Thursday, May 8, 2008

D.A. Carson and Compatibilism

I was not hoping for another chance to respond to Carson in the hope that he would put aside things he was having trouble understanding and stick to things he knew well. Unfortunately, in the following chapter he continues in unhelpful confusion.

The chapter is entitle, "The Mystery of Providence."

Carson frames the chapter with a quote by Richard Veith about the risks of trying to reconcile God's complete Sovereignty with the existence of evil, and the moral responsibility of humanity. Carson then introduces a definition of Compatibilism:

The Bible as a whole, and sometimes in specific texts, presupposes or teaches that both of the following propositions are true:

1. God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility is curtailed, minimized, or mitigated.
2. Human beings are morally responsible creatures--they significantly chose, rebel, obey, believe, defy, make decisions, and so forth, and they are rightly held accountable for such actions; but this characteristic never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent.

So far so good. Carson is then careful to articulate that this definition is derived from a thorough examination of Scripture rather than haphazardly imposed upon it, and he provides a good summary of verses that demonstrate both propositions. It is truly here that Carson is in his element of strength. He finishes with the most important place in Scripture, which is the sacrificial death of Christ and draws out the very important point that Christ's atoning work only makes sense when both propositions are confirmed true.

Confusions occur when Carson attempts to explain how the propositions are compatible. Let's see what he says.

1. Most people who call themselves compatibilists are not so brash as to claim that they can tell you exactly how the two propositions I set forth in the last section fit together. All they claim is that, if the terms are defined carefully enough, it is possible to show that there is no necessary contradiction between them. In other words, it is possible to outline some of the "unknowns" that are involved, and show that these "unknowns" allow for both propositions to be true. But precisely because there are large "unknowns" at stake, we cannot show how the two propositions cohere.

Carson is certainly right that a great many Christian believe both propositions without possessing the ability to demonstrate their validity. One is not required to be able to demonstrate how something is true in order to believe in its truth, although the truth is more clear when it has been demonstrated. If Carson would have left it at that, there would be no reason to quibble. Yet he goes on:

I think this analysis is correct. But what it means is that I am still going to be left with mysteries when I am finished. All that I hope to achieve is to locate those mysteries more precisely, and to show that they are big enough to allow me to claim that when the Bible assumes compatibilism it is not adopting nonsensical positions.

It isn't altogether clear how Carson is using the term "mystery" here, or throughout the chapter, but it is certain that he is not using it in the sense in which Paul does: a truth that had been kept hidden, but is now revealed. For Carson, this mystery remains mysterious. Yet he also claims that his efforts will show that the mysteries are "big enough" to resolve us from contradiction when we assert both propositions. This is a strange claim to make. It would seem that Carson had before argued that we are "allowed" to state both because the Bible assumed both--and this would be enough for us to believe. In convincing others, however, one must do more than present something mysterious, for what is mysterious may be dismissed as easily as it is embraced. If one is to defend Scripture against claims that it is contradictory, one must demonstrate how they propositions resolve logically, not mysteriously--for the claim is against the logic of Scripture. In other words, when the logic of Scripture is impugned, a logical response is required. If it were argued that Scripture reveals that God is fully comprehended, then we may respond that there is yet mystery in our ignorance of God's being. A proper reply to any argument is addressed on the grounds where it is made. So while Carson's appeal to mystery is inadequate, perhaps he will yet say something logical in response to the dilemma.

Here is what he offers next:

2. If compatibilism is true and if God is good--all of which the Bible affirms--then it must be the case that God stands behind good and evil in somewhat different ways; that is, he stands behind good and evil asymmetrically. To put it bluntly, God stands behind evil in such a way that not even evil takes place outside the bounds of his sovereignty, yt the evil is not morally chargeable to him: it is always chargeable to secondary agents, to secondary causes. On the other hand, God stands behind good in such a way that it not only takes place within the bounds of his sovereignty, but it is always chargeable to him, and only derivatively to secondary agents.
In other words, if I sin, I cannot possibly do so outside of the bounds of God's sovereignty (or the many texts already cited have no meaning), but I alone am responsible for that sin--or perhaps I and those who tempted me, led me astray, and the like. God is not to be blamed. But if I do good, it is God working in me both to will and to act according to his good pleasure. God's grace has been manifest in my case, and he is to be praised.
If this sounds just a bit too convenient for God, my initial response (though there is more to be said) is that according to the Bible this is the only God there is. There is no other.

