Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

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God and goodness: a reply to Victor Reppert

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15 minutes to read A couple of weeks ago, Victor Reppert posted an argument against compatibilism, and invited a general critique. This argument looks as follows (I’m paraphrasing since Victor’s original formulation had some typos): 1. If compatibilism is true, then God could have created the world in such a way that everyone freely does what is right. 2. If God is omnipotent and perfectly good, then, were it possible, he would have created the world in such a way that everyone freely does what is right. 3. But God did not create the world in such a way that everyone freely does what is right. 4. Therefore, compatiblism is false.

A couple of weeks ago, Victor Reppert posted an argument against compatibilism, and invited a general critique. This argument looks as follows (I’m paraphrasing since Victor’s original formulation had some typos):

  1. If compatibilism is true, then God could have created the world in such a way that everyone freely does what is right.
  2. If God is omnipotent and perfectly good, then, were it possible, he would have created the world in such a way that everyone freely does what is right.
  3. But God did not create the world in such a way that everyone freely does what is right.
  4. Therefore, compatiblism is false.

Compatiblism is the view which stands in opposition to libertarian free will. It says that choices may be, and indeed are determined by the greatest desire of the moment, while still being free; and this is fully compatible with God’s complete sovereignty over these actions. I was among several Calvinists to respond to Victor’s argument, along with Paul Manata, Steve Hays and Gene M Bridges of Triablogue, and some others. The Triablogue chaps took a very thorough approach to refuting Victor, and you can search for the gruesome dissection on their site. My response was shorter, and constituted a simple denial of premise (2): that a perfectly good God would have created a world in which no evil exists. To respond to the various criticisms leveled, Victor posted a reply to the Calvinists, in which he attempted to refute both my and Paul’s arguments. At the time I was too busy to respond, which didn’t overly concern me since all of the arguments were very adequately defended on Triablogue. However, since I have a free moment now, I’d like to reply to Victor on my own behalf. I will begin by summarizing the debate thus far, and then address Victor’s response directly:

My original comment was to the effect that premise (2) of this argument fails because it assumes that what is ultimately good is a universe with no evil. This may have the appearance of being true because we tend to get confused between moral and teleological perfection (or think they’re interchangeable). We imagine a universe in which everyone is perfectly good, and we call that a perfectly good universe. But then when we talk about a “perfectly good universe” we are not always careful to stick to that meaning (of a universe in which there is no evil). Sometimes there is a subtle shift of meaning to a universe which is objectively the best one possible. The latter is not the same as the former, and there is no necessary reason that it should be. It does not follow either logically or ethically.

Now, it’s easy to see why Christians might think it does. We have a personal goal, commanded by God, to be morally perfect (Matt 5:48). This is the state of affairs we’re ultimately aiming for in ourselves, and we know that God desires it. Teleological perfection for us is largely defined in terms of moral perfection. But we cannot generalize this principle to apply to everyone without warrant; and neither can we assume that God would have preferred that Christians had started and remained in a state of moral perfection, as well as finishing there.

On the contrary, I maintain that God never desired this, because the ultimate teleological perfection (for the universe) is not a world of moral perfection, but a world in which God is fully glorified. Therefore, if the existence of evil glorifies God more than the non-existence of evil does, it is fully congruent with his character that he would have created a world in which some or all people freely do evil. Therefore, premise (2) of the argument fails.

In response to this view, Victor submitted that ultimate teleological perfection cannot obtain in a universe wherein there is permanent moral imperfection. That is, the eternal conscious torment of damned sinners in hell achieves nothing which is more good in any sense than the eternal conscious bliss of saved sinners in heaven. There is nothing morally desirable, in his view, about the former outcome; while there is much that is desirable about the latter. Therefore, Victor claims that it would contradict the perfectly good character of God for him to desire, let alone predestine, the damnation of anyone.

He grounds this argument on the moral intuition of what goodness itself is. That is, when we approach Scripture in the first instance and read about goodness, we already understand basically what it is. If we did not, we could not know what it means when it tells us that “God is good”. Therefore, if a given theological notion does not fit into the category of goodness as we understand it, as he says God’s reprobation of the wicked does not, then obviously that notion is not good (and is therefore false). The implication here is that if some doctrine or other does not align with our existing notion of goodness, then it is impossible for it to be objectively good. If reprobation were true, then God does something which we actually find evil, in which case our conception of goodness is so faulty that we cannot actually understand the phrase “God is good” at all. At least, this is how I understand him to be arguing. Permit me now to get to the meat of the matter by quoting his objection to me from ‘Reply to the Calvinists’, and addressing each point (I have replaced line breaks with paragraph breaks for the sake of presentation):

Bnonn seems inclined to be critical of my claim the conception of goodness that we apply to God needs to be continuous with the concept that we apply to human beings. He seems, much more that Paul [Manata], to want to push in the general direction of theological voluntarism. He maintains that while we do, and must come to Christ and to Scripture with a conception of what goodness is, we must be prepared to allow our conception of goodness to be corrected by Scripture. There are two problems with his suggestion.

