On Election and Coercion

I've been following with some interest the posts of Scot McKnight regarding the books by Roger Olson and Michael Horton, Olson's Against Calvinism and Horton's For Calvinism.

I haven't read either book, so I'm mainly reacting to Scot's summaries of the books and his reactions to them. I'm no fan of Calvinism and it doesn't seem that Scot is either (at the very least he has serious reservations). So I've been sympathetic to Scot's worries, questions, and concerns about Calvinism as he's reviewed the two books.

The most recent post caught my attention as it wades into the issues of monergism versus synergism and resistible versus irresistible grace.

For those needing to get up to speed, a quick primer. Simplifying greatly, synergism is the view that humans cooperate with God in the act of salvation, that human will has a part to play. God offers grace and humans have to respond. Synergism is the view held by Arminians. Monergism, by contrast, is the view that only God acts in salvation. This is the doctrine of election, where no bit of human agency is involved in salvation. God alone acts and saves. Monergism is the view held by Calvinists. Crudely, we can make the contrast by asking "How many wills are involved in salvation?" One? Or two? Is it God's will alone? Or God's will plus our will?

Monergism and synergism sit behind the debates regarding resistible and irresistible grace. Arminians, in their endorsement of synergism, believe in resistible grace. This makes sense. If two wills are involved--God's and my own--then it's possible that I can exercise my will to reject God's offer of grace. Grace can be resisted. Calvinists, by contrast, in their endorsement of monergism, believe that grace is irresistible. And this makes sense as well. If human agency isn't involved in salvation then the person can't "resist." If God alone is working and God elects you then grace happens automatically, it's irresistible.

The point being, given their assumptions about the role (or lack thereof) of human agency/choice in salvation, the Arminian and Calvinistic views of grace are internally consistent.

The debates, therefore, aren't about the logical consistency of the two views but the sort of God they portray. And that's the main worry Scot expresses in his latest post: If monergism is true what sort of God would pick some and not others? Doesn't it make more sense, in light of the claim that God is love, that God elects all of us but it's up to us to respond?

Another way of thinking about this is that monergism is good at preserving God's sovereignty where synergism is good at preserving God's love. So take your pick. Do you want your God sovereign or loving?

(I, personally, as a universalist, don't think we have to choose. We can endorse both. Universalism is the view on offer where we can endorse the best of both Calvinism and Arminianism. God wills to save everyone (the best of Arminianism) and God gets what God wants (the best of Calvinism).)

But all this is just background for why I want to draw your attention to Scot's post. Again, I grew up in an Arminian tradition so I agree with Scot's worries about monergism, about the implications it has for our view of a loving God. But where I differ a bit from Scot is in regard to the second worry he expresses in the post, the worry about God overriding our free will and coercing us into salvation.

This concern is easily seen. If monergism is true, if humans have no choice in the matter of salvation, then isn't the doctrine of election a form of coercion? Isn't God forcing you into heaven? Here is Scot expressing his concern:

I will put my cards on the table first: I believe those Calvinists who push hard for irresistible or effectual grace sketch a God who coerces and I am convinced, regardless of their contentions, that they effectively (and effectually) deny free will. If grace is irresistible, it is not chosen; if it is irresistible, humans aren’t free to say No to God.
This is the bit I want to respond to.

As regular readers know, I've gone off a time or two about the use of free will in theological debate. I've teed off on Rob Bell, N.T. Wright, Greg Boyd and I'm about to say a few things about Scot's argument above.

But let me be clear. I'm in complete agreement with Scot's concern. In my opinion he is 100% right. So my quibbles aren't about the theology. We agree on that. My quibbles are about the psychology.

As I've written about before, I think it's problematic to put so much theological weight on such a sketchy anthropological concept like "free will." I could ask Scot the same sort of question about free will that I asked of other theological advocates of free will:
Why would you build any theological argument upon a philosophically contested, scientifically disputed, and perennially controversial anthropocentric abstraction?
The problem, as I've articulated before, is that I don't like to see conversations about God dependent upon anthropology, particularly a philosophically and scientifically contested bit of anthropology. A theological reliance upon free will seems sketchy to me, like building on quicksand. Personally, I'd like to see theology come out right because we are getting God right rather than getting humans right. And I think that's where Scot is positioning himself. He wants to make a claim about God but he's using a claim out humans--an extraordinarily contested and controversial claim--to get there. That's my worry. Why base your soteriology on a dubious and hotly contested theory about human anthropology? It makes your theology so fragile and open to critique. Particularly in this Age of Neuroscience when more and more people are going to be expressing doubts about free will. This is, one might say, the neurological equivalent of being a Young Earth Creationist.

Now, to be clear, this isn't to say Scot's general worry about coercion is wrong. It isn't. My point is, rather, that when you are building a theological structure free will isn't a brick you should be reaching for.

So let's rework Scot's worry with different psychological bricks. Let's get at his theological concern using a more coherent and scientifically plausible anthropology. Let's put free will to the side and build with some better material.

To recap, Scot is worried about God's election overriding human "free" will, that monergism effectively marginalizes human agency and that, from an experiential standpoint, this would leave the human person doing something he or she didn't "choose" to do. Hence Scot's use of the word coercion--doing something you didn't want or choose to do.

As longtime readers know, Scot isn't actually talking about "free will" here. He is talking about what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt calls volitional unanimity, when my choices are aligned with my desires. The experience of human freedom comes when we are doing what we want to do, when volition lines up with caring.

So Scot is right to say that a feeling of coercion is experienced when our choices become misaligned with what we care about, about what we want and desire. This inner state of conflict is often experienced by addicts or by those with compulsions. But we all experience this state to greater or lesser degrees when we give in to temptation. We feel internally overthrown. This is the experience of volitional wretchedness that Paul describes in Romans 7.

So, yes. If, as monergism claims, God makes us choose things we do not want to do we'd experience a feeling of coercion, of volitional violation. We'd experience choice as coming from outside of ourselves overriding our goals, desires, and life story.

But let's be clear. We don't need to describe this as a violation of free will (whatever that this). The feeling of coercion--election as an experience of volitional violation--is real, but it's produced by breaking volitional unanimity, introducing a disjoint between choice and caring.

So far, so good. But the Calvinist has a response. And some people in the comments of Scot's post make this point: What if God isn't just affecting volition, what if God is also changing our affections, what we care about?

This is a great point. As I've often said, the issue when in comes to human choice isn't volition but affection. Our choices go where our affections go. We don't really choose God. Rather, we fall in love with God. And most spiritual biographies (see the lives of the saints) have this sort of character. A love story, of pursuit and resistance and ultimate union. It's a journey of the heart, not of the "free will." It is as Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in You."

So it seems that all the monergist needs to do is to suggest, at the moment of election, that God changes both will and heart, volition and affection. Such a change would preserve volitional unanimity. With a change of the heart our new God-given will would line up with it: We would be both choosing God and wanting to choose God. And that unanimity is the experience of freedom. We'd feel no coercion.

So is monergism saved if we posit that God's election is both volitional and affectional? Not quite. The problem comes when we think about the nature of selfhood. Specifically, "the self" isn't just about affection. It's about memory, story, biography, integrity, and time. For the self to be the self it has to be recognized, named and embraced. In a certain sense, the self is a story we tell about ourselves over time. And that story has to have a plot, some narrative coherence and integrity. The person I was yesterday has to have some narrative connection with the person I am today. Otherwise we'd slide into insanity.

A simple example of this is waking up in the morning. As we regain consciousness one of the first things that happens is that the self is gathered and reorganized. We find the bookmark in the story of the self and get ready to move the plot forward. We wake up thinking, "What was I going to do today? Ah, yes. I have that important meeting." We remember ourselves. Our story comes back to us as we prepare to go forward in time. (And, if you're me, you need some coffee to get this process jump-started in the morning. Before your story kicks in we are, almost literally, zombies. That's what a zombie is--a human being with no narrative, no story, so self. That's what I'm like shuffling toward the coffee machine...a narrativeless zombie)

All this to say that humans are biographical creatures, that the self is narratological.

