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Daniel Johnson on Calvinism: Calvinism and the Problem of Evil

The first essay, “Calvinism and the Problem of Evil: A Map of the Territory,” in Calvinism and the Problem of Evil is by one of the two editors, Daniel Johnson. The point of Johnson’s paper is to show that there are a variety of distinctions within the Reformed tradition that can be brought together to provide plausible response to the problem of evil. This chapter is a bit long – too long for one post – and there is already material in the first section worth discussing. That will be this focus in this post.

What is Calvinism?

In answering this question, Johnson distinguishes between two strands of Calvinism: one is soteriological and one is deterministic. The former concerns our ability with respective to salvation whereas the latter is a global thesis about God’s relation to the world. What relates the strands, Johnson says, is that “each entails the denial of libertarian views of moral responsibility (with a qualification forthcoming…).”(21) It is difficult to know exactly what this qualification is because it is not explicitly identified. But based on what is written, I think what Johnson has in mind is this: it’s the claim that one does not have the “absolute metaphysical power to act otherwise that was outside of God’s control.” Put another way, it is the claim that one does not have the power to act contrary to God’s decree (this is my interpretation of what is in quotes). 

The determinist strand, I said, was a global thesis about God’s relation to the world. It is the view that God controls everything and has ordained everything that has and will come to pass. To take McCann’s view as an example, creation is just the content of God’s intention; God’s intention does not act upon creaturely agents (“agents” for short). Although agents do not have in their power to limit God’s options or do other than God decrees – that is, what God intends – they do have the ability to do otherwise with respect to a complete description of the world up to the time of choice. It is essential on this view that God and God’s decree not be part of that description in order for this view to be coherent. This way of putting the qualification allows for libertarians to count as Calvinists (McCann being a non-causal libertarian and Johnson describes Crabtree as an agent-causal libertarian), although they turn out to be compatibilists when God’s decree is considered part of the world. 

The soteriological stand is captured by TULIP. Johnson provides another description, and I will return to that since it is worth discussing in its own right.

Johnson argues that one might accept the soteriological strand and reject the deterministic strand. The soteriological stand is limited in scope to the role God plays with respective the salvation of human agents. It implies the denial of libertarianism, as qualified above, because agents cannot do other than God decrees with respect to their salvation. In order to not make this the global view of the second strand, Johnson provides the following example.

For instance, you might think that Adam had the sort of absolute metaphysical power to act otherwise that was outside of God’s control, but fallen humanity no longer has the ability to avoid sin (though it is still responsible for that sin.).(21)

We lack this ability with respect to our salvific choice, even if God has a very limited role with respect to everything else.

Although Johnson says that one can accept the soteriological strand and reject the determinist strand, he does not explicitly say whether one can accept the determinist strand but reject the soteriological strand. The closest example he raises is Derk Pereboom, but Pereboom’s view involves a commitment to rejecting moral responsibility altogether. [1]

One question that could have been a paper on its own, although probably not in this volume, is whether these two strands are mutually independent. I will only say something about accepting the soteriological strand but rejecting the determinist strand.

If to accept the soteriological strand requires allowing that human beings could at one time do something outside of God’s control, that suggests that the merely soteriological-strand Calvinist has a view of the decrees that are not necessarily effective. If decreed events might not have occurred, then God proclaimed from eternity past that which might not have come to pass. It is important to note that decrees are taken to be authoritative proclamations. Kings make decrees; the fact that the king is the one making the decree, rather than the cobbler, gives the proclamation authoritative backing such that what is decreed will happen with certainty. By contrast, one who merely prophesies (without being God’s mouthpiece) or looks into the crystal ball and asserts what will happen lacks the authority to make the events happen.

The problem here is that there’s plenty of passages to suggest this this view is incorrect. For example:

   remember the former things of old;

for I am God, and there is no other;

    I am God, and there is none like me,

declaring the end from the beginning

    and from ancient times things not yet done,

saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,

    and I will accomplish all my purpose,’

(Isaiah 46:9-10)

Here God is presented as having authority, and that authority is tied to ensuring that what is declared will occur. But on the view under consideration, the decrees lack effectiveness, at least with respect to pre-Fall humans; they were not effective “from the beginning.”

