Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

God and goodness: a second reply to Victor Reppert

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7 minutes to read Victor has posted a further response in our ongoing discussion regarding the nature of good as presented in the Bible, and how it compares to our moral intuitions. I invite you to read it in full; it is not very long. I will quote only pertinent segments here. The gist is that (I) Scripture only indirectly addresses the question in which we are interested (is predestination good?); (II) it is only authoritative once we already believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, so a preexisting conception of goodness is logically necessary to belief in the Christian God; and (III) it is unclear the extent to which we can get precise meaning out of Scripture via historical-grammatical analysis.

Continued from ‘God and goodness: a reply to Victor Reppert’ «

Victor has posted a further response in our ongoing discussion regarding the nature of good as presented in the Bible, and how it compares to our moral intuitions. I invite you to read it in full; it is not very long. I will quote only pertinent segments here. The gist is that (I) Scripture only indirectly addresses the question in which we are interested (is predestination good?); (II) it is only authoritative once we already believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, so a preexisting conception of goodness is logically necessary to belief in the Christian God; and (III) it is unclear the extent to which we can get precise meaning out of Scripture via historical-grammatical analysis.

I. Scripture’s lack of direct comment on the question of predestination

You say,

The trouble is that Scripture only indirectly addresses the problems that we are interested in. In Romans 9, for example, Paul is concerned not about the election of individuals but in explaining the unbelief of Israel and explaining how God’s promises were not broken.

But even so, Romans 9 still explicitly teaches the election of individuals; indeed, for the very purpose of teaching about God’s more corporate promises. So this objection fails from the outset. Furthermore, even if this objection succeeded, Scripture directly and explicitly comments on personal election in other places (emphases are mine):

28And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).

Notice the order of events:

  1. God foreknows “those who love God”, that is, “those who are called according to his purpose”.
  2. God predestines for (5) those whom he has foreknown.
  3. God calls those whom he has predestined.
  4. God justifies those whom he has called.
  5. God glorifies those whom he has justified.

Now, do “those who love God” do so prior to being called, or afterward? Obviously afterward, since before being called they did not know God—or they would not need to have been called at all. But if they loved God only after being called, it is evident that what God foreknew (v 29) was not love, but the people themselves, as the grammar indicates. That is to say, in the sequence our love comes as a result of God’s calling—but if that calling is based on God’s predestination, and the predestination is based on foreknowledge, then the foreknowledge which drives the predestination and calling cannot be of love, because the love is caused by the foreknowledge. The foreknowledge is the beginning of the causal chain which brings about that love in the first place. And indeed, the passage itself states that we are called “according to his purpose”; not “because we love him”. “We love because he first loved us” ( 1 John 4:19); or, put another way, “in love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:4,5).

It should also be noted that this calling is exclusive to those who love God. It is not that God’s calling is a merely necessary condition for our loving him, such that our own will is the tie-breaker and many are called yet do not love; rather, the calling is a sufficient condition. All those who are called love God. In answering the question “why do the Jews not accept and come to the Messiah?” Jesus says through John that it is because “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44); while, conversely, “everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (v 45). That is, “all that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (v 37). Thus, there is an exclusive and select group: those who are called or drawn by the Father. These are those who come to Jesus, of whom not a single one will be lost, but rather will be raised to eternal life on the last day (v 39). The context is soteriological; the division of types of people is binary and exclusive; the end result is infallibly certain; and the reason for this is that the causative agent which brings it all about from beginning to end is God’s will.

Therefore, objection (I) is simply a false claim. Scripture very openly, unapologetically, unequivocally, and in several places addresses the question of predestination and election. It states that God chose and foreknew (that is, foreloved) a group of people “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4); that he then predestined this group and this group only to be drawn into faith; that he then draws this group and this group only; that every one of the group drawn is justified by this faith (Rom 5:1); and that every one of those drawn and justified will be raised up and glorified on the last day. The corollary of this is that every single person not foreknown, predestined, drawn, justified, and glorified is instead reprobated to hell by God. There is no uncertainty or lack of clarity in Scripture on this matter. It addresses the question directly and perspicuously, leaving no room for valid alternative interpretations.