So what would happen if we woke up one day and found our affections radically disconnected from who we were the day before? We, quite literally, wouldn't recognize ourselves. The prior self would be a stranger, an alien doppelganger.

A first blush, that might sound really biblical. A perfect description of putting to death the "old man" and putting on "the new." But as I recall from those texts we are called to do this over and over. Day and after day. It seems that "putting on the new man," "not grieving the Holy Spirit," "presenting yourselves as living sacrifices" and "working out your salvation in fear and trembling" appear to be pointing to the ongoing work of sanctification, which fits better with synergism than with monergism.

But my concerns here are still mainly psychological. Waking up one day with radically new affections would traumatically fracture the narrative flow of the self. We see this sort of fracture in a variety of psychological disorders from amnesia to Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder) to dementia. True, this narrative fracture might not be experienced as coercion, but it does create a catastrophic disruption of the self. It is still a phenomenological violation of the individual, the worry Scot is expressing in his post.

The point being, I think Calvinists are being psychologically naive when they say that God radically changes us in the moment of election. What they are positing isn't psychologically plausible. We wouldn't see joy or illumination at the moment of transformation but panic and psychological disorientation. The narrative flow of the self would be so traumatically ruptured that the person would struggle, and often fail, to make sense of their memories and life story.

All this presupposes that the transformation is quick. But what if this process happened more slowly, over years and years? Truth be told, as a universalist I actually think that is what is happening. That God is slowly bringing each of us along, each at a different narrative pace. A pace mainly set by God's patience--God's concern to preserve our volitional integrity, to not coerce us, to bring us to grace in a way that keeps our selfhood as biographical creatures intact. Some of us are moving rapidly home. Some of us are taking journeys like the Prodigal Son, walking away from God at this point in the story

But if this is the case, we return to Scot's point: surely human agency is involved in this process. That there is synergism between God's will and my own. Truly God is shaping us, choosing us, and electing us. It's just that this election is occurring at every moment of our entire life story.

A story, I believe, each of us is helping God to write.

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66 thoughts on “On Election and Coercion”

  1. Well presented material here.  This fits with Jurgen Moltmann's approach to it as well, which I've found very challenging to my Arminian upbringing.  He views God as the great wooer and rejects a double outcome of judgment because that sets humans up as the agent of salvation through their decision to believe or not believe.  My citation of the passage from "The Coming of God" was shouted down by an anonymous Arminian over at JesusCreed but here it is for your perusal:
    “Who makes the decision about the salvation of lost men and women, and where s the decision made? Every Christian theologian is bound to answer: God decides for a person and for his or her salvation, for otherwise there can be no assurance of salvation at all. ‘If God is for us, who can be against us…’ (Rom. 8:31f) – we may add: not even ourselves! God is ‘for us’: that has been decided once and for all in the self-surrender and raising of Christ. It is not just a few of the elect who have been reconciled with God, but the whole cosmos (II Cor. 5.19). It is not just believers whom God loved, but the world (John 3.16). The great turning point from disaster to salvation took place on Golgotha; it does not just happen for the first time at the hour when we decide for faith, or are converted. Faith means experiencing and receiving this turning point personally, but faith is not the turning point itself. It is not my faith that cares salvation fro me; salvation creates for me faith. If salvation and damnation were the results of human faith or unfaith, God would be dispensable. The connection between act and destiny, and the law of karma, would suffice to create the causal link. If, even where eternity is at stake, everyone were to forge their own happiness and dig their own graves, human beings would be their own God. It is only if a qualitative difference is made between God and human beings that God’s decision and human decision can be valued and respected. God’s decision ‘for us,’ and our decisions for faith or disbelief no more belong on the same level than do eternity and time. We should be measuring God and the human being by the same yardstick if we were to ask: what, and how much, does God for the salvation of human beings, and what, and how much, must human beings do? To see God and a human being on the same level means humanizing God and deifying the human being. ‘Offer and acceptance’ is a frequently used formula which brings divine grace and human decision on to the same level in just this way. The trivial slogan ‘the church on offer’ turns God into the purveyor of a cheap offer in the religious supermarket of this society of ours, which has set out on the road to ‘the global marketing of everything’. The customer is king, says a German tag. So then the customer would be God’s king too” (Moltmann, in The Coming of God, p. 245-6)

  2. This alleged distinction between "free will" and "volitional unanimity" sounds like a distinction without a difference.  If you lay the two up side-by-side, where do they diverge?  I must be just simply too dense to see it.

    It was also chuckleworthy, by the way, to see you frame your question to Greg Boyd in terms of a complaint that a concept (in this case, free will) is "not biblical."  Seems you had a thing or two to say about invoking judgments of objective "biblicality" a couple of weeks ago!



  3. Richard.
    I believe god likes a level playing field,so to speak.
    in light of whats been said,
    doubt, Seek and you will FIND. THAT is to me a balanced journey of inquiry.
    as you have so aptly said
    and outside influence, ontology to be sure creates an anthropological theology.
    whats funny is to me is we don't like to admit our social participation in the concept of of restricting
    the  participation of Gods Spirit through unbelief,because of the dichotomies of disharmony inherent in broken humanness,which are polar opposites of the divine nature and the trinity's example of the unity of the Spirit, for the purpose of the very good creation.
    So my friend by all means as long as men want to keep men in a box of doctrine,and prefer not to express the love  and harmony of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
    misery and unfaithfulness is the harvest.
    we as kingdom builders ought to know more of gods loving kindness ourselves.
    and  learn what the word RECIPROCATE means.

    "A story, I believe, each of us is helping God to write."

    heb. 11:1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for,
    being convinced of what we do not see. 11:2 For by it the people of old1 received God’s
    commendation.2 11:3 By faith we understand that
    the worlds3 were
    set in order at God’s command,4 so that the visible has its origin in the

    THE  "BUT NOW"

    3:19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says
    to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced
    and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 3:20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the
    law, for through
    the law comes  the
    knowledge of sin.    

     3:21 But
     apart from
    the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the
    prophets) has
    been disclosed – 3:22 namely,
    the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ  for all who
    believe. For there is no distinction,

  4. "Again, I grew up in an Arminian tradition so I agree with Scot's worries about monergism..." But if you are a Universalist, you are essentially supporting monergism (ie it's all God whether we want to be saved or not). You just don't believe in "double predestination".
    I believe that it is both and neither with a very different formulation. To the degree that there is no salvation at all without God, monergism is true. And he does desire to save all. However, the Spirit may be resisted introducing an element of synergism. God's will provides the supporting beams of the structure of salvation. My will is decorative next to God's will.

  5. Regarding any distinction, that would involve someone specifying what they mean by "free will" with enough precision that we'd be able to evaluate the concept. Generally, however, "free will" is never specified.But iIf all a person means by the term is that humans have voluntary agency then you're right, there is no real distinction. But that's not, generally speaking, what people mean by "free will." They generally have a more robust conception in mind.

    Which is just another argument for dropping the term altogether. Let's just concretely specify the psychology we want to talk about and drop the term "free will."

  6. As someone who has known an usual number of people diagnosed with DID, I do appreciate your analogy. I agree that the change of affections grows with time which is why it is absurd to make clean cuts between "saved" and "unsaved". When I had students struggling with doubts, I always suggested that God was at work in the doubts. The large majority of them were able to grow with that framework.

  7. "...you are essentially supporting monergism (ie it's all God whether we want to be saved or not)"

    This is incorrect. This whole post is about rejecting that argument, God making you do something you don't want. Such a thing never happens. This is the whole point about focusing on volitional unanimity rather than "free will."

