Friday, September 16, 2022

Why Amoris Laetitia is back in the news

There's been a recent exchange of rather-tense articles between Larry Chapp and Pedro Gabriel on the subject of the Magisterial document Amoris Laetitia, which was controversial at the time and which has seen the controversy reignited by a recent conference in Rome. Dr. Chapp has maintained that Amoris Laetitia (AL) was written in a way that it could be used to defend proportionalism contrary to the teaching of Veritatis Splendor (VS), even though it in principle only dealt with issues of culpability for sin, because of a dangerous (and perhaps even deliberate) ambiguity. Because of that ambiguity, as a practical and pastoral matter, the teaching of the Church is being disregarded. This is the "rupture" that Dr. Chapp points out, and it seems to me both that the criticism is entirely legitimate and that supporters of Pope Francis, including Gabriel, aren't actually answering that criticism.

There are historical examples of Popes being judged harshly for exactly this sort of "technically correct but practically dangerous" teaching, including the notorious cases of Liberius, Honorius, and Vigilius. In each case, while there is a legitimate defense that what was written did not dogmatically contradict the deposit of faith, it had the practical effect of making it more difficult to fight error. The case of Liberius and Hosius was probably the most innocuous, as Liberius's friend Athanasius the Great pointed out, because the faithful knew full well what the faith was and that any ambiguous statements by Liberius were going to be taken in a manner compatible with the faith. Mental reservations in a case like that are going to be much more apparent. Honorius seems to have been relatively oblivious to the theological controversy into which he was weighing, but that practical context made his decision to weigh in dangerous for the faith. Lastly, Vigilius's vacillation on the disciplinary side made it difficult to the point of being nearly impossible to clearly condemn the Nestorian heresy of the time. In each case, one could say that the Pope had not taught contrary to the faith, but that he had exercised his Magisterial office in a way that sowed confusion and made the correction of error more difficult as a practical matter. 

That is where I think we are with Pope Francis: he is depriving the Church of pastoral and disciplinary tools that prevent heresy. Where that puts him on the scale of these notorious Popes of history is a matter that can be debated, and I am inclined to think that the Christological errors of the early Church were more serious than the matters of moral theology that are being debated, simply because there is already going to be a great deal of pastoral judgment in this area. But in terms of being on the side of Popes who have done very bad things from the practical perspective that make it more difficult to prevail against heresy, that conclusion seems inescapable. As history has shown, that doesn't violate the indefectibility of the Church, but it does make those stretches of time relatively more miserable, both for the Church and for the world to which the Gospel is presented.

I. Problems with Amoris Laetitia

When AL was published, there were predictions that this was going to be the result. First, there was a question as to whether it was even compatible with the prior teaching concerning intrinsic evil in VS. Then, there were questions as to whether the Pope even had the right to alter sacramental discipline concerning these matters, particularly regarding the sacramental discipline of couples in objectively deficient civil marriages. Those questions resulted in a dubia written to the Pope by some rather prominent figures in the Church, who later also sought to offer "fraternal correction" to the Pope. The reason that I raise these questions is that I considered (and still consider) those criticisms to be unfounded based on AL itself, but they do point to an opportunity for abuse.

In the first place, as Gabriel correctly points out, AL deals not with intrinsic evil but with culpability for evil conduct:

An intrinsically evil sin can have diminished culpability and still remain intrinsically evil. (It is one thing to say that a sin is not justified in any circumstance and another thing to say that there are circumstances where the sinner is not fully culpable.)”

“Veritatis Splendor deals with the objectively evil nature of sin, and especially of intrinsically evil acts. Amoris Laetitia deals with the subjective culpability of the sinner. The latter does not change the former. The fact that a sinner is more or less culpable does not change the object of the sin: it remains wrong. Therefore, we are talking about different planes, which do not generally intersect in those two documents, so that they cannot contradict each other. As I said in previous chapters, it is a matter of emphasis.

That was the same understanding I had at the time, but this needs to be carefully nuanced. There are two cases where public evidence of subjective culpability might be relevant. Specifically, based on this understanding of subjective culpability, AL is revising the following teaching of Familiaris Consortio (FC): 

However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage. 

The relevance of subjective culpability to AL, if consistent with FC, is to say that what FC means by "objectively contradict" is too broad. The truth is that irregular unions only give the appearance of objective contradiction in addition to being manifest violations of canon law, and AL proposes that we should deal with the objective reality of the situation (including its subjective aspects) rather than equating the canonical situation with the moral situation. In other words, there can be a disconnect between the outward appearance of the union with its violation of the canons and its true nature. This arises especially in two cases, one of which is explicitly contemplated by FC:

1. The most obvious case is people who do not have the resources to demonstrate to the tribunal that their first marriage should be annulled, even when they might have a high degree of certainty that it is the case. These are marriages that could be regularized and may well be valid but illicit, yet circumstances make it difficult or impossible to make any official finding that this is the case. Since the couple lacks authority to make the determination for themselves, even if they have made that determination accurately, they are in a complex set of circumstances, and giving these couples the benefit of the doubt may be a reasonable sacramental practice. Given the risks involved, it is a good idea to keep this as a high bar, because as with doubtful baptisms, the consequences of invalid marriages are enormous. However, that's a matter of pastoral judgment, so at least giving priests the latitude to address these situations seems like a reasonable pastoral provision.

2. With respect to divorced and remarried couples who do not have this level of certainty about their prior marriage, the moral directive to divorced and remarried couples is the same as the one given in FC: they must "take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples." The question is whether that step of taking on the duty must itself be made publicly or whether it should be handled in the same way all other moral duties are handled. The moral law is that the couple must abstain, but rather than presuming that they are going to fail for purposes of sacramental discipline, the presumption will be that they are trying in good faith with the help of the Sacraments to do so. If the couple is giving what AL describes as "what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God" ("[Conscience] can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal"), then it can be left to the conscience as to how well they are fulfilling that call and how serious their breaches of that obligation are.

There is precedent in the 1997 Vadamecum for Confessors for this exact kind of cooperation in an act that might otherwise be considered evil -- contracepted marital acts. That document discusses the following case:

Special difficulties are presented by cases of cooperation in the sin of a spouse who voluntarily renders the unitive act infecund. In the first place, it is necessary to distinguish cooperation in the proper sense, from violence or unjust imposition on the part of one of the spouses, which the other spouse in fact cannot resist.

This cooperation can be licit when the three following conditions are jointly met:

when the action of the cooperating spouse is not already illicit in itself; 

when proportionally grave reasons exist for cooperating in the sin of the other spouse;

when one is seeking to help the other spouse to desist from such conduct (patiently, with prayer, charity and dialogue; although not necessarily in that moment, nor on every single occasion).

If we accept the assertion that the overall living arrangement is permissible as per Familiaris Consortio and if we likewise consider that sexual acts are in their nature cooperative, it seems that this is the situation contemplated in AL 298 n. 329: In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers.” That complexity seems to be the additional consideration offered in AL, and if it is, then it seems to be nothing more concerning from a dogmatic perspective than the Vadamecum was, even though the subject matter is still one of intrinsic evil. Of course, some moral theologians had very serious concerns about even that document, but being a layman and not a theologian myself, I can personally defer to AL and the Vadamecum as expressing the Magisterial opinion on the matter. At the very least, it would be hard to argue that AL was going beyond VS when the Vadamecum was issued only a few years after VS in the same pontificate. 

So there seem to be these two cases of significant relevance where FC needed some additional thought. (1) is probably a case that is more common today given how much more rarely canonical formalities are being observed, and (2) is acknowledging that, when couples are trying to achieve something together, one or the other might fail at a certain time. All of this seems fine, except for one thing: there is no mention of the obligation for divorced and remarried couples to abstain. The words "abstain" and "abstinence" are not found anywhere in AL. And that is the exceptionless norm: unless you are morally certain that the person with whom you are having sexual relations is your true spouse (whether or not you can prove that to a tribunal), you are committing adultery. It is significant that a document devoted almost entirely to the application of this moral principle mentions it only in a footnote and there only with reference to what "many people ... point out" about the surrounding circumstances. 

Another reason for confusion in this area is that AL cites a number of considerations that are simply irrelevant. Yes, mortal sins require full knowledge and consent, but subjective culpability isn't particularly difficult for things like murder, fornication, or adultery, which is the entire rationale for public sins. With murder, if you know that you are killing an innocent person and you mean to kill that person, it's irrelevant (1) whether you know exactly why killing people is wrong or (2) what your ulterior motives are for killing the person.

With that in mind, AL 302 says the following:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors”. In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability”. For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved. On the basis of these convictions, I consider very fitting what many Synod Fathers wanted to affirm: “Under certain circumstances people find it very difficult to act differently. Therefore, while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases”.

The confusion here is between canonical procedure and moral rules, yet Pope Francis seems to be almost deliberately obscuring the distinction. The mention of "negative judgment about an objective situation" and "a general rule" seems to be canonical procedure, as he refers earlier to "general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases." A similar criticism can be leveled at the use of "objective ideal" (or exemplar in 303. If he means by "objective ideal" a canonically regular marriage, so that we cannot automatically infer subjective culpability from the objectively irregular situation, then this is simply an expansion of FC. If it were to mean that one could willfully initiate objectively adulterous sexual intercourse without culpability for it as a mortal sin, that would be just as absurd as saying that one could deliberately kill an innocent person without guilt for the mortal sin or murder. Yet the reason that this distinction is completely opaque in AL is that Pope Francis introduced the concept in the context of "mortal sin" as follows:

The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values”, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide other wise without further sin.

That statement has literally no relevance to the moral case of adultery, none at all. The citation from FC 33 is in the context of contraception; the citation from the Catechism in AL 302 relates to masturbation. It is fairly clear that on sexual issues particularly, the discussion about culpability for violations and whether they rise to the level of mortal sin is an open one, and that is primarily related to the nature of the act and what intent is necessarily embodied in the act. (Whether that may extend even to homosexuality is a current discussion along the same lines.) There is no such discussion about adultery, nor can there be given the clarity and the nature of the commandment, because it is not merely a sexual sin but a sin against marriage itself. Many moral principles are extensions of the Decalogue, but when they are as plainly stated in the Decalogue as the commandments against adultery and coveting another's wife, it's in the same class as murder or theft in terms of things that are obviously wrong as a matter of natural law. It is one thing if one genuinely believes that one has never been married before. It is another thing entirely if one believes that one was previously married and yet does not abstain in a subsequent union. This isn't a case where those mitigating factors are particularly relevant. Like murder, the evil just is the doing of the thing, so it's not possible to initiate the act voluntarily without intending the evil and falling into mortal sin. There is no conceptual room for these factors to reduce culpability to the point that it ceases to be a mortal sin if you intend to do it (as opposed to mere cooperation).

And note a critical difference here: unlike AL, the Vadamecum doesn't talk about the "inherent values" of the rule at all. Rather, it raises the possibility that consent to sexual intercourse is not the same thing as planning and initiating it. There is no question about the wrongness of the act itself, only whether the participation in the act necessarily counts for moral responsibility for the act. That development was a long-needed one for distinguishing what rape victims suffered from a sexual act in its moral object, and the Vadamecum is consistent with that reasoning. But saying that there is a difference between initiating and consenting in terms of moral object in no way denies that there is a species of act known as adultery.

The only possible way that this statement could have a correct application is in saying that disregard for the canonical rules about marriage is excusable. In other words, not following the canonical rules is not itself an objective sin against marriage, but an objective sin against one's duties as a member of the Church to submit to Her administration of the Sacraments, including marriage. If AL is arguing that docility to the Magisterium (and specifically canon law) is one of those sins for which culpability could be diminished or even nearly excused because people do not perceive its "inherent values," so that it is not always a mortal sin, then that seems reasonable. Perhaps one would not want to say that openly in a Magisterial document, so this is why both FC and AL dance around this issue. But given that it comes at the cost of potentially confusing the exceptionless moral teaching about adultery, saving face for the Magisterium seems to come at much too high a price in this case. 

The resulting ambiguity between adultery, a sin against marriage, and other sinful sexual acts is simply dangerous. In the general context of what is appropriate pastoral guidance, a statement about reduced culpability would be innocuous. In the context of this particular discussion, it's reckless, because this section of Chapter 8 isn't about pastoral guidance of couples generally but specifically the divorced and remarried. It is simply not relevant to that point; the factors cited are completely inapplicable to the obligation of abstinence with a partner who is not known to be your spouse. Whether you see the "inherent values" of the rule against adultery is simply irrelevant, just like it would be with respect to murder. No one honestly has "great difficulties" understanding that you don't kill innocent people, and the fact that people plead such difficulties in supposedly "complex cases" such as abortion nonetheless fails to give them an excuse. So it is with adultery; to perform the fact deliberately is to be guilt of mortal sin. 

II. The Problems Become Manifest

Now, as I said, the problem is not that AL teaches anything wrong in terms of principles. The problem is that there is a mention of mortal sin and subjective culpability that is simply irrelevant to the case of adultery. Just as we know murder is wrong instinctively based on our own humanity, we know what marriage is, and we know that adultery is a sin against it. 

So we can ask the following questions of AL: Is there a correct interpretation of the statement concerning mortal sin? Certainly. Is there any point in including such a statement in the context of adultery? Certainly not. 

This was the point raised in the contemporary criticisms of AL; it's not that the statement in and of itself taught proportionalism, but that it was teaching in a way that would almost inevitably lead to misinterpretation. In that way, it was similar to Honorius's description of "one operation" in the monothelite controversy. Subjectively, Honorius very likely intended nothing more than that Jesus's divine and human operations were the operations of the same subject, but he should have known that in the context of a discussion on the integrity of natures, that assertion was going to look like papal approbation for monotheletism.

Although there were certainly signs of that confusion in the response of Argentinian bishops to AL, that risk in AL became more than theoretical as of the May 2022 conference "Moral Theology and Amoris Laetitia." During the conference, which was introduced by Pope Francis himself as part of a year-long meditation to encourage adoption of AL, the keynote speaker Fr. Julio Martinez and one of the organizers, Fr. Miguel Yañez, both endorsed a change in the application of moral rules for married couples.

Fr. Martinez says in his interview with America magazine:

“Conscience is a fundamental part of morality. Indeed, you cannot eliminate conscience,” Father Martinez said. But “Veritatis Splendor,” he added, “very much fears what is called ‘creative conscience,’” and insists that “conscience cannot be creative. It has to somehow be obedient to the rules and the norms of the magisterium, and especially the magisterium of the pope, whose role it is to recognize and formulate the norms so the faithful can know and follow them.”