II. Scripture’s authority being logically predicated upon belief in a perfectly good God

You say,

Scripture doesn’t even begin to function authoritatively unless a person thinks there is a omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good being. Since God by definition is a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good, what that means is that, at least logically, we have to know how to use the word “good” before we could possibly know how to use the word “God.” And Scripture doesn’t get its authority until we have the conviction that it comes from God, which we would not be able to recognize even if we had a pre-existing conception of “good.”

This is (i) confused and false; and (ii) irrelevant. In the case of (i), it is certainly true that, in our post-Christian society, most people who are converted to Christ already have some notion of who God is. But where does that notion originate? In the authority if Scripture, of course. To the degree that it differs with Scripture’s own representation of God, it is a false conception. In, say, China, a convert has no similar “triple O” conception of God before he comes to Scripture itself. If he believes in God on the testimony of Scripture, then in fact he thinks that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being because Scripture has begun to function authoritatively for him—which is logically opposite to the priority of events you have asserted.

As regards (ii), the fact that we have to know how to use the word “good” before we can use the word “God” doesn’t seem to bear on this issue at all since Scripture prescribes, rather than describes, what is good and what is not. You are begging the question against my previous sixfold refutation of your argument from moral intuition (call it conviction; it makes no difference). Goodness is a category which we fill with various propositions. The proposition “man is predestined to heaven or hell” contains nothing, in and of itself, which necessitates it be placed into either category. The only way to know infallibly is by consulting the Bible. We might have a very strong subjective intuition that it belongs in the “bad” category; but if Scripture says otherwise then we know that our intuition is wrong. We are fallible; the Bible is not (if we are still having a Christian conversation, that is). And Scripture itself even gives us good reason to expect that our moral intuitions will conflict with its morally perfect doctrines on occasion—because we are morally corrupt, and unable to properly discern right from wrong.

III. Skepticism about obtaining clear propositional facts from Scripture

You say,

What I am more or less a skeptic about is the extent to which we can get the precise meaning out of Scripture via historical-grammatical analyses. I don’t believe that final doctrinal answers can be read off these kinds of analyses. They are very helpful, but they are quite human attempts to put me inside the mind of people 20 centuries distant from me who spoke a language I don’t speak. Further, exegetes seem to me to reflect the theological biases they bring to the text.

Two major observations seem all that is required here:

Firstly, even if “final doctrinal answers” cannot be read off these kinds of analyses, it remains that Christianity is defined by its doctrines; and a Christian is someone who believes them. Therefore, unless you are going to withdraw your profession and assume the position of an agnostic or skeptic, you have to read some kind of doctrinal answers off these kinds of analyses—regardless of whether you consider those answers “final” or not. Given that the libertarian doctrinal answers simply do not stand up to either philosophical or exegetical scrutiny, while the Calvinist answers do, claiming skepticism about the epistemic force of these answers is irrelevant. Even if all the answers are weak, Calvinism is by far the strongest of a weak bunch.

Secondly, the answers are not weak at all. You seem to be advocating deconstructionism; but your obviously firm belief in your own understanding of Scripture, in opposition to the Calvinist’s, belies your implicit rejection of this absurd post-modern notion. Now, I am not a psychologist (and if I were I might not be right anyway), but to me it sounds like you are beginning to recognize the manifold ways in which this understanding you have of Scripture is contradicted by both Scripture itself and sound reason—but rather than altering your understanding, you are attempting to mitigate the difficulty by retreating into skepticism. The problem with skepticism about what Scripture says is that it renders your own beliefs impossible just as much as mine. Are you willing to go so far to uphold your moral intuitions that you will call God a liar, and take your salvation out of his infallible hands in favor of your weak fingers? I hope not.

Regards,
Bnonn

Continued in ‘God and goodness: a new question from Victor Reppert’ »

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