Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

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

Presupposing freewill theism is the opposite of the Naked Bible method

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6 minutes to read Modern ideas about libertarian free will, conditioned by our culture and theological history, are completely foreign to the assumptions that ancient readers would have brought to the Bible.

Mike Heiser has popularized what he calls the “naked Bible” approach to interpretation—essentially, giving a catchy name to the central idea of historical-grammatical exegesis. The idea is simply this:

What would the text mean to its original readers, without the accumulated baggage of centuries of theological traditions?

Obviously this naked Bible concept is hardly new, though Mike takes it in new directions. Unfortunately, some of these directions are actually just a big circle, coming all the way around to the opposite of a true naked Bible approach. This is especially obvious with the rejection of divine determinism and predestination by both Mike, and many of those who enjoy his Heiser-Aid (a flavor I am partial to more often than not).

This is ironically non-naked, because it is a reading of (certain parts of) Scripture that is naïvely conditioned by modern, Western presuppositions. The predominant worldview of Israel’s neighbors was fatalism. There was no concept of personal autonomy like we have it; there was no concept of meaning and responsibility in individual lives as we would assume; even the notions of right and wrong were cashed out corporately in terms of honoring or shaming the tribe. Actions which advanced the tribe were good in that sense, while actions that did not were bad—regardless of whether we’d say they broke God’s law (John Oswalt’s The Bible Among the Myths is helpful here).

To think that the Israelites, conditioned by that prevailing worldview, therefore read texts like 1 Samuel 23 and thought they illustrated what modern Western Christians see in them—conditioned as we are by what is basically the polar opposite worldview—is genuinely silly. Sure, modern Christians see libertarian free will here; they take it as given, therefore, that the future is not predestined and our actions are not determined by God’s will. But so what? Modern Christians are primed by a culture which, after hundreds of years of Enlightenment thinking and Arminian tradition, takes man-centered autonomy as the highest good. But why think an ancient Israelite would have the slightest inkling of such a concept? He was primed by hundreds of years of monistic tradition and fatalistic thinking, which took one’s lot in life as an unchangeable part of a cycle of time, so that individual choices had to conform to prescribed rules for keeping the world working in its proper order.

We need to be cognizant of the assumptions we’re making when we read the Bible, instead of blindly importing them to the text.

What I want is to be consistently naked with our approach to the Bible. I want to ask how the original readers would have understood the text—the whole text, not just the parts that sound good to a freewill theist—and I want to do so in a way that recognizes the prima facie conflict between some of these parts and others. We need to be willing to harmonize and systemize the textual data to come to a clear understanding of the whole mosaic.

This isn’t a question of Arminianism versus Calvinism, except inasmuch as many Heiser-Aid fans are unwittingly insisting that Arminianism/freewill theism is the “default” viewframe for reading Scripture, rather than stepping back to ask what parts of that frame the Bible teaches, and what parts are inferences—and, if they are inferences, how are they being made? What other premises are being assumed in order to reach the so-called “naked” conclusions?

For example: do genuine relationships presuppose indeterminism?

A repeating theme in my discussions with other Heiserites is how God wants to do things together with us; how he is relational. This is obviously an important element of the divine council concept and of kingdom theology. But they then jump straight to the conclusion—as if it were the most obvious thing in the world—that God does not predestine everything; that he doesn’t determine our choices. Yet notice that the Bible does not say this. The Bible shows us that God is relational. Heiserites then take this to mean that God doesn’t determine our choices; they have made an inference: they’ve inserted some other, unstated premise to create an implicit argument, something like this:

  1. God relates genuinely to his creatures
  2. If our actions are determined, this precludes genuine relationships
  3. Therefore, God does not determine our actions

But why do they think (2)? As far as I can tell, most of them have never really thought about it. They haven’t asked informed Calvinists why they think that God can have genuine relationships with his creatures, despite determining all their actions. Have they just assumed that Calvinists are oblivious to the problem? Or that Calvinists don’t believe in genuine relationships?

A typical comeback at this point is that the ability to choose otherwise is simply the price of genuine love. The obvious problem is that this is overtly false: perfect love lacks the ability to choose otherwise, since the Father cannot choose not to love the Son; any remotely orthodox view of God must maintain that the internal relations of the Godhead exist necessarily. See What is love part 2.

Calvinists get a bad rap for being angry, but what about the dialectic responsibilities of freewill theists? It’s lazy to dismiss the Reformed view by simply assuming its falsehood—without bothering to ask what we actually believe, why we believe it, and whether those reasons might be warranted (e.g., is there an embarrassment of riches when it comes to reasons for believing that God must determine human actions?)

I’m not saying this because I’m mad at freewill theists. I’m glad they are proponents of the Naked Bible method, and that they appreciate the value of divine council theology. Plus, I’ve been around this block way too many times to be bothered by the disagreement. But that’s exactly my point, actually:

What Naked Bible folks are saying about freedom, responsibility and predestination isn’t new.

It isn’t a recovery of the true biblical worldview. It isn’t like divine council theology. It is, in fact, basically irrelevant to divine council theology—as should be obvious from the fact that a Calvinist like me, or like Doug Van Dorn, or Doug Wilson, can not only appreciate but even advance divine council theology in our own writing—while challenging supposedly “naked” assumptions about freedom and predestination! The line I see from Naked Bible folks is just standard, naïve freewill theism. It’s based on precognitive intuitions, rather than on either contextual exegesis or philosophical theology.

In short, let’s be consistent. Let’s read all of the Bible before we formulate our theories about whether God determines our actions. And let’s think through the issues carefully, and make clear arguments, instead of leaving unstated premises assumed without any evidence. We’re all doing philosophical theology when we talk about these issues—so let’s make sure we know what we’re doing, and are equipped to do it well.

Let me close with another example: When the Bible says that God upholds the world by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3), this means God stands in some kind of causal relation to the world—such that it would not exist moment to moment without his causing it. That includes me and my mind. So when I decide to do X, my decision stands in a causal relation to my mind; but both it and my mind also stand in a causal relation to God. By logical necessity, that there is some sense in which God causes my decisions, just as he causes everything which happens moment to moment. If my decision exists, God causes it in some non-trivial sense.

You can try to explain this with doctrines like concurrence, but let’s at least make sure we know enough about the issues to appreciate why there are these developed streams of philosophical theology. I love the Naked Bible approach—but if we take it too far, we’ll come full circle and just start reading the Bible like naive Western Christians again. Right now, Naked Bible folks are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, because they haven’t thought to check whether there might be a baby in there at all.

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