Monday, August 17, 2009

Calvinism and the philosophy of science

I have a stronger background in the philosophy of science than I have in biblical exegesis, so maybe I can explain my views in terms familiar to philosophers of science in order to make them clear.

One way of putting the point I was trying to get across is that biblical studies is perforce inductive in nature. Theologies are something like theories, Scripture is like the a database, and further historcial information is helpful in making an inference to the best explanation.

We come into this discussion with prior probabilities which differ. This is what I accept with respect to scientific theories, this is what I accept with respect to theological theories.

For me, the Calvinist has the burden of proof. Why? I'm not a Calvinist. You've got to show me. And I consider the Calvinist position to introduce a moral incoherence into the character of God. That's the nature of reason. We begin where we are, not some ideal, neutral starting point.

With respect to Calvinism, I am expected to throw away all predispositions and be "objective" about the text. Why? Even in the hardest of hard sciences, it doesn't work that way. It seems to me as if positivism is dead everywhere else, but alive and well in biblical theology.

Calvinists seem to be deductivists with respect to their arguments from Scripture. They present their passages, they summon up their exegetes, and say that this deductively entails Calvinism. But there is a lot of Scripture out there.

I have responded to the Calvinist counter-argument on John 3:16, which I find less than satisfactory simply because even if "world" doesn't mean everybody, it seems to mean everyone who's alienated from God. I don't think the most natural reading of this is that given the depravity of man, we should just be amazed that God had enough love to save anyone. The object of that love is supposed to be the Kosmos, which is either the whole world or the world alienated from God. If that love just picks the elect out of that world, then the love doesn't extend to the whole world, but only to the elect within it.

However, I have not gone into detail about the most interesting Calvinist response here. I think it won't do to deny that God loves every person, I think it far more reasonable from a Calvinist standpoint to say God does love everyone, but doesn't elect everyone. That is what Piper tries to do. If this claim can be made consistent, then this would improve the Calvinist case. I do this does violence to the meanings of terms, but there is an argument to that effect out there that has to be considered. My main concern in talking about Calvinism lately was to get to that issue. I hope soon to start going through Walls and Dongell's treatment of this, in a section entitled "Is God's Compassion for the Lost Sincere?"

19 comments:

Mike Darus said...

Victor,
I like your idea of theology being theory but it has its difficulties. Last year I floated the idea among friends that the doctrine of the Trinity is the best "theory" to explain the Biblical evidence. It was hard to tell, but I don't think the idea got any traction. There are some formulations of the biblical data that for most are dogma, not theories subject to evaluation.

At the same time, I noticed that the authorship and canonicity of books of the Bible are subject to evaluation and testing by each and every commentator whether classic or contemporary. The inductive system of Bible study is the approach taken by most in Evangelical circles. Even the way I was taught theology at Denver Seminary was an inductive approach that led to the formulation of a personal doctrinal statement. So there seems to a widening consensus that the deductive approach to theology has the danger of pressing Scripture into an ill fitting mold. Very often, those who approach the issue inductively wish for a "Calminian" conclusion that affirms both the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man. The tension can be found frequently in Scripture. Both sides have verses that prove their point and verses they have to explain away. I prefer to live in the tension of - "nothing happens unless I chose and act" and "nothing happens unless God wills it and initiates it." It also works with - "God loves everyone" and "God saves some."

Victor Reppert said...

Mike: I think one reason why you might have trouble selling this idea is that many Christians are in the habit of dissing the theory of evolution by saying it's "only a theory." There are theories that are strongly confirmed, and other theories about which there is considerably more doubt. Even if there are severe problems with the theory of evolution, you can't undermine it by saying "it's only a theory." We can, quite correctly, talk about the heliocentric theory of the solar system. It's a theory all right, but it is a very well-confirmed theory.

I remember being the assistant for a philosophy of science class at the U of I, and finding that what today would be commonplace philosophy of science was, in a class composed largely of engineering students, viewed as somehow subversive of science. And I'm not talking about Feyerabend or radical Kuhnianism, I mean things as common-place as the Quine-Duhem thesis. If you don't know what I'm talking about, google some of those names and terms.

steve said...

"I have responded to the Calvinist counter-argument on John 3:16, which I find less than satisfactory simply because even if 'world' doesn't mean everybody, it seems to mean everyone who's alienated from God. I don't think the most natural reading of this is that given the depravity of man, we should just be amazed that God had enough love to save anyone. The object of that love is supposed to be the Kosmos, which is either the whole world or the world alienated from God. If that love just picks the elect out of that world, then the love doesn't extend to the whole world, but only to the elect within it."

You keep missing the point. John's "cosmic" language has reference, not to the scope of God's love, but to the counterintuitive nature of God's love, given the moral character of those for whom atonement is made.

And notice that Jn 3:16 limits the scope of the atonement to believers.

Josh said...

What counter-intuitive nature of God's love?

steve said...

In Scripture, it's counterintuitive that God would love the wicked.

Josh said...

Why is that counterintuitive? Can you explain what you mean?

steve said...

In Scripture, it is counterintuitive for a holy God to love the wicked. That's the point of passages like Rom 5:6-8.

Josh said...

Ok, I see why it would be counterintuitive for a Calvinist, but counterintuitive results are, generally, undesirable. It seems that we have a good defeater for Calvinism rather than a good reason for counterintuitive results.

steve said...