Father Martinez characterized this move as “a hypertrophy [an excessive development] of the magisterium in the field of moral theology, that took place during the long pontificate of John Paul II,” he said. “As a result, the magisterium speaks on every single issue of personal or social morals—but especially on personal morals, sexual morality and violence.” With this hypertrophy of the magisterium, he said, “conscience has, in equal proportion, been diminished; even though ‘Veritatis Splendor’ affirms conscience is the main instance of morals.”

Fr. Yañez says:

Pope Francis’ approach in “Amoris Laetitia” is “quite different” from that taken by Pope John Paul II in his own 1981 post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio,” Father Yáñez said. The latter can be seen as “a more dogmatic document” that emphasized “what the family should be and not what the family is in reality,” he said.

John Paul II realized that the traditional notion of family was changing, but his way of facing it was different to that of Francis, Father Yáñez said. In “Amoris Laetitia,” Francis “offers a sense of humanity regarding the new realities of the family—single-parent families, ensembled families, mixed-race families and, ultimately, even ‘rainbow’ families—and went beyond what ‘Familiaris Consortio’ stated.”
Many bishops and pastors find this approach difficult to accept, Father Yáñez said. He recalled that after Vatican II ended in 1965, the Vatican accepted a renewal in social ethics, but it had difficulty in accepting a renewal in issues of personal morality with regards to the family, sexuality and marriage.

Indeed, “the whole problem regarding family life and marriage was reduced to sexual relations. There was a failure to see the complexity of marital life,” he said. “Familiaris Consortio,” he recalled, “stated that a person who is divorced and remarried could not receive Communion, unless the couple [were to] abstain from sexual relations.

“But if marriage is reduced to sexual relations, there is a difficulty to see the complexities and richness of marital and family life. In my view, the problem was due to the fact that sexuality and marriage was not studied in a scientific way,” Father Yáñez concluded. “The bishops and clergy didn’t know the findings of science.”

“I believe that one of the strongest calls we receive today is to make moral theological reflection on good scientific data, for which we need a good formation in all pastoral agents. This is crucially important for clergy,” he said. For Pope Francis, sexuality is a gift, he said, and we need an integral and realistic sexual education.

These men are simply dissidents from Pope St. John Paul II's moral teaching. This has nothing to do with the "science" of sexuality, which is clearly behind Fr. Yañez's reference to "rainbow" families. I can give AL the benefit of the doubt as a synodal document that involved compromises, which is exactly the sort of consultation that Pope Francis or any other Pope ought to do in order to be a wise teacher. But this is precisely the interpretation of AL's teaching that would be heterodox, the one that the dubia was aimed at resolving, and Pope Francis is doing nothing to stop it. On the contrary, he has practically encouraged it. This was the point at which Pope Francis has crossed the line into bad conduct as a shepherd. 

As I mentioned, in terms of gravity, I don't think that this rises to the level of the Christological problems that strike directly at the heart of the faith. For that reason, I wouldn't put Pope Francis on the level of historically bad Popes like Honorius, but I think we can definitely point to other bad Popes like John XXII, who sowed confusion on matters of salvation. It seems that, after this conference, Pope Francis has lived down to the low expectations set by AL. Those who would condemn liberal dissidents should be condemning Pope Francis as well. That is not because he has taught anything contrary to the faith, but because he issued something with an ambiguity (perhaps even a deliberate ambiguity) that has been exploited by liberal dissenters, and he has done nothing whatsoever to distance his own teaching from their interpretation. 

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Fundamental Theology vs. Presuppositionalism

I've previously sketched an account of fundamental theology as an answer to modernism and nihilism, I want to point out how this fundamental theology responds to presuppositionalism, one of the rival Christian philosophies that emerges from the challenges of modernity. Based on the beliefs entailed in the fundamental theology that Jesus is God, I conclude that presuppositionalism does not work as a Christian epistemology. 

I. Fundamental Theology as a Discipline

Recall that fundamental theology as I have outlined it is (1) a response to modernity (and its inevitable nihilism) based on (2) a coherent account of the fundamental Christian belief that Jesus is God. The approach is based on an acknowledgement of the limits of formal systems based on the work of Gödel, Tarski, Quine, and Kuhn, as well as similar conclusions in physical science demonstrated by the theory of general relativity and the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics. It serves as a response to the Enlightenment skepticism of reason exemplified by David Hume and Immanuel Kant, and it can, properly speaking, be called a postmodern approach to fundamental theology as John Deely defines it. It cannot be characterized as postmodernism, the denial of meaning itself, but rather as a critical (metaphysical) realist method of inquiry intended to provide abductive explanations of our experiences centered around the kerygma that Jesus is God. To put it another way, it is a way of doing theology as science, not in the classical Aristotelian sense, but in analogy to how contemporary scientific inquiry is practiced. But what is being explained is a set of dogmatic facts -- moments, events, and statements given normative status by the Christian churches over time that articulate the central revelatory event of the Incarnation.

There are, to be sure, those Christians who want to deny that the questions of the Enlightenment have any legitimacy at all. That is not the call of fundamental theology but fundamentalism, the return to the time where no one cast explicit doubts on the certainty of reason. The problem is that this time never really existed. The questions raised by the Enlightenment had already started to arise even within scholastic Catholicism. As Jose Pereira points out in his article "John of St. Thomas and Suárez," "For Suárez the basic principles of Thomism are, at best, open to debate and are unnecessary to found a metaphysics, a fact that makes the system, when not fallacious, superfluous. The rationale of Suárez’s critique of classical Thomism is that it tends to reify concepts." And as John Deely points out in Augustine and Poinsot, questions about the metaphysical nature of signs had already been asked by Augustine and had been given an extended analysis by the same John (Poinsot) of St. Thomas who is discussed in Pereira's article. Accordingly, this idea that we need to return to some epistemologically unsophisticated Eden where people gave no thought to the source of their knowledge is chimerical. What we need to understand is not the ability of older theologians to address these questions, which they certainly had resources to do when they were inclined to do so, but why they cared so little about them

The lesson that we should take from that indifference is not that questions of epistemology raised by the Enlightenment are idle or unimportant; they are not. What we instead must consider is why they took on such a disproportionate level of importance in the Enlightenment, and that relates back to the issues I raised in my blog article Calvinism: A Dead End Theory. In that article, I noted that Ockham's nominalism, which was enormously influential for modernity and the Enlightenment, reduced explanations to super-voluntarism, the exclusive use of the inscrutable divine will as a metaphysical explanation. This inevitably results in a zero-sum game between the divine and human wills that ultimately does not allow for an adequate account of God as Creator. The best evidence that this is the case is that an analogous denial of natures by al-Ghazali led to the same outcome in Ash'arism, even though it took place in the context of a completely different monotheistic religion.

The flip side of super-voluntarism is that epistemology, now severed from its grounding in nature, becomes hopelessly unstable. If knowledge of natures are simply creations of the mind imposed on the world based on observation of singulars, then the entire structure of our knowledge ends up being a house of cards. Once a nominalist starts to question how he knows, having committed the explanation of reality to the inscrutable divine will, it is only a matter of time before he reaches the conclusion that he knows nothing at all and that what he calls "knowledge" is, in reality, nothing. That process of degeneration is what we call modern philosophy, and fundamental theology gives an answer to it.

II. The Degeneration of Nominalist Knowledge

Although we clearly disagree on the reasons for the degeneration of knowledge, I can certainly agree with the presuppositionalist on the process of degeneration. In that respect, I can commend this summary by the Orthodox presuppositionalist Jay Dyer of the process. Jay also cites an article by Russ Manion titled "The Contingency of Knowledge and Revelatory Theism" that traces the history, which likewise provides a nice summary of modern philosophy's wrangling with this problem. In short, we do not disagree about what happened, only why it happened. 

The beginning of the Enlightenment can reasonably be traced to Descartes. Given the enormous optimism of humanist endeavors, he must have believed that human knowledge undoubtedly rested on a sure foundation, and he set out to demonstrate this with in the context of nominalist mind-body dualism with his cogito. This set the stage for the nominalist foundational project, the attempt to ground knowledge in indubitable (properly or doxastically basic) first principles, which would be doomed to failure. This is often given the misnomer "classical foundationalism," but that is anachronistic, since the project itself would only arise within a nominalist metaphysics. The idea of a mind separate from the body in the world is impossible if one accepts human nature as what it is, but the nominalist denies this, which creates the need for this project of justifying knowledge from indubitable a priori principles. This process may be ridiculous to the point of absurdity from the view of hindsight, but it clearly was not considered to be so at the time, and there are reasons that this was the case.

The empiricists then start to question how we get from even those "indubitable" principles to knowing anything about the world. The quintessential nominalist skeptic is David Hume, and there is a reason that Dyer more than once refers to a later philosopher saying that Hume represented the death of epistemology, citing especially W.V.O. Quine's conclusion that epistemology has become psychology. Hume's interpretation of the Peripatetic axiom that knowledge only comes through the senses (which in turn goes back to Aristotle) gives that principle a nominalist reinterpretation. Thus, what is experienced by the senses into sense "data" that are interpreted by the mind in nominalist fashion. That is not characteristic of realist metaphysics. For example, the Thomist agent intellect assumes the activity of judgment in human nature, the Scotist idea of intuitive cognition considers the question of apprehension directly, and it is likely that even Aristotle must have had a similar inchoate assumption of active intellection, even if he never developed the point in detail. In other words, a more fair representation of the Peripatetic axiom would be that knowledge comes not from the sensory powers themselves from being a person using his senses. But when the mind is severed from nature in nominalist fashion, Hume's problem becomes acute.

The next turning point is Immanuel Kant, whom Dyer quotes as saying that he had been "awoken from his dogmatic slumbers" by Hume. Kant therefore recognizes the problem that Hume has raised and tries to solve it. He distinguishes the noumenal and phenomenal realms and tries to reproduce knowledge with resort to a priori categories, such as Aristotle's categories, morality, and logic, that interpret the phenomenal, which we cannot know in itself. This essentially defines the course of the modern philosophical project, which ends up offering more failed attempts to answer Hume's question of how the world and our minds are connected in the nominalist metaphysical paradigm. Dyer aptly cites Imre Lakatos, Nelson Goodman ("The New Riddle of Induction"), and Quine, the last of whom ends up observing that everything from Kant and after has really done nothing to go past the questions that Hume had asked. But it is also hardly a coincidence that Goodman and Quine wrote an article titled "Steps toward a Constructive Nominalism." The framework for the entire discussion has been nominalist.   

The primary post-Kantian approaches for nominalist philosophy were phenomenology and mathematical idealism, each grasping one horn of the noumenal-phenomenal dilemma. Phenomenology is exemplified by Husserl's attempt to grasp phenomenal experience as such, and this project would turn out to be the closest that nominalism would get back to its ontological roots. In fact, the critical techniques involved in phenomenalist epistemology would end up being useful tools for metaphysical realists to be more epistemically self-conscious. But Husserl's project was itself unsuccessful as an attempt to ground knowledge in a nominalist paradigm, and neither was Heidegger's attempt to ground knowledge in the experience of time. Sartre's existentialism seems to be the inevitable result of phenomenology without metaphysical realism.

On the other hand, mathematical idealism was the attempt to derive nominalist knowledge through a priori formal systems such as logic and mathematics. This interacted with the modern interest in semiotics, the study of signs and meaning in language, begun primarily by Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce and fitting harmoniously with the work of Gottlob Frege in logic. The idealist project had started with empiricists such as George Berkeley, but the most ambitious attempt was that of Bertrand Russell, who combined logic, mathematics and semiotics in an effort to discover an ideal logical language, effectively reducing all of philosophy to the nominalist epistemological project. The Vienna School can be considered an overall philosophical project along the same lines. This was paralleled by David Hilbert in the physical and mathematical sciences in what would be known as Hilbert's Program.

Russell's and Hilbert's attempts were ultimately defeated by Kurt Gödel, whose incompleteness theorems disproved the idea of a self-proving formal system. Alfred Tarski explicitly applied this conclusion to the logical definition of truth in his undefinability theorem, which Tarski acknowledged as  having already been reached more or less explicitly by Gödel. Likewise, Kuhn's critique of natural scientific theories in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions leaves science similarly unable to provide the epistemic certainty than the nominalist account of knowledge would require. The Tarskian idea that truth can only be defined within a language as a result of linguistic holism has now been generally accepted, but the Kantian question of how that linguistic truth maps to the phenomenal realm (i.e., what is the truthmaker of statements) and the Humean problem of induction remain unanswered. Despite attempts by Quine, Gödel, Donald Davidson, Saul Kripke, J. L. Austin, John Searle, Wilfrid Sellars, Richard Rorty, and others to remedy that deficiency, I am inclined to agree with the assessment of the later Wittgenstein that the nominalist roots of the problem necessarily lead to an irreconcilable skepticism about knowledge. The attempts to recover a "Platonist" account of knowledge, apart from the Christian history of Western philosophy, in order to reverse the damage done by nominalism do not appear to have been successful.

III. Postmodern Angst: Postmodernism, Fundamentalism, and Christian Presuppositionalism

The implosion of the nominalist account of knowledge leads to a couple of subsequent attempts to construct a metaphysical system in the ruins. But neither of these seems to be successful as a Christian philosophical system that can consistently proclaim that Jesus is God. 

The most significant, at least in terms of historical impact, is Jacques Derrida's postmodernism. As mentioned above, postmodern is not merely referring to the fact that the system originated after the modern critique. Instead, it refers to the fact that the system denies meaning anywhere other than the interpreting subject. In order to solve the problem of knowledge, it simply denies that there is a truth out there to know. What we call knowledge is a statement about ourselves or, perhaps more aptly, an expression of ourselves. While I suppose that one might see Derrida's creative interpretation as something like the image of God as Creator, I do not see any way that it can give us any real and meaningful relationship with the historical person Jesus of Nazareth or to affirm that He is God. Therefore, I do not think it can be considered Christian.

The flip side is to try to assert fundamental beliefs of Christianity as themselves being undeniable, which is known as fundamentalism. This is nothing but a specific form of fideism, in which beliefs accepted by an act of will are posited as axioms upon which an epistemology of certainty can be built. It is nothing more than an attempt to bootstrap one's way around Hume's and Kant's skepticism of knowledge, but it doesn't reply to any of the metaphysical problems of nominalism that created the situation in the first place. It accordingly fails to answer the epistemological critique.

