Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Potter's Freedom: The Vital Issue

Prior to starting my studies at Southern Evangelical Seminary, I read a book by Norman Geisler titled "Chosen but Free". I was intrigued by the book as it purported to be a balanced view of the doctrine of election.  At that time I was debating the topic quite regularly with my friends and this book was one of the few books available on the topic from a non-Calvinist perspective.

Not long after CBF came out, the reformed apologist James White wrote a book titled "The Potter's Freedom". This book echoed some of the more widely held criticisms of Geisler's position and capitalized on the "strangeness" of the views presented in CBF.  In this series of blog posts, I will not be responding to Geisler.  This is not because I necessarily agree with him on every point; it's simply that I want to focus on White's work.

In this blog post, I want to focus on what White calls "The Vital Issue."  According to White, there is a criterion that serves to delineate between the "supernatural religion of Christianity" and the "man-centered religions that surround us." This delineation has to do with whether or not you think the work of salvation is "perfectly accomplished by God for His own glory" or it "is dependent upon man's cooperation and assistance."

In short, the delineation is between monergism and synergism along with "The truth of predestination (God's freedom) and man's depravity (his will in bondage)."  White claims that you cannot truly be reformed apart from upholding sola fide AND the truth of God's absolute freedom AND man's bondage in sin. He spends a good deal of time juxtaposing Calvinism with what he calls man centered religions. The implication here is that Geisler's position (along with pretty much anyone who is not in line with his brand of Calvinism) is not truly Calvinistic and is therefore a man-centered religion.

This seems to be fairly standard rhetoric for James White. He is a professional polemicist for the reformed faith and he does it with gusto. However, in doing so, he ends up using a lot of rhetoric that is uncharitable to his opposition.

What I would like to do here is discuss two of these uncharitable renderings.

#1 Non-Calvinists think that God requires man's permission to act in the world.

James White says,
"So many are quick to say, 'Oh yes, I believe in the sovereignty of God.' Yet, when pressed to believe consistently that God truly can do as He pleases without getting permission from anyone, including man, we discover that many who in fact confess such a belief in practice deny it."
However, even charismatic and Pentecostal churches, that believe God doesn't act unless we ask Him to, would not agree with this characterization of them.  They don't deny that God could act unilaterally.  In fact, a good number of them would say that God can perform logical contradictions if He wanted to.  For all of their talk of "You have to allow God work in your life", they don't think that this implies a limitation on God's part.  They see this as the way that God chooses to operate, not the way that He must operate.

Furthermore, this is not a valid characterization of the classical arminian. Classical arminians uphold that God can do whatever He desires and that the will of sinful man is in bondage to sin. They maintain that God must give a person prevenient grace before a person can receive (not demand) salvation. No classical arminian would audaciously claim (as White seems to say) that man sits on his throne and allows a servile and wimpy God to grant him salvation. Yet these are the kind of word pictures that White uses to portray non-Calvinists.

Nor is it an accurate portrayal of Roman Catholics. The Reformers themselves inherited their view of God and His nature from Roman Catholic theology despite their claim that it is derived strictly from Scripture.

Nor is it an accurate characterization of Eastern Orthodox believers. Even though the Eastern Orthodox don't uphold the Augustinian teachings about original sin (and are expressly synergistic), they don't characterize God in this way either. If anything, their view of God is the most transcendent in that they believe that God transcends being itself!

So for the vast majority of Christendom, this characterization is simply vacuous.

I understand that my experience is limited, but I really don't know a single person (laity / pastor / professor) who thinks that God needs man's permission to act.  They think that God has chosen (in some way) to include the wills of men in the process of salvation.  How that is worked out varies, but people who deny Calvinism don't think of God as some wimpy being who can't act unless creatures allow Him to. They see Him as a God who respects the faculty (human will) that He created.

# 2 Non-Calvinists think that it must either be God causing human actions OR man causing human actions.

White seems to think that non-Calvinists don't have a way of dealing with passages that talk about God causing some act that is also caused by a human.

White brings up Isaiah 10:5-7 to show how God used the Assyrians as an instrument to punish Israel. He follows this up with a discussion on how God would then punish the Assyrians for what they did, even though God caused them to do it.

10:5 Assyria, the club I use to vent my anger, is as good as dead,
a [rod] with which I angrily punish.
10:6 I sent him against a godless nation,
I ordered him to attack the people with whom I was angry,
to take plunder and to carry away loot,
to trample them down like dirt in the streets.
10:7 But he does not agree with this,
his mind does not reason this way,
for his goal is to destroy,
and to eliminate many nations.

White goes on to say that "Assyria is not a willing party to the punishment of Israel". He also points out the story in Genesis where Joseph says to his older brothers "As for you, you meant to harm me, but God intended it for a good purpose, so he could preserve the lives of many people, as you can see this day.  Thus God had one intention for in the selling of Joseph and Josephs brothers had a different intention.

These text supposedly show the following:
  1. That God has wisely and perfectly decreed whatsoever comes to pass in this universe.
  2. Nothing is outside His control
  3. Nothing is without purpose
  4. Nothing in the universe (including the actions of men) is beyond the positive decree of God.
While I agree with White on some of these points, these texts do not teach what he says they teach.

We can conclude, from these texts, that God can use people to achieve His purposes.  However, the text does not say how He does this, simply that He does.  We can see from the text that the Assyrian's had one intention in the destruction of Israel and that God had a different intention for the same action.  But we can't conclude from the text that God caused the Assyrians to have the intentions they had. What we know from the text is that God used the Assyrians to carry out His will.  White and others fill in the gaps here with reformed theology.

In the story of Joseph we see that God intended the selling of Joseph for some good end while his brothers sold Joseph for some bad end.  However, nothing in these passages demand a reading like the following:

  1. God caused the brothers to sin by performing an evil action with evil intentions.
  2. God brought about evil desires in the brothers so that Joseph would one day save many lives.
  3. God positively decreed that Joseph's brothers sell Joseph so that one day it would save many lives.
Even if you maintain something like the above, it isn't something the text explicitly teaches, you must bring your theology to bear on the texts to read them that way.

The text tells you that there is some (unspecified) way in which the brothers of Joseph and God brought about the same action of selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites. The text affirms that the brothers had one set of intentions and God had a different intention.  But this is true even among the brothers.  Each of the brothers have a causal role in what happens to Joseph.

Both Reuben and Judah work to mitigate the evil intentions of Josephs other brothers.  The rest of them wanted to kill Joseph, but Reuben and Judah work to stop the killing of Joseph. They don't do so deterministically, but they are able to bring about the result of selling Joseph. It makes sense of the text to think of it in the following way:

Joseph's brother seek to kill him.  But God, through the compassion of Reuben and Judah, works to save Joseph both for Joseph's sake and for the sake of many lives.

Non-Calvinists do have ways of understanding God's providential governance of the world that involve God being the cause of human actions in a way that doesn't necessitate the will.  In fact, in their book "Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace" Stanglin and McCall argue that Arminius himself maintained that God caused the actions of human agents.
"[Arminius] readily agrees that there is a sense in which God is the cause of all things, but he denies that this removes freedom or replaces contingency with necessity.  God 'acts through second causes, either with them or in them, and he does not take away their own divinely imparted proper mode of acting'. Instead, God allows secondary causes to produce their own effects -'necessary things necessarily, contingent things contingently, and free things freely."
Thus Arminius himself granted that God and man can be the cause of the same action, albeit in different ways. Likewise philosopher Robert Koons offers an account of dual agent causality in his Philosophia Christi article, "Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom."

That being said, I grant that there are contemporary arminians who think that it must either be God who causes the action or man must be the cause of the action.  But Geisler does not think this way, nor does Arminius. Both of them think in terms of primary and secondary causes where God is the primary cause and man is the secondary cause of a free action.  Both of them think of God as acting with and through a created beings nature.

So while there are non-Calvinists that think that two agents can't be the cause of the same action, there are some who think God causes human actions. I am unclear about Geisler's position here.  He says that God causes the fact of freedom, but man is responsible for the acts of freedom.  In a conversation I had with him, he said that he was trying to convey Aquinas' view that God is the primary efficient cause of human actions and man is the secondary efficient cause of his own actions. If that is so, then even Geisler doesn't take man's free actions to be specified wholly apart from God's causal power.  That being said, Arminius is pretty clear on the matter.  The free actions of men are not specified apart from God's causal power.

About this series
In this series of blog posts, I will be giving responses to "The Potter's Freedom" chapter by chapter.  There are more things that could be said about their first chapter, but as there are reoccurring points in the book, I'll bring the up as I respond to other chapters that are more directly related to my responses.

Also, while I am Protestant, I do not think this limits our theological discussions to the texts of Scripture.  I take it that philosophy is very helpful in helping us think about our theology.  Likewise I think our theology should set limits on where we go philosophically.  This may disappoint those of you who think that in order to have a "Biblical Theology" you must avoid introducing philosophical notions into your theology. I maintain that those who think this way are still using philosophy when they interpret Scripture, but they do so naively.

Some other links:


  1. you really think this article fairly or accurately represents what I wrote? And could you comment on the direct parallel found in חֲשַׁבְתֶּ֥ם עָלַ֖י רָעָ֑ה אֱלֹהִים֙ חֲשָׁבָ֣הּ לְטֹבָ֔ה (Gen. 50:20)? I am sure you will develop...not from Philosophia Christi, but from the inspired text, how God's actions can be separated from His own decree to act without introducing some kind of limitation upon God's knowledge or foresight.

    1. DrOakley, yes I do think that my article fairly and accurately represents what you wrote. If you disagree, you are welcome to voice that here or anywhere you like.

      In order for me to respond, I will need more elaboration on your question about Gen 50:20.

      Regarding the "how God's action can be separated from His own decree to act"...

      I do plan on elaborating on the ordo salutis and about how God can cause things contingently without there being any limitation in God's knowledge. However, I won't do this from Scripture alone.

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