First, while I admit that Scripture can correct my conception of goodness, accepting reprobation would, on my view, not be a correction, but an out and out reversal, of what goodness seems to me to be. If Hitler was wrong to send people to Auschwitz, could it be OK for God to send people to an everlasting Auschwitz, when he could have chosen eternal bliss for them?

Second, it’s the very influence of Scripture on my character that makes Calvinism a problem. Scripture teaches that I should love my neighbor as myself and undermines the idea, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, that there are people outside the pale of being my neighbor. If I think about the people whom I come the closest to loving as I do myself, I don’t find that there are two good options, either an eternal bliss in relation to God, or eternal justified punishment forever and ever separated from God. The more I love someone, the less acceptable the second option is.

Finally, the summum bonum that God pursues in saving and damning is supposed to be his own glory. How in the world does damning someone eternally glorify God. How does taking voices out of the heavenly choir glorify God? Sending people to hell by a decree before the foundation of the world deprives God of glory.

Victor, there are actually three distinct objections here, which I’ll answer distinctly. Just before I begin, let me say that I am not advocating voluntarism (the view that God could make anything good simply by fiat). That view is rubbish. Now, onward—

1. Accepting reprobation is not a mere correction of our ethical intuitions, but a reversal of them

There are several ways in which this objection fails. Actually, there are so many that I will have to limit myself to the half-dozen most pressing. Firstly, it seems to suppose a very binary view of our moral intuitions: that is, it seems to imply that a doctrine either contradicts our intuitions, or it does not. But clearly it is possible for a doctrine to not seem completely evil to us, yet to still be morally objectionable. We might feel anything from a mild unease at its ethical implications, to a strong and definite certainty that it is morally wrong. At what point then, in your view, do we stop allowing Scripture to correct our moral intuitions?

Secondly, is it your moral intuition that an army would be justified in sweeping through a city, putting every one of its citizens to death with the sword, down to the last child? If not, then to be consistent in your position you must deny that God commanded this in Deuteronomy 7:2 (cf Joshua 6:21). Given your argument, a perfectly good God would not command something which contradicts our moral intuitions about what goodness is, or we would not actually be able to know what the phrase “God is good” means. But if it is your moral intuition that it is good to put an entire city to death in this way, then you might validly be considered some kind of sociopath. Certainly it is not a normal intuition, is it? The only recourse available to you is to affirm that our conception of goodness, as it applies to God, is not necessarily continuous with our conception of goodness as applied to man. In either case, it appears that based on a real, biblical example, your Auschwitz analogy fails. (Of course, it fails not only because God is not a man, but because Hitler was not justly punishing condemned criminals either.)

Thirdly, and along the same lines, an appeal to moral intuitions as the final judge of the goodness of something contradicts your own convictions about moral realism and objectivity, because it places what goodness is (in the final analysis) in the hands of subjective people. It therefore opens the door to ethical objections to Christianity which are objectively baseless (the so-called arguments from atrocities). And if it opens the door to ethical objections against Christianity, how much more does it open the door to ethical objections against itself? My own moral intuition about God creating people for the express purpose of punishing them in hell, for example, ranges from indifference to favor, depending on how the question is approached; and I think I am not alone.

Fourthly, as I believe the Triablogue chaps have pointed out, there are numerous moral intuitions which we may have to reverse (rather than merely correct) in order to accept Christianity in the first instance. It is a normal moral intuition, for example (that is, it is commonly believed), that people are intrinsically good—yet Scripture tells us, and even most libertarian Christians agree, that people are intrinsically evil (eg Matt 7:11). Does this not require a complete reversal of one’s moral intuitions about the nature of man? Penal substitution is another example of a doctrine which many people find intuitively abhorrent. Yet we affirm penal substitution as a glorious, saving doctrine. Should people not reverse their intuitions on this matter? Surely you agree that they should. But if so, why is a reversal regarding reprobation not acceptable, when these other reversals are?