Here is an argument that can be made useful. What Carson is saying in gentle language can be said in a more acute way: God is the ultimate as well as the indirect cause of evil; God is also the ultimate as well as direct cause of good. What Carson has done here is state in a term (asymmetrical) what the verses he has given have stated. God is the cause of evil and good ultimately--there is symmetry in God's Sovereignty because nothing happens apart from His will. God is not the cause of evil directly, but God is the cause of good directly--when evil occurs, God is not the primary actor willing it so, but He is the ultimate actor who directs evil according to His own good ends. God is both the primary and ultimate actor for good because of the sinful nature of humanity resulting from the Fall. Adam was innocent, but sinned, thereby plunging his posterity into evil--defined as rebellion against God. Because by nature we are rebellious, any good (defined as works done by faith in God, as opposed to rebellion against Him) must come first from God toward us. Here is the asymmetry. The answer for why God has chosen to accomplish things in this way is likewise simply stated, however easily rejected: His manifested glory demands it. This is to say that teleology reveals God's purpose because it is God's final purpose. When we begin to think teleologically with the Word of God as our guide, we begin to think God's thoughts after him. What Carson has indicated in seed, we have now grown to something fuller.

From this point Carson enters into a discussion of human moral responsibility and freedom. He does a nice job of disposing of the definition of freedom as libertarian freedom, or "absolute power to the contrary" as he calls it. He does less well in defining freedom as voluntarism: "that is, we do what we want to do, and that is why we are held accountable for what we do." The missing element is the notion of strongest desire, which elucidates the point that our choices are determined by our strongest desire, and not simply according to bare desires or wants. For the common response to voluntarism as Carson defines it is, "well I could want something else, indeed I often want separate things at the same time." Yet with competing wants, it is always the strongest desire that is accomplished, and for which we are held accountable.

Carson rightly introduces the Fall of humanity and gives the positive statement that "real freedom is freedom to obey God without restraint or reserve." Although this sounds eloquent, it might have been better to say that real freedom is being constrained by the desires of God rather than the desires of our flesh. For we are always constrained (one cannot serve two masters, but one must serve a master).

Carson then introduces the personhood of God as the important factor in understanding human responsibility. Because God is a person who has dictated a manner of proper relationship, we are inevitably bound to this relationship in such a way that we remain faithful or break fellowship with infidelity to the expectations God has set. Carson seems to wish avoiding the fallacious assumption that Sovereignty implies some sort of deistic god who controls all things at a distance, impersonally. Of course, much Biblical evidence supports God's immanence as well as His transcendence. Carson is even more concerned about the tendency to understand God's being in the finite categories of space and time. He again uses the poor term "sequence" to describe time. But at any rate Carson arrives at the two "poles" of God's relationship to humanity: He is transcendent (Carson's, "sovereign") and immanent (Carson's, "personal").

It is unfortunate that Carson would use the term personal to describe God's immanence, since God's personhood is not strictly confined to his relationship to humanity, but exists as part of His Being within the Godhead. Indeed, God's immanence can be understood as a necessary implication of His divine nature: because it is God's nature to commune with Himself, it is also in His nature to commune with His creatures. Recognizing the construction in this way dissolves the tendency to assume that personhood is a specifically human trait, but shows that our nature as persons in relationship is predicated upon God's nature as a Person in relationship. Thus our attention is turned to understand God's person in order to understand ourselves, rather than looking to ourselves to understand God's person.

And here is where I think Carson misses the point, for it is here that he reintroduces his rejection of impassibility. Here is what he says:

The problem of compatibilism, then, is tied to the fact that the God who discloses himself in the Bible and supremely in the person of his Son is himself both transcendent and personal, and not less than both. We have pursued the lines of thought that suggest themselves from the Bible's straightforward adoption of compatibilism, and find they lead to the nature of God.
It should now be a little clearer why, in chapter 10 of this book, I was unwilling to endorse the doctrine of the so-called impassibility of God--at least as it is usually taught. That doctrine is too tied to just one side of the biblical evidence. But that does not mean that the other side--that stresses God's suffering, his love, his responding--is any more reliable if it is abstracted from the complementary pole of God's transcendence.