Christian presuppositionalism is a more sophisticated approach for explaining knowledge as such, but it is built on the same broken nominalist foundation from which Hume's and Kant's critiques emerged. It attempts to answer Hume and Kant on their own ground, and there is no place on that ground where a stable platform for proclaiming Jesus is God can be constructed. Specifically, the Calvinist Cornelius Van Til, who may reasonably considered the first such presuppositionalist, adopts the gap between noumena and phenomena taken from nominalism that forms the basis of Hume's and Kant's critiques. But he maintains that this gap can be bridged with the submission to the revealed truth of the Trinity, so that this act of submission of the will supplies a missing foundation for all of knowledge that can never have been coherently explained prior to its reception. Confronted with the inconsistency of having taken for granted knowledge that cannot be explained without this revealed truth, the unregenerate unbeliever can presumably be thereby humbled in such a way to be more likely to submit to this revealed truth. Alternatively, the unbeliever who stubbornly insists on his refusal to submit would demonstrate that his unreasonable position was a result of his pertinacious denial of God, not as a result of reason. Either way, the presuppositionalist would have confronted the unbelieving critic with an irresistible argument for his own inconsistency, the transcendental argument for God (TAG), requiring the unbeliever to face that his position is unreasonable.

Unfortunately, at least in the recent debates with Jay Dyer that I have seen, I do not believe that Dyer's opponents are actually interacting with presuppositionalism as a system, an observation echoed by Catholic blogger Paleocrat who has started an entire series on Catholic presuppositionalism. Dyer's opponent Trent Horn, both in the debate and in his debrief with Jimmy Akin, seems to have confused presuppositionalism with presuppositional argumentation, which is not really the same thing. As far as I can tell, they have interacted with the Trinity used as a presuppositional argument, as opposed to submission to the revealed belief in the Trinity being a doxastic requirement in order to be able to reason at all. They have also been dismissive of Dyer's particular presentation of presuppositionalism, which is an extremely difficult task with time constraints of a debate and which is generally going to require opponents to at least accept some basic philosophical premises for the sake of argument so that the discussion can proceed. That this has been the outcome is unfortunate, because presuppositionalism has enough of a following in the Christian community that it deserves interaction. 

Along those lines, the presuppositionalist critique of autonomous reasoning, which would include the inconsistency of natural theology or any other account of truth not expressly submitting to belief in the Trinity, is not exactly obscure. Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, and Gordon Clark should not be unfamiliar names in apologetics. At a sophisticated level of apologetics with an informed audience, Dyer should be allowed to take the background for granted and to show how he is applying it to Orthodox theology without needing to reinvent the wheel. Likewise, when Hume's problem of induction and Kant's critique of pure reason are raised, even that invocation is itself cursory or laden with philosophical jargon, it should receive a response. Otherwise, the inference people may draw is that we don't take those problems seriously, which has implications for debates with atheists, Muslims, Unitarians, and others who question the coherence of the Trinity.

I will try to avoid that and to be explicit in why I reject Christian presuppositionalism (both generally and in its Orthodox application). I deny nominalism as an acceptable premise for Christian philosophy, and I therefore reject both presuppositionalism (including TAG) and the Humean-Kantian critique as non-Christian in their assumptions. I have a number of reasons for the rejection of presuppositionalism and the use of TAG, and I propose my own alternatives for how Christianity answers the Humean-Kantian critique.

IV. Arguments against Presuppositionalism as a Christian Approach

First, the separation of noumena and phenomena as implicitly posited by Descartes, Hume, and Kant is a denial of the Christian account of human nature. We have a primordial awareness, sometimes called intuitive cognition, of the unity constituted by our individuality as persons perceiving reality, which we can no more doubt than that we can doubt our own existence. But we have that apprehension of ourselves and the things around us whether we are reflective on it or not; the ontology of being a thinking person precedes reflecting on being a thinking person. So it is not "I think; therefore, I am" but rather "I am; therefore, I am thinking." The entire epistemological project in nominalism is therefore based on a denial of what human beings are, and it unsurprisingly produces a skepticism that is incompatible with human knowing, since it is based on a misunderstanding of human nature as such.

Second, the use of God as a premise in a formal epistemological system presumes knowledge of God to a level of certainty that denies divine infinity, thus succumbing to idolatry. This was the same error committed by Eunomius when he attempted to use the Father's property of ingeneracy as a basis for knowledge. But divine infinity precludes sufficient conceptual knowledge for the nature of God to be the basis of epistemology. Moreover, because it is based on the Cartesian dualist account separating noumena and phenomena, it exaggerates the rational capability of the mind alone to a point that even Eunomius, who at least recognized the possibility of knowledge about natures from the senses, would not accept.

Third, Christian presuppositionalism does not survive the nominalist internal critique deployed by Gödel and Tarski, because the existence of God is explicitly used as a formal axiom within the system for purposes of coherence. What the incompleteness theorems and the undefinability theorem prevent is the attempt to demonstrate the truth of the system by its own axioms, which is exactly what TAG does in its attempt to display its superiority and consistency. But there is no paradigm-independent way to demonstrate that conclusion in the first place. One can think of TAG as the "magic glasses" theory, so that paradigms are like sets of spectacles that can be tried on until one finds the one that lets one "see the truth." But Gödel proved not only that there are no magic glasses but also that magic glasses are in principle impossible. There is no way within any paradigm to see around the glasses so that one would know that what one is seeing is "true" with reference to the use of the glasses. But once one appeals to external knowledge, such as revealed knowledge of the Trinity, that concedes that one cannot build epistemology from within the epistemic formalism, which is a defeater for TAG. Thus, TAG fails for the same reason that Russell's ideal language project and Hilbert's Program failed.

V. Practical Concerns with Presuppositionalism

Apart from the general concerns about relying on arguments that are false, I consider the use of TAG particularly problematic because it creates the false impression that we can achieve a level of confidence in our own finite knowledge that is impossible. The problem with Descartes, Hume, and Kant is that their nominalist metaphysics erodes their confidence even in their own experiences, so that they are searching for a level of certainty in knowledge that is "incorrigible" or "indubitable" around which all other knowledge must be justified in order to count as knowledge. The resulting quest for magic glasses is quixotic; one is likely to end up like Quixote in dubbing a shaving basin "the Golden Helmet of Mabrino."

Not that a foundational argument based on the authority of the Church is any better. Specifically, especially in the so-called "manualist" tradition, there was an attempt to reinterpret the Peripatetic axiom (that knowledge only comes through the senses) and Magisterial authority in Scholasticism into a kind of Cartesian epistemic certainty as an answer to nominalism. That would be nothing other than the nominalist project in Catholic language, which would rightly be called "classical foundationalism," which really means reinterpreting classical philosophy in Cartesian foundationalist terms. This false certainty is nothing but the obverse of the naive assertion of Scriptural authority, sola Scriptura, to perform the same function in Protestant apologetics. 

Of course, I certainly believe that there ought to be a normative Magisterial authority in the Church, in the same way I believe that states ought to have a government and laws with normative authority. But that is hardly the same thing as source of necessary epistemic certainty, an epistemic authority, which concept leads only to flailing attempts to answer hopeless questions like "how do you know for sure what is Christian dogma, if you are not infallible?" We ought not to expect to have more certain epistemology about religious matters than we do about anything else, and Hume's and Kant's expectations for epistemic certainty are unreasonable to the point of impossibility. It doesn't work for them because it doesn't work for anyone in any field of endeavor.

In general, the quixotic quest for epistemic certainty, either presuppositionalist or foundationalist, leads to a situation I call "glass cannon apologetics." Presuppositionalists who place all hope for theological knowledge in TAG or similar arguments must be fully invested in this argument in a way that goes beyond normal engagement. When the battle becomes a clash of presuppositional systems, it is an all-out war where one must destroy or be destroyed, which requires one to perfectly protect one's own position from being shattered while devastating the opponent. In normal philosophical discussion, theories are like swords; one might slash, stab, club, or parry with it, and it can absorb and inflict a lot of punishment. It's also relatively easy to drop a sword when it breaks to pick up another one, and one isn't generally too concerned to leave it on the battlefield in the event that one needs to retreat. But when your weapon is a glass cannon, you can't abandon it, and you have to protect it at all costs.

Apart from the incentive toward bad behavior in argumentation that this creates, TAG itself casts one's opponents as being incapable of reasoning, and that makes it extraordinarily difficult, bordering on impossible, to display charity for one's opponent. The presuppositionalist would have basically started the debate in the position that his opponent is less than human in some sense; the opponent has not only made a mistake, but he can't even think straight. In encountering various bad arguments over time, once I have reached the point that I don't think someone can even think straight, I conclude that's the moment at which there is no more discussion to be had. In that respect, the presuppositionalist is starting in a position where dialogue should normally be ending.

In short, I believe that presuppositionalism, apart from being a bad argument from a Christian perspective, is toxic for dialogue. It's therefore best that Christians have ready answers to it so that we can nip it in the bud rather than allowing it to proliferate, from whence proceeds my concern that Trent Horn's response was inadequate. And of course, Christians ought not to make the arguments in the first place. The skepticism of Hume and Kant is not the right starting point for evangelization. With that in mind, I turn to some specific theological problems with presuppositionalism.

VI. The Noetic Effects of Sin

Reformed theologians who use the "magic glasses" approach of TAG account for the existence of multiple paradigms by the so-called noetic effects of sin. This localizes the denial of God at the heart of wrong paradigms as the effect of sin, contrasting autonomous reasoning due to the willful denial of God as contrasted with theonomous reasoning. Before the fall, the human noetic faculties were functioning perfectly, since Adam was in a healthy relationship with God, but breaking that relationship caused the noetic faculties to deceive us. This essentially reads the Humean-Kantian view of epistemic certainty into Scripture and then uses sin in the Reformed view as an explanation for the condition. But again, that aspiration to a noetic faculty of epistemic certainty is itself a kind of Pelagianism. That Pelagianism in turn fits with the prelapsarian Pelagianism entailed in the covenant of works, characteristic of Calvinist soteriology. As I explained in my article, Nicene Christian theology is incompatible with Calvinism, so fundamental Christian theology does not allow orthodox Christians to accept this belief.

It is certainly true that sin has noetic effects, but those effects are not impairment of the faculty of knowledge itself. Rather, the inherent finitude of human knowledge intersects with the temptation to sin in the form of concupiscence to create the misuse of knowledge. It is not that we do not know things but that we use what we know unwisely. Indeed, one of those temptations is to think that we need to know more than we do, as if the finitude of our knowledge is itself evil, which falls in the general line of thinking that material being is itself evil and causes us to covet God's own omniscience. Realizing the limits of human knowledge should not cause skepticism of human knowledge but rather acceptance of human knowledge for what it is, a limited yet good and fruitful capacity of human nature that finds its proper use in seeking for God.

The Biblical account of this situation is clear. Ecclesiastes 1 says at verses 14 and 18 that "I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit…. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." Manifestly, this is not intended to suggest that the created faculties that produce wisdom and knowledge are evil or vain. Rather, they are being used in vain. This is the condition of sin, in which all of our good faculties are misused in self-interest and the pursuit of passions. Just as our desires are fragmented into pointless vanity, so the truths that we may genuinely know serve no good purpose.

In Western theology, this was articulated by St. Augustine as the difference between scientia and sapientia, referring to true wisdom. This true wisdom lets us apprehend God and our ultimate purpose of communion with him, letting us use our knowledge wisely and humbly, not vainly. Such wisdom serves the love of God and neighbor. This is contrasted with the natural man, bereft of grace, who misuses his gifts. Scripture speaks of such men as follows: "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God' [Ps. 14:1]." "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned [1 Cor. 2:14]." "For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened [Rom. 1:21]." It is not that they lack knowledge, but they lack the love that makes knowledge meaningful. "And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing [1 Cor. 13:2]."

The intimate connection between charity and knowledge is itself a result of creaturely finitude. We are not monads existing independent of others. Rather, every one of us necessarily depends on other human beings to be able to be able to achieve a significant degree of knowledge about the world. That dependence is a reflection of our finitude that is not itself evil, and it promotes trust and community. The capacity to make mistakes due to finitude should, if rightly understood, cause us to reach out to those around us so that we can form more human connections and reach more truth. But knowledge sought for its own sake, a result of the brokenness of the fallen world, instead further promotes division. This idol of knowledge for its own sake is symbolized by the Tower of Babel, which caused the scattering of peoples not because it collected too much knowledge but rather because the knowledge was not in service of the ultimate truth, which is God.

VII. Orthodox Critiques of "Natural Theology"

Turning now to the Orthodox version of presuppositionalism, one favored critique among Orthodox presuppositionalists comes from Fr. Justin Popovic in "The Theory of Knowledge in Saint Isaac the Syrian," which can be found in his work Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ. Part of the problem with bringing this work into the contemporary context is that the Europe in which Fr. Popovic was operating was overwhelmed by nominalist philosophy. This is a telling quote about natural knowledge from Fr. Popovic's essay:

It is not difficult to see that in this first and lowest degree of knowledge of which St. Isaac speaks is in- cluded virtually the whole of European philosophy, from naive realism to idealism - and all science from the atomism of Democrates to Einstein's relativity.

The "whole of European philosophy" here means the entire nominalist project of certainty following the Humean-Kantian critique that I have described at length. The term "naive realism" can be used interchangeably with classical foundationalism, and Fr. Popovic appears to be attributing it to scholastic theology as a whole, as opposed to the nominalist reinterpretation of the Peripatetic axiom as "sense data" or Cartesian attempts at certainty. That might have even been a fair criticism of the prevailing Catholic view at the time. So "naive realism" might reasonable include the nominalist project to use Magisterial authority or sola Scriptura as a foundational premise for Cartesian certainty.  But the charge of naive realism should only apply to such naive Cartesianism here, since Catholic realism, exemplified by St. Augustine, requires no such thing.

Fr. Popovic's critique of natural knowledge is as follows:

Natural laws do not exist for faith. St. Isaac emphasizes this very strongly: "All things are possible to him that believeth" (Mark 9: 23), for with God nothing is impossible. Natural knowledge constrains its disciples from "drawing near to that which is alien to nature;' to that which is above nature.'"

This natural knowledge to which St. Isaac refers appears in modern philosophy under three headings: realism based on the senses, epistemological criticism, and monism. These three approaches all limit the power, reality, force, worth, criteria, and extent of knowledge to within the bounds of visible nature - to the extent that these coincide with the limits of the human senses as organs of knowledge. To step beyond the limits of nature and to enter into the realm of the supernatural is considered to be against nature, as something irrational and impossible, forbidden to the followers of the three philosophical paths in question. Directly or indirectly, man is limited to his senses and dare not pass beyond them.

