Monday, October 22, 2007

On Talbott criticism

In creating the link to the Talbott essay, I link to the Nivlac section of a longer piece entitled "On False Prophets and the Abuse of Revelation." The parable is entertaining in and of itself, but its proper argumentative role is to be seen in the context of the larger paper. I'm sure those in the Reformed tradition understand the importance of context in interpreting sacred texts. The same applies, however, to texts not so sacred, including those written by Tom Talbott.


Anonymous said...

In "a critical response" I think Talbott has a good point about Calvin's "second" strategy, but he overstates his case. Based on what we know of God's nature, we can draw inferences from God's will to its source in his nature and there's nothing wrong with that.
But when we can't comprehend the connection between his will and his nature, we must accept there is such a connection we cannot at present see. And how do we know his will? Scripture. But Talbott seems to want to evade that point.

He then seems to be equivocating between God's will revealed in Scripture and the hypothetical will of an amoral God that may change in the future. But this could just as well apply to the Arminian God. That God could command us tomorrow to kill babies, etc.
If Talbott replies, "But the Arminian God has revealed himself in Scripture as not being of that nature!", it could be replied that that is what Calvin was talking about when he referred to God's will. Ie. God's revealed will that decrees mercy on some, justice for others, and commands us not to kill innocent babies for sadistic pleasure. So it seems he's equivocating about what Calvin meant by 'will'.

Anonymous said...

Re: 'Testing the Spirits'. This doesn't seem very rigorous - "he rejected even the clearest deliverances of human reason on the supposed ground that they conflict with the message of the Bible. He thus elevated not the Bible in all of its richness, complexity, and diversity, but his own interpretation of it, above even the clearest deliverances of human reason."

The conclusion to me seems to be that Calvin elevated the Bible over human intuitions that contradicted it (which were not logically necessary conclusions). Is this spelled out in detail in tILoG or somewhere else? If so it would be nice if there were some footnotes.

"If I exhibit such slavish devotion as [accepting the authority of Jesus or Paul regardless of what they say], then I ultimately demean the very authority I am seeking to honor; I say in effect that I would believe the Bible even if it were filled with bald faced lies."

But the moral difficulties you have in comprehending scripture cannot be equated to seeing 2+2=5 in the text, which seems to be what is implied. You take one passage (1 Jo 4:1) and seem to set it against 2 Ti 3:16, so as to get rid of Ro 9. Why, when nothing necessitates your doing so except your personal tastes? If this is valid, what's to stop gay rights activists, and after them pedophiles, zoophiles, etc. from using the same techniques? Isn't this an admission that you think the canon is wrong? It feels a lot like sinking beneath the line of despair.

You claim Rom 11:33 is in the context of "hope", which may be, but the fact that God's ways are beyond our understanding is the foundation of that hope. There's nothing in the passage that implies God only resorts to ways beyond our understanding when it is for the sake of our hope.

"Do we not have every right, perhaps even a solemn obligation, to follow our own reasoning and better judgment--that is, the best judgment we are capable of--as we test the spirits and the claims of various prophets?"
Yes, again this seems very informal. What about Jer 17:9, Rom 3:10? Your starting point should be that you are a sinner against God and man. You are not called on to speculate upon any intuitions beyond that, especially as regards the divine will revealed in scripture.

Anonymous said...

Oh, btw. I learned briefly about Calvin in high school (Renaissance, reformation, etc.). No one showed us any bible passages (it was a secular school). I thought it was quite repellant, and that Calvin must have been some sort of fringe loony who must have misunderstood the Bible. Years later when I actually READ the NT, it struck me like a blow to the face. John 6, Romans 9, Acts 4:26-28, etc. The very last thing I was expecting. I don't buy that a straightforward reading won't convince anyone of the truthfulness of this doctrine. I don't buy the 'guileless peasant woman' hypothesis.

Anonymous said...

Plantinga Fan said...

Hello Tom,

I enjoyed reading your article and would like to interact with you on this article. Here I want to start with a bit about my views on teaching and discovering truth. I have a bit of a science background and have friends who are practicing scientists so I have been influenced by good “scientific thinking”. I have also taught in various capacities where I have used some principles repeatedly. You began your article with this statement:

“A generalization about religious belief to which there are, I believe, few exceptions is this: The more confident one is in one's religious beliefs, the more willing one is to subject those beliefs to careful scrutiny; the less confident one is in them--the more one unconsciously fears that they cannot withstand such scrutiny--the more eager one is to find a device that would appear to protect them from careful scrutiny.”