God's personhood and His transcendence are not properly opposites. God disposes himself to himself in love, joy, peace, accord, etc. Aspects of suffering, "response" and the like occur in God's immanence with His creation. But these attributes are predicated of God's simple Being, and not upon what we experience as physical creatures. Carson's earlier confusion in the term "emotion," shows that he is considering God's Being according to a finite category rather than an infinite and spiritual one, i.e. affections. Emotions are "feelings" and feelings arise from the sensations we experience in our physical bodies and in relation to the external and physical world. God has not a body and nothing exists external to Him in such a way as to change His state of Being. Our state of being is changed according to our bodies and our environment. We may feel depressed as a result of deficiencies in the hormones that regulate our bodies. We may feel anxious when our bodies are threatened with harm. God does not experience such emotions. Affections, on the other hand, are dispositions that are related to knowledge and will. God knows all and wills all, therefore He disposes Himself in love to those He knows according to His willing favor. He disposes Himself in displeasure toward sinful behavior, and this displeasure is disposed in correcting love for His children and condemning wrath for those God has willingly disfavored. Such dispositions are predicated upon God's Being and His Willing, and not upon a response to stimuli, to human behavior, or to acts in space and time.

Carson reveals his ignorance on such matters of systematic theology:

It appears, then, that the problems involved in holding to the truth of both of the propositions that constitute compatibilism are profoundly tied to the very nature of God himself. Ironically, this provides us with a way forward. We are reasonably well placed to isolate some of the things we do not know about God; that is, we see that the Bible describes God as both transcendent and personal, and in part we justify this strange pairing because we can identify some of the things we do not know about him. But some of these things that we do not know about God turn out to be facets of ignorance that make it reasonable to hold that both propositions of compatibilism are also true, even though we do not see how they can be true.
Examples may help. The God of the Bible created all things; he lives above or outside time and space as we know them. He is transcendent. But that means I do not really understand his relationship to time and space. I see that he has revealed himself to human being in time and space, but I don't have a clue how he manages it, or how it looks to him. I cannot be certain, for instance, whether he experiences sequence. If he does, it cannot be exactly the way I do, for my notion of sequence is bound by the categories of space and time.

And he continues a bit further with such ignorant examples. How is it that ignorance can constitute a reasonable ground for belief? Certainly Carson misses the blunder of this sort of argument. The Christian who accepts the propositions of compatibilism, as well as the examples of God's relationship to time and space while not being constrained by time and space does not accept them on the basis of the ignorance in the ability to demonstrate their truth. Rather, the Christian accepts the propositions as true based upon the prior acceptance of the proposition that what Scripture says is true. The acceptance is not, therefore, grounded in ignorance, but in a prior trust in God's Word, despite the ignorance of how to demonstrate the relationship of subsequent propositions. Let it never be said that our acceptance of any doctrine be based in ignorance. To construct belief on the basis of what we do not know about God is pure folly. To admit that such a process is reasonable is no less so.

Carson concludes the section with two rather telling admissions, "I see that he presents himself as personal, but I have no idea how a personal God can also be transcendent," and "So I am driven to see not only that compatibilism is itself taught in the Bible, but that it is tied to the very nature of God; and on the other hand, I am driven to see that my ignorance about many aspects of God's nature is precisely the same ignorance that instructs me not to follow the whims of many contemporary philosophers and deny that compatibilism is possible." Would that Carson would concede his ignorance and affirm his trust in Scripture without affirming his trust in his ignorance. Ignorance, if it instructs us at all, instructs us to trust simply in God's Word and be silent or to strive to turn ignorance into knowledge by prayerful submission to God's illumination and a more careful examination of the propositions--perhaps even consulting many fine Christian theologians who have systematically dealt with the issue already!

The next section deals with three objections to compatibilism: libertarian free will, mutual annihilation of the propositions, and the imposition of alternative philosophical grids. He does a good job again of defeating libertarian free will.

He very briefly states that Howard Marshall and Grant Osborne annihilate both propositions by simply juxtaposed without presupposing compatibilism. There is no demonstration of why such a simple juxtaposition is unwarranted since Carson himself is begging the question that the Biblical writers are affirming compatibilism rather than simply juxtaposing different propositions about God. I'm not saying we should not presuppose compatibilism, but only that doing so requires more argument than he provides here against those who simply juxtapose the propositions. Carson's own inductive analysis can as easily prove juxtaposition rather than compatibilism upon separate presuppositions. The difference is that Carson will not abandon logic for irrationality as those who simply juxtapose the passages do. Carson is not to be faulted for preferring logic to irrationality, but he is to be faulted for not pointing out the necessity of logic for the presupposition of compatibilism and the refutation of irrational juxtaposition. Carson is correct in his conclusions, but inadequate in his defense.