Since I quoted Romans, I take it from your response that you think Paul was a Calvinist, which is why he treats the notion as counterintuitive. I appreciate your concession to Biblical Calvinism. Of course, that will count as a defeater for your position.

Josh said...

Hrm? I don't think Romans points to anything counterintuitive in any real or deep sense. I deny that God's love is in any way counterintuitive. So no, I haven't conceded anything. All you've done is taken something I said, combined it with one of your assumptions and said this proves Calvinism. That kind of rhetoric stinks.

steve said...

Josh,

Does Paul, in the passage I quote, treat God's love for sinners as something predictable, or something we wouldn't normally expect?

Josh said...

He treats it as something supererogatory.

Josh said...

ETA: Actually, I don't know whether the passage indicates supererogation, but I do think that the passage is perfectly compatible with that interpretation.

steve said...

Well, here’s how Ben Witherington interprets the passage:

“The sense of v7 is brought out by Cranfield as ‘it is a rare thing for someone to lay down his life for a just person, much less for one who is his benefactor’ (see Ps 73:1 for this sense of ‘the [do]-gooder’). How much more surprising then is Christ’s death for the ungodly. It does not follow normal human behavior patterns or human logic…Paul’s logic runs counter to the normal conventions of the day,” Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 173.

So, as you would put it, “Ok, I see why it would be counterintuitive for an Arminian (e.g. Witherington), but counterintuitive results are, generally, undesirable. It seems that we have a good defeater for Arminianism rather than a good reason for counterintuitive results.”

Josh said...

Culturally defiant is not counterintuitive. There isn't something immoral or utterly unbelievable about God's love. Is it contrary to what most humans would do? Sure. But that doesn't touch on what would be counterintuitive for an omni-God to do, despite your clever rewording of my post.

steve said...

So what runs counter to human logic (Witherington's interpretation) isn't counterintuitive. Is that your last-ditch explanation?

And, of course, the question at issue is very much concerned with what is counterintuitive to human beings regarding their expectations of God. That is Paul's point, which you resist because you really don't care what the Bible says, even when it's interpreted for you by a major Arminian commentator.

And underlying that expectation is the fact that we'd expect a just God to condemn evil-doers, an expectation which the Bible frequently fosters.

Paul also underscores the counterintuitive nature of the Gospel in 1 Cor 1-3.

But I'll leave you to your favorite past-time of Tomfoolery. It's a hobby in which you excel.

Robert said...

Hello Victor,

“I have a stronger background in the philosophy of science than I have in biblical exegesis, so maybe I can explain my views in terms familiar to philosophers of science in order to make them clear.”

My first mentor was a physicist, and while he had me reading the bible, he also wanted me to read from two “schools” of orthodox Christianity (so he was assigning me books by C. S. Lewis [non-calvinist] and by Francis Schaeffer [calvinist], the idea was to see how different “schools” treat the data of scripture).

I love Science and have always had friends who were practicing scientists and I respect their approach better than that of most theologians and apologists. While they really try to be objective and are forced to do so by things like the laws of nature, real life experimentation and peer review, theologians tend to expound on anything and everything anyway they want with virtually no checks and balances. Imagine if science were carried out the same way as some theologians spin their webs! If it were up to me, theology would be practiced similar to the way scientists practice science (i.e. theory development and testing, openness to public scrutiny and investigation, true peer review of “findings”).

Instead most theologians are “fortress defenders” (i.e. they hold to some particular theology and are going to spend the rest of their academic and personal life not pursuing the truth but pursuing proof for their already held position and surrounding themselves with “disciples” who simply regurgitate what they already believe, sort of a self perpetuating dog trying to bite its own tail over and over . . .)


“One way of putting the point I was trying to get across is that biblical studies is perforce inductive in nature. Theologies are something like theories, Scripture is like the a database, and further historical information is helpful in making an inference to the best explanation.”

I really like abductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning is useful as is inductive reasoning, but abductive reasoning is the real world (we have a problem, let’s develop theories, test the theory and then choose one as the best explanation of the problem). We do this kind of thing when figuring out what is wrong with our car or plumbing, why can’t’ we do it in theology? Actually to answer my own question: I know why many won’t do it, if you have spent your life building and then protecting your little fortress, you’ve got too much emotional investment in it to be tentative about it or even allow that you could possibly be wrong about it. No, now you are out to “prove” it and have others be your followers who will take up the mantle and protect the fortress you have constructed when you are gone.


“We come into this discussion with prior probabilities which differ. This is what I accept with respect to scientific theories, this is what I accept with respect to theological theories.”

Nothing wrong with differences, just put your assumptions and biases out there in the open, just test them and your theories and see how well they fit **the data** (in the case of properly interpreting scripture, the scriptural data as well as church history). And do so openly and publically with likeminded persons concerned about pursuing the truth rather than defending their own positions. Unfortunately as appealing or as nice as this may sound, the reality is that the theological landscape is dotted with various man-constructed fortresses all vying for people’s attention.

Robert

evanmay said...

Apparently God himself thought his love for sinners to be counter-intuitive (indeed, contrary to his nature), and he solved this puzzle by crushing his Son:

"whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." (Romans 3:25-26)

anenglishgit said...

this whole calvinist vs arminian argument goes nowhere. do you really think that christ wants us to bicker about these things? he's very clear in my opinion. we have a gospel to spread to all.