Saturday, May 17, 2008

On intellectual humility, and the perspicuity of Scripture

An issue that has come up in the exchange with Calvinists here deserves a closer look. Suppose we come to our study of Scripture with a set of ideas as to what it is for God to be good. What this amounts to, for at least many of us, is that for God to be good, God must at least attempt as best he can to save everyone. That's what a loving God is expected to do. This cashes out either into classical Arminianism, in which God knows the fate of all but does not cause the free choices that result in damnation, whether this cashes out in open theism, according to which God must limit His own knowledge in order to insure that our acts are free, or whether this results in universalism, where God successfully converts all souls and fits them for eternal life with God, is surely open for discussion, but the concept of what it is for God to be good in all these systems is the same.

On the other hand, Calvinists here have said that this is based merely on moral intuition, that this our moral intuitions are not infallible, and therefore it should be possible, upon a close study of Scripture, to discover that this conception of divine goodness is not taught by God's revelation and should be abandoned in favor of a view that says that God unconditionally elects, effectually calls, and sanctifies some persons, but others are left in sin and condemned eternally even though God could have chosen to give irresistible grace to everyone.

I will concede that the discovery that something is taught in Scripture could result a reasonable Christian's changing their minds about what it is for God to be good. But wouldn't this be a matter of how strong a moral intuition one had as opposed to how sure we are that we are able to read an answer tot he Calvinist question off Scripture.

For example, we have been told that Calvinism logically requires a belief that the atonement is limited. There are three passages in particular that look bad for limited atonement: I John 2:2, I Pet 2:1, and II Cor 5:19. Can these passages be given a good Calvinist interpretation? This
essay suggests that the answer is yes.

The question I have is first that is it not the case that we sometimes have to accept an interpretation of a passage that we would not have accepted just examining the passage itself, simply because it conficts with what else we know. For example, a perfectly good inerrantist like J. P. Moreland suggests that although an exegetical study of the book of Genesis suggests that it is offering a comprehensive genealogy and therefore grounds for saying that the heavens and the earth came into existence in 6 literal days somewhere around 6000 years ago, scientific evidence suggests that if that is what is in text, either the text is errant or is being misinterpreted. Moreland therefore accepts a "second choice" interpretation of the Genesis genealogies, one that is consistent with an ancient earth.

Second, don't we sometimes have to accept a "second choice" interpretation based on what else we know from Scripture itself. Does God repent? Some passages say he does, but Christians usually interpret those passages in light of a wider doctrine of God according to which God is not really repenting. Look at Gen 6:6:

And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.

But a third suggestion might be that one might refrain from accepting what would otherwise be a "first choice" interpretation of a passage because it conficts with our conception of what is would be for God to be good.

You see, I am to be humble about my moral intuitions about what it would be for God to be good, but I have to be supremely confident in my ability to figure out whether 1 John 2:2 really teaches a universal atonement or not. If I say "I am surer that a predestinating God would not be good than I am that Scripture teaches predestination" am I sticking my fingers in my ears and sticking out my tongue, refusing to consider the evidence? That's what the Triabloggers would have you believe. This issue seems to have been extensively debated by exegetes over the centuries. Even if I had a good exegetical argument that Romans 8-9 is teaching predestination, is that necessarily better evidence that this would not be good for God to do.

Now it is quite true that some things are in God's secret counsel, that he has left unrevealed. That's true, and so there may be some things I do not understand.

The answer could be that Scripture is God's way of communicating with us and, as such, God has given us the tools to understand Scritpure and to answer the question of predestination from Scripture. On the other hand, we have to derive our concept of what it is for God to be good on the basis of what it is for humans to be good, but the analogies are too weak to get us anywhere. Therefore, exegetical arguments always trump moral intuitive arguments.

If Scripture really does give us a clear answer to all these questions (there are others which are frequently debated amongst evangelical Christians, such as the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, infant baptism, etc.), why is the evangelical community so divided on these matters?

I am linking to an article by Dave Armstrong criticizing the perspicuity of Scripture. Armstrong is a Catholic, and I am not endorsing his Catholicism here, but only raising some issues about how confident we should be in biblical arguments as opposed to moral arguments. Could it not be rational for a person to say that they have more reason to believe that a predestinating God would not be good than to believe that Scritpure teaches predestination even if, upon the study of the Scripture, they discover that, so far as the biblical evidence is concerned, it is more likely than not that Scripture teaches predestination.