I would add that a Christian who is confident that they have the truth has nothing to hide and can be open to any new investigation or questioning of their beliefs. This is true because if something is true it will stand up to questioning, if it is false it will tend to be disconfirmed by evidence and questioning. It is when you have something to hide or you don’t want your beliefs or authority to be questioned that you manipulate evidence, hide contrary evidence, do not allow questions, etc.

In one of the best essays on the scientific perspective on integrity, the famous physicist Richard Feynman delivered a great, great speech called CARGO CULT SCIENCE. In this essay he speaks to graduating seniors about the mentality that a scientist ought to have, one in which one goes the extra mile to know the truth. One in which one is always open to evidence and questions, always testing claims, and ultimately always being honest with the evidence and one’s conclusions. I wish more Christians had the mentality which he describes in this speech. I also wish that just as in science, people subjected their claims to “peer review” because they want the truth and are not afraid of questions or having their beliefs challenged. As you say above Tom, if we are confident in our beliefs, why be afraid of subjecting your beliefs to careful scrutiny?

As you point out in your article Nivlac had something to hide, something that he did not want to be challenged, and something that had to be accepted on his authority alone (his false doctrine of predetermined reprobation of human persons to eternal punishment). Nivlac in fact took the exact opposite approach then the one suggested by Feynman in his speech. Some of my scientific friends have problems with some Christians because they see Nivlac’s approach being practiced rather than, Feynman’s approach being practiced.

Consider some comments by Feynman to see what I mean. Feynman said:
“But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school -- we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly.”

He says that he hopes the future scientists have caught on to a principle of investigation and research while they were in school.

“It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty -- a kind of leaning over backwards.”

It involves “utter honesty” a “leaning over backwards” to discover and know the truth.

“For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid -- not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked -- to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.”

Feynman says that we not only want to know what goes right with experiments we also want to know what goes wrong. One of my scientific friends says he often learns more from what went wrong then when it goes right. He also says that people should not only publish their positive findings but also their negative trials, talk about when and how things went wrong. If you are seeking to defend your system of theology against all comers, you are not into this kind of thinking. You don’t want to be wrong and you will hide the negative trials, or the bible verses that are contrary to your preferred view.

Feynman also says the reason that you want to bring it all out in the open including the failures the negative trials is because you want the next guy not to have to make the same mistakes, so you seek to help the other guy get it right. Again, imagine if theologians rather than defending their system or preferred “truth”, instead, got together and traded notes, and worked together to arrive at the truth. But that ain’t happening! :-)

“Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can -- if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong -- to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.”

Imagine Christians who present their views and also present some of the problems (or perceived problems) with their views. When I teach on a topic where there are differing views I will state my view explain why I am committed to it, but I will also include other views, especially when there is controversy and there are various views held by different bible believing Christians. It takes longer to teach that way, but my goal is always to have people thinking and questioning and then concluding on the available evidence what they believe to be true. On the essentials of the Christian faith (where all types of Christians agree) you may even discuss how things go wrong. For example in discussing the divinity of Christ, tell people how heresies about the divinity of Christ work as well.

“There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.”

An important point when presenting bible truths is that they are not going to be contradicting each other. The bible has some clear verses that state that God is love, loves the world, provides salvation for the world, desires for all to be saved, that God is merciful and is a good person, etc. etc. The verses that the “peasant woman” knows.

So then Nivlac comes up with his interpretation of scripture which is driven by an assumption of exhaustive determinism and presents conclusions that to an unbiased person exercising common sense **contradict** the clear passages of scripture. This indicates that Nivlac is probably wrong. Another indication that Nivlac is wrong is that there are no explicit verses that teach that God predetermines individual person’s eternal destinies before they are on the earth. The Old Testament for example says nothing about unconditional preselection/election of eternal destinies. And in the New Testament this is never explicitly stated so Nivlac and his followers “proof text” from isolated passages that are very few in number and capable of being interpreted in ways that lead to non-calvinistic conclusions (e.g. Romans 9-11; Eph. 1). Put another way, if Nivlac’s theology was openly discussed by all of the church, I am quite confident that it would be rejected. Because this is so the Calvinist has to develop subsidiary arguments to attempt to establish their view (e.g., if Jesus died for the world and not all are eventually saved then God failed or was “defeated”). They cannot simply say, look over here, it says clearly in this verse that God preselects people for damnation or salvation.