The last objection is the hasty imposition of alternative "grids" to explain the problem. Carson is an exegetical man, so he prefers an inductive approach to Scripture as his starting point. Well and good. But He must recognize that an inductive approach to reconciling determinism and responsibility does not enter without presuppositions. Even apart from these prior considerations, how is it that he will define when enough induction has been done to arrive at the proper account? Without sensitivity to these matters, Carson is in deeper waters than he may suspect. As it is, Carson's critiques to this objection firmly rely upon his presupposing compatibilism, which his inductive study elucidates according to this premise, but does not prove apart from it. It is not long before Carson begins to descend from the comfortable surface of garnering Biblical passages to discussion matters of philosophical importance:

In fact, biblical theologians have long noted that when the Bible says God will something or wants something, the language is used in different ways. God sometimes wills something in a sense no different from decree, from efficient accomplishment. The texts previously cited provide many examples: what God wills in heaven and on earth takes place, and he works everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. On the other hand, the Bible can speak of what God wills (1 Thess. 4:3), but it does not take many powers of observation to note that this cannot be a reference to God's efficient decretal will. Still other passages speak of God's permission, as, for instance, when God grants Satan permission to afflict Job. Similarly, God gives sinners over to their evil ways (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28); in this sense God doe not willingly afflict his people (Lam. 3:33): that is, he permits it, but it is not his desire.. [emphasis mine]

Can God will one thing and at the same time, in the same manner, will its opposite? Surely this is a contradiction. Yet this is what Carson affirms. God's decretal will assures that whatever comes to pass, comes to pass according to God's decree. Yet, when God's decree is that His people are afflicted (Lam. 3:33), it is not truly what God wills. He wills it to occur (decree), but He also does not will it to occur (permit). Now how is it that what God "permits" is contrary to what God "wills"? Rather than resolving the contradiction (which results from an equivocation in the term "will"), Carson appeals to the mystery of God's transcendence and personhood:

At the risk of simplification, it appears that when the Bible speaks of God's will in an efficient or decretal fashion, that use of language belongs to the assumption that God is transcendent and sovereign; when the Bible speaks of God's will as his desire, quite possibly unfulfilled desire[!!!], that use of language belongs to the assumption that God is a person who interacts with other persons. To appeal to such usage to deny that God is sovereign is as irresponsible as it is to appeal to the first usage to deny that God is personal.

How is it that a Sovereign God, whose will cannot be thwarted, has his will thwarted (unfulfilled desire) then? Carson's ignorance cannot instruct him in a reasonable manner to answer this very real dilemma. He can only chastise those who would try to resolve the contradiction by appealing to one proposition over the other. Surely we do not wish to be reductive, but neither should we wish to accuse God of contradiction, which is precisely what we do when we affirm that God decrees (e.g. sin) what He does not will (e.g. sin). The equivocation in the term "will" is what must be addressed, but Carson misses this necessity entirely. Rather, he tries to resort to his earlier distinction of asymmetry:

Similarly, when the Bible speaks of God's permission of evil, there is still no escape from his sovereignty. A sovereign and omniscient God who knows that, if he permits such and such an evil to occur it will surely occur, and then goes ahead and grants the permission, is surely decreeing the evil. But the language of permission is retained because it is part of the biblical pattern of insisting that God stands behind good and evil asymmetrically (in the sense already defined). He can never be credited with evil; he is always to be credited with good. He permits evil to occur; the biblical writers would not similarly say that he simply permits good to occur! So even though permission in the hands of a transcendent and omniscient God can scarcely be different from decree, the use of such language is part and parcel of the insistence that God is not merely transcendent, but that he is also personal and entirely good. That God's permission of evil does not in any way allow evil to escape the outermost bounds of God's sovereignty is presupposed when we are told, for instance, that the Lord persuades the false prophet what to say (Ezek. 14:9), or that his wrath incites David to sin by taking a census (2 Sam. 24:1). When the Chronicler describes the same incident and ascribes the effective temptation to Satan (1 Chron. 21:1), this is not in contradiction of the passage in 2 Samuel (for biblical writers, including the Chronicler, are far too committed to compatibilism to allow such a view), but in complementary explanation. One can say that God sends the strong delusion, or one can say that Satan is the great deceiver: it depends on whether the sovereign transcendence of God is in view, or his use of secondary agents.

Now lest it be said that I have nothing positive to say about Carson, let me affirm where he is worthy. The strain in this passage is primarily the very positive desire of Carson to preserve the absolute nature of God's decree. This is to be commended! Similarly commendable is Carson's strong affirmation that 2 Sam. 24:1 and Chron. 21:1 are looking from separate vantages rather than contradicting each other. He is precisely correct in viewing the former as looking to God's decree and the latter as looking to God's secondary means of accomplishing the decree. The moral responsibility falls upon the proximate actors: Satan who temps and David who succumbs to temptation. Let no man say that God has tempted him when he is moved to sin by his own desires. Where Carson blunders is not in what he tries to defend, but in his accomplishment of the defense.

First of all, the Bible sometimes uses the "language of permission," but it sometimes uses the language of determination, as in the 2 Sam. 24:1 when God "incites" David to take the census. The issue is not with the language, but with its meaning. To draw a distinction between what God decrees and what God permits is confusing rather than helpful. Carson tries to attach it to his "definition" of asymmetry, but this will not do. First of all, Carson's "definition" is better labeled a description, for he does no develop it beyond what he already asserted according to compatibilism: God is not directly (morally) responsible for evil, but He is directly responsible for good. Such is not a definition, but a description of what the Bible declares to be so. If the language of permission speaks to something, it is not speaking to God's personal nature in distinction from his sovereignty. What it may indicate is the truth that God is not directly responsible for evil, but it hardly explains how this is so.

What Carson is missing is the necessary disambiguation in the term "will." God's will is simple and singular: God wills all that comes to pass, and all that comes to pass does so according to His will. Within God's decree He has also given commands, which are binding upon His creatures. Had it been God's decree that His creatures obey His commands, surely they would have, but as it is, God has NOT desired His creatures to obey His commands, in order that their disobedience would result in His glory: His glory by redeeming a people from their sin in Christ, thereby displaying His mercy, grace, and love; and His glory by condemning a people in their sin, thereby displaying His justice, righteousness, and holiness. God's commands do not represent what He wills to occur, but provides a measure against which human action is to be judged. That He gives a standard logically entails but one desire: God desired to give a standard. That God intended to provide this standard does not entail that He desired it to be kept by all, or indeed be kept by any (apart from Christ). The teleology of God's will reveals the intention of the commands. This is why teleological thinking is so vital to understanding what is God's will, for God determines the end from the beginning. This means that in order to understand what God is doing, we must look to the end and understand all that comes to pass accordingly.

Carson concludes the chapter by appealing once again to the necessity of preserving the mystery of compatibilism as revealed by Scripture. But is there really something "mysterious" about God's decree as it relates to His commands when viewed according to His final purpose and the true nature of ultimate and proximate causes? Surely there is a measure of difficult thinking that is required to distinguish how the propositions of Scripture that appear to contradict are in fact reconciled. But difficult thinking is not mysterious, however rare it may be in our present age. On this note I am compelled to label one final criticism against Carson in this chapter, based upon what he says here:

3. The mystery of providence defies our attempt to tame it by reason. I do not mean it is illogical; I mean that we do not know enough to be able to unpack it and domesticate it. Perhaps we may guage how content we areto live with our limitations by assessing whether we are comfortable in joining the biblical writers in utterances that mock our frankly idolatrous devotion to our own capacity to understand. Are we embarrassed, for instance, by the prophetic rebuke to the clay that wants to tell the potter how to set about his work (Isa. 29:16; 45:9)? Is our conception of God big enough to allow us to read "The Lord works out everything to its proper end--even the wicked for a day of disaster" (Prov. 16:4) without secretly wishing the text could be excised from the Bible?

I believe I understand Carson's intention here, which is to chastise those who would try to make the Bible fit into their own autonomous reason. But Carson is overstating the case against reason, for God surely intends for us to understand what He has revealed, and if He has revealed that He decrees all things, including sin, and is not guilty of sin Himself, then we can understand not only that this is not a contradiction, but why it is not a contradiction--that is, we can understand how to demonstrate its logical coherence. Far from bucking against our Creator, the desire to find coherence for what Scripture reveals is a worthy and in many cases necessary endeavor for the believer.

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