  8. BTW, this post is a bit unfair to Scot. He's dealing with Calvinists to his right and I'm hitting him from the other side with universalism. It's just that, as regular readers know, I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet when theologians and biblical scholars talk about free will.

    Regardless, I think Scot and I would agree on this: The strongest response to Calvinism isn't free will but the view of God it posits.

  9. Richard, I understand the argument and honestly think it does more to support my view than yours. There are enough people in this world living "hell bent" lives who die in that state. There's no room for the biography to play out when there is no "bio" left. Whatever concept you use--"volitional unanimity" or "free will" or "affections"--Universalism can only be true if God acts contrary to the lives (choices, actions) of these people (if not all of us!). If this is what you are using to support universal salvation, then I do not see it matching up with psychology or Scripture. I am sympathetic to the point. I just don't think it lands where you think it does.

  10. We do agree more than we disagree. And I understand that every position, mine included, has "soft spots." (For example, your raising the issue of the unforgivable sin. That's a soft spot.)

    I do agree that the view of universalism I have has a stronger view of God's activity in the world, thought I don't think the label of monergism fits. For me, it's not about God being an aggressive interventionist. That's clearly not the case. God is more like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Patient more than controlling. The Spirit's touch is feather light, a still soft voice. As it should be if God wants to preserve our personhood.

    So the issue isn't about God's aggressive intervention or control, but about time and patience. This is why, for me, the defeat of death (read: Time) is so critical to the universalist vision. With the sting of death removed God's patient love has the time to win out in the end. An end that we will both want and choose. Freely.

  11. Fair enough. Much of what you say here are the things we both agree on. 

    I will give you one more reason why "free will" does not resolve the issues. If free will is created and God created all things for good, then my choices are meant to choose between good and good (not good and evil). Evil is not necessary to good: http://perichoreticlife.blogspot.com/2011/11/three-theistic-appoaches-to-evils.html

  12. You and qb make points I agree with, but I have difficulty assimilating them with this observation. In a continuum with a new-born representing a point of, say, near powerlessness of will with respect to aligning her own desire with outcomes, it seems that we would need two continuums in order to differentiate between powerful wills which end up as a St. Francis on the one hand and a Stalin on the other. Both depict extraordinary human strength of will, but one wants to dominate the world and the other just to love it. The one who wants to dominate works toward ends which unequivocally express a desire for mastery of the world as an expression of a will to power (not that all such choices would be unequivocal--Stalin made a choice that led to his son's death in WWII--so the logic tree would need more than just the first two branches I note here). The one who desires to express love works toward ends which bring thriving to others (again, this would not be unequivocal--for instance, who's view of thriving...?). Here's the point: "Free" seems to apply to the St. Francis type in distinction from the Stalin type in this respect: the will's power is directed to ends which no longer are dominated by self-reference. The old incurvatus se is broken.  

    It seems that that is a form of freedom--and it would be interesting to know what the Greek is that is translated as "free" in all the familiar NT passages that use the word.

    At any rate, I'm not sure we need the word "free,' but we need some word or other to express the transformation of our wills we wish to see brought about.

  13. Anyone who is in "bondage to sin," or DID, or addiction, or any other influence (many of which cause them to live seemingly "hell bent" lives), is NOT acting with a "free" will. And we are all included somewhere in that list. Salvation is NOT "getting into heaven" but being freed from the effects of ignorance and corruption that cause us to not act lovingly towards our fellow man. 

    None of us have a free will Michael. Whether we realize it or not, our decision making ability (our will) is under constant influence (positive and negative) and as such is not "free" in the least. We are slaves to ignorance and deception - the corruption of our heart and mind. The fact that we usually don't recognize it makes it all the more insidious and impossible to correct without divine intervention.

  14. Richard- I am curious if somewhere in the course of your blogging you have laid out a *theology of emotion8??  You touched upon its role in our relationship to how we view God and He us, but i would like to hear you expound a lil. In Bible College and Seminary  intellect and reason were always placed at the forefront, the whole Fact - Faith_ Feeling train used  quite often. Feeling and emotion always seemed to be placed on the backburner. If Gid is love and He woos us, how do we deal with the emotional reality that if we fail to believe and obey as He calls us to, He will not toss us away for all eternity because  we failed Him???  I am  a *hopeful universalist* so just asking  as i ponder Calvinist  implications.

    Btw, I went to Christian Church/Church of Christ schools I liked your point about  baptism and the sinners prayer. Baptismal Regenaration anyone??  :D

  15. Jim, I have no idea what you are arguing here. You resist Calvinism/Sovereignty above and resist free will/Arminianism here. Just as confusing, I'm not defending free will, so I'm not sure what your point you are trying to make.

    Additionally, I am concerned that you lump DID in with sin/addiction here. While it is a form of brokenness, it is very different in nature. Also, Richard used it as an illustration, not as an example. This is sensitive for me as I know people with the diagnosis. I think most people are far too careless in their description of it and do not understand it at all. I think you are making more and less of what all these things are/mean.

  16. Michael, I could not reply above so I will do it here. I am sorry if I misunderstood your position but I had the impression that you were arguing in defense of the notion of "free will," and I was simply making some points in disagreement with that notion.

    You are absolutely correct that I am arguing against both Calvinism and Arminianism. But I am absolutely not arguing against the Calvinist belief in the sovereignty of God but against their notion of man's responsibility. As I see it God is completely sovereign, and thus completely responsible. It cannot be any other way. To argue as Arminians do for the "free" will of man is to argue for salvation by works -- the one who makes the "right" decision (and who is therefore "better") is saved, and the one who does not is damned. It is nothing less than boasting on man's part.

    The whole point of universalism in contrast is that it asserts the sovereignty of God AND His goodness. Calvinism ends up with a sovereign God who is NOT good, and Arminianism ends up with a God who is trying to be good but did not foresee, or could not overcome, all the factors which have placed mankind in bondage... in other words, He is impotent to save mankind.

    I was in now way trying to dismiss the heartbreak of DID and apologize again if you felt that I was. But in the end I see no real difference - brokenness is brokenness, regardless of its origin. A mind broken with DID is no different than one broken in addiction, or any other human imperfection. And I believe that God will fully restore and heal everyone of us from whatever brokenness we suffer from.

  17. Jim, I think you and I are close on many of these points. You're just on the other side of me from Richard. Quite honestly, I'm not even sure Calvin was a Calvinist...but yes I believe in God's sovereignty. I don't believe in a "free will" as in an independent choice. That's why I used the structural analogy that I did. Our ability to make a decision draws upon God. I do like much of what Richard says here in that regard.

    As for brokenness, it is not the same as being completely helpless and without ANY choice. God is "With Us". There is a choice for most people whatever their form of brokenness because God grants such. Maybe it's small steps over a lifetime, but opportunities for growth are there.
    Though that is not always the case in more severe forms of brokenness. This is why I don't put full stock in what someone has "decided" before they die. A man who commits suicide is severely broken beyond recognition (psychologically speaking). God has grace for that and many other unusual circumstances, but I stop short of Universalism.

  18. I want to pick up with the last line - the "story we are helping God to write" - and elaborate on that a bit more (hopefully without creating a post-within-a-comment).

    I'm convinced that part of the problem in the dialog about monergism and synergism relates to some presumptions that get dragged into the conversation by Armenians, Calvinists, and - yes - sometimes even Universalists. Specifically, I question whether there is some monolithic path that is "God's will" that must be established at the end of the equation.

    It seems to me that our nature is that, while we are in God and *like* God, we exist as something *other* than God. Any end-game that turns us into pre-programmed automatons - God zombies, to use your metaphor - seems pointless. That's why I get freaky when people start talking about "God's plan for my life." They see themselves living eternity in a blissful paradise. I see zombies. Or robots. Or brainwashed cultists. Or something else that doesn't look at all human.