Furthermore, is it not the case that moral intuitions may be reversed over time anyway? For example, until I was converted to Christ I had no intuition at all that pornography was morally objectionable. Now I do. And, being raised a Roman Catholic, I had no moral intuition that idol worship was wrong, either during my formative years or after becoming an atheist; yet now I find Roman Catholic prayer practices to be gut-wrenchingly disgusting. Clearly, moral intuitions are not particularly reliable: they are not formed in a vacuum, and they do not remain constantly free from influence. Was I wrong to accept Christ, given that it involved me having to reverse some strong moral intuitions? If you are to be consistent in your argument, it would seem that I was as wrong to accept Christ as you would be to accept reprobation.

Fifthly, is it not in fact a Christian doctrine that man’s moral intuitions are, very fundamentally, at odds with reality? If it is indeed true that all men have exchanged the worship of God for worship of the creation (Romans 1:18ff), and if God is the highest good (as I’m sure you’ll agree), then our moral intuitions are in fact completely grounded in the wrong thing. Therefore, these intuitions must necessarily be quite incapable of accurately discerning good from evil (at least as regards to God), because our judgment of what is “good” is not grounded in the highest good, but actually excludes it, being grounded in man. Even after conversion we cannot expect that our intuitions will change overnight. Sanctification, by definition, entails constant hard work and self-correction against God’s word. This being the case, should we not expect to find reprobation intuitively objectionable, given that it oppugns the value of man that we so instinctively assume, and instead asserts the value of God, which we instinctively deny? What is your scriptural basis for believing that our moral intuitions must be basically accurate about doctrines in which God’s goodness supersedes man’s; such as reprobation?

Finally, what is a “moral intuition” in the first place? As I hinted at in point four, what you call intuitions appear to be rather more like normal, formulated beliefs; albeit quite strong and basic ones. There is no denying that we have the notions of “good” and “bad” built into us as categories (Romans 2:15)—but what we put into those categories is not consistent between people, and in some cases varies wildly depending on sociological and biological factors. Suicide bombers, cannibals, idol worshipers, sorcerers, polygamists, gang members, homosexuals; these are all people who I can name off the top of my head as having significantly different moral “intuitions” to you and me. Clearly, what you are calling moral intuitions here are in fact beliefs inserted into preexisting moral categories. These categories are evidently capable of supporting mutually contradictory beliefs not only in different people, but in the same person at different times. It therefore cannot be that the category of goodness is defined by certain beliefs, and is incoherent if we try to insert opposing beliefs into it. Otherwise we could not have people who think all of the above things are “good”, while we think they are “bad”. If your argument were sound, we could not communicate with them about good and bad at all, because our conceptions of these things differs so greatly. So it can’t be the case that the kind of moral intuitions we’re talking about are categories unto themselves. Instead, it appears that they are merely beliefs which are weighted by the categories into which we subjectively place them. In that case, and especially in light of point five above, there is simply no good reason to assume that our personal allocation of a belief into the “good” category is correct; while there is very good reason to suspect that it might be incorrect. This obviously applies to reprobation as much as any other belief.

2. The more we love people as ourselves, the less good it seems that they go to hell; since God loves everyone, he would not send anyone to hell

There are two obvious difficulties here. Firstly, you are once again assuming a continuity between goodness as we apply it to people, and goodness as God applies it. Secondly, it is far from clear to me that the more we love someone as ourselves, the less good it seems that he go to hell.

Number 1: does God love his neighbor as himself? Obviously no answer can be given, because God has no neighbor. The question doesn’t apply because the term “neighbor” implies equality, and who is equal to God? The point of the second commandment is that since all people are made in the image of God, and since God shows no partiality, we should therefore not put ourselves above anyone else, because we are not above them. Rather, we should love all people as God does; ourselves included. But if God has no neighbor, then we cannot draw an analogy between how we feel about someone we love very much perishing, and how God feels about that same person perishing. God’s love of that person cannot compare to his love for himself; for that person is of infinitely lesser value than God. Unless we think that God values finite and morally corrupt creatures more than he values the infinite and morally perfect Godhead (which would be absurd since God’s evaluation is objective, and that would make man more valuable than him), we simply cannot draw the analogy you have drawn.

Number 2: if we genuinely love our neighbors as ourselves, then is it not actually entirely acceptable that they go to hell? Remembering that love itself must be defined by the Bible for this commandment to make sense, what does it mean to love myself? Well, I find that love is defined in relationship to God’s law—that the whole Law and Prophets rest on the commandment to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:40). The corollary of this is that the commandment to love God and neighbor is explicated and fulfilled in the Law and Prophets. Therefore, I find that if I am to love myself in the biblical sense, I must first love God; and if I love God, then I count myself as nothing beside him. Since I love God before I love myself, I love goodness and justice and righteousness more than I love my personal desires—that is, I love God’s character more than I love my own. And since I love God’s character more than my own, I am able to reflect upon my own character and find it morally disgusting. If I love God, then I find that what is entailed in loving myself is conforming my character to God’s character.

