comes (Gal 5:17).

Imagine John forgiving the thief with such 'power' (somehow) that the thief decided never to steal again! That would be similar to the second kind of forgiveness.

So how does it work?

The Bible says that the mechanism for God's more powerful kind of forgiveness must involve Jesus dying for us (Matt 26:39). I'm not too clear on the details of how it works, but I suspect it involves some kind of exchange between sinners and Jesus. 1 Peter 2:24 says, "He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed", in Romans 6:6, "our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ", and in Gal 2:20, "It is no longer [my old sinful self] that lives, but Christ lives in me".

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Why didn't God only make people who would follow Him?

God knows everything, right? So God knew who would choose not to follow Him and therefore who would go to hell. So God could, clearly, have prevented a lot of suffering by simply not creating those people. But God didn't.

How does one respond to this issue?

What I would say is that if it was that easy for God to solve the problem, then God would do so, based on verses like these:

1 Tim 2:3-4: "This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth."

Ezekiel 33:11: "Say to them, 'As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?'"

2 Peter 3:9: "The Lord is not slow in keeping his word, as he seems to some, but he is waiting in mercy for you, not desiring the destruction of any, but that all may be turned from their evil ways."

Matthew 23:37: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, putting to death the prophets, and stoning those who are sent to her! Again and again would I have taken your children to myself as a bird takes her young ones under her wings, and you would not!"

Turning to philosophy, what I might conjecture is that God can make us knowing everything we'll do, but not use that knowledge to make or not make certain people.

Creating a person could be a bit like flipping a coin that will come up 50/50 heads or tails. You can't make it go heads or tails. So just like I can't make a random coin toss always come up heads, God can't make people who will always choose a certain way.

However, unlike flipping the coin God *does* know everything about us before we are born. So in that respect what we have here is something very unlike flipping a coin. God knows but this knowledge is not 'actionable', God can't avoid making the people who will choose badly.

This is venturing further into speculation but it might be that once a soul exists God knows everything about it, including how it will choose in all possible situations. So once God guarantees that a soul will exist, God knows everything about it. However, without making the soul there is nothing can God know about it, because the knowing is based on that soul actually existing - not merely potentially existing. Because before it's created there is not a potential set of choices, there is actually no set of choices at all, because you need a real person to have a potential set of choices to look at, not a mere idea of a person.

(I found this answer interesting as well).

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