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Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


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God and goodness: a second 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.

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’ »

6 comments

  1. Victor Reppert

    Where does Romans mention anyone’s eternal destiny? Where? Even where individuals are mentioned (Jacob and Esau, and Pharoah) they are elected for historic roles, not for heaven or hell.

    I’m not a deconstructionist. It’s just that I am more certain that it is wrong to inflict pain on little children for your own amusement than I am that the “world” in John 3: 16 refers to the elect and not to all persons. I’m a fallibilist, not a deconstructionist. I’m not even denying inerrancy by saying this, just affirming the fallibility of my understanding of what the Bible says.

    Calvinism attributes to God actions which in any parallel human context would be considered wrong by anyone. Or, rather, I should say the omnipotent one. We are not entitled to use the term “God” unless the being in question is good in some sense that is continuous with the use of the term “good” as it is used in ordinary language. Otherwise, we’re just Humpty-dumptying our terms.

    The supreme good, according to Calvinism, is God’s glory. I still don’t know what that means. It looks to me like this theory of the good is just a blank check to justify whatever you think God has done. If God had chosen to save everyone or damn everyone, we would say it was for His glory if we wanted to. So the theory doesn’t explain anything, since it could be used to explain everything.

    There’s no uncertainty about predestination so long as you focus on certain passages. If you focus on others, you come out an Arminian or a universalist. In Romans is says whoever believes and confesses is saved, in Philippians it says that eventually every knee shall bow and every tongue confess. Put those two verses together and you get a case for universalism. Of course you can read these passages in the light of the doctrine of everlasting punishment, but can’t you equally read passages about hell in the light of the doctrine of universal salvation? Thus the “elect” who are converted can be perceived as “first fruits.” “Eternal” on this system of exegesis means age-long rather than absolutely eternal.

    I would have to admit that I am not in the class of either D. A. Carson or Ben Witherington as exegetes. So far as I can tell, neither are you. Both of these guys know more than I do about Scripture. Carson, I take it, is a Calvinist, Witherington is an Arminian. As is, I believe, N. T. Wright. Or is Wright a universalist? I forget. There is expert opinion on the exegesis of the relevant passages, and it is far from unanimous. These guys are better than me at Scripture scholarship. What I am perhaps good at is the analysis of the meanings of terms, of asking whether a term is used consistently across contexts. If you use words in ways that do violence to their ordinary meanings, then I start objecting.

    What does it mean to say that God is good? Is it just a way of saying “God is bigger than you are, and can beat you up forever if you don’t obey him?” If that’s what it means, then the term just doesn’t mean anything.

    Are you a theological voluntarist? Your friends over at Triablogue, especially Paul, want to distance themselves from theological voluntarism. You seem closer to it yourself. Are things right just because the most powerful being in the universe has commanded it. I can imagine an Omnipotent Fiend. If theological voluntarism is true, there cannot, by definition, be an Omnipotent Fiend.

    We can, and do, bend and grow our conception of goodness in the light of Scripture. But what do we do when we encounter a reading of Scripture that breaks our ordinary moral conceptions, rather than just bend it? As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “If I bend that far, I’ll break.” We can conclude that Scripture is wrong, that our conceptions are wrong, or that this interpretation of the text is wrong. If we have an expert consensus on these matters, then we could remove doubt about our interpretation and consider the other options.

    What makes God God? Is it just His omnipotence? Or we might ask, what makes Scripture Scripture? Remember, there are lots of candidates out there. The Qu’ran, the Book of Mormon, the Hebrew Scriptures without the NT, the Bhagavad-Gita. A connections with my own conceptions of good what makes the Christian God and Scripture valid for me.

    I won’t call God a liar. I will call God a provider of incomplete information. The theology that the comforters of Job was in accordance with the teachings of many Scriptures. It is the apparent teaching of passages in Deuteronomy and Proverbs that the righteous will prosper on earth and the wicked will suffer on earth. Are those passages lies?

    Whatever infallibility God may have, whatever infallibility Scripture may have, cannot be transferred into the hands of fallible exegetes, however expert they may be. Our salvation may be in God’s firm hands, our understanding of that salvation, even with the assistance of Scripture, is in our hands.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Victor, thanks for your comment.

    I’m not a deconstructionist. It’s just that I am more certain that it is wrong to inflict pain on little children for your own amusement than I am that the “world” in John 3: 16 refers to the elect and not to all persons.

    I don’t believe that the “world” in John 3:16 refers to the elect. I believe it refers to the world; that is, all people indiscriminately.

    The supreme good, according to Calvinism, is God’s glory. I still don’t know what that means. It looks to me like this theory of the good is just a blank check to justify whatever you think God has done. If God had chosen to save everyone or damn everyone, we would say it was for His glory if we wanted to. So the theory doesn’t explain anything, since it could be used to explain everything.

    But this isn’t so. I gave a good definition of what glory was in my previous reply to you; and demonstrated that saving everyone would bring God less glory than damning some and saving some. By merit of the reasons for this, it is also evident that he would get far less glory by damning everyone.