In other words, to love myself in the biblical sense is not a self-centered affection, but a God centered one. It is an affection which would rather deny the natural inclinations of my heart in favor of what I know is ultimately good, because it “rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). It does not rejoice in wrong-doing (ibid), nor does it insist on its own way (v 5); and so in times of honest self-reflection I recognize how wicked I am, and because I love God I desire to see that wickedness punished because that is good. True, because of love I also hope for mercy (v 7); but I do not demand or expect it. Because of love, I would endure all things for the sake of what is right (ibid), including hell.

Therefore, if I am to love other people as I love myself, I find that I must have these same attitude and expectations toward them. It is true that I hope for their salvation; but equally I do not rejoice in their wrongdoing, but in the truth. And I would endure their suffering in hell for the sake of that truth, which they have denied.

You appear to be using the word “love” in an entirely different sense. The love you describe does not sound like a God-centered affection, but a man-centered one; it is not a selfless love, but a selfish one. Certainly that is how we naturally love ourselves, but it doesn’t appear to be what the Bible means. So your objection only seems to succeed if we define love in a secular way—in a way which focuses on man, rather than on God. But then you have already precluded your argument as a Christian one, and the only response needed is to point this out.

Having said this, I think it’s important (lest I be misunderstood) to mention that I affirm that God does indeed desire all people to be saved, since they are creatures made in his image and he does love them accordingly. It is good that we desire this also, inasmuch as our desires should reflect his. However, as I have proved at length in my polemic against Ron di Giacomo’s hypercalvinism on the question of whether God desires the salvation of all, this is not the only or ultimate guiding principle in determining God’s actions. God desires his own glorification more than he desires all people be saved. He loves the Godhead more than he loves mankind.

3. The summum bonum which God pursues is his own glory; but condemning people to hell from the foundation of the world deprives God of glory

This objection can now be easily dispensed with in light of the discussion above. It is simply an assertion on your part; and frankly a rather silly assertion at that. Clearly you do not know that reprobating someone instead of saving him deprives God of glory. In fact, in the absence of a definition of glory, it isn’t clear what you’re asserting in the first place. As with goodness and love, you appear to be appealing to some general, colloquial, shared understanding of glory—and as with those previous things, you can’t do that if you want to be talking objectively and biblically, rather than subjectively and secularly.

Now it seems to me that the Bible talks about glory in a number of ways, but when it speaks of God glorifying himself it ultimately is referring to his manifesting his divine attributes. This is an intrinsically good thing, since God is good, in every way, in and of himself. Thus, when he uses Pharaoh and the Egyptians as instruments in whom to manifest his wrath and power (that is, to glorify himself; cf Exodus 14:17-18), it is good that he does so. And how could he glorify these attributes if he did not have sinful vessels in which to do it? Therefore, even on a superficial analysis, it seems quite evidently false that God is deprived of glory by eternally reprobating sinners instead of saving them. Such a view presupposes that God can only obtain glory by being merciful or “loving” (but I’ve shown that even then that would not be genuine love). Now even on its own terms this might well fail, since an argument can be made that God would be less merciful to the elect if there was no actualized punishment from which they were delivered.

Yet it fails more obviously than this, for why suppose that God is only glorified in an eternal display of mercy? Clearly, mercy is not his only quality; so if he only glorified it without manifesting his other perfectly good attributes he would, by definition, be deprived of glory. His justice would not be shown in eternity. His wrath would not be shown. His power would not be fully shown. So this objection fails completely.

It would even fail if I am wrong about what it means for God to be glorified, because no actual argument has been made. You ask, “How in the world does damning someone eternally glorify God?” But what if I cannot answer? Does that prove that you are right? No, of course it doesn’t. In the absence of exegetical reasoning to support your position, it merely means that you find Calvinism intuitively objectionable—which is something I’ve now spent some time showing to be a wholly inadequate foundation for objection.

In summary, your objections, being all ultimately grounded in your moral intuitions rather than in Scripture, have no objective standing. As such, they fail when used against a Christian position—even if that position is not biblically accurate (though I believe it is). As I’ve shown, this is because your intuitions are out of accord with God’s actions in Scripture at other points anyway; appealing to them undermines moral realism, which you believe in; they are reversible without difficulty despite your claim to the contrary, making your objection to reprobation nothing more than special pleading; they are likely to be wrong on Scripture’s own testimony; and they do not work as categories in the way that you seem to think they do.


Continued in ‘God and goodness: a second reply to Victor Reppert’ »

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