Nevertheless, this natural knowledge, according to St. Isaac, is not at fault. It is not to be rejected. It is just that faith is higher than it is. This knowledge is only to be condemned in so far as, by the different means it uses, it turns against faith. But when this knowledge "is joined with faith, becoming one with her, clothing itself in her burning thoughts," when it "acquires wings of passionlessness;" then, using other means than natural ones, it rises up from the earth "into the realm of its Creator;" into the supernatural. This knowledge is then fulfilled by faith and receives the power to "rise to the heights;" to perceive him who is beyond all perception and to "see the brightness that is incomprehensible to the mind and knowledge of created beings." Knowledge is the level from which a man rises up to the heights of faith. When he reaches these heights, he has no more need of it, for it is written: "We know in part, but when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away." (1 Cor. 13: 9-10) Faith reveals to us now the truth of perfection, as if it were before our eyes. It is by faith that we learn that which is beyond our grasp - by faith and not by enquiry and the power of knowledge.

"Realism based on the senses" is the naive realism that I've described earlier, "epistemological criticism" is the Kantian approach, and "monism" refers to Berkeley's denial of the reality of anything outside of minds, so that there is only one substance (ideas). In each case, there are postmodern versions of all of these ideas that aren't susceptible to the criticism, but Fr. Popovic has in mind the the naive versions steeped in the nominalism of the time.

The process is described by St. Isaac as follows:

To explain yet more clearly the mystery of knowledge, St. Isaac presents further definitions of both knowledge and faith. "The knowledge that is concerned with the visible and sensual is called natural; the knowledge that is concerned with the spiritual and incorporeal is called spiritual, for it receives its perception through the spirit, and not through the senses. The knowledge that comes by divine power, however, is known as supernatural. It is unknowable and is higher than knowledge." "The soul does not receive this contemplation from the matter that is outside it," as is the case with the first two kinds of knowledge, "but it comes unexpectedly by itself as an immaterial contained within itself, according to the words of Christ: "The kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17: There is no point awaiting its appearance in outward form, for it does not come "with observation." (Luke 17: 20)).

First, this process definitely rules out presuppositionalism of any stripe. TAG operates by epistemological criticism, the conditions required for knowledge, which cannot produce knowledge of God according to Fr. Popovic. To the extent it destroys confidence in knowledge entirely, it denies Fr. Popovic's observation that natural knowledge "is not to be rejected." Fr. Popovic knows the Humean-Kantian critique intimately, but unlike Van Til and Bahnsen, he does not concede the validity of that critique. Rather, he correctly places that critique within natural knowledge as one of the means it uses to turn against faith. By contrast, Dyer demurs that the use of Kant and Hume is "just asking questions," but that obscures the motivation for asking the questions in the first place, which is epistemological criticism. Asking those questions is motivated by doubt in reason itself, and that is inconsistent with the idea that reason is created by God. 

In doing so, Dyer has confused knowing about God with knowing God; "natural theology" allows us only to do the former but not the latter. It is not an attempt to bypass grace or to pretend that we can have God's friendship, to walk with God in the cool of the evening as Adam did by the sheer power of our reason. Nor is it an attempt to affirm an impersonal God that somehow develops into a personal God. Natural theology tells us both that God must be personal and that God must reveal Himself to us in order to be known. As Fr. Popovic maintains, that natural (or spiritual) knowledge of God ought not to be an obstacle for faith; it testifies about God Who is known to be unknown. Natural theology, correctly understood, would cause us to wait on revelation if we have not received it and to trust in revelation if we have, not to descend into rebellious autonomy against the Christian life. It is absolutely true that natural theology can be used in a way that violates the purpose of reason, but that is a misuse of reason, not its absence. 

In short, Fr. Popovic's critique, while it might well have been apt against contemporary views at the time, does not rule out classical apologetics or theology, although it might well rule out classical foundationalist approaches, whether Catholic or Protestant. In any case, it certainly doesn't support the presuppositionalist approach.

VIII. The "God in General" Canard

One of the most frequent criticisms of natural theology leveled by presuppositionalists is that natural theology proves a "God in general," an impersonal monad that not only fails to be identical with the triune God of Scripture but is another god entirely: the god of the philosophers. The reason that is untrue is that natural theology never reduces God to a concept. Rather, the reverse is true; the presuppositionalist is the one who has reduced God to a concept by demoting Him to a formal axiom of a system as a basis of justified true belief. In other words, the philosophers have reached erroneous conclusions about God. In natural theology, by contrast, God is a real entity not reducible to a concept. Any sound natural theology concludes that God is an infinitely thick metaphysical reality that cannot even possibly be conceptualized, although true things can certainly be said about God.

A related concern, but one that ought to be taken more seriously, is the concern of apologetics against monotheistic religions, primarily Judaism and Islam but also including Christian oneness sects. For example, Qai at Orthodox Shahada has raised concerns that if one confesses monotheism based on natural theology, then one might have put oneself on the defensive against a Muslim arguing the doctrine of tawhid (oneness) as against the Trinity. Dyer has likewise elsewhere suggested that the Trinity is "tacked on" to God-in-general. The response to that concern is exactly the same argument from transcendence raised above: that we know what we don't know about God.

In the context of this argument, it's a misunderstanding of divine simplicity in the context of natural theology. Since all we know about God is through creation and since natural theology reveals God as Creator, we don't have a basis to know God's internal operations except by analogy. With respect to those external activities, everyone who affirms monotheism would necessarily see the same things in creation. The question is only whether what is knowable about creation properly rules out the possibility of the Trinity or instead whether the claim that God is a Trinity is unknowable based on natural knowledge. What we can conclude from the type of unity in God to the extent it is knowable from natural revelation is that God's mode of being generally and His mode of being one (simple) is a fundamentally different mode of existence from created things. In terms of the Catholic understanding, that is agreed by both Thomists and Scotists, the latter of whom affirm univocity of predication about God but who still affirm God's perfections in an infinite mode. Moreover, the concept of divine simplicity is identical in East and West, although there are differences on the implications of that doctrine for metaphysics generally in terms of exactly how creation relates to God, including whether God's activities are with respect to creation are entitative (energies, logoi) or relational. At any rate, if we understanding what we mean by the divine simplicity, then we would know that it cannot be used to formally rule out the Trinity, because it would require us to posit knowledge about the inner life of God that we can't possibly have based on the nature of divine simplicity. (It is also possible that one could argue that the Trinitarian nature of God is knowable from natural theology and analogy. To date, I have not found those arguments compelling, although I am intrigued by Joshua Sijuwade's argument from love defined as willing the good for another.)

As one example of a failed concept, the Islamic doctrine of tawhid is too small. It is modeled on earthly sovereignty and makes God an exceptionally powerful being among beings, as opposed to the transcendent Creator of all that is. That is a false conception of God, so they have not correctly reasoned as a matter of natural theology. It is not a question of the Trinity being "tacked on" to a common concept of God but rather that the Muslim's concept of God simply is not the one held by Christians or correctly reasoning natural theologians at all. And again, we have to contrast knowing God with believing things about God. When we say that Muslims worship the same God, we do not mean that they have true beliefs about God. Rather, we mean only that they have attached a defective concept of God to the actual God who has taken certain acts in history. For example, they correctly attribute that God in question is the one God who created everything.

The same would be true of anti-Trinitarian Judaism, which is comparatively rare because Trinitarian doctrine does not philosophically contradict divine oneness. (The rejection of Christianity is typically due to rejection of the historical fact of Jesus as Messiah as opposed to the philosophical rejection of the Trinity or the Incarnation as incompatible with divinity.) The God revealed in the Old Testament is correctly identified with the one God Who created all things, so there is certainly a common foundation. But to the extent that there is a defective interpretation of the revealed concept that "God is one," much like the defective Islamic concept of tawhid, it is a wrong philosophical description of God. It says something false about the God they have correctly identified. The Trinity cannot be "tacked on" to that defective concept; the defective concept must be corrected, either by correct interpretation of Scripture or by showing that the characteristics of God apparent from nature cannot exclude the Trinity.

In short, the reason that the "god of the philosophers" is problematic is not that the concept is known through natural theology (methodology) but that it is mistaken. The "god of the philosophers" does not mean that the concept results from philosophy but rather that the (erroneous) concept is held by certain philosophers.

IX. The Failure of the Critique against Catholicism

This critique from the East ought to be well-taken to the extent that Catholic thinkers can fall captive to naive philosophy, even when they believe themselves to be ancient. John Deely's Four Ages of Understanding is an essential work for articulating the process by which philosophy developed over time, especially the metaphysics of signs that is essential to conscious epistemology in Thomism. One might consider it the definitive counter-narrative to the assertion that Catholicism is "realism based on the senses," as per the anachronistic reading of the Peripatetic axiom. As I previously noted, this was not an issue of philosophy lacking the capacity to think consciously about epistemology. Rather, much of that conceptual apparatus was taken for granted. Nevertheless, in the West, there was thought given to these questions, particularly in the study of logic, before the issues associated with Ockhamism and modernism overwhelmed that discussion. The Cappadocians engaged in a similar project of conscious epistemology in the East in the context of replying to Eunomius, and although the focus in the East was primarily on the need for Christian practice, that should not be taken to imply that this was unique to the West. Rather, both East and West affirmed the same fundamental idea that natural knowledge could lead to knowledge about God but only grace, in the context of Christian life, could provide knowledge of God.

The confusion between those two reflects confusion in the question of ens intentionale, intentional being. In their consideration of the metaphysics of signs, Catholic authors over the centuries developed this understanding of the relationship between knower and known in a conscious way, with the most explicit expositors being St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Poinsot, and Bl. Duns Scotus (in the application to his own metaphysical system). Although it may be fair to say that this study was somewhat neglected because of other more pressing considerations, especially as modernism took hold, it is wrong to say that Catholicism did not have epistemological solutions. What is common to all of these solutions, at least to the extent that they are successful, is that they follow Stephen Chamberlain's observation that "epistemological critique is intended to supplement rather than ground ontology in the explication of human knowledge."

By "successful," I mean that the critique is not based on denying the real relation between the knower and the known that underlies knowledge. That is the linchpin of Catholic philosophy on this point. In my opinion, Jacques Maritain and John Deely are the two best expositors of conscious epistemology in the Thomist tradition, in terms of giving an explicit response to the modernist epistemological critique after Kant while also answering the phenomenological turn of Husserl and others. Maritain and Deely are only following St. Thomas's account of intentional being, in terms of giving a rigorous exposition of the sign relation and its metaphysical basis. In Deely's case, this also incorporated much more recent work on logic and language in the analytical tradition, especially Peirce's account of signs.

In terms of responding to Kantian philosophy and so-called "transcendental Thomism," I commend Out of a Kantian Chrysalis?, which collects and analyzes Maritain's critique of the transcendental Thomist Fr. Joseph Marechal. Much of what Maritain says would apply to transcendental approaches generally, including Christian presuppositionalism. In my opinion, Maritain also gets the better of Gilson and his epistemological disciple Frederick "Fritz" Wilhelmsen in terms of answering the transcendental critique without swinging the pendulum to the opposite side of reducing knowledge to sensory impressions, which is precariously close to turning the Peripatetic axiom into the modernist "sense data." I therefore agree with Chamberlain that Maritain's position strikes the correct balance in responding to the Kantian critique, and importantly, that difference on epistemology does not entail a fundamental conflict on what being actually is in the Thomist metaphysics. Both Maritain and Gilson end up in the Neo-Scholastic Thomist line of philosophy, not the modernist schools. They agree with the essence/existence distinction; they only disagree about how existence is known.

The good thing is that while there is a difference in explanation here, it is not really a difference from what Fr. Popovic or Orthodoxy in general articulates in terms of theological method. The critique does hit hard against modern versions of Catholic philosophy, including some versions of transcendental Thomism and phenomenology, as well as any uncritical Catholic epistemology. But in terms of having a plausible epistemology consistent with patristic understanding and Christian dogma, there is no reason that philosophers in the East and the West cannot both provide adequate accounts. For that matter, there is no reason that different philosophical schools within both Catholicism and Orthodoxy can provide such accounts.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

James White's Anthropomorphic Exegesis of Romans 9 and John 6

I recently appeared with Sam Shamoun to discuss the Trinitarian errors of Calvinism. As part of that discussion, I noted that part of the Calvinist misreading of Scripture resulted from an anthropomorphic view of God in terms of an earthly king in the manner of 1 Samuel 8, as contrasted with his divine majesty as Creator.  This misunderstanding of divine sovereignty caused a Calvinist misreading of Romans 9. Providentially, James White had posted his own exegesis of Romans 9 just a few days before, and it turned out to be a perfect example of what I mean by anthropomorphic exegesis in this context. As I explained, Scripture cannot itself prevent anthropomorphic readings; if you believe that God is capable of having human characteristics, then you will read God in Scripture as having them. But in this case, White has explicitly made use of such presuppositions in his exegesis.

Remarkably White actually states this underlying assumption explicitly around the 53:00 mark as follows: "We in America -- I'll be honest -- one of the things we miss, that is a part of the text, is the necessary reverence for kingship. We don't have that. We have no king. And so, there is a level of demand that mankind can express for God that is never to be found in inspired Scripture." But the king that White has in mind is the earthly king of 1 Samuel 8, not the divine creator of all things. Specifically, an earthly sovereign does good for himself by working evil; he must take something from another for his own benefit. 

The following is a more detailed explanation of how White's exegesis makes use of this concept. In that explanation, I have included the Greek terms from Scripture at various points in the discussion, not to imply that I have any authority in Greek grammar or exegesis (I do not) but rather to be transparent about the interpretation on which I am relying. In almost every case other than the ones where a very literal translation (from the Bible Hub Interlinear Bible) was used, I have relied on the ESV.

I. God the Good King

Scripture explicitly contrasts God's divine kingship from that of earthly sovereigns. John 18:36 says "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world." Unlike divine kings, God's crowning moment is not a great victory but His humiliation on the Cross; John 19:19 says that "Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, 'Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.'" We can now consider how this was different than the earthly kings in Scripture.

In 1 Samuel, the Lord says that Israel is requesting a king not because they have rejected Samuel's oversight but because "they have rejected me from being king over them [1 Sam. 8:7]." The Lord has Samuel warn the people what they will actually get in an earthly king. According to 1 Samuel 8:11-18, “[t]hese will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day." The people of Israel have a choice between having the Lord as king or having an earthly king, and they choose the latter to their sorrow.

Note that the Lord was already king over Israel. The Lord in His providence as Creator of the universe is already (and always) the king of all that is. Israel wants to be governed in a different way -- "that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles [1 Sam. 8:20]." This is actually about abdicating responsibility; the Lord already judged justly and also fought alongside Israel when Israel was faithful. Being faithful to the Lord requires love, and love is hard work. Compared to that, it was a lot easier to deal with a king who was not loving and who would ask relatively less of them.

What distinguishes God's kingship from earthly kingship is God's unbounded love. The earthly king is selfish; he takes from the people for his own purposes. God is selfless. God creates out of nothing but His own good will (eudokia). That is why God is crowned king on the Cross. As John 3:16 says, "God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." In White's recent debate with William Lane Craig concerning the problem of evil, White pointed out that all things are created by God's good intention (eudokia), notably in Ephesians 1, and then connects God's good will in creation to His plan of counsel (boulen tou thelematos). This is where White transitions from God into an earthly king, equating God's planning with the desires of a mortal man, who schemes to achieve what he desires by taking away from his subjects. It takes the eu- out of eudokia, which unites both the "kindness and severity" (chrestoteta kai apotomian, Rom. 11:22) into one and the same economy of divine will.

II. Divine Transcendence and Divine Will

Unlike earthly kings, God does not have to take something in order to give it to someone else. God can lavish His grace on creation out of sheer generosity, and this is His eudokia. When we speak of God choosing, it is important to realize that God is the source of all that is good in creation (and only that), not depending on anything in creation. Acts 17:28 says "for 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we are indeed his offspring.'" If that is the case, then evil cannot be part of that being, because God is "a God of faithfulness and without iniquity [Deut. 32:4], Who "alone is good [agathos] [Mark 10:18]" and "cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one [Jas. 1:13]." "In Him there is no darkness at all [1 John 1:5]." This is likewise why Scripture teaches "Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him [Acts 10:34-35]" and "For God there is no partiality [Rom. 2:11]." As with God's causal power generally, the mechanism is beyond our capability to comprehend, not merely from ignorance or hiddenness of the reasons behind God's action but from sheer inability of human reason to comprehend it. In speaking of divine election, St. Paul says that "Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in [Rom. 11:25]."

The Scriptural doctrine that God is in no sense responsible for evil is likewise recounted in Catholic dogma by the Second Council of Orange. Relevant texts include:

CANON 19. That a man can be saved only when God shows mercy. Human nature, even though it remained in that sound state in which it was created, could by no means save itself, without the assistance of the Creator; hence since man cannot safeguard his salvation without the grace of God, which is a gift, how will he be able to restore what he has lost without the grace of God?

CANON 20. That a man can do no good without God. God does much that is good in a man that the man does not do; but a man does nothing good for which God is not responsible, so as to let him do it.

CANON 22. Concerning those things that belong to man. No man has anything of his own but untruth and sin. But if a man has any truth or righteousness, it is from that fountain for which we must thirst in this desert, so that we may be refreshed from it as by drops of water and not faint on the way. 

CANON 23. Concerning the will of God and of man. Men do their own will and not the will of God when they do what displeases him; but when they follow their own will and comply with the will of God, however willingly they do so, yet it is his will by which what they will is both prepared and instructed.

And we know and also believe that even after the coming of our Lord this grace is not to be found in the free will of all who desire to be baptized, but is bestowed by the kindness of Christ, as has already been frequently stated and as the Apostle Paul declares, "For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake" (Phil. 1:29). And again, "He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). And again, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and it is not your own doing, it is the gift of God" (Eph. 2:8). And as the Apostle says of himself, "I have obtained mercy to be faithful" (1 Cor. 7:25, cf. 1 Tim. 1:13). He did not say, "because I was faithful," but "to be faithful." And again, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7). And again, "Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights" (Jas. 1:17). And again, "No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven" (John 3:27). There are innumerable passages of holy scripture which can be quoted to prove the case for grace, but they have been omitted for the sake of brevity, because further examples will not really be of use where few are deemed sufficient.
We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema. We also believe and confess to our benefit that in every good work it is not we who take the initiative and are then assisted through the mercy of God, but God himself first inspires in us both faith in him and love for him without any previous good works of our own that deserve reward, so that we may both faithfully seek the sacrament of baptism, and after baptism be able by his help to do what is pleasing to him. We must therefore most evidently believe that the praiseworthy faith of the thief whom the Lord called to his home in paradise, and of Cornelius the centurion, to whom the angel of the Lord was sent, and of Zacchaeus, who was worthy to receive the Lord himself, was not a natural endowment but a gift of God's kindness.

Note that even though Adam is also said by the Council to have received original grace "through natural goodness," it was still grace even in the case of Adam, since "[h]uman nature, even though it remained in that sound state in which it was created, could by no means save itself." This is why both angels and men in the original state required grace to be able to choose God, although this grace was provided as part of their original creation ("through natural goodness"). That state of original grace can be contrasted with grace being bestowed by "the kindness of God" (quoting Rom. 11:22) after the Fall. It is always the mercy and good will (eudokia) of God that results in our ability to do what is pleasing to God, consistent with His eternal purpose for us, and to obtain salvation.

With that in mind, let us turn back to Ephesians 1:3-14 [ESV] to see how this eudokia works out:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose [exelexato] us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined [proorisas] us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose [eudokian] of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace [epainon doxes tes charitos], with which he has blessed [echaritosen] us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace [ploutos tes charitos], which he lavished [eperisseusen] upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will [mysterion tou thelematos], according to his purpose [kata ten eudokian], which he set forth [proetheto] in Christ as a plan [oikonomian] for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined [prooristhentes] according to the purpose [prothesin] of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will [boulen tou thelematos], so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory [epainon doxes]. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory [epainon tes doxes].

The plan (oikonomian) is clearly directed toward all of creation, so the eudokia is likewise directed toward all of creation. God has no need for creation in the first place, so He cannot need it for any purpose other than His own good will for it. Since He has no needs, there would be no purpose in willing for His own sake to the exclusion of the good of what He has created. Rather, in willing His own good, He wills good for the things that are created as well. Thus, even in willing things for "the praise of His glory" (epainon tes doxes), this is because it is good for those He has created to praise Him, not because God is in the least bit affected by it. This differs from earthly rulers, who do things for their own benefit. God does not, and indeed cannot, benefit from creation in any way, so this means he is not "one who shows partiality" [prosopolemptes, literally one who takes the part of someone]. God never needs to choose evil for the sake of another good, although it may be the case for creatures that they would not have had some good for themselves had another creature not worked some evil.

The simplest example of how this eudokia works is in the case of the elect and fallen angels. This is an appropriate example because it is taught in Scripture that Hell was "prepared for the devil and his angels [Matt. 25:41]," illustrating that the elective will of God is the same for angels and men. As part of that plan, all of the angels received grace in their creation by means of natural goodness, although this grace was not itself natural goodness. Yet some sinned and fell, and this must have come not from the being that they were given by God (eudokia) but from the non-being from which they came and to which they turned back. There was no question of prescriptive or decretive will -- no case of God handing down some angelic law that they had to follow -- because they were in the eternal presence of God from the very beginning of their existence. 

The case of fallen angels simply illustrates the teaching of Scripture and the Council of Orange; those angels who were elect were so because of God's gifts, and those who fell did so of their own will. We do not know why they did, only that it is absolutely not because of anything at all in their nature or in God's direction of it. We likewise know that this decision did not allow these fallen angels to somehow escape the plan to "unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth." In a similar way, permitting creatures to freely reject God's offer of grace as a means of election neither mandates the offer of grace in the first place nor creates any unplanned contingency with respect to God's will. It was simply in the plan that they would receive grace sufficient to be in fellowship with God but for their own evil will, exactly as was the case with the angels and with Adam and Eve. Eudokia means that every rational creature who falls into perdition has been individually presented with God's divine grace and decided to reject it.

With respect to evil acts generally and perdition specifically, all we know for certain is that God wills only the good with respect to the evildoer and not at all the evil. Having God directly will evil would contradict the Scriptures concerning God's goodness, and it would make evil God's work in contradiction to Psalm 111:7 --   "The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy." If evil were willed directly by God, it would make the slanderous charge of Romans 3:8 true: "Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—'Let us do evil that good may result'?" In terms of God's plan, evil is foreseen and permitted in the sense that God wills whatever good He wills in the evildoer, but the evil act itself is solely within the power and will of the creature. Consequently, Scriptural passages that describe God's control over hearts (e.g., Prov. 21:1 "The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will") should never be taken as if the evil will or desires were the product of God. To avoid anthropomorphism (treating God as an earthly sovereign), the interpreter must be cognizant of the difference in causality between evil acts and good acts, the former of which are only negatively caused (by positively willing the good in the person) and the latter of which are always positively caused.

The idea that evil acts must be caused qua evil is a false idea from pagan philosophy. It is not Scriptural; Scripture never teaches it. The irrational fear that God will somehow not be able to control evil or that it will escape His plan if it is not directly caused by Him has never been part of Jewish or Christian belief. It results from the anthropomorphic belief in God as an earthly sovereign who can somehow lose control of his kingdom, not the divine Creator whose good will is the very reason for existence. It is metaphysically impossible for God to lose control of creation, and if one is concerned about it, one does not acknowledge the greatness and omnipotence of God. Surprisingly, Calvin in his commentary on Psalm 115 admits that he got this idea from the pagan view of divine causality, saying that "If [God] be regarded as occupying an intermediate position between doing and suffering, so as to tolerate what he does not wish, then, according to the fancy of the Epicureans, he will remain unconcerned in the heavens." While Calvin disagrees with the conclusion, he has  only done so by placing God's will in the role of Fate in the pagan cosmology. Judaism and Christianity has always regarded God as supremely good and loving, reflected in Paul's teaching, while Calvin has disregarded that premise in favor of the philosophy of man.

Thus, we can establish the will of election in God, which is the aforementioned good will for all things in Christ. We cannot think of this as choosing among creatures, since God is not dependent on creatures in any sense. Rather, the principles of election in God's eudokia are as follows: (1) no creaturely act can have compelled the degree of eudokia to any degree, including the goodness, grace, and mercy that any created thing receives to enable that creature to do what is pleasing to God, and (2) the sole cause of evil is the evil choice of creatures permitted but not caused by God, yet in no sense out of His control. The person, considered in the metaphysical sense as the center of consciousness exercising the faculty of choice, is referred to as the "heart" in Scripture, so Matthew 15:19 says "[f]or out of the heart [kardias] come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander." It is in this sense of personal choices that the heart is "deceitful above all things and desperately sick [Jer. 17:9]." In Romans 8, St. Paul calls those personal choices the "mind of the flesh [phronema tes sarkos]." These disordered desires for otherwise good created things, habituated by repeated bad choices, are often metaphorically referred to as the "flesh" or the "old man" in Scripture, but those are not anything other than the evil choices of the person to wrongly pursue a desire. And while God can certainly choose to positively restrain even evil choices, it is blasphemous to suggest that there are any sinful desires that compel the person to sin. 

Sin is never compelled and cannot be compelled; it is always a free choice by the sinner to indulge the desire, and free will can never be compelled by an object. Rather, the will's choice is exactly to desire something most among multiple things that can be desired, which is why temptation can never be attributed to God. The notion that evil as such, which the Christian tradition has always maintained is non-being, requires a sufficient cause is a thoroughly pagan idea. It does not originate in the Scriptures, and it is incompatible with Christian belief. The reason for evil is always and only the underlying positive being relative to which it is measured, making the will of the evildoer itself a sufficient cause for the evil action. Perhaps the most famous explanation of this belief is the one offered by St. Augustine, who rejected his prior Manichaean belief that evil resulted from its own principle. 

How is it that evil does not thwart this plan? It is in that the evil will be ultimately subject to Christ, so that their choice of themselves and their own desires ends in ultimate futility. Their choice to do evil will not have resulted in its end, which is to put themselves above God. It will only have confirmed that all things exist by God's grace, making their desire to produce something apart from it return void. That is the good achieved by even the reprobate; they are a living testament to the goodness of God no matter how hard they will for it to be otherwise. Again, the notion that God must cause evil in order to be sovereign over it is denied by the Scriptures. Rather, God tolerates it, willing what is good in the evildoer, with the ultimate plan of recapitulating even the evildoer in Christ. In that sense, mercy and wrath are not choices between God's eudokia and wrath but are instead one and the same choice for creation. This is the will of election: that the saved will be saved by God's grace and that the destroyed will be destroyed by their own evil choices. The most dread warnings in Scripture are actually reserved for those who first receive the grace of Christ and then reject it, effectively doubling their rebellion against God's plan, as was the case with Judas ("It would have been better for that man if he had not been born [Mark 14:21]"). "For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries [Hebr. 10:26-27]."

Unfortunately, Reformed theologians, following Calvin, persist in thinking that there must be a causal explanation for evil qua evil, thus following the pagan philosophies like those of Mani. R.C. Sproul endorses the blasphemous solution of Jonathan Edwards in The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended that the "propensity [to sin] is truly esteemed to belong to the nature of any being, or to be inherent in it, that is the necessary consequence of its nature, considered together with its proper situation in the universal system of existence, whether that propensity be good or bad." Edwards here explicitly adopts the pagan belief that evil must result from the order of the universe rather than the disorder of creatures, thus denying the Scriptural teaching of Romans 1:26 that sin is "contrary to nature." He believes that if God is not forcing hearts to be evil, then He has lost control of them, like some banal earthly ruler. White explicitly endorses this view that being wicked is our "nature" at the 21:45 mark of his presentation on Romans 9.

This distorts the meaning of "inclination" into "compulsion," which misinterprets Scriptural pleas such as "do not incline my heart to any evil thing, to practice deeds of wickedness [Ps. 141:4]," "pray that you may not enter into temptation [Luke 22:40]," and the petition in the Lord's prayer to "lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil [Matt. 6:13]." God can certainly protect anyone He chooses from inclinations that they will choose to pursue sinfully; as principle (1) states, He can bestow His good will on anyone He chooses at His election. But that is no reason to deny principle (2): that nothing God does causes evil or even tempts someone toward evil. That was the basis for condemning the Jansenists, who likewise believed in "interior necessity" to account for these evil decisions, so that one was determined either by the evil intention or the grace of God in opposition to it.

The denial of principle (2) reifies evil, which is philosophically a non-entity, into a formal nature. That results in Sproul's erroneous application of the law of causality to evil, which violates the principle that out of nothing, nothing comes. If evil is nothing, it needs no cause other than the existence of what underlies it. But in their foolish adherence to pagan philosophy, the Reformed theologians ignore this. The reification of evil causes them to take metaphorical passages that speak of evil as if it were a formal nature and read them literally, as if there were a so-called "fallen nature" that produces compelling desires for the will, as Edwards describes. That results in the heart/mind, the faculty of decision-making, being determined by something outside of it, as opposed to making the determination toward evil choices. This philosophical error concerning evil results in misinterpretations of numerous passages, including Eph. 2:3 and 4:22, Rom. 6:6 and 8:3, Col. 3:5 and 3:9, Gal. 5:19, and 1 Cor. 2:14, Ps. 105:25, as if there were something essentially evil in the unregenerate that compels them to sin or God was directly causing sin, as opposed to the evildoer's simply having chosen to do so. Only that mistake causes people to take David's obviously poetic description of wickedness from the womb (Ps. 58:3) as being literal. Likewise, although Paul definitely refers to sin as a force (Michael Gorman's commentary on Romans uses the capitalized term "Sin"), this is a metaphor, not a metaphysical entity. That is not to say that evil is not real, only that it has none of its own metaphysical being.

Yet none of this has anything to do with predestination and unconditional election, the former of which is Catholic dogma and the latter of which seems to be far more probable to me (for reasons that I will detail later). All this teaching about the causality of evil means is that the mechanism of perdition must be by each person's own choice, not compelled by any desire or irresistible compulsion. As Hosea 13:9 says, "He destroys you, O Israel, for you are against me, against your helper."  And as with the fallen angels, we do not have any clear idea as to how God chooses to permit some to lapse among any group, only that they are condemned by their own choices.

III. Divine Sovereignty in Romans 9

Bearing these two Scriptural principles concerning God's good will in mind, the exegesis of Romans 9 becomes much simpler. Paul's interlocutors, appearing implicitly in vv. 4-5 and explicitly starting in v. 14, are denying principle (1). They do not believe that the blessings of God are out of His good will and choice, which is the choice (election) and plan (economy) that He made in creating all things for the purpose of uniting them all in Christ. Instead, they believe that the prior election of Israel as His chosen people now compels God to bless those who are obedient to the Law given to Israel, not recognizing that the election of Israel itself was purely an election of good will (eudokia). "For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself [Hebr. 6:13, referring to Gen. 22:17]."

This misunderstanding of the Law, as something giving the ability to compel God's goodness as opposed to a sign of God's purely gracious plan in Christ described in Ephesians 1, is answered by Paul in Galatians 3:15-29.

To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. 

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. 

Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

Thus, God's promise to Abraham, which He swore by Himself, is nothing other than the eudokia, the plan for all of creation in Christ described in Ephesians 1. That choice of God, in His good will, was made before all time, and it has been shown by the promise to Abraham and by the Law, but the "mystery of His plan" was ultimately revealed in Christ. The plan for all of creation has always been a plan to unite all things by His eudokia in Christ.

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel

White begins his commentary at 31:00, and he and I agree that vv. 4-6 have interlocutors St. Paul has likely faced in the synagogue in mind V. 6 recounts a challenge that could be given by such an opponent, for example. In v. 7-8, the true children of Abraham are called (klethesetai) and reckoned (logizetai) as children of the promise, not his lineal descendants. And as White correctly says, this is all about God's plan. In v. 11, the election of Jacob over Esau is according to God's purpose in election (eklogen prothesis) before either had done good or evil (agathon e phaulon). Then, in v. 12, it is repeated that the election is not of works (ouk ex ergon) but of God, the One calling (tou kalountos). V. 13 then summarizes the conclusion of the preceding verses with God's statement that He loved (egapesa) Jacob and hated (emisesa) Esau. "Hate" here is relative; there is nothing in the passage to say that Esau was reprobated or that this is about reprobation. Regardless, the interlocutors' point isn't about reprobation; it is about God's obligation to bless them. 

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!

At this point, White misconstrues the objection in v. 14 (is there injustice with God?) by losing the context entirely. The interlocutor in both v. 6 and v. 14 is coming from the denial of proposition (1); they believe that God no longer has the choice to deny grace to Israel, but that they have the right to demand God's eudokia based on their obedience to the Law. They are not objecting to the general proposition that God has the ability to make choices; the objection is that God has promised and then changed His mind. They are thinking of God as an earthly sovereign; you made a political deal with us, and if we scratch your back by providing obedience, you scratch ours by providing blessings and salvation.  But that implicitly denies God's eudokia: He needs nothing from us, so why would it even make sense for Him to make such an exchange? Our obedience is not doing something for God that He rewards. Rather, obedience is good for us, and it is part of God's good will toward us to give us good works to perform. To think of those good works as somehow creating a demand on God's grace, as opposed to themselves being God's grace, is absurd.

By contrast, Paul's response is consistent in identifying the covenant with Abraham with God's plan for creation that he also outlines in Ephesians 1 and Galatians 3. This idea that his interlocutors have of some sort of exchange with God, as if God were some political leader who needed support from the nobles to maintain His power, is therefore rebutted. God depends on nothing but His own elective will. But White misses this. In his own response, White does not see God as the omnibenevolent creator, but rather the earthly sovereign of 1 Samuel 8 who takes for His own use. He is therefore defending the right of God to do with as He will whatever he rules, including control over the free choice of man, which he sees being challenged by Paul's interlocutors. That is why White invokes America's lack of an earthly monarch; he believes that this type of earthly sovereign controlling freedom is a fitting image of God. But Paul's interlocutors aren't challenging God's sovereign power to do with things as He will; that much is clear in v. 19 when they point out that God could have forced things to be any way that He wanted. Again, what they are challenging is not that He could have done things differently but that, in His exercise of that absolute sovereignty, He promised something that He has refused to give.

Both Paul's interlocutors and White have therefore fundamentally misconstrued God's sovereignty as earthly sovereignty, which involves the need to take things from creation for His use. But God as Creator needs absolutely nothing from creation for His use. It exists solely out of his good will (eudokia) in His plan to unite all things in Christ. A God who doesn't need anything from creation doesn't need to take anything from creation. His promise is nothing but an announcement of that plan. It is not a transaction so that He can get something He needs, nor is it an exercise to get power over creation, which He already has. White's conception of God as using creation for His purposes creates a false symmetry between God and man. God doesn't even need creation to exist; much less does He depend on any created means to achieve His ends. The purposes of God's plan for creation is for the good He wills in it, not for His own benefit.

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”

Because White has lost touch with the plan of eudokia, exactly as Paul's interlocutors did, his exegesis ends up denying proposition (2) and attributing direct causality of evil in God's plan in vv. 16-18. This loses the thread of Paul's argument, and to understand how, we have to go back to the interlocutor's charge. They believe that they have done something good for God so that they are entitled to something good from God, so that denying it to them is injustice (v. 14). In v. 15, Paul responds with the case of Israel's worship of the golden calf. Nowhere does Paul make the impious and blasphemous suggestion that God caused Israel to turn to idolatry in order to demonstrate His purpose; rather, Paul is pointing out that God's mercy in that instance had nothing to do with the promise to Abraham. No work that the Israelites had performed (human will, thelontos, or exertion/running, trechontos, or any prior faithfulness) obligated God to continue blessing them in the face of their manifest idolatry. It remains within the power of God to choose (thelei, v. 18) whom He will "mercy" (eleontos). Note that this continues to apply for Christians in the eternal plan; Christians who break faith with God and grieve the Holy Spirit will likewise not receive their promised inheritance. 

Understanding that the blasphemous suggestion that God causes evil is far from Paul's thoughts, we can understand Paul's use of Pharaoh in v. 17. Pharaoh is actually given as an example of someone who received much from God despite having been evil. God's hardening does not cause evil; rather, He permits their evil acts which further reinforce and habituate their evil disposition. This is why Scripture speaks equally of men and God hardening those men's hearts. As is the case with any evil act, God does so by permission, and men do so by action. Yet even knowing what Pharaoh was, God still provided gifts to him ("I have raised you up") so that his eventual destruction by his own actions would show God's own ultimate power over evil. In that way, God demonstrates His power in Pharaoh; no matter how much Pharaoh abuses the gifts God has given him, he cannot prevail over God. Even the evil have their power from God, exactly as demonstrated by the fallen angels and the reprobate. That is consistent with God's election before all ages to unite all things in Christ, the good and the evil in their respective ways.

So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”

White therefore misinterprets v. 18 to be equating God's mercy and hardening in terms of causality. Paul instead sees it in terms of God's election of eudokia, the plan in Ephesians 1 and Galatians 3 to unite all things, both good and evil, in Christ. The election of individuals is made in terms of that overall plan of election, and it takes the same pattern as the fallen angels: the elect are saved by the grace that God gives them, and the fallen are destroyed by their own rejection of God's grace. Those who receive grace from God (Israel, Pharaoh) may nonetheless receive it to their own eventual destruction at His hands through their own fault. The implicit charge here is that Paul's interlocutors have been destroyed by their own evil choices (cf. Rom 10:21, "But concerning Israel he says, 'All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.'"), though Paul would offer even to sacrifice himself to save them.

If we keep in mind the thought of Paul's interlocutors, denying God's sovereignty is the farthest thing from their minds. They view Him as an earthly sovereign who has struck a political deal with them: obedience to Him in exchange for blessings to them. They do not deny His great power; on the contrary, they affirm it ("Who can resist His will?"). Given that He has unlimited power as sovereign, He can take whatever He wants, so what does it matter to Him that they have failed in some or another way ("Why does He still find fault?")? In short, they are saying what they, selfish men, would've done in God's position with God's power. It is the same impulse as Samuel 8: "they have despised me as king over them," preferring to have another king who will "judge" for them. (The Septuagint uses dikazein, with the implication that the earthly king will establish a new standard of righteousness instead of God's.) The interlocutors aren't denying God's causal power; they are disputing how He has exercised it. Thus, they are substituting their judgment, their own standard of righteousness, for God's, exactly as the Israelites did in Samuel 8.

Thus, the context of Paul's rebuke in v. 20 ("Who are you, o man, to reply to God?") is yet another defense of God's plan of eudokia. Here, Paul sees God as the good Creator, the potter, whose clay is eudokia. This idea that those in Israel cannot justly be hardened because God has given them a blessing (the promise to Abraham) is impious. The image in v. 21 is of God providing His goodness and mercy from the same lump (phyramatos), which fits perfectly with Paul's source in Jeremiah 18:3-12. Since all have received from the same goodness, there is no basis for the children of Abraham to say that they ought to be preferred by the potter, much less that He owes them. Indeed, it is the opposite. He has has borne their misuse of His gifts with "much patience" (polle makrothymia), having given them out of eudokia only to have them abused. The plan of eudokia is maintained; good comes from God's gifts while evil comes from man's choices. To expressly deny God's causality for evil, Paul switches from the perspective of the vessel of destruction in v. 22 ("having been prepared," katerismena) to the perspective of God in v. 23 ("which He prepared beforehand," proetoimasen). In that choice of language, Paul preserves the asymmetry between good and evil in God's elective plan to unite all things in Christ. The good comes from God's predestination; the evil, which God permits but does not cause, is suffered for the ultimate purpose of demonstrating His power over the evildoer, whose power comes from God.

IV. The massa damnata et damnabilis

White's misinterpretation of the potter analogy has a partial source in St. Augustine, although I will explain why he takes it farther than Augustine did. St. Augustine famously took the lump (massa in Latin) in v. 21 as an image not of God's goodness but of the fallen human nature, reading a degree of disdain into the term that simply isn't there in Paul's usage. Although the Biblical scholar Brendan Byrne agrees that the potter analogy is not intended to show this, Byrne's commentary on Galatians and Romans still thinks it is a bad analogy, "hardly Paul at his best." But I would argue that the only fault in the analogy is when it is taken out of the context of the overall plan of eudokia. Michael Gorman's recent commentary on Romans, by contrast, fits chapter 9-11 quite nicely within the overall theme of God's mercy. From a more ancient perspective, St. John Chrysostom's Homily 16 on Romans says essentially the same thing ("do not suppose that this is said by Paul as an account of the creation, nor as implying a necessity over the will, but to illustrate the sovereignty and difference of dispensations"). It seems clear that the idea of clay as eudokia, a good thing given by God, is a better interpretation of Paul's intent than the Augustinian interpretation.  

So why do I not accuse Augustine of anthropomorphism? That is because Augustine definitely views evil as a privation of the good, as he details in Confessions 7.11-13 and Enchiridion 3-4.  His belief has nothing to do with necessitating God's causality over evil in order to maintaining sovereignty, in the manner that Calvin, Sproul, Edwards, and White assert. It is simply that Augustine has made a metaphysical error concerning the transmissibility of evil by means of nature. He sees the soul as a substance transmitted in generation, a belief known as traducianism, so that the soul is biologically transmitted as a kind of spiritual material along with the body in generation. This causes Augustine to misinterpret Paul's use of massa in Romans 9, which gives a sense of the fallen as bearing original sin that in and of itself makes them elected to destruction by default. This is an understandable mistake given that the doctrine of original sin and the creation of the soul had not been fully developed, and it is not a trivial matter to reconcile death after the Fall with Ezekiel 18:20 ("The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself."). But even if his belief on inherited evil is mistaken (and it is), Augustine is adamant that even this inherited evil does not itself cause evil. He outlines this well in his explanation of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart in Questions on Exodus, from his later work Questions on the Heptateuch.

QUESTION 18. HARDENING OF PHARAOH'S HEART. — God repeatedly says, I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he gives, so to speak, the reason for his action: I will harden Pharaoh's heart, said he, "and I will fulfill my miracles and wonders in Egypt; It seems that the hardening of Pharaoh's heart is like the indispensable condition for the multiplication or accomplishment of the wonders of God in Egypt. God knows how to use evil hearts for the instruction or usefulness of the good. And though the degree of malice in each heart, or otherwise, the inclination of each to evil, is the result of a personal vice, resulting from the free choice of the will; yet, in order that the heart may be inclined to evil in any sense, there are causes which act upon the mind; the existence of these causes does not depend on man; but they come from that hidden, assuredly very fair and wise providence by which God rules and disposes of all that He has created. Thus, that Pharaoh had a heart capable of finding in the patience of God a devotion, not good but evil, it was in him a personal vice; but as to the events which determined this heart so depraved to oppose the orders of God, for that is, strictly speaking, the hardening, since instead of yielding humbly, Pharaoh resisted with obstinacy, they were a permission of divine wisdom, which prepared for this heart a chastisement, not only deserved, but evidently full of justice, and men fearing God would find a lesson. For example, being offered a reward for the perpetration of a homicide, the miser and the one who despises fortune will be moved in a different sense; one will be inclined to commit the crime; the other to defend himself against it: the proposition of the profit to be withdrawn, however, was not in the hands of either of them. Thus, for the wicked, there are causes of action which are not in their power, but which find them already engaged in their own vices, and as a consequence of an earlier choice of will, and to follow their inclinations. However, it must be clearly seen whether these words, "I will harden," cannot mean: I will show how hard his heart is.

We see here God's active causal involvement, as it is not a mere demonstration of the hardness of Pharaoh's heart, yet the evil will itself is "the result of a personal vice" and has no other cause. It is Pharaoh's response to things outside of himself, good things created by God, that provides the occasion for the evil choice. They do not tempt because God made them tempting but because Pharaoh is tempted by them. Augustine's other later works likewise make clear that wickedness comes from the man: "Now if God is able, either through the agency of angels (whether good ones or evil), or in any other way whatever, to operate in the hearts even of the wicked, in return for their deserts, — whose wickedness was not made by Him, but was either derived originally from Adam, or increased by their own will, — what is there to wonder at if, through the Holy Spirit, He works good in the hearts of the elect, who has wrought it that their hearts become good instead of evil?" (On Grace and Free Will, ch. 43). By contrast, the conversion of such men to God is the result of only God's grace: "This grace, therefore, which is hiddenly bestowed in human hearts by the Divine gift, is rejected by no hard heart, because it is given for the sake of first taking away the hardness of the heart. When, therefore, the Father is heard within, and teaches, so that a man comes to the Son, He takes away the heart of stone and gives a heart of flesh" (On the Predestination of the Saints, ch. 13). The only error that Augustine makes is in the assertion that wickedness can be "derived originally from Adam," but that mistake is one that has already been addressed. Augustine has still affirmed that reprobation involves no causality on the part of God but rather a rejection of God's good will. 

The fact that Augustine made certain mistakes in this regard doesn't mean that we must dismiss him entirely. St. Prosper of Aquitaine, the defender of St. Augustine, corrected Augustine's mistakes in this regard, as reflected in the Council of Orange. This is similar to the case of St. Basil the Great, who followed Origen in believing that the Holy Spirit could only have spiritual and not physical causality, calling the Spirit the "perfecting cause" of creation. We still venerate Basil as the Doctor of Pneumatology, because his explanation was the basis of our thought, even though his mistakes have been corrected. We should treat Augustine likewise; his thought on grace is fundamental even if he made mistakes. I commend Christian Wagner's excellent piece on Augustine for guidance on how we ought not be too harsh on Augustine, although I would differ with him in holding that Augustine made a mistake regarding infants, one that was implicitly corrected by the Council of Orange. In the West, that corrected understanding has been further developed into the doctrine of Limbo and continues to be developed today, though I consider the best Christian treatment to be the one given by St. Gregory of Nyssa in Concerning Infants Who Have Died Prematurely. In any case, while Augustine may have been slightly overzealous on the effects of original sin, nothing in Augustine requires or even suggests the errors of Calvinism.

Thus, even with Augustine, we see God's elective will of eudokia: salvation is the merciful decision to bestow good, while hardening and destruction results from the person's own evil choices from which God chooses not to protect them. Another Father, John Chrysostom, puts it even better: "Whence then are some vessels of wrath, and some of mercy? Of their own free choice. God, however, being very good, shows the same kindness to both. For it was not those in a state of salvation only to whom He showed mercy, but also Pharaoh, as far as His part went. For of the same long-suffering, both they and he had the advantage. And if he was not saved, it was quite owing to his own will: since, as for what concerns God, he had as much done for him as they who were saved." This is not to say that God deals with people identically, but to say that everything is based on God's eudokia, which is given to every created thing. God has given even evildoers actual grace beyond their natural powers, which they have spurned.

Unlike White, Augustine and Chrysostom do not see this imaginary threat in which some evil person can somehow sneak his way into election unless God causes him to commit evil. In other words, they are not concerned about anyone "making a decision" for God. Rather, they are concerned about the Pelagian idea that anyone makes such decisions apart from an encounter with God's grace, which is implicitly a denial that we depend on God for our very being. Paul's interlocutors are seeing God as an earthly sovereign with whom they are making deals, yet White's fear is itself based on the same concept of God, an earthly sovereign who loses control of what is happening unless He is causing everything directly, including evil. That is a sovereign who must take creatures' free choice for his purposes, lest the creatures make a choice he does not control. It is not the God Who is the source of that ability in the first place. So White is not refuting the inferior earthly sovereign posited by Paul's interlocutors; he is affirming the same concept.

We can see the difference between the views in prelapsarian sin and exaltation. In order for Adam and the angels to be exalted, God had to give them the grace toward ultimate union in Christ, the same kind that He gives to Christians in salvation. If they were dependent on God, they required grace for the ability to approach near God, albeit a grace that was provided coincident with their creation in their case. Some angels resisted this grace through their own evil choices and fell. God could have provided additional grace in order to prevent this from happening, but He instead permitted them to fall. There was no scenario in which God's election of those who were elect and those who would fall would change or be a surprise to God, nor was there any fallen nature of angels apart from the very things that God placed into them at their creation. The plan of election before all ages has therefore never changed; those accepted by God do so by grace, and those rejected by God are permitted to do so by their own evil choices. Thus, we reject Pelagianism and instead affirm, before or after the Fall and before or after justification from the Fall, that created natures are wholly dependent on God's grace to approach Him and that they can be at any time permitted to fall by their own evil choice.

V. Divine Freedom

White's objection seems to be based on some threat to "divine freedom," although it's not clear what he actually has in mind when he says this. He suggests that his opponents are putting limits on divine freedom, but even Molinists are only describing an internal mechanism within God's decision-making. To reiterate the point, the objection of Paul's interlocutors is not that God could not have decided otherwise; rather, they are charging God with inconsistency with His prior decisions. That means the objection, and Romans 9 generally, has nothing to do with God's power in the absolute sense. It is only because of White's defective understanding of God's sovereignty, viz., that God must take freedom from created things in order to have it Himself, that he sees this illusory challenge to God's freedom in Romans 9.

If White is maintaining that lack of control over Pharaoh's evil decisions would diminish God's freedom, White is basically saying that God wouldn't be free unless God is free to cause evil, which denies the goodness of God's will. That God cannot work evil is based in God's nature and the law of non-contradiction. There are certainly incomprehensible aspects of God's nature, in the sense that we cannot fully comprehend how exactly God exists timelessly or the precise means by which He makes decisions on whether or how to create. But those are not contradictions. On the contrary, it means we have to provide a reasonable account for why there is no contradiction in God's hidden will and his decretive will that is based on what we can know. Since we already have a well-formed and undeniable distinction between God's causality of good and God's causality of evil, the simplest solution is to appeal to that distinction as the difference between God's decretive will and God's hidden will, which is to say this: the difference between them is attributable to the evil choices that God has permitted and not to God's eudokia in willing. This means that God can coherently permit evil without directly willing it, meaning there is a rational distinction between God's hidden will and God's decretive will.

Denying this leads to the perverse consequence that evil wills are imposing necessity on God in that God needs to create evil wills as instruments in order to accomplish His goals. It also breaks the unity of God's will to unite all things in Christ, both good and evil. If we accept that the will is one, there is no contradiction within the will between mercy and wrath, between severity and kindness. What is good in that eudokia depends on God and what is evil in that eudokia depends on the creature. Evil receives goodness by way of negation, which is God's wrath, and where that evil is not present, there is mercy.

How exactly God decides who will benefit from His mercy and who instead will be destroyed by their own choices is a mystery in the formal theological sense. That is, it relates to the divine will as incomprehensible to us; we cannot understand God's "thought process" for creation in a plenary sense, and this is a specific example of our inability to do so. What we must affirm is that it must be God's decision, since everything depends on God for its existence. It will be apparent how God willed good for every created thing in the eschaton, but even then, we will not comprehend the reasons behind it. As Psalm 139 (v. 4-6) says, "Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it." 

For my own part, I favor unconditional election for two reasons. First, affirming the distinction between good and evil seems to account adequately for the distinction between election and reprobation, and further explanation of that distinction seems to be impossible both on Biblical and philosophical grounds, given the incomprehensibility of divine timelessness and the divine act of creation generally.  It seems to me that the problem with Calvinism is itself trying to fit God within an anthropomorphic concept of God, and I don't see how further speculation will avoid the same sort of anthropomorphic errors. Second, all of the metaphysical accounts of divine foreknowledge (whether simple, Molinist, or otherwise) do not seem to account for divine aseity adequately. Metaphysically, I have no idea how God's knowledge could depend on anything other than Himself, and explanatory systems like Molina's middle knowledge, Plantinga's trans-world damnation, and Fr. William Most's work on predestination strike me as coming precariously close to putting direct knowledge of creaturely evil in God's mind, although that I concede that none of them cross that line. With respect to Molina specifically, I agree with the criticism of Joseph Incandela in his dissertation titled "Aquinas's Lost Legacy" that Molina simply does not understand Aquinas's account of God's practical knowledge with respect to evil. 

In my view, to the extent we have to give a theodicy to the various "problems of evil" (as my friend Michael Liccione dubs them), reprobation is simply a species of those problems. I have no idea why the account of divine foreknowledge requires an ad hoc modification to a perfectly serviceable philosophical account of evil to resolve the particular problem of reprobation. Nor do I find "possible worlds" in general to be a particularly useful theological tool where mystery is concerned, since we can't even comprehend God fully even based on the actual world, much less non-existent worlds that are purely hypothetical creations of our imagination. My theological position on the need for mystery in this subject is identical to Matthew Levering's in Predestination: Biblical and Theological Paths, which I would recommend as the definitive Catholic treatment on the subject. 

The reason I provide that extended explanation, however, is to point out that none of this has anything to do with unconditional or conditional election, since none of these Scriptural texts have anything to do with how or why God elects people. Regardless of what approach one takes to election, we must reject the impious and blasphemous suggestion that God causes evil by the same secondary causation that He causes good. That is what Calvin, White, Sproul, and Edwards find in Romans 9, and it is why their belief is cut off from the Christian tradition. It is no threat to God's freedom that He is not an evildoer. But instead, the Calvinist sees the earthly sovereign of 1 Samuel 8 who cannot have his own freedom without taking it from someone else, even if it is the freedom to work evil.

VI. Can Christians Fall? Why John 6:35-58 Does Not Promise Eternal Security

Because evil is the reason for reprobation, any time when a creature is capable of evil is a time in which that creature is capable of falling, whether that is the case of angels immediately after creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or even adopted sons of God in Christ. There's certainly no reason in principle that Christians would be in a different position, and we don't believe that because God has given good to someone at some point, He is thereafter obligated to prevent that person from destroying himself in the future. That is the mistake that the interlocutors in Romans 9 were making.

It's certainly a mystery why God allows Christians to fall, just as why God allowed angels or Adam to fall is a mystery. But the plan to unite all things in Christ was the same from the beginning, and Christ's coming hasn't changed the plan. Rather, it effectuates the plan. Christ brought the angels who remained faithful into eternal friendship with God, Christ would have brought Adam and Eve into eternal friendship with God had they remained faithful, and Christ brings those who remain faithful to Him into eternal friendship with God. But it's the same condition at all times, and it is not having received grace but remaining faithful to that grace that brings creatures into eternal friendship with God. As long as remaining faithful to the grace given is relevant, referring to any state in which one is not already in eternal friendship with God, God may justly permit someone to fall to his destruction. That is true whether one was created in God's presence (as the angels were), in Eden (as Adam and Eve were), or in Christ by grace. And that's the point of the potter analogy; everyone receives God's good, but that doesn't prevent Him from punishing evil that He permits the wicked to perform until the vessels are put to their ultimate use.

Another reason we know that the final use of the vessels in Romans 9 is about election to glory, as opposed to election to grace in Christ, is that Paul later tells us so. "Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness [Rom. 11:22]." If Romans 9 were intended to address some point in time, then there would be no question of those receiving Christ's kindness continuing in it. The Gentiles grafted in are those who have received life (grace) from the root, meaning that they accepted Christ. If they can be removed, that means that Christians can suffer the same fate as the branches in Israel who were not faithful. Thus, there remains the distinction between election to grace and election to glory that we have found throughout salvation history. The revelation of Christ has made the plan manifest but not changed it. Those who remain faithful receive God's grace; those who fall are permitted to do so by their own evil choices. Thus, Scripture contradicts the "P" in the Calvinist TULIP, the perseverance of the regenerate (for whom Calvinists use the term "saint.")

We can see this error in James White's exegesis of John 6 starting around 39:00. The future tense verbs there should not be viewed as promises, provided that we agree with Paul's understanding of God's election in granting blessings. I do agree with White that John 6 is not describing a transitional period in Jesus's ministry before the Gospel age. Instead, the plan of election by grace has been the same all along. The hardening of Israel was not a temporary hardening to make salvation universal; it was an illustration at a particular time of the same elective principle that even now continues to be a lesson for all people, Jew and Gentile. With that in mind, around 50:00, White correctly says that v. 35 describes the one who is coming (ho erchomenos) and the one who is believing (ho pisteuon) as contrasted with those who are unbelieving (ou pisteuete) in v. 36. Those the Father is giving (didosin) will come (hexei), and the ones coming (ton erchomenon) will never be cast out (ekbalo exo) [John 6:37]. In refusing to cast out what the Father is giving Him, Jesus is working not His own human will but the Father's (and His own) divine will.

Where White loses the thread is in the transition from present tense to perfect tense in the Father's giving in v. 39 (around the 62:00 mark), which indicates a shift from the present to the future. Jesus does not cast out those the Father is giving Him in v. 37, but we cannot assume that the Father is going to continue this giving unto completion, shown by the perfect tense in v. 39, so we cannot assume that everyone in vv. 35-37 makes it to vv. 39-40. That assumption would be based on the same erroneous assumption that the Father's having given blessings at some point in the past obligates Him to continue giving blessings to someone, despite that person's rebellion. In other words, the Father would then be obliged people to save people from themselves, exactly as Romans 9:19-20 said is not the case. Jesus's current refusal to cast out those who are in the process of being given is pursuant to the ultimate will that Jesus will lose nothing of what the Father has completed the process of giving (dedoken) to the Son, shown by the perfect tense in v. 39. 

With respect to the time at which the giving is completed, it can't refer to something that the Father has done before all ages, which would be inconsistent with the use of the present tense for the act of giving in v. 37. This is instead what the Father wills to be true in the future, which is completed at the end of time. This is consistent with White's observation that the neuter singular refers to a group (in this case, all of the elect who have been given at that time), as well as being consistent with the rest of the passage. In other words, the reason Jesus keeps those whom the Father is giving in time right now is so that the group of people for whom the Father completes the act of giving in the future will not be lost but raised up. But it doesn't mean that the Father is necessarily going to continue the process of giving to completion for everyone whom He gives to the Son at any time, which would impose necessity on God's eudokia. Those people are in the process of being given, but the process has not yet been completed and will not be completed if the Father does not continue it (cf. John 10:29, where the sheep remain in the Father's hand even after he has begun the process of giving them).

V. 40 is situated at the same time as v. 39, and the present participle in v. 40 fits with the context of the completed process in v. 39. At the time when the process of giving is completed for that person, the result is the person who is beholding (ho theoron) and is believing (pisteuon), who (still) has eternal life, and who will be raised on the last day. White at 65:00 almost picks up on the timing when he notes that the temporal aspect of the substantival participle is not as strong as the finite verb and more in the background. I agree with White that there is something in the context that indexes the point in time here: that the Father has completed the giving in v. 39. Ironically, White even picks up on the larger explanation for people falling away in John: that continuation in faith is required. Some were faithful at some point (aorist tense, as in John 2 and 8) but did not continue to be faithful (present tense), particularly after the full revelation of who Christ was. This loss of sight fits with the similar statement of John 9:39: "For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind." They had received the grace of the Father to be drawn to Christ, believing in Christ to the point of rowing boats out to see Him, but when confronted with the full revelation of Christ, they reject the inner drawing of the Father that they had previously followed. 

The denial in v. 44 (no one can come, oudeis dynatai elthein) is contrasted with the beholding and believing one in v. 40. In other words, it is aimed at the proposition that no one will be the beholding and believing one at the end of time in v. 40 without the drawing of the Father, the hearing and learning of the full revelation. It does not affirm that everyone the Father draws then will have the work of salvation completed. Note that as a strictly logical matter, it doesn't even affirm that people who are drawn will be given by the Father and come, although I think that conclusion is likely given the connection to vv. 35 and 37. But in terms of the context from vv. 39-40 for v. 44, all v. 44 is saying is that no one can end up raised on the last day unless that person is drawn by the Father (v. 44) and the Father completes the process of giving (v. 39).

Vv. 45-47 then explain the process by which this drawing works out in believers. In v. 45, "they will all be taught of God." This is not external proclamation; if it is to be consistent across all time, it must be the person's inner spiritual encounter with the Father (cf. Rom. 1:20) resulting in the giving of that person to the Son. The one who is moved by this grace, described as "having heard and learned" comes (erchetai) to the Son, which hearkens back to vv. 35 (erchomenos) and 37 (erchomenon) and which is therefore likely intended to connect the drawing in v. 44 to the giving in v. 37. The present tense of the coming shows that the past tense of "heard" and "learned" does not refer to the ultimate completion of the Father's act, as in v. 39, but rather to the process having begun (cf. John 5:24, which shows that the hearing and learning is ongoing after it is begun). Obviously, the process and completion are related but not identical, since beginning the process does not imply its completion, but the process cannot be completed if it never begins. Notably, v. 47 establishes eternal life not as a future promise but as a step in the process, since it omits the key language "will raise him up on the last day." The present-tense usage of "has eternal life" is based on the same distinction in v. 40 between the possession of eternal life in time and being raised up on the last day. Those who are coming have eternal life (the life of the Spirit), but if the Father stops giving them to the Son on account of disobedience/unfaithfulness, they lose it.

V. 51 then moves back to completion at the end of time with another future statement, being consistent with v. 39 in the use of the perfect. Although most translations gloss over, the literal meaning from the interlinear translation is "if anyone will have eaten (phage) of this bread, he will live (zesei) to the age (ton aiona)." Again, this perfect tense is not a past event; it is the perfection of the act of eating of the bread of life at the end of time. The one who has completed the process of eating the Bread of Life will live forever. As in vv. 45-47, Jesus then turns from the perfection (v. 51) to the process in v. 53. People are not even going to be alive now unless they will have participated in this process: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you will have eaten (phagete) the flesh of the Son and will have drunk (piete) of His blood, you have not life in yourselves." The present tense here for "have not life in yourself" indicates that the perfect tense does not refer to the ultimate completion of the process but an rather to an event that will have taken place in life, similar to the past tense of "heard" and "learned" in v. 45. That is consistent with the present tense in v. 57 ("Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him"). So this again refers to the present possession of something that can be lost. The future perfect in v. 53 also shows that the eating and drinking described here is something different from the hearing, learning, and coming, since it is not something that has happened at the time of John 6 but something that will happen. Consequently, while eating and drinking is clearly part of the process of believing in the Son, it cannot be reduced to believing in the Son now. Rather, it is something that believers will have to do in the future if they are to continue to have life in them.  

John finishes in v. 54 with a similar structure to v. 40: the eating and drinking one, like the beholding and believing one of v. 40, has eternal life and will be raised on the last day. The reference to "will be raised on the last day" shows the shift to future time (specifically, the end of time), similar to vv. 40 and 44 and in contrast with v. 47. This conclusion is the same as v. 40 that one who is an eating and drinking person at this future time, who has eternal life at that time, will be raised on the last day. Only if one has completed the process of eating and drinking, as in v. 51, is there assurance of living forever in Heaven. The future statement is contingent on the person being in the class on the last day.

This future setting of the present participles in vv. 40 and 54 can be contrasted with the present time described in John 5:24. In John 5:24, the hearing (akouon) and believing (pisteuon) one presently has eternal life (zoe aionion, the life of the Spirit) and presently does not come under judgment; he has passed from death (the reign of sin) into the life of the Spirit. The present tense for hearing and learning demonstrates that the past tense of hearing and learning in v. 45 does not mean that the process of hearing and learning is completed, only that it had begun. And as with 6:47, the fact that the person has eternal life in the present does not imply that the person will be raised on the last day. That is contingent upon continuing to be a hearing and believing one at the time of the last day, as in vv. 40 and 54.

The use of present participles in 5:24, 6:40, and 6:54 at different times parallels the use of "sheep" in John 10. As with the one hearing, learning, coming, eating, and drinking, the sheep of John 10 are characterized by ongoing acts at different times. In the context of the door metaphor in John 10:8, a sheep is a "person who enters" (tis eiselthe), and given the following flock references, the context appears to be the same as vv. 39-40 in referring to the flock that the Father will have completed giving to the Son. Another parallel with bread of life discourse in John 6 is that Jesus starts with the ultimate perfection (vv. 39-40 and v. 51) before turning to the process (vv. 45-47 and vv. 53-57). In John 10, Jesus makes the same shift between John 10:8 (the Father's completed giving of the flock) and John 10:26-29 (the ongoing process in via).  The use of the past tense in John 10:29 ("who has given") refers to an event in time, similar to the past tense of hearing and learning in 6:45 and of passing from death into life in 5:24, as well as the future perfect of eating and drinking in 6:53. The Father has begun the giving process; He has held them out to the Son. But the fact that they are still presently in both the Father's hand means that it is still within the divine will to drop anyone for disobedience, although no outside power can cause them to do so. Thus, the structure of 10:27-28 is identical to that of 6:54; one must be a sheep at the end of time (i.e., be an eating and drinking one) in order to receive the imperishable existence (will never perish unto the age, ou me apolontai eis ton aiona; cf. John 6:51) associated with the gift of eternal life in v. 28. 

To repeat the earlier point, none of this has anything to do with synergy or causality in election. I actually agree with White that John 6 illustrates the universal inability of sinners to believe without individualized grace, as opposed to a prequel to a general conditional offer to humanity that each can either accept or reject. I differ from White in believing that, in order that the wicked can be destroyed by their own evil choices, God will provide individualized (actual) grace to everyone at some point in their lives. But that is an exegetical decision informed by an understanding of God from the whole counsel of Scripture rather than anything in John 6 or John 10. In terms of White's own misunderstanding, the error White makes in my view is his failure to recognize that rejecting Jesus is an evil act and therefore an act that God is literally incapable of directly causing. If people are rejecting Jesus (normatively an evil decision), it can't be from mere inability, which is to say the mere lack of grace. Rather, they must be hardened by their own evil choices, choices that are not compelled by God in any sense but only permitted. In other words, White is taking a description of the situation as a causal account for evil, exactly the same error he makes with respect to the vessels of destruction in Romans 9. 

That error causes White to collapse the distinction between election to grace and election to glory, which in turn collapses John's explicit changes in timing from in via process to the end of time, so that the use of future statements along with the perfect tense indicates the latter. In White's exegesis, the verses are repeating the same point, as opposed to making different points about the same theme, which glosses over distinctions within the text itself using different terms and different tenses. That is because White has brought an alien understanding of divine sovereignty, taken from pagan notions about causality of evil in Calvin's classical training, to the text.

VII. Summary: God as Earthly Sovereign

To reiterate the point, what is at stake in the disagreement between Catholics and Calvinists (and Jansenists) comes down to one thing only: the direct causality of evil wills. Catholics maintain, along with Scripture and the universal Christian tradition, that all good comes from God but that evil comes solely from the free and undetermined choice of the creature's will. From the metaphysical standpoint, the only freedom that creatures have of themselves is the freedom to be wrong, which is no freedom at all. If they choose rightly, it is because of God; if they choose wrongly, it is because of themselves.

How God chooses those who are permitted to make bad choices as opposed to those who are prevented from doing so is left in the mystery of God's providence. Personally, I find the various speculative explanations as to how election can be conditional unconvincing, so I agree with White that election is unconditional. The point of this explanation is that it doesn't matter at all for the text whether election is conditional or unconditional, because unless we endorse either the erroneous belief that God causes evil or Augustine's mistaken belief that original sin is damnable, these texts don't say anything about the basis for election and reprobation. 

According to White's concept of God's sovereignty, if God is not the cause of evil, He loses control over it. That is an earthly sovereign who gets control by taking it, as opposed to the Creator who has given Himself in the very being of what exists. That fundamental difference between God as the source of every good thing versus an earthly sovereign who depends on other things likewise distinguishes God's causality of evil, which is purely indirect, from an earthly sovereign's use of instruments to fulfill his desires.

Calvin himself errs on this constantly, and I will cite the florilegium that I linked previously that collects Calvin's works on the permission of evil to show this. As I mentioned, Calvin's quote concerning the Epicureans is damning in this regard. He has clearly adopted the pagan concept of causality in his interpretation of Scripture, directly conflicting with the Scriptural account of God's goodness. Calvin's use of this concept should be offensive to Christian ears, whether or not those Christians believe in unconditional election. The "Calvinist vs. Arminian" debate to a large extent obscures the fact that the passages themselves have nothing to do with the basis of election, so there is no reason to think that they speak to this issue at all. What matters is that the passages are being read with an alien philosophical understanding that contradicts the Judaic and Christian understanding of God.

Probably the most egregious example was the idea of Satanic causality. Calvin says in his commentary on Isaiah 19:14:

The statement commonly made, that it is done by God’s permission, is an excessively frivolous evasion; for the Prophet has expressed more than this, namely, that this punishment was inflicted by God, because he is a righteous judge. God therefore acts by means of Satan, as a judge by means of an executioner, and inflicts righteous punishment on those who have offended him. Thus in the book of Kings we read that Satan presented himself before God, and asked leave to deceive Ahab’s prophets; and having obtained it, he then obeyed the command of God, for he could have done nothing by himself. It is unnecessary to produce a multitude of quotations in a matter so obvious.

The "righteous judge" here is blatantly anthropomorphic. These passages refer to a metaphorical description of God's permissive will over creation generally as opposed to God's direct action or command. But Calvin takes these passages about God sending evil spirits, and even Satan himself, as if God "acts by means of Satan," making Satan God's minister in the manner of an executioner. In that respect, his interpretation of the conversation between the Lord and the enticing spirit in 1 Kings 22:21-23 is essentially identical to his interpretation of conversations among the Trinity as literal conversations, which likewise anthropomorphically misread God in a way the does not take into account His divine nature. Calvin thinks of God as a human person, and here he takes the metaphor so literally that it leads to the obscene suggestion that God is commanding Satan to lie as opposed to permitting him.

This is clear in Calvin's exegesis of Romans:

As to the manner in which God gives up or delivers men to wickedness, it is by no means necessary in this place to discuss a question so [tedious]. It is indeed certain, that he not only permits men to fall into sin, by allowing them to do so, and by conniving at them; but that he also, by his equitable judgment, so arranges things, that they are led and carried into such madness by their own lusts, as well as by the devil. He therefore adopts the word, give up, according to the constant usage of Scripture; which word they forcibly wrest, who think that we are led into sin only by the permission of God: for as Satan is the minister of God’s wrath, and as it were the executioner, so he is armed against us, not through the connivance, but by the command of his judge. God, however, is not on this account cruel, nor are we innocent, inasmuch as Paul plainly shows, that we are not delivered up into his power, except when we deserve such a punishment. Only we must make this exception, that the cause of sin is not from God, the roots of which ever abide in the sinner himself; for this must be true, “Thine is perdition, O Israel; in me only is thy help.” (Hosea 13:9).

But the word hardens, when applied to God in Scripture, means not only permission, (as some washy moderators would have it,) but also the operation of the wrath of God: for all those external things, which lead to the blinding of the reprobate, are the, instruments of his wrath; and Satan himself, who works inwardly with great power, is so far his minister, that he acts not, but by his command. Then that frivolous evasion, which the schoolmen have recourse to respecting foreknowledge, falls to the ground: for Paul teaches us, that the ruin of the wicked is not only foreseen by the Lord, but also ordained by his counsel and his will; and Solomon teaches ‘as the same thing,–that not only the destruction of the wicked is foreknown, but that the wicked themselves have been created for this very end–that they may perish. (Proverbs 16:4.)

This interpretation is so far from Augustine that Calvin's allegedly saving clause that "the roots of which ever abide in the sinner itself" is wholly inadequate. The fact that Calvin attributes any inner agency to God in the evil of the wicked, much less that Satan can be called the minister of God acting under his command in anything other than a metaphorical sense, shows him to be outside of the Christian faith. This is monstrous, and when we speak of double predestination, it is in exactly this sense of God's active causation of evil intent. God certainly has providential control of all of the circumstances around every person, which allows Him to exploit the evil intent of the wicked, but to say that He has any part in causing that evil will blasphemes His Holy Name.

We have therefore seen that Calvin's error is not unconditional election but the assertion that God actively causes evil. Following that same line has corrupted James White's exegesis of Romans 9 and John 6. Scripture does not support his blasphemous conclusions.