    To put it another way, we are *supposed* to have preferences, visions, ideas, choices that are our own. That is what it means - to borrow your metaphor again - to have a narrative or "story." Monergism and (usually) synergism presume that those preferences, visions, ideas are a problem that needs to be solved. I think the *lack* of them is the problem.

    Here is what I mean: "Slaves to sin, free in Christ" is Paul's mantra. Paul seems to view sin as a condition in which we are choice-limited. It traps us In a world where we can do one or evil things. If that is the case, then "freedom of Christ" would seem to grant us the capacity to think, do, experience an infinite number of other good things.

    Even synergy is senseless if its purpose is to slowly coax us into becoming robots. The work of sanctification doesn't make us zombies. It makes us human. And the essence of being human is having our own, unique story (those without Richard's neuroscience-shaped predilections can call it "choices" or "free will" if you want).

    There is value in that - to us and to God. I like the drawing on my refrigerator not because I ordered or "willed" my daughter to make it, but because she came up with it all by herself. I used to love watching my son play competitive chess, not because he played like I did, but because he sometimes came up with is own, brilliant moves. Sometimes I can't wait to see what they do next.

    The eschatological end-game, for me, has to end up looking like that: we become co-participants in the work of creation, or dancers who move and react to God as God does the same with us. That is why I love your last line - we are writing a story with God.

  19. "In my mind Calvinists must answer this question: "How can God be considered just for punishing people for making decisions while under the powers of “darkness” (ignorance, deception), when it was He who created the “darkness” and refused to give them the “light?”"

    As a non-Calvinist let me suggest the following:
    John 1:9  "  The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world."

    I'm probably reading this wrongly; but, it seems to me to say that God does not hold back the 'light' from anybody.  And, of course, this means that even the poor aborigines who 'never heard about Jesus' are given 'light.'

    If you combine this with John 3:19  "Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil."

    Doesn't this passage make it clear as to why 'man' can be held accountable.  So, now He comes along and saves some and you cry foul because He isn't loving (as you define it).  So the fix; universalism.  Now we have God meeting your standards for what love must look like.

  20. "The point being, I think Calvinists are being psychologically naive when they say that God radically changes us in the moment of election."
    "It's just that this election is occurring at every moment of our entire life story."

    I'm probably misunderstanding; but, I think the Scriptures indicate that 'election' happened a long, long time ago and not in the present.

    Ephesians 1:4  " 4 For he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world . . . "

    It might be more correct to say that God gives us faith (we believe something specific) and then He radically changes us.  Thus, no coercion; for the one about to be changed (saved) has already trusted the truth that is consistent with the change about to be effected by God.

  21. "...some presumptions that get dragged into the conversation by Armenians, Calvinists, and - yes - sometimes even Universalists."

    What?! That's outrageous. Universalists have clean hands. We're always right! :-)

    But seriously, regarding the substance of your comment, Matt, I think you are exactly right. That is the same end game I have in mind. For my part, I think the vision I'm painting--talking at lot about affection and biography--gets us there. I might be wrong about that. But posts like these are aiming exactly where you're pointing. 

  22. Couple of comments. First, I disagree that appeals to "free will" are poor bricks. We have to take this phrase to mean what its users mean by it--an observation about our experience (we actually experience doing things that God would not like, and then giving in to God in our repentance--we do not experience only doing what God wishes or compels us to do). Thus "anthropology" is something we know about, whereas Calvinism makes more speculative claims about what we don't know about.
    Second, your appeal to "the moment of election" is naive about Calvinism. No Calvinist believes that election occurs at a moment during your or my life--on the contrary, every Calvinist believes (by virtue of being a Calvinist) that the moment of election occurs before we were born. So disruption of the narrative flow of self is simply irrelevant. If we are actually to listen to what Calvinists are saying, we would have to say that even an infinitely extended change in orientation is one which is monergistically predetermined by God. When you say that the gradualness of the process "surely" means that human agency is involved, this is simply a non sequitur. God's predetermined, monergistic decision can be embodied in gradual changes as easily as in sudden changes--and in changes that (slowly) involve changes in our affections, as easily as in changes that do not comport with our affections.
    In other words, I don't think your psychology really has as much to say to the traditional arguments for (and against) what theologians have generally meant by free will, as you seem to pretend. If anything, perhaps you help us adapt our language for our field. So adapted, a Calvinist would claim that the entire course of our narratology (not simply our momentary decisions, nor even our momentary affections) is what God wills, and predetermines, without any real causal input from us. So adapted, a non-Calvinist would claim that our narratology (not as an abstract and un-influenced monism called free will, but as a deeply complex web of being-knowing-doing) has multiple causal inputs, including our own "choices" to cooperate (or not) with God's shaping--and that it is blasphemous (theologically) and untrue to experience (anthropologically) to think that all of this is what God wants.

    For the non-Calvinist, it seems to me that the "causal influence" of God's redeeming grace MAY eventually win over my own "free will" evil inclinations ("free will" is a shorthand for my input into the causal nexus, not a pretense that there are no other causes).  But I cannot know that non-grace causal influences (including my own "free will" evil resistance to grace) will never win out in my story. For this reason, it is actually harder for the non-Calvinist (in terms of monergism/ synergism) to be universalist.

  23. On the first point, if we hollow out the cipher "free will" to simply mean the experience of voluntary action then, sure, I've got no problems. But I hope you'd agree that that definition of free will isn't what philosophers and theologians are arguing about. No one's arguing about the experience of freedom. That's granted. So I'm confused about how you think focusing on that hollowed out definition is making any contribution to the present conversation.

    Regarding my characterization of Calvinism I'm willing to be educated on that point. I agree that Calvinists would endorse the view that God was and is working within their story from the beginning, even the beginning of time. And yet, my understanding of election and regeneration is that there is, at least for some Calvinists, a moment when God makes the will able to respond to God. We call that conversion. Are you arguing that, for Calvinists, there is never a discrete moment of regeneration, election, or conversion? That the regeneration is gradual and unnoticeable? Never a discrete moment when the will of God decisively reconfigures the heart, mind, and will of the individual? If so, I've personally never heard it described that way. I mean, sure, I'm elected at brith but I'm assuming you are not saying that the will of the person, day one, is in its regenerated state. Otherwise we'd not be born into sin. We'd be saints at conception.

  24. Dr. Beck, could you perhaps point to some good articles or books regarding low volition being proved in neuroscience?  I've not read much on it, but everything I read seems to just say "neuroscience proves it" or, "Sam Harris says it, I believe it, that settles it". 

    Of course, then the other side says that neurons(?) by themselves are stochastic so this is an indicator of free will. 

    Then the counter argument is that chickens also have stochastic neurons and they don't have free will. 

    So whatever is happening, my neurons are left in the shape of a question mark.  The whole issue with free will is a rather obsessive topic for me, but I'm always approaching it theologically and philosophically.  I'd like to add a little science to the mix. 

  25. I don't think neuroscience proves volition. I'm not sure I know what that means.
    What I am saying is that, in light of neuroscience, when people deploy the notion of "free will" people will raise questions. Good questions I think. In light of that why put a lot of theological weight on something so questionable right out of the gate? Particularly when the concept isn't even theological?
    So the issue isn't about proof but about minimizing the theological weight you put on contested aspects of anthropology.

  26. Oh, and also a question of clarification - when we are talking about free will, are we talking strictly in terms of salvation or in terms of every human action?  Sorry if I'm being too muddle-headed to see the bigger picture but I think the distinction helps.