“In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”

See again the idea is not to just support the view that you want to believe but to get all of the evidence out in the open so that we can all evaluate it and make our conclusions. Nivlac does not endorse this approach, he wants to hide, he wants his conclusions to be beyond questioning, he takes an anti-Feynman approach. It reminds me of something you sometimes see in court room contexts where they will exclude evidence from consideration and say: “the jury will disregard this . . .” If the search is truly for the truth, then all of the evidence that is available and relevant ought to come in and be considered. And it should be open to all so that they can evaluate it for themselves.

In education we don’t want “regurgitators” who just parrot what we want to believe, we ought to seek to be developing critical thinkers who are quite capable of thinking for themselves.
So we have a choice between the Nivlac approach where we hide things that are negative or a problem “under the rug” and set things up so that our preferred beliefs cannot be questioned (or ought not be questioned: how dare you have the impudence to question that interpretation). Or we can take the Feynman approach where we seek to be utterly honest, lean over backwards to do things right, working together to know and understand the truth whatever that might be.

Plantinga Fan

Jason Pratt said...

Note: the previous post involved a discussion of, and criticism of, the parable per se (among other things); and I've left a new set of comments there in regard to that particular topic.

However, Ron did ask Thomas Talbott a question, that doesn't have anything specifically to do with the parable but for the exegetical case for universalism. Since an answer to that seems more properly put here, and since I happen to know that Tom and I developed similar answers independently (thus I expect him to answer pretty much the same way, though perhaps with some tweaks), and since Tom may be sporadically in and out for a while due to workload--well, 'here' it is. {s}


the translation of ‘eonian’ and a couple of related phrases (‘into the eon’, ‘the eon of the eons’, etc.), are certainly important in making an exegetical case one way or another.

Doing an analytical check of the term eonian, what I discover is that the common denominator for the term usage involves it describing a property of any related noun so that the noun means ‘coming from God’, especially in regard to God’s own intrinsic character.

This doesn’t immediately shift the meaning over to a universalistic interpretation, but it does correct prima facie interpretations which are typically recognized to involve shallow theology in other topics. e.g., zoe eonian isn’t “eternal life” merely in the sense that it keeps on going forever unending, any more than the “eternal secret” mention by St. Paul as having been lately revealed in Christ kept on being a secret forever unending. It could and can keep on going forever, by God’s action, but that isn’t the primary meaning of the word, thus not the primary meaning of the phrase. The phrase means (in effect) life from God, God’s own life. The punishment and fire and so forth are coming from God. (Indeed the eonian fire is actually God, evidently the Holy Spirit, based on other scriptural testimony!) The ‘whole ruination’ in the Thessalonican reference is coming from God, too.

Consequently, the question of what eonian-x means depends on what we learn and apply concerning the character, including the intrinsic character, of God. It is on the ground of God’s character that we can trust Him to give us zoe eonian without arbitrarily yanking it away from us again; the unendingness of the life isn't something intrinsic to the zoe itself.

This is also why theologians, when they get down to technical business, debate the meaning of eonian crisising or eonian cleaning (typically translated as ‘punishment’!--such as in the judgment of the sheep and the goats, btw, since that was mentioned shortly afterward) or whatever, based on what we can expect of He Who Is Who He Is. Which, Steve’s objection notwithstanding (earlier in the previous thread), is very normal business in theology.

I was pleased to notice that Tom had also come up with the same conclusion (on more-or-less the same grounds, with a few examples I hadn’t known about myself), when I read The Inescapable Love of God. I expect he would answer much the same thing then. But if he has some significant differences, that would be interesting, too. {s!}


Plantinga Fan said...

Hello Tom,

You wrote: “In his effort to harmonize and systematize various passages in the Bible, John Calvin drew the inference that, according to the Bible as a whole, God restricts his love and mercy to a chosen few; indeed, even before the foundation of the world, God had already predestined some persons to eternal perdition.”