I am not, by the way, conceding that it is more likely than not that Scripture teaches predestination.


Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Victor,

Thanks for the mention. Don't forget that we Catholics believe in predestination, too: just not to hell. We hold to the mystery of God's predestination paradoxically coexisting with man's free will, rather than (ultimately) deny the latter, as the Calvinists do.

This is Catholic dogma (and in case anyone is wondering, I am a Molinist by persuasion).

Dave Armstrong said...

Also (not to be nitpicky, but helpful), the word is spelled "perspicuity". See the entry:

R. E. Aguirre. said...

The article here by Reppert is a fascinating one that touches several issues concerning predestination, and the philosophy of hermeneutics.

As Catholics we would say that contra Luther - a plowboy cannot "come up" with the manifestly deep doctrines of the Trinity, the person and work in the fullest of nuance concerning Jesus Christ, etc. The Christian needs a hermeneutic grid grounded in the objective interpretation of the regula fidei, or the historical understanding of tough doctrines and the reading of our Sacred Texts through the quiet voices of the patristic fathers.

Even Protestants (reformed) understood the fallacy of autonomous hermeneutics. The great Abraham Kuyper noted,

"There is to be sure a theological illusion abroad...which conveys the impression that, with the Holy Scriptures in one hand one can independantly construct his theology...This illusion is a denial of the historic and organic character of theology, and for this reason is inwardly untrue. No theologian following the direction of his own compass would ever have found by himself what he now confesses and defends on the ground of Holy Scripture. By far the largest part of his results is adopted by him from theological tradition, and even the proofs he cites from Scripture, at least as a rule, have not been discovered by himself, but have been suggested to him by his predecessors" (Principles of Sacred Theology. 574-75).

R.E Aguirre

steve said...


Surely you jest. The only “irresolvable dilemma” here is the spectacle of a Catholic layman like Armstrong, without a theology degree from any Catholic institution of learning, assailing the right of private judgment. If Armstrong imagines he’s qualified to represent Catholic theology, then his Protestant counterpart is at least equally qualified to represent Biblical theology—and without the glaring self-contradiction in David’s case.

Dave Armstrong said...

The only “irresolvable dilemma” here is the spectacle of a Catholic layman like Armstrong, without a theology degree from any Catholic institution of learning, assailing the right of private judgment.

Huh??!! What in the world does my educational status have to do with whether private judgment is a true principle or not?

If Armstrong imagines he’s qualified to represent Catholic theology,

Any Catholic can correctly state back what the Catholic Church teaches, if they know the right sources to utilize. It ain't rocket science. To defend it is another matter, bur folks can learn to do that too.

then his Protestant counterpart is at least equally qualified to represent Biblical theology

What sort of biblical theology? Anyone can make arguments from the text, sure. I have no problem with plain old folks doing exegesis. It's only when they spurn the authority of Church and Tradition that I have a problem. I love scholars but I despise academic snobbery and elitism.

—and without the glaring self-contradiction in David’s case.

No self-contradiction at all. Lay Catholic apologetics has a long history (Chesterton, Sheed et al).

I think the Bible is clear, by and large. I wrote in my paper on perspicuity:

"The Bible is indeed more often than not quite clear when approached open-mindedly and with a moral willingness to accept its teachings. I assume this myself, even as a Catholic."

My problem is making sola Scriptura the formal principle, because that necessitates a denial of the infallibility of the Church. That has brought about the organizational chaos and doctrinal relativism that we see in Protestantism.

R. E. Aguirre. said...

I have to agree with Dave on this one. The owlish tactics of attacking someone simply because they don't have a degree behind their names screams desperation. I guess using this same logic we can denounce great Protestant laymen such as C.H Spurgeon or C.S Lewis who both were quite prolific.

Understanding and promulgating Catholic doctrine does not require a degree.

If you are going to attack a man do it on the grounds of his own words - not by merely assuming his lack of intelligence due to a lack of credentials.

steve said...

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that a fundamental presupposition i this blog entry is that the GOOD resides outside of God; that there is some measure of goodness against which one can rule God good. This is not the case. God is the Good. If God chooses to kill half of humanity, this act is by definition good. To put it in another way everything God does is good.
As a result if God chooses to only save a select few, that is the most good possible. If God limits himself to allow free will, that is the good.