    For instance, Greg Boyd is pretty dogmatic on free will but I think it's mostly in response to the determinism of every moral action.  Human evil gets a little sticky when free will gets marginalized.  But in terms of the "end game" where we ultimately accept or deny Jesus, Boyd takes God's sovereignty a little more into account. (He rules out dogmatic universalism but sometimes I think he's a closet universalist). 

  27. No. I also think the vision you are painting gets us there. I guess I am trying to differentiate between the way you approach the problem - which I like - and many synergists, who still want to end up in a pre-determined universe when we reach the end.

  28. To be honest I don't know if I can answer your question. I really don't know what people like Boyd mean when they speak of "free will." Which is why it puzzles me that someone could be so dogmatic about it. It seems strange to be dogmatic about something that no one can define with any sort of clarity.

    So all I can speak to is the human experience of freedom, and I think Frankfurt's description of volitional unanimity is a nice way of describing that experience. Beyond that, I'm agnostic on the free will question.

  29. Michael, I appreciate your graciousness and insights. While we obviously do not completely agree with one another I do see that we are close on much. I simply see the state of humanity as broken, and God acting to restore that... with no exceptions. But I do understand, as well, your reluctance to accept universalism. 

    Peace to you.

  30. Sorry I'm a bit buffoonish tonight.  :P

    What I'm trying to say (I think) is hasn't neuroscience claimed that we really don't have free will?  Hasn't it essentially claimed that there really isn't any choice involved, that all of our actions are the results of chemical reactions?  (Or am I really batting a zero right now?)

    I guess what I'm trying to flesh out is how far does neuroscience go with this.  What are its objective claims because everything I tend to read seems to spin it towards some philosophical or theological argument.  And that's where it always gets sticky.  But I feel that it is an important theological concept because it plays such an important role in theodicy. 

    Bleh.  This is what happens when a philosophically wired, intellectual neophyte tries to understand something scientific.  I should go back under my rock now :)

  31. Richard, new reader here, so I'll need to catch up on your perspective. A couple of observations on the theology:

    "Election" seems to me to not be about our afterlife destination. I think the whole predictable conversation is on the horns of a false dilemma. Seems election when talked about in the Scriptures is about mission, about calling, for the sake of others. To put it in systematic categories, "Election" should be studied in the Missiology course, not the Soteriology course.

    Also reminded of Bonhoeffer's great line (paraphrased) that in Genesis 3 the knowledge of good was just as much a problem as the knowledge of evil. The idea was to know God and love Him and His ways, and let Him sort out what's good and what's not.

    On the psychology of it: I can't help but think of my own childhood, the three children we reared, and now the grandchildren. I/we did "coerce" them in a way. We told them our story. The "Dodson" story. I was told the story. We contrasted our story with other stories. We patiently but insistently taught them our story . . . which largely shaped their own emerging story. Now I know this is not coercion. But it is deeply influential. As is the Story our Father keeps telling us. About us and Him. Out of my depth here, but wondering about the experience of freedom in "choosing" the stories we live by, and your take on how much of my story comes from me?

  32. Hi David, thanks for your input, and thanks for your always gracious attitude in considering my response to it:
    "I'm probably reading this wrongly; but, it seems to me to say that God does not hold back the 'light' from anybody."

    I would agree with you that God will not hold back the light. The question though is, when will He do so?The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they CANNOT see the light of the glory of the gospel of Christ. (2Cor. 4:4)Christ was manifested to annul the works of the adversary. (1John 3:8)... so that blindness WILL be corrected, just not for everyone at the same time."Doesn't this passage make it clear as to why 'man' can be held accountable."No it does not. "For the creation was subjected to futility, NOT willingly, but by the will of Him who subjected it, in the expectation that the creation itself would be freed from its bondage to corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God."It was God who cursed mankind and subjected it to the bondage of sin (darkness and evil), and so it must be God whose final judgment (His righteous justice) must finally set things right and act to free us from it. If you are going to claim that you were better than others and able to free yourself, while they could not, then you must reach the conclusion that you "earned" God's grace and be willing to assert then that salvation is by works. And if, as you have claimed before, everyone has the ability to believe but only some do so (yourself included), then you should take the credit for your salvation, blame others for their failure to do so, and spread the responsibility around equally. But I know that you will not take the credit because you also assert that you could only believe after God had chosen to give you faith.... all of which simply leads to the same contradiction that I described above."Now we have God meeting your standards for what love must look like."No. God meets His own standards of what love and justice must look like. He is absolutely just, in that His grace and mercy are applied to all. And He is absolutely loving: "God demonstrated His love for us, in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." And Christ was sent to take away the sin of the world (all of us). I know that you disagree with the extent of God's grace and love, but in order to do so you are essentially redefining their meaning by reducing their application to a limited few. If you believe that God can truly love you without loving ALL of your fellow man, then you go right ahead and do so. But please forgive me while I pity your small view of God, as it makes His capacity to love fall short of even that of us evil human fathers. We need (and thankfully have) a God and savior who is better than we are... not worse. I am sorry if you have such a lowly view of our Heavenly Father, but I am also sure that He has already forgiven you, and all of us, for any misconceptions on our part.

  33. I don't know if "neuroscience" can "claim" anything about free will. Neuroscience is just neuroscience, the scientific study of the brain. Of course, neuroscientists might make claims about free will. But at that moment they'd be wading into philosophical waters and leaving their science behind. 

    So neuroscience hasn't "disproven" free will. What has happened, in my opinion, is that neurocience has placed a lot of pressure on Cartesian dualism, and Cartesian dualism was the mechanism that many believed created "free will." That is, with a soul you'd have something in the head (or intersecting in the head), the soul, that was "above" the causal flux. Neuroscience puts pressure on that picture (e.g., how does the soul interact with neurons, neurotransmitters, low blood sugar, intoxication, injury or Alzheimer's?) which creates a subsequent pressure on free will. It's the collapse of Cartesian dualism that's the real issue.

    And again, I'm talking about pressure, not proof or disproof. It's just harder (though not impossible) to credibly talk about souls and free will when you are looking at brain scans, dealing with head injury, treating depression or addiction, or watching a loved one fade away due to dementia.

  34. Hi Dru, and welcome.

    You're not going to get any argument from me on both your points. I agree with you. I think election is very much like mission. Also, I think your example of parents and children is the very best example of how God "saves" us. God affects us less by taking control of our wills (volitional coercion) than with patient teaching, encouragement, training, discipline, and friendship. I very much think I'm shaping my two boys but I don't coerce them, I give them room. And sometimes there is little I can do and "natural consequences" will have to do the trick (see: Prodigal Son). I think God is doing something like this with each of us.

