In a recent correspondence, I presented a brief argument against the Roman Catholic conception of God’s purposes, and in favor of a supralapsarian Calvinist conception. Since I think the argument is a good one, and is effective against more positions than the Roman Catholic one, I’m going to develop it further in this post. It is an argument from the divine accomplishment of purpose, and is predicated on Isaiah 46:9–11. I’ll first (I) very briefly exegete this passage; (II) comment on the distinction which needs to be drawn between purpose and desire; then (III) lay some groundwork for my argument by outlining the theological tradition it refutes; before (IV) presenting the argument itself.
I. A brief exegesis of Isaiah 46:9-11
Remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
10declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
11calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it.
This passage establishes two essential facts: (i) that God, from the beginning, declares the end; and (ii) that this declaration is based upon what he has purposed to bring about. The latter is the key word in view, upon which I’ll develop the argument. In this passage it is used as both a noun (verse 10) and a verb (verse 11). As a noun, “purpose” is primarily (a) something set up as an object or end to be attained—that is, an intention—and (b) a resolution or determination. Secondarily, it is a subject under discussion, or an action in course of execution.1 As a verb, it is to propose as an aim to oneself.2 In the Hebrew, the noun is chephets, and refers to delight, pleasure, or longing.3 The verb is yatsar, meaning literally to mold into a form, especially as a potter;4 thus, in context, to determine, form, or frame in advance.5
Essentially then, what this passage is asserting is that everything which God intends to bring about, he will bring about. When, from the beginning, he declares the end, it is not merely a declaration based on a passive or external knowledge of what will happen, but rather on an active or internal knowledge of what he is going to do. Put in familiar theological terms, this passage establishes that God’s omniscience is inextricably related to his omnipotence: he knows everything which occurs in history because he knows everything he causes to occur in history.
II. Distinguishing between purpose and desire
Having established and commented upon the inevitable execution of God’s purposes, it’s necessary to draw a distinction between these and his desires. It should go without saying that nothing which God purposes he does not also desire. He does not purpose and then bring about things which he does not desire to purpose and bring about—that would make him schizophrenic. So only what God desires he purposes. But notice how when we phrase it like that, we’ve subtly implied (so innocuously) that everything he desires he purposes. This does not follow! Certainly some of what he desires he purposes; but the fact that he desires something does not, in and of itself, indicate necessarily that he purposes it.
In fact, the opposite may equally be true. God may desire something very greatly, and thus purpose it; and by the very act of bringing about this purpose he may establish the conditions wherein he has a contrary, though lesser, desire. For example, he may purpose to redeem mankind through the sacrifice of his son; and, in bringing about this purpose, he may establish a number of conditions which, in virtue of his moral character, he has a straightforward desire against. He desires to see his son live; not die. What father wouldn’t—and if a human father, how much more a divine one? He desires to see people do good and not murder. What good human wouldn’t—and if a good human, how much more a good God? Yet these desires are contingent upon the very purpose which they oppose. Thus, they are straightforward moral desires or attitudes which do not rise to the level of being purposes or intentions. And, because they are not purposes or intentions, there is no self-contradiction in God’s actions. The fact that he is capable of entertaining opposing but hierarchical desires merely demonstrates that he is capable of the same complex attitudes that we are. This becomes important when examining the conclusion of my argument.
III. A basic outline of the doctrine opposed
The argument I’m making is against those theological traditions which affirm God’s universal salvific purpose. This is a common Christian belief which can be summarized as follows:
- God has set within his mind, as an object or end to be attained, the salvation of all people without exception;
- he has acted in history to attain this end through the work of Jesus Christ;
- and he is prevented from attaining it only by the free agency of those people who choose to reject his overtures of salvation.
It’s probably fair to say that, in various iterations, this represents a “mainstream” Christian view. I’ve even seen it presented as the gospel itself. It’s based on the moral intuition that it would be reprehensible for God to elect only certain people to salvation, while making no allowance for the salvation of anyone else. According to this intuition, God’s infinite benevolence must be reflected in his genuine intention that all people be saved, which in turn must be outworked in his genuine attempt to achieve this in the atonement of Jesus Christ. In its most extreme variants, this intuition leads naturally into universalism: the belief that all people without exception will ultimately be saved. In its more conservative iterations, God’s intention to save all people is held in tension with those people’s libertarian free will, by which they are capable of choosing to reject the salvation offered.