    As regards universalism, I think that’s a bit beyond the scope of our discussion. I’m afraid I don’t have time to interact with that; I will simply have to defer to very good works such as Whatever Happened to Hell? by John Blanchard.

    I am not a theological voluntarist; I am simply willing to concede that my moral intuitions may be wrong, and actually expect them to be because Scripture tells me to. Denying theological voluntarism does not commit me to affirming the truth of my moral intuitions. It commits me to affirming that the category of goodness built into me by God is congruent with the objective category of goodness intrinsic to his own character. This does not imply that the propositions I place into that category will necessarily be correct.

    We can, and do, bend and grow our conception of goodness in the light of Scripture. But what do we do when we encounter a reading of Scripture that breaks our ordinary moral conceptions, rather than just bend it? As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “If I bend that far, I’ll break.” We can conclude that Scripture is wrong, that our conceptions are wrong, or that this interpretation of the text is wrong. If we have an expert consensus on these matters, then we could remove doubt about our interpretation and consider the other options.

    Firstly, I have really already answered this. I can’t see that you’ve really even interacted with, let alone refuted my objections; you just seem to be reiterating your own. Secondly, I don’t have a problem with prioritizing an interpretation of Scripture which conforms to our moral intuitions over one which doesn’t—provided all other things are equal. But not all interpretations are made equal.

    A connections with my own conceptions of good what makes the Christian God and Scripture valid for me.

    I’m not sure how to respond to that. The internal testimony of the Spirit is what assures me of the Bible’s validity; not how congruent it is with my own moral convictions. I am not in a position to judge Scripture in that way.

    Whatever infallibility God may have, whatever infallibility Scripture may have, cannot be transferred into the hands of fallible exegetes, however expert they may be. Our salvation may be in God’s firm hands, our understanding of that salvation, even with the assistance of Scripture, is in our hands.

    Fair enough; but then why don’t you interact with (i) the various exegeses of the passages in question and (ii) the objections which Paul, Steve, Gene and myself have made to the theological system which arises from the interpretations you favor?

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  3. steve hays

    “The supreme good, according to Calvinism, is God’s glory. I still don’t know what that means. It looks to me like this theory of the good is just a blank check to justify whatever you think God has done. If God had chosen to save everyone or damn everyone, we would say it was for His glory if we wanted to. So the theory doesn’t explain anything, since it could be used to explain everything.”

    Of course, this isn’t a “theory.” This is Biblical teaching. Theology isn’t a scientific hypothesis.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Sorry, I missed one thing:

    Where does Romans mention anyone’s eternal destiny? Where?.

    Romans 8—which is the passage I cited.

    Even where individuals are mentioned (Jacob and Esau, and Pharoah) they are elected for historic roles, not for heaven or hell.

    You seem to have targeted Romans 9 as being critical to my position, which is strange since I don’t remember ever using it in such a way.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  5. Paul M.

    I also weighed in on Victor’s comments:

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2008/04/repperts-ruminations-on-reformed.html

  6. Norma Jean

    I’m sorry, but Romans 8 is not represented correctly here. Let’s read a section from the intro and consider Paul’s intent: Rom 8:7 “because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.” The mind of the flesh does not submit to God’s torah, indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God; this is a summary, clearly, of what has been said in ch. 7, and shows that the assent of the mind to the torah, and even the delight in it remains disobedient. And so I too agree that it’s impossible to do “torah” in the flesh, that’s quite right! But this in no way implies man is unable to respond to God in a fallen state. Spiritual conversion is not the task of this section. Think Jewish for a moment.

    Chapter 8 follows 7 perfectly! 7 is about sanctification and the material in ch. 8 has to do with the life of the Christian, and it is also clear that the stress is on the believers relationship to the Holy Spirit and the effect the Spirit has on the believer. The word pneuma, “spirit” occurs only 5 times in ch. 1-7 and 8 times in ch. 9-11, but some twenty times in ch. 8. Paul speaks of what is true for those who are in Christ. In the letter he compares one who is guided by the spirit and one guided by the flesh.

    In ch.7 Paul is addressing the (“brethren” v.1) in Rome who are attached to the law and as a result cannot find victory from sin.

    Paul understood that as long as believing Jews (or any believer for that matter) focused on the law they would NOT find strength or victory in their battles with sin. That’s because the law’s purpose is not to strengthen the believer but to lead the unbeliever to Christ.

    Paul knows the law since he was once a slave to it. – Starting at v.2, he uses an analogy of marriage to illustrate a point concerning the law – “a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage” – v. 4 “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” ESV

    His point is that women are released from their husbands once their husbands die, we too (believers) are released from the law because of Christ’ death.

    The message is of Sanctification – But how so? Well, because it’s impossible to find victory living under the law – You don’t have to be a Jew to know that. Gentile Christians are legalists too and continually find themselves trapped in sin because their minds are set on the flesh. They focus on the flesh and thereby the law so much they forget the fact that they are a new creation in Christ. Paul’s message is we ought-not pretend to find victory in our own strength – Victory for the believer comes when we recognize who we are in Christ Jesus and when we rely on the Holy Spirit for help (Romans 8:12-14).

    8 reinforces these thoughts!

    It’s not a passage about God’s decree or eternal destinations.

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