  35. I think you make some good points here. I would suggest that your critique of Bell, Boyd, McKnight and others (in this post and previous ones) might be more like apples and oranges. (I am not defending them, just trying to clarify language.) I understand and agree with your critique of free will. But, you are reading that term through a different lens and are trying to be very particular about how volition, and the idea of "free will" specifically, is utilized in these conversations. From my experience, most people who deploy the idea of "free will" are primarily opposing the idea of determinism, and Calvinism in particular. Most are trying to say that absolute determinism/predestination is wrong. Thus, there has to be some kind of agency outside of divine agency. And "free will" is the shorthand way of saying "we are not puppets." I don't think people, generally speaking, are trying to say anything particular about how human agency works, only that it is. I think this is due to the fact that we have reduced the argument to Calvinism versus Arminianism. Thus, "free will" means "I am not Calvinist." It is a shame that we have reduced the argument to two narrow schools of thought, even though many others (i.e., Aquinas, William of Ockham, Molina, and many others) have proposed alternatives to the extremes of "Calvinism" and "free will." With that said, I think it is good of you to call people to be more exact with their language. I just think it is helpful to realize not everyone uses the term "free will" to mean a specific type of human agency. They are making a theological claim about how God is not coercive, not a psychological or epistemological analysis of human agency.
    Here is my question, which connects with other posts you have written about agency and universalism. (And I think you are correct in so many ways. This is only the place I still don't understand about what you have written.) Many of your posts touch on divine agency, divine grace, human agency and salvation/eschatology and how they are related. However, the piece of that theological puzzle that is missing is the problem of evil (or a discussion about the agency that allowed for evil to be present). I don't think someone can have a coherent argument without dealing with this component. If God will eventually "woo" everything so that nothing will be lost, then what created the need for him to heal us, sanctify us, save us in the first place. What is the agent there? I realize one could draw upon process theology and say that God is changing and is getting better at changing our affections. And eventually God will get it all right. However, if God did not get right in the beginning, and thus humans were able to rebel, then how can we be absolutely sure that God will get it all right in the end. We can only hope. 
    And other arguments for dealing with the problem of evil are inadequate as well. Which is why I think "hopeful universalism" is the furthest we can go and deal honestly with our ambiguity about the problem of evil. What I would call "absolute universalism" is hard to buy because no one can give a satisfactory answer as to how God will, with certainty, bring all things to God's self in light of the fact that some agent (divine or otherwise) got its way in the beginning. If someone can show the causality of evil, and the causality of salvation (God's patient grace), and how they relate, then "absolute universalism" is a viable option, if not the best option. Until then, I don't see how we can pray more than, "I hope it is so."

  36. I take back one thing. Your critique of Boyd does hold more weight since he has done theological work on agency and has been more specific.

  37. All of our actions are the result of chemical reactions, but that doesn't disprove (or prove) free will.  As Richard says, it's the issue of dualism that's really the problem. 

    There is substantial evidence, however, that the neural activity leading to an action precedes the cognitive "choice" the make the action.  It really appears that we behave, and then justify our behavior post hoc.

  38. Hooray!  This is a fascinating and brilliant articulation of some thoughts that have been clumsily bouncing around in my head for a long while...  Thank you!!

    As I read, I was thinking of the Romans 7 passage that you cited further on in the post.  Plus, I was thinking of 1 Cor. 13 -- about how we, for now, "see through a glass darkly."

    On the topic of sanctification, I like to say that there is no "Shazam!" moment in our life of faith, when suddenly we are permanently and drastically "made new."  I believe, as you said, that God is working in us, at varying rate and degree, to bring us closer to Him and transform our entire being.

    The element of story -- personal biography, which can't be parsed out of the larger "God story" is SO right, imho...  I was thinking of the Apostle Paul, who frequently referenced his past (chief among sinners, citing this and that which he had done before "knowing" Christ).  His story was a continuation, not a completely new script!

    One last personal story of relevance to share:  In a nursing home Bible study that I have facilitated for 4 years, one time a beloved, dedicated member of our group, who happens to have severe memory issues, meekly raised her hand and waited for me to acknowledge her.  When I responded, she calmly asked, "What is my name?  I seem to have forgotten."  I almost cried, to think of being in that state of not knowing, at times, one's own name.  Within a few seconds, a response formed in my thoughts.  "You are 'Mary' who comes to Bible study every week and loves to sing and always helps to put away the hymnals and push someone in a wheelchair to the dining room after we finish.  You are among friends, and we love you!"

    So I think that in our personal biography (story), and within God's larger story, it is important that we have others who affirm our identity as known and loved by God and in community...

  39. One point regarding "free will" that I forgot to include in my longer, separate post is freedom of choice from the perspective of having access to all of the information needed to make the best decision, and, being in a position to act on that decision.  There is another blogger, "Segue Wm", who has written about a theoretical continuum between God's grace/mercy and accountability/judgment.  That is, depending on how much knowledge and ability a person possesses at any given point in time, God adjusts the mercy and grace accordingly.  Because of Jesus, our Great High Priest, God understands our weaknesses and invites us to come boldly to the throne of grace.  (Now that's a description of "sovereign grace" that I can believe in.)

  40. Richard...this isn't a deep response, but I am thankful for the clarification about the strange period of time after getting out of bed and before coffee.  I've often thought there was something off with space and time during those few moments...and now I know the issue...rediscovering my narrative.  Excellent.  :)  

  41. Thanks Susan. Your story about Mary is so powerful, a poignant example of how the family of God helps us recover our story and identity.

  42. I agree with your analysis of free will and how people are using it, more as a negation of determinism (physical or metaphysical/Calvinistic) than a positive theory of human agency. Still, just saying "I'm not a robot" or "human agency exists" doesn't really forward the conversation in helpful ways, particularly when pointed questions are posed. Because at the end of the day even determinists and Calvinists would agree on those points, that humans have agency and we're not robots. So something more specific needs to be said to get at the differences of opinion, if any really exist. But you're right, the way this whole thing has devolved into two camps is counterproductive with a lot of people talking past each other. One reason I like to write about all this stuff, though it makes people anxious, is to insert some different ideas into the mix.

    Finally, you're right about the problem of evil. That's the big issue. And you and I have talked about this before. Given the ambiguity of all this a hopeful stance is very reasonable. 

  43. Thx Richard! Interested in this connection between freedom as alignment of affections and actions, and the stories we're told about ourselves, God and the world. And our freedom in appropriating and integrating those stories. Have you done some writing on that in other places/blog posts?

  44. Thanks. On the first point, Chesterton would argue that "the experience of voluntary action" is indeed what philosophers and theologians are arguing about--in that one camp (determinists, whether Calvinist or materialist) simply do not account for this most basic of human experiences. Perhaps Chesterton is unfair at this point. Are you saying that determinists (Calvinist or materialist) do really accept as non-illusory the everyday human experience of having a will (being free to do things, including things God and/or our our environment didn't predetermine)? Of course, we all know what psychologists may sometimes remind us--that sometimes our "experience of voluntary action" is illusory (compulsion, addiction, dementia, etc.).  But Chesterton makes much of the fact that these are abnormal (and pitiable) conditions, not the inevitable, God-ordained nature of humans.

    On the second point, any theology of conversion/ regeneration (whether or not Calvinist) does include a "change"--and thus many (not all) Christians think of it as discrete rather than gradual/ unnoticeable. My point, however, is that this moment of change has almost nothing to do with what Calvinists call election. Your phrase "discrete moment of regeneration, election, or conversion" mixes three things that are quite unlike each other--as though one were to ask a biologist if there is "ever a discrete moment of growth, evolutionary development of the species, or conception." Most biologists would say maybe, no, and yes; and they'd look at you strangely for asking the question that way.

    Calvinists are (qua Calvinists) far less vulnerable than any other Christians to your psychological account of storied identity, precisely because they regard regeneration/ conversion (whether a discrete moment, or a gradual process) as merely working out something that predates either, something which is already inherent in our identity/ story long before we have any idea that we will convert. We are not regenerated from the very beginning, but we are (or aren't!) elect from the very beginning. We are not saints at conception, but people-born-into-sin-whose-story-and-identity-includes-an-inevitable-trajectory-of-becoming-saints at conception. Whether that predetermined trajectory-of-becoming-saints becomes manifest gradually or suddenly is pretty immaterial, I would think.

  45. No not much. This might be the first post where I've noted a connection between Story and Self.

  46. Regarding Chesterton, I appreciate what he's trying to say. But I don't think he's saying anything particularly helpful. There's a pretty big literature on this subject (in the sciences, philosophy, ethics, legal theory, and theology) with substantive points being made on all sides.  I don't think he wave all that aside as one big misunderstanding. Chesterton, though I'm a fan, can be too cute for his own good sometimes. Still, in regards to this post, my argument is wholly Cherstertonian, approaching the issue on the terms of voluntary human action. That's the whole point of the post.