Another issue is that if the decrees are proclamations of events that might or might not happen, then if God believes the things he decrees, then God does not infallibly believe those things. After all, he could be wrong. And that’s just another way of saying God is not infallible. You can look at this argument to see how the argument would go. I suspect this issue will come up later in the book so I will refrain from discussing it now. Its for reasons like these that the extent of God’s decree is taken to be more global than the salvation of individuals. For example, see Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, volume 2, pp. 370 – 74, “The Scope of God’s Decree”.

The Soteriological Strand

I characterized the soteriological strand with TULIP. Johnson gives an additional characterization:

The Calvinist picture of salvation goes basically like this: fallen man is unable to turn to God with saving faith, because fallen man is unwilling to turn to God (and is therefore responsible for his rebellion). (20)

Total Depravity (better: Total Inability) is the claim that fallen humans are fundamentally opposed to God and unable (because unwilling) to turn to God. Note that Calvinists will not deny that humans are able to avoid sin in whatever sense of “ability” is necessary for responsible action; they simply deny that this “ability” is metaphysically ultimate or absolute; so there is also an important sense in which humans are, ultimately speaking, unable to turn to God. (20)

What strikes me as problematic about this characterization is the explanatory direction: unable because unwilling. The explanatory direction is more complicated than that.  My wife asks me to see some movie I could care less about, and I have to finish writing a program because my team is supposed to deploy it next week. I am crunched for time. Am I unable to go to the movie? In one sense I am unable: I have a duty to implement and test the program before the expected time to deploy and skipping off to a lame movie is not an adequate reason for failing to satisfy that duty. I am unwilling to skirt that duty. Sometimes, then, it is appropriate to say one is unable because one is unwilling. Is that what is going on when Calvinists talk about total inability?

No. The sense of inability at play in the example is a normative sense: one has a reason sufficient for not doing a certain thing. But that sense is different than the Calvinist is after when describing total inability. The relevant sense of inability is psychological or metaphysical. To see why, consider the following issue regularly raised in discussions about Calvinism. I – a Calvinist – ask why two people who have the same evidence hear the same gospel presentation and one accepts it but the other does not. The answer, on Johnson’s view, I think, is that one was willing but the other unwilling. But why was one willing and the other unwilling? Either because God made one willing but not the other, or God did not play that role. If God did not play that role, then the willing person is saved because of some good quality the other lacks. I take it that this is going too far for even non-Calvinists. Or suppose it is completely random that one happens to be willing rather than unwilling. That conflicts with accepting the determinist strand; Calvinists cannot make that move. Suppose God does play a role in making one willing but not the other. If that is why one was willing but not the other, then we explain one’s willingness via something external to the agent. Without that external thing – the thing that makes a difference to whether one wills or not – then the other unwilling agent is unable to will correctly.

This suggests that the explanatory direction goes the other way: one is unwilling because one is unable to will correctly. When God acts to change the will of the agent, then the agent changes from being unwilling to willing. The reason the unwilling person does not change is because the unwilling person is unable, for God has not changed the person. This is one of Paul’s arguments in Romans 9 (c.f 9:16 in particular). 

As an aside, I said the matter was more complicated than Johnson suggests. A person can be unwilling to do something for so long that it becomes more and more difficult to do otherwise. Can someone dig in until the hole becomes too deep to get out? I’m not sure about that. But even if one can always climb out of the hole (as difficult as it may be), it is nevertheless the case that one’s continual unwillingness contributes to one’s inability, or perhaps better, it contributes to the difficulty in willing something else. And in that way one’s unwillingness contributes to one’s not turning to God. 

In the next post, I will look at how Johnson constructs a response to the problem of evil.

[1] Johnson includes the claim that agents are morally responsible in the determinist strand. It is this additional claim that keeps Pereboom out of the Calvinist camp. I did not include it in the description of the determinist strand because it strikes me as the inappropriate place to place that claim: determinism is a metaphysical thesis whereas the responsibility of agents is a normative thesis. 

2018-06-07T21:31:24+00:00 July 30th, 2016|Comments Off on Daniel Johnson on Calvinism: Calvinism and the Problem of Evil