This does not prima facie contradict God’s omnipotence, because although omnipotence entails no external limitations on God’s power, internal limitations are not only possible but necessary. For example, God cannot lie; he cannot do the logically impossible; and—according to the theological traditions in question—he cannot overrule the libertarian free will of those whom he wishes to save. Many reasons are given for this; generically, they tend to reduce down to the belief that God would be in some way acting against his character if he did not permit us to make our own free choices (even when these are against our own self-interest). This is generally supported by at least the argument that God would be acting against his character if he were to coerce people to love him, because love which is not freely given is not genuine. Thus, the only limitation on God’s ability to save people is one he imposes upon himself by merit of his own character in relation to libertarian freedom.
Although much can be said against this, I’m going to assume for the sake of argument that it’s at least prima facie reasonable. Having thus laid this groundwork and conceded this point, I can bring Isaiah 46:9-11 to bear to demonstrate very simply that a real contradiction does, in fact, exist.
IV. The argument from divine accomplishment of purpose
The bulk of this argument is comprised in its third to sixth premises. The first and second are appended in order to ensure clarity as regards the specific theological assumptions being made. Thus, premise (1) serves to funnel any kind of Christian position into the argument; and premise (2) functions as a catch-all for both traditional and heretical formulations of God’s omniscience.
- God purposes to save people.
- If God purposes to save people, then he knows which persons he purposes to save.
- Everything God purposes he accomplishes.
- Therefore, every person God purposes to save he will save.
- Not every person without exception is saved.
- Therefore, God does not purpose to save every person without exception.
The conclusion follows necessarily; so to deny it one must deny at least one of the premises. Let me briefly comment, then, on each premise in turn.
1. God purposes to save people
I start with this very generic premise for the sake of precision and power. It is a premise which cannot be denied by any Christian, since the very point of the gospel is that God desires and intends to save at least some people. I have not said precisely which persons, and so the premise is uncontroversial. Thus, it’s a good place to start, since it shows that the argument in toto applies to anyone who names himself a Christian.
2. If God purposes to save people, then he knows which persons he purposes to save
Again this is an uncontroversial premise, since even those people who deny God’s perfect definite foreknowledge will affirm that he is not so senile as to have no conception whatsoever of whom he intends to save. Specifically, since the argument is made against those Christians who believe that God purposes to save everyone—that is, the set of all people—the question of whether he knows precisely every individual encompassed within this set is moot. Thus, the premise is equally binding upon an Arminian as an open theist; since both must agree with it in view of God’s omniscience, even if they have differing views on what kind of knowledge that omniscience entails.
3. Everything God purposes he accomplishes
In light of the exegesis of Isaiah 46:9-11 above, this should also be an uncontroversial statement. Since God himself claims, “I will accomplish all my purpose […] I have purposed, and I will do it” (vv 10,11), to deny this premise is effectively to deny the inerrancy of Scripture. Unless a convincing exegetical argument can be made that this passage is affirming the logical opposite of what it is saying (ie, that God does not accomplish everything which he purposes), the only way to deny the premise is to fall into liberalism. Thus, my argument does not extend so far as to refute liberals—their low view of God’s word must be refuted on its own grounds.
4. Therefore, every person God purposes to save he will save
This premise follows necessarily from (2) and (3). If God purposes to save people, whether specifically or generically as an entire group; and if his purposes are always accomplished; then the salvation of these people is inevitable.
5. Not every person without exception is saved
This is the other premise which can be denied by some who call themselves Christians. Universalism is becoming more fashionable among even “evangelical” Christians, because of those same moral intuitions that lead people to assume that God purposes to save everyone in the first place. Thus my argument doesn’t extend to refute universalism any more than it does liberalism; rather, universalism, like liberalism, is one of its logical conclusions if (6) is rejected on the basis of being morally unpalatable. This kind of rejection requires a different argumentative approach—such as the one I use in my exchange with Victor Reppert on God and goodness.
6. Therefore, God does not purpose to save every person without exception
This is the logically necessary conclusion of the prior premises, presuming that one hasn’t deserted Scripture for liberalism or universalism (or both). Remember that, as per the discussion in heading (II) above, this doesn’t entail the conclusion that God does not desire to save every person without exception. All that has been proved is that he does not purpose it. Thus, on any remotely orthodox view of God, the argument succeeds in affirming irrefutably the Calvinist view of election, while simultaneously refuting other contenders.
- Merriam-Webster Online, “purpose” (retrieved August 2008).
- Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius, “chephets” (retrieved August 2008).
- Strong, “yatsar” (retrieved August 2008).
- Brown, Driver, Briggs, Genesius, “yatsar” (retrieved August 2008).