    Regarding election, I see your point about the sloppy terminology. With those clarifications in hand, though, I wouldn't change anything in the post about my criticism of monergism.

    Regarding your last point, about gradual or sudden regeneration being immaterial. I wonder if that's true. The post is about the debate between monergism vesus synergism and I think the issue of gradualism is very relevant to that debate. That is, imagine the billions of choices I make from conception to regeneration while "in Adam." Was God making every single one of those choices? Or were we synergistically involved, all the way leading up to my "regeneration," my movement from being "in Adam" to being "in Christ"? As I discuss toward the end of the post, I think we are synergistically involved during all those choices. Do you agree with that?

  47. "If God will eventually "woo" everything so that nothing will be lost,
    then what created the need for him to heal us, sanctify us, save us in
    the first place. What is the agent there? I realize one could draw upon
    process theology and say that God is changing and is getting better at
    changing our affections. And eventually God will get it all right.
    However, if God did not get right in the beginning, and thus humans were
    able to rebel, then how can we be absolutely sure that God will get it
    all right in the end. We can only hope."


    And since we are all burdened by "ghosts", we cannot even do that.  So someone needs to finally and for once and all explain how we are culpable/responsible?  I continue to stand over here in the corner asking the same question repeatedly:  How can anyone state that human beings are possessed of "free will" (or whatever term you prefer) when we had no choice or input regarding our own creation, or as to the state (physical, social, mental, chronological, even geographical) into which we were born?

  48. SDV, I'm glad you brought that up.  I have a Calvinist professor of philosophy at the school I work at that uses this piece of neuroscience and works it into an argument for determination.

  49. I like your line Richard, but playfully offer this well referenced story about Augustine given your use of him. Ausgistine after he confessed faith in Jesus Christ,
    ran into a former mistress on the street. Immediately upon recognizing
    her, quickly reversed and began swiftly moving in the opposite
    direction. The woman, surprised by seeing Augustine and equally
    surprised at his reversal of his route, cried out, “Augustine, it is I.”
    Augustine, continuing to move away from her, replied, “Yes, but it is
    not I.” Perhaps his disconnection with his old self was quite profound.

  50. I still don't know why you think your "voluntary human action" is different from free will. I still don't know whether you think Calvinists (and other determinists) aren't essentially denying the reality of our (perceived) voluntary human action when they deny free will. And I still don't know why you think that gradualism has anything to do with anything--unless you are clinging to your (mistaken) notion that election was ever a doctrine about a single moment in time, rather than about divine predestination of ALL the choices I make over my lifetime.

    I actually do agree with synergism, at all levels--either in punctiliar conversions (if there are such things) and in gradual conversions (if there are such things). But this is because I believe in what I, and Chesterton, and everyone I know, calls free will. So to that degree I agree with you; the billions of (non-sinful) choices I've ever made are all synergistic with God--we who believe in "free will" have always thought so. And those who deny "free will" have always believed that the billions of (sinful and non-sinful) choices I've ever made are all monergistically predetermined by God. There are no narratological identity continuity issues here; simply a disagreement about the freedom of the will (i.e., the non-illusory nature of voluntary human action).

    So it's not that you and I disagree. I just think you've failed to substantively change the basic issues which Wesley and Chesterton, Luther and Calvin, were debating--except that your misunderstanding of election made you think Calvinism believed in a punctiliar, rather than holistic, monergism. You pretend to disagree with almost everyone else who believes in synergism--and then simply re-state what they've always meant by the phrase "free will." You pretend to find a new problem with Calvinism/ monergism--but only by completely missing that they've always believed in predestination, a holistic monergistic election before they are born, rather than a radical wrenching election during a person's lifetime.

    Your whole argument reminds me of the Dilbert cartoon where the garbage man tells Dilbert that his antigravity machine basically repeats what Einstein already worked out, except "You've added something new here--namely, a math error." Rather than merely taking your stand with one or the other of two respectable theological traditions (Calvinism and free will), your attempt to carve out a new one is, as you say of Chesterton, "too cute for your own good."

  51. Wow.  I don't see it...still.  Most people with whom I am familiar simply understand "free will" as the capacity to make choices without recourse to strict biological determinism...and the consequent ability to classify choices as ethically right or ethically wrong.  If the working definition you are implicitly criticizing goes deeper (!) than that, I'm sorry, I can't help you.  This whole alleged contrast just strikes me as so much sound and fury, signifying nothing important.


  52. Hi Jonathan,
    The reason I think there is a distinction between free will and voluntary human
    action is because many in my discipline (and in other disciplines like ethics,
    theology, philosophy, and legal theory) make this distinction and debate about
    the relationship. Just look at the Wikipedia entry on free will. This isn't
    just something I'm making up.

    For example, if you care to wade into this a bit, there is a lively debate
    about if the experience of voluntary action is merely an illusion. That is, its
    status as being "free" is questioned. I don't want to bore you with a
    bibliography here, but if you want to read more let me know. The point being is
    that free will isn't a general synonym for voluntary action (though for some,
    like Chesterton, it is). Psychologists, for example, don't treat the
    terms as synonyms. This is a point similar to your pointing out my sloppy
    theological terminology, my equating election with regeneration. On my end,
    equating free will and voluntary action is similarly sloppy, psychologically

    But this really doesn't matter much as both you and I take voluntary action as
    the best theological starting point. And it's very likely Scot McKnight, whose
    post I was responding to, agrees. Like I said repeatedly in my post, I agree
    with Scot 100%. I just wanted to translate his use of the term "free
    will" into the language of voluntary action. Because, again, many don't
    treat those terms as synonymous. But if Scot, or anyone else, goes with my
    translation (or even finds it completely unnecessary as you do) then we'd all
    be in complete agreement at the end of the day. I'd have done nothing new, just
    made a translation that didn't need to be made.

    But again, that's only the case if you treat free will and voluntary action as
    synonyms. But what do you do with the person who says voluntary human action is
    an illusion and fully compatible with determinism (cf. the work of Daniel
    Wagner, Benjamin Libet, Daniel Dennett)? These thinkers would reject the label
    "free will" outright. More, they see the experience of voluntary
    action as fully compatible with determinism. In the face of these critics
    someone like Scot or Chesterton would have to enter into a debate about the
    relationship between voluntary action, free will and determinism (again,
    because these things aren’t synonyms). This would be a debate, as I said in my
    post, about anthropology.

    But why get into all that? Why get bogged down in
    that anthropological discussion when you are trying to make an observation
    about God?

    Here, in this instance, it seems that my effort at translation might have been
    worth the effort. Because I've shown how the feeling of "coercion",
    the point Scot was making in his post, emerges from within the structure of
    voluntary action itself
    . It doesn't matter if free will or determinism is true or not.
    I've shown that monergism creates a feeling of coercion for both the
    determinist (physical or spiritual) and for those believing in libertarian free
    will (and for the Christians staking out each of these positions). By making this
    translation I've created something that allows us to sidestep the
    anthropological debate altogether. That seems to be useful work.

    And yes, as you note, all this is unnecessary if, like Chesterton, a person
    assumes that voluntary action is simply free (non-deterministic) will.  But this work isn't for Chesterton. As
    I said above, he and I agree already. This analysis is for people in my
    discipline (and others, see that Wiki page) who don’t think free will and
    voluntary action are synonymous.

  53. O.K. I'm willing to admit that my usage of the phrase "free will" is sloppy (especially if Chesterton and others whom I am reading  are also considered "sloppy" on this point). I'm still confused how you can say that some people think "voluntary human action is an illusion" and then describe these people as believing in voluntary human action (as compatible with determinism) but not free will. Isn't this like saying I believe in ghosts but think ghosts are an illusion?