I do not believe that Calvin arrived at his theology due to interpretation of biblical texts alone. Instead, I believe he came to the text with a presupposition, or pre-understanding, which then **controlled** his exegesis of all of the biblical texts. Perhaps he got the presupposition from Augustine or perhaps on his own, but he presupposed that God predetermines all events. This presupposition is then used as a grid or filter by which all of the biblical data is evaluated and interpreted.

The bible does not say that God restricts his love or mercy to a chosen few, it says the opposite (cf. Rom. 11:32 where all are “shut up in sin” a reference to the Roman legal system in which someone who was totally guilty was told to “shut up” and even struck on the mouth to signify they were obviously guilty, Paul says the human race [and he had argued for this in the earlier chapters of Romans as well] all have their mouths shut, all are totally guilty before God; but Paul says God allowed this to happen so that he could have mercy on all; earlier in the Romans 9-11 section Paul had argued that God has the right to have mercy on whomever He pleases, so God has this right and explicitly says that he desires to have mercy on all). It is also obvious in the context of discussions of the scope of the atonement that the bible passages clearly teach that God planned and provided an atonement for the world (e.g., Jn. 3:16, 1 Jn. 2:2, where “world” refers to a larger class of persons than the elect who eventually become Christians). The bible also teaches in numerous places that God is loving, merciful, kind, patient, and good.

Here we come to a real problem with Nivlac’s theology: in order to restrict God’s love, mercy, salvific plans to just the preselected small group of elect persons, he has to redefine, mitigate, deemphasize, ignore, downplay, and reinterpret the clear and numerous passages in which God is loving, merciful, good, etc. to all including those who will never become Christians. Nivlac only has a few proof texts for his doctrine of unconditional election (preselection of who would be saved and would not be saved before they are born) that can almost be counted on one hand (i.e., Romans 9, Ephesians 1, Acts 13:48, Rom. 8:28-30).

Aside from these isolated and very few prooftexts, the Calvinist will also present subsidiary arguments (I call them subsidiary because they are not derived directly from a text, but by using texts to establish a point and then arguing from that point attempting to establish a determinist conclusion). A common such subsidiary argument is to argue from Eph. 2:8-9, Rom. 8:7, and 1 Cor. 2:14 that the nonbeliever is “spiritually dead” and so incapable of responding in faith to the gospel message. Since it is assumed he cannot respond (unless regenerated first), it is then argued that only those regenerated can have a faith response and that God only chooses to regenerate those whom he has preselected for salvation.

What should be noted in all of this is that the determinist, the follower of Nivlac, starts by assuming the presupposition of exhaustive determinism and then goes looking for biblical evidence to support or defend the presupposition. It is like a scientist who starts with a conclusion that he wants to see, and then seeks confirming evidence of his desired conclusion. So he will emphasize the “evidence” that supposedly supports his conclusion, while ignoring, downplaying, reinterpreting the evidence that does not support the desired conclusion. As one friend of mine puts it: there are those who desire to pursue a position and those who desire to pursue the truth. Desiring a position involves desiring to show and prove what you want to believe, what you desire to believe to be true. Desiring the truth involves desiring to know the truth whatever it may be, wherever it may lead, even if that truth is not something you desire or want to be true. Again, scientists get on theologians for this, because when science is done properly it is the pursuit of truth not pursuit of a position. And yet most theologizing is different individuals or different interpretive communities seeking to defend and “prove” their position rather than seeking the truth whatever that may be.

It is clear to me that Nivlac in developing and defending his theology was not pursuing the truth, but pursuing a position. One of the ways you can immediately see someone pursuing a position is if you can predict what their proof texts will be before they even present their beliefs. Pursuit of position tends to either/or conclusions and false dilemmas (e.g., either Calvinism or Arminianism), while pursuit of truth tends to and/or conclusions, views that incorporate the strengths of various positions but not the weaknesses.

It goes to the nature of truth. A famous example in physics is the wave/particle duality (Is it a wave? Is it a particle? It is both). A famous example in theology is the nature of Christ (he is both God and Man; heresies take one side and leave out the other, So Arians emphasize humanity and deny divinity). As an example of my own thinking on this subject I believe that God is sovereign and that simultaneously at least on some occasions man has free will in the libertarian sense.

I also believe that some things are predetermined (e.g., before they were born it was predetermined that Jacob not Esau would get the blessing of the first born, Rom. 9:9-13; the crucifixion of Jesus was predetermined to occur Acts 4:27-28, Acts 2:22-23) and some things are not (mundane events such as whether I choose chocolate chip or strawberry ice cream at Baskin Robbins; issues of Christian liberty where different Christians choose to have different convictions, Rom. 14:1-23, 1 Cor. 8; even marriage is sometimes a freely made choice “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God”, 1 Cor. 7:39-40; and believes are to use their freedom to love and serve other believers rather than following the flesh, “For you were called to freedom brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another”). So the issue is not exhaustive determinism versus no determinism, the issue is some determinism and some indeterminism (a both/and conclusion is the truth, rather than an either/or position.

I think Nivlac was so committed to pursuing his position that when it came to reprobation he had to take the steps that you speak about Tom. Steps that someone following Feynman’s approach would have never taken. Steps indicative not of a pursuit of truth but of a pursuit of a position. I want to talk about those steps next.

Plantinga Fan

Tom Talbott said...

To all:

I want to assure everyone here that I will read everything posted that is relevant to the current thread. But I simply don’t have the time right now to respond to every interesting question, every important point raised, and every worthwhile criticism that I read. I have in fact thought a lot about how to participate in these electronic forums effectively, and perhaps the biggest problem I see is the way in which things get out of hand so quickly and the way in which people start talking about everything at once. It is essential, I believe, that we all resist the temptation, which the immediacy of these discussions inevitably produces, to cover too much ground too quickly.

So here is what I propose to do. I am now going to make a general response (of sorts) to something that Anonymous says in a thoughtful post. After that, I will invite Anonymous to pick the most important critical point that he or she would like to explore further, and we can then continue to explore the chosen point, taking one baby step at a time, as we both have time to do so. This may even involve, for all I know, several days between posts on some occasions. In the old days, when I corresponded with someone on an interesting topic, I would reflect on the topic for several days before composing a letter; then I would send my letter through the surface mail, and someone would receive it a few days later. After thinking about what I had written for several additional days, my correspondent would then compose a reply, which I might receive one or two weeks after I had sent my original letter. This, in fact, produced much more thoughtful and fruitful discussions, I believe, than one typically finds in these electronic forums, where you cannot write anything controversial without receiving scores of replies, some of them terribly half-baked (at least in the larger forums), within an hour or so.

So anyway, here was a fascinating paragraph in one of one of your posts, Anonymous:

“Oh, btw. I learned briefly about Calvin in high school (Renaissance, reformation, etc.). No one showed us any bible passages (it was a secular school). I thought it was quite repellant, and that Calvin must have been some sort of fringe loony who must have misunderstood the Bible. Years later when I actually READ the NT, it struck me like a blow to the face. John 6, Romans 9, Acts 4:26-28, etc. The very last thing I was expecting. I don't buy that a straightforward reading won't convince anyone of the truthfulness of this doctrine. I don't buy the 'guileless peasant woman' hypothesis.”

Although I’m not sure what you mean by the “guileless peasant woman hypothesis,” I find the above paragraph intriguing because your experience seems to mirror my own, with this important difference: I never took universalism seriously until I sat down and actually read the New Testament, at which time universalism “struck me like a blow to the face”: Romans 5, Romans 9-11, I Corinthians 15, Ephesians 2, and Colossians 1:15-20, to name a few texts. But I guess my question is: What do you mean by “a straightforward reading” of the New Testament? I have no doubt that, like most Calvinists, you believe that your Calvinist doctrines follow from a straightforward reading of the New Testament. But many Arminians and Christian universalists believe the very same thing, respectively, about their own doctrines. (See, for example, Plantinga Fan’s post in this thread--thanks Plantinga Fan.) I have addressed some of these matters myself in a brief piece entitled “Universalism, Calvinism, and Arminianism: Some Preliminary Reflections,” which is really a truncated version of what I say more fully and accurately in the first chapter of Robin Parry and Christopher Partridge (eds.) Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Eerdmans). As for the relