Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Irresistible Grace and Free Will

Note: This post has been getting a lot of hits recently (relatively speaking). Note that this was written in 2012, far before I actually began doing more serious research into Calvinism and Arminianism. Forgive the half-formed thoughts of a guy just out of college!

I was thinking about the Calvinist notion of "irresistible grace" the other day: The doctrine that when God calls you by bestowing His grace upon you, that call is utterly irresistible. The image of Christ is restored in you and you are enabled to see God and the Gospel for what it truly is, and such is the nature of grace that you are not merely predisposed but predetermined to accept God. (As an interesting aside, this doctrine (or something very much like it) is also present in most or all iterations of Christian Universalism: All people will eventually repent because God's love and grace is irresistible). Here, then, is the question: Whether this leaves any room at all for free will after Adam and Eve. Ultimately, it seems that the answer is "No. Not even a little bit."

Calvinism depends on man's state of total depravity: The theory that we cannot, of our own will, choose to do anything but more evil. In this framework, the doctrine holds together quite well. The call of God overcomes the total depravity and enables man once more to choose God: And this is exactly what he does, what he must do (whether this framework is accurate, and whether the Armenian position is also viable, is not the subject of this blog).

Now, most of you know that I hate the doctrine of pure predestination (for a more full explanation, click here). I dislike the notion of Irresistible Grace for the same reason. Some Calvinists say that we don't have free will until God calls us. But here's the thing: According to Irresistible Grace, we don't have free will then, either. If the Grace is really irresistible, then our free will plays no part in anything. But it might be argued that we do have free will: It's just that someone with free will will always choose God, because God is so good that it's essentially impossible to do anything else. As I said before, that makes sense in this framework, the framework of totally depraved mankind experiencing free will for the first time.

However, we do have a view of pre-depraved free will: two instances among mankind, and innumerable among the angels. Adam and Eve were, presumably, created with the same sort of free will that God restores us to in Jesus Christ. The angels, likewise, were presumably created with free will. Let us see what the Bible says about them.

Adam and Eve were created "good." God created them in His image and declared them, and their world, good. They lacked nothing. They did not suffer death and decay, they existed in harmony with nature, and most importantly, they communed with God on a regular basis. They did not suffer from the total depravity Calvinism insists on: They did not even suffer from the "predisposition" to sin that some Christians insist on. And yet they fell, just the same.

Now, their will must have been completely free: The only alternative is that they were defective from the very beginning: That God meant for them to sin from the very moment of their creation. That is, indeed, to make God the author of evil, and all the total depravity of future generations cannot help Calvinism here. The Calvinist God escapes responsibility for the sins of man because it is their depraved will, caused by the sins of Adam, that chose it freely: But the wills of Adam and Eve could not have been depraved unless they were created depraved: Either it is their free will that chose sin over God, or God royally screwed them over and brought sin into the world by his own creating hand.

The case of Satan (or Lucifer) is even more pronounced. He was the most beautiful of the sons of God, the most glorious of them all. He communed constantly with God: He lacked absolutely nothing. And yet he fell, without even the excuse of an outward temptation acting upon him. WIth him, too, we must say that his will was totally free, or else make God the active author of evil.

Back to the initial question: Does Calvinism allow for any amount of free will? The answer is no. None at all. Aside from the relatively short segment of Adam and Eve's lives before the Fall, there is no free will: There is not even the possibility of free will. Free will will not always choose God, not even when the will is able to clearly make a decision in the full knowledge of all relevant facts. Adam and Eve were in Paradise, in the habit of communing with God regularly, and they fell. Lucifer was with God in heaven, lacking nothing, and he fell. Thus the irresistible grace of Calvinism does not restore our free will: It merely replaces our inability to follow God with an inability to do anything else.


Many Calvinists will take issue with this, and say that free will can totally coexist with Total Depravity and Irresistible Grace. But here's the thing: When they do this, they are most likely being disingenuous in their use of the word "free", and they don't use it to mean what it self-evidently means. When depravity is, by definition, total, and grace is likewise irresistible, it makes no sense to characterize either succumbing to the depravity, or acquiescing to the grace, as "free": It can only become "free" by changing the definition to something that doesn't actually mean "free."