    I'd reverse your "why get into all of that"--why get bogged down in a theological (or scientific) presupposition about God's sovereignty (or inescapable physical causation) that makes an "illusion" out of our most basic knowledge of ourselves (we are synergistic agents)? But I undersand that there have always been theological as well as anthropological reasons for accepting NON-ILLUSORY free will/ voluntary action, and it's fine if you prefer the theological.

    I guess my problem is that you think you've sidestepped a debate that I don't think you've sidestepped. Why couldn't a Calvinist call the feeling of "coercion" (which you document) just as illusory, or (if real) irrelevant, as the feeling of voluntary action? At the end of your (sophisticated and correct) observations on monergism, passion, volition, and gradual narratology, you can only end by saying "and surely all this is something that is synergistic." A Calvinist could (and, for all I know, would) accept all your observations and then say, "and surely all this is something that is monergistically predetemined."

    At that point, it seems to me that your only way of refuting him--the only grounds for your "surely"--is in fact your sense that all these billions of synergistic choices we seem to be making are not, in fact, illusion (and, of course, that divine compulsion of our whole narrative story isn't the way you want to think about God). I agree with you on both counts (as did Wesley, Arminius, and Chesterton), but that's hardly new.

    Perhaps what you are sidestepping is merely a very technical discussion, one which pretends to accept voluntary action (while calling it illusion???), and which sees problem with the phrase "free will" (though not as the theological tradition, or at least people like Chesterton, have been using it???)--and perhaps I'd see the need for your project if I understood that discussion. But you seem to me to leave Calvinism largely unscathed--Calvinists (I think) have always accepted that monergism creates a feeling of coercion, and requires God to micromanage our whole narrative. They just haven't had a problem with either fact, theologically or anthropologically. I'd say this is because they don't believe in free will.

  54. I, too, am a universalist through the work of Karl Barth who resolves many of the classic issues on both sides. For Barth, all the decisions of God and all the decisions of humankind are within Jesus - He's the reprobate for all, and the elected for all. I became a universalist about 10 years ago (I'm 67 - PCUSA pastor). Blessings on your work ... btw, do you know David Fleer? 

  55. Hey, old friend:

    "I would agree with you that God will not hold back the light. The question though is, when will He do so?"

    Ah, but this agreement comes at the cost of changing the Scripture which I offered.  The tense of the word in John 1:9 is not future as you have it here.  So, the 'when' question you have has already been answered by God.  This light is being offered in the present to everybody, at least as I read John 1:9.

    But, not to be deterred, you offer up 2 Corinthians 4:4 to show that (and I am assuming here what your interpretation is?) all men are currently blinded and can not believe.  I get the implication that at some later point, God will change that for ALL people, even if it is after they have experienced physical death.  Let me know if I have that wrong.

    As to this Scripture, there is a temporal sequence defined that I don't see in your response.  First, Christ brings light to everybody.  Second, a person, with the light, chooses to not accept that light.  Third, 'the god of this world' (who I take to be satan, not a metaphor; but a spiritual being) blinds those who have 'already' not believed.

    I'd love to deal with the many great points (and I mean that sincerely) that you bring up but I have put myself on a diet and so I will only respond to one more now.  You say:  "And if, as you have claimed before, everyone has the ability to believe but only some do so . . ."

    If I actually did say this then it was in a moment of weakness; for it is not what I see in Scripture.  What God (not me) says is that ALL should be able to see who He is and respond accordingly.  Men suppress this truth and that is what He holds them accountable for.  Anyway, that is how I read Romans 1:18ff.

  56. Ditto that! Which is why universal reconciliation is the only solution that keeps God from being a monster. But then maybe if I were one of the elect it would all be clear. Or... maybe if I was better at "choosing" God it would all be clear.

    To be clear, I do choose God and choose to believe that Jesus is God come in the flesh. I just don't seem to be very good at choosing to have my feelings, experiences and emotions follow what I have "chosen" to believe. But, maybe that's because I was elected for damnation from before the foundation of the world, in which case I'm putting myself through a lot of emotional torment for nothing. Or maybe I just need help with my "chooser".

    Wow, maybe God's not a monster, but we have certainly managed to create a monstrosity with all our theologizing. I think I liked "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so" better.

  57. Hi David,

    I will make a couple of quick comments in response to yours, and then a brief summary.

    "This light is being offered in the present to everybody, at least as I read John 1:9."

    "LIght," as it is meant in scripture (as I see it) is never "offered." We are "blind" until we are GIVEN "sight" (the light). It is not an option to "choose" to see or not. Until we are given the truth we are ignorant. Once we are GIVEN it we are no longer ignorant (blind) but now have the truth (the light). Once you KNOW that 2 plus 2 equals 4 you will never claim again that it is 5.

    "I get the implication that at some later point, God will change that for ALL people, even if it is after they have experienced physical death.  Let me know if I have that wrong."

    You do not have it wrong.

    "As to this Scripture, there is a temporal sequence defined that I don't see in your response.  First, Christ brings light to everybody.  Second, a person, with the light, chooses to not accept that light.  Third, 'the god of this world' (who I take to be satan, not a metaphor; but a spiritual being) blinds those who have 'already' not believed."

    We all start out as UNBELIEVERS -- that is the default position. Therefore ALL of us have been blinded so that we CANNOT see the light of the gospel. God brings light to each one of us at the time HE sees fit, NOT when we "choose" to see it... for a blind person CANNOT see UNTIL he has been healed.

    "If I actually did say this then it was in a moment of weakness; for it is not what I see in Scripture.  What God (not me) says is that ALL should be able to see who He is and respond accordingly.  Men suppress this truth and that is what He holds them accountable for.  Anyway, that is how I read Romans 1:18ff."

    Yes, you did say it, but we all can change our minds. There is no fault in that... wisdom in fact. As I outlined above, we CANNOT "respond accordingly" UNTIL we have been GIVEN the ability to respond -- been given sight. To say otherwise is to claim that we all are ABLE, yet only some CHOOSE properly to do so. Those so choosing would then be REWARDED for their righteousness, which would be SELF-righteousness. And all that leads to is salvation by works. You should then take the CREDIT for doing what others did not. Congratulations, and boasting, would then be in order.

    You are more than welcome to read Romans 1:18ff as you see fit, as well as all other scriptures. But if we only proof-text our way through the Bible and not take it as a whole - the plan of God for His creation - we are left with only contradictions, for with every scripture that you use to "prove" your interpretation I can provide another which contradicts it and "proves" mine. 

    In the end, my friend, you and I simply have a different view of God. As Richard's discussion several days ago so eloquently set forth - what we are really talking about here is how we each answer the question, "What is God like?" 

    And you and I have a most different view. Enough said. As always, take care my friend.  Jim

  58. "How can anyone state that human beings are possessed of "free will" (or whatever term you prefer) when we had no choice or input regarding our own creation, or as to the state (physical, social, mental, chronological, even geographical) into which we were born?"

    That is religion speaking - "Christianity" - NOT God. He alone is responsible.

    Rom. 8:20-21 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope (the confident expectation) that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 

  59. My problems with monergism are many. The main ones are that it implicitly denies that two specific prophecies about the Christ apply to Jesus: Isaiah 9:4 and Isaiah 53:3.

    Isaiah 9:4 says that the rod of the oppressor will be broken by the Christ as it was in the day of Midian. While that liberation was all to God's glory (Judges 7:2), and so is salvation, God chose to make a requirement of Gideon: that he be involved. If monergism were true and Isaiah 9:4 applied, Gideon's involvement would not have been a precondition.

    Isaiah 53:3 says the Christ would be rejected (the transliterated Hebrew "chadal," though interpreted many ways depending on context, always implies rejection of something available or ceasing something that one was previously doing). This denies irresistible grace, since one can hardly reject something that isn't available. It may deny perseverance of the saints also, though such an interpretation is, in my opinion, a bit careless with the context.

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