And if they attempt to get around this by insisting, "No, seriously, it really is free, we just don't know how it works, so paradox!"...it still doesn't work. Because then they're saying "Depravity is total (meaning our wills aren't free to choose good, and are actually incapable of choosing good), and grace is irresistible (meaning that you can't resist God's call)...but your will is still definitely free. Yep. Totally."  In essence, they're saying "There's no free will, but there is! Paradox!" They go way too far in outlining God's sovereignty before appealing to paradox, and in doing so they rob the paradox of any really paradox-ity.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Asylum (OR "Community/Chesterton Crossover!!!")

I watched the latest episode of Community the other night on Hulu (side note: isn't the internet awesome?). One member of the group is forced to see a psychiatrist, and the others go with him. The psychiatrist determines that he is, indeed mentally ill, shortly before revealing that all of the members of the group are mentally ill: All their "memories" of their time together at Greendale Community College are merely shared hallucinations, pathetically acted out while jumping on cots or taking medication at Greendale Asylum. There is even a short segment of the show demonstrating what such a reality would be like.

Of course, it is revealed quite quickly to be a lie, with each individual able to find hard evidence of the reality of their experiences. But just as the group itself revolted against the idea, Anna and I revolted against it, as I'm sure the vast majority of viewers did. That would have been an unimaginably crappy way to end the season. That would have been terrible. It would have easily qualified as the worst ending of a show ever (as the finale of Scrubs is easily the best).

And as I'm laying in bed and thinking about it, I realize: That is the only possible result of materialist philosophy. C. S. Lewis, of course, addressed this quite powerfully in The Silver Chair, as Chesterton did in Orthodoxy, but it, like all great truths, is worth saying again (if not so well). We go through life believing life and existence to be full of meaning. We find love and happiness and joy, we witness larger-than-life heroes and infinitely petty villains, and things of uncountable wonder happen on a daily basis to anyone who bothers to look... and then we are told, by materialist philosophers, that it was all a dream: Everything we thought we had seen, and been, and loved, was only a figment of our addled imaginations: The results of mere chemical combinations in the lump of grey matter we all carry inside our skulls.

We did not love: It was merely chemicals in the brain.You did not love your wife or husband: It was merely a left-over sensation of dependence and attachment, from when primates needed to stick together. You did not love your child: It was only a byproduct of when monkeys survived better when mothers tended to their offspring. You did not love your friend: What you felt was merely the fact that humans developed as social creatures.

We did not have any meaning. Meaning was something constructed to make yourself feel better: A way to pretend you were not in the asylum. Nothing you did has any meaning, nor did it ever have meaning. Nothing you cared about has meaning. You were merely delusional, jumping around on your hospital cot and playing with your pills every day while those who knew better watched you with pity.

There were never any heroes, nor villains. All actions were the same, in the long run, and those that died in military service were, fundamentally, no different than those that died a coward's death, or those executed for murder. The man who died saving a woman from a burning building was not, in any meaningful way, better or, indeed, different from the man who lit the fire.

And so the only result of materialist philosophy is that we may be persuaded that the whole world is nothing more than a dirty asylum, to which all must awaken eventually. And that will be our finale, the final episode of the human race: For there can be no moving forward from an asylum that has swallowed the world. There can be no further developments when all we can hope for is to keep the hallucinations of life at bay. The victory of materialism will be the death of everything human about humanity.

tl, dr:

"If the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos. The thing has shrunk... the whole of life is something much more grey, narrow, and trivial than many separate aspects of it. The parts seem greater than the whole."
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Changing the future

In a previous post, I talked about how prayer can change the world: How our prayers have the power to cause things to happen which would not have happened otherwise. The Book of Daniel is a good example: It's a book of the Bible which would not be there without Daniel's prayer. But in church the other day I realized that it actually goes even further than that: Prayer even has the potential to change the future.

This was something that troubled me: How God's foreknowledge and providence interacted with our own free will. Most of the time, they don't seem to clash: God knows what we're going to do, but we don't, and we are therefore free to choose. But what about when God tells us? The main example for me was Peter and Jesus. Jesus explicitly tells Peter, twice, that Peter will deny him. There is no room for interpretation, no room for misunderstanding: Jesus tells Peter what he (Peter) will do, in the future, and from that point on Peter's actions are directly influenced by that knowledge.

This seemed problematic. Had Jesus deprived Peter of his free will? Had Jesus, in saying that to Peter, somehow caused it? It seems as though the foreknowledge of God is "safe," in a way, when it remains with God, separated from us. But when it enters our experience, it seems to interact with our free will in an unfortunate way.Once Jesus tells Peter, "Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times," is Peter really free to not deny Jesus?


But then I went to church the other week, where the pastor talked about Hezekiah. In 2 Kings 20, Hezekiah falls ill from what has to be considered the worst boil ever. He's about to die. But wait! Here comes Isaiah! He probably has some good news, right?

Nope. Isaiah brings a message from God: Get your house in order, cause it's gonna be a bumpy ride. No. Wait. That's a song from Emery.

Never mind.

"Set your house in order, for you shall die. You shall not recover." From the very mouth of God comes a crystal-clear death sentence. Hezekiah is going to die. No if's, and's, or but's. Game over. No extra lives, no continue's, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Checkmate. Mousetrap. Hezekiah's battleship is as good as sunk.

Here, again, we have a distinct instance of God's foreknowledge descending from heaven and influencing our actions. In Peter's case, it influenced him to denial, and even pride: "Though they all fall away, I will not. Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you." In Hezekiah's case, however, it moves him to prayer. He turns his face to the wall, weeps bitterly, and prays to God to save his life. But what's the point? God has already said it, right? Surely that means it's set in stone, unchangeable.

Here's where stuff gets crazy. Isaiah hasn't even made it out of the palace yet. He's in the process of leaving,  in the middle court, when God speaks to him again, mere minutes after pronouncing a death sentence on Hezekiah. Isaiah has a new message for Hezekiah: "Thus says the Lord: I have heard your prayers: I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you.On the third day you shall go to the house of the Lord, and I will add fifteen years to your life."

Holy crap.

What? Whaaaaat? This is amazing! Hezekiah is about to die: God knows the future, and in the future, Hezekiah dies. That is what happens in the future. God isn't wrong. He isn't mistaken. He isn't lying. That is what the future holds for Hezekiah. The timeline for all of human history has Hezekiah dying, right there. Then Hezekiah prays for, what, five minutes? Isaiah hasn't even left the palace yet, so it can't have been that long. And BAM.

God changes the future. How crazy is that? To rub in what he's just done, he says, "I will add fifteen years to your life." The timeline for human history now has Hezekiah living another 15 years. The future is now that Hezekiah will live.

Isn't that awesomely awesome? Freaking amazing, is what it is. God is ready and willing to change the future. God is prepared to set aside something that was going to happen in favor of something else. And that means that his foreknowledge is not some dead, cold, predestined, uncaring lump: It's alive, and more than that, it's lively, energetic, dynamic. It's a foreknowledge that has free will built in.

And that means that Peter was not predestined to deny Christ. The possibilities are endless. He might have prayed. he might have recognized his weakness and begged Jesus to make him stronger. And God might have changed the future. But Peter was proud, and frightened, and he wanted so badly to be cool and independent and to show Jesus how strong he could be that he forgot, for a crucial moment, how weak he truly was.

Bottom Line: God can change the future, and he does take requests. Isn't that awesome?

A friend of mine asked me if God knew that he would change the future, and if he did, did the future then really change? This is a good question, and it took me a while to come up with the answer to it.

To say that God cannot change the future in a meaningful, real way is to say that God is trapped in the universe and unable to change it. It's to say that the future is set, and God is as helpless as ourselves in going through history. Therefore, God must be able to change the future, with all the dynamic action and decision that the word "change" implies. The actual workings of that change  involves time, eternity, foreknowledge, election, free will... all of this stuff is to big to comprehend. What we can understand, and rest in, is this: God listens to our prayers, and those prayers can affect how the will of God comes to pass in our world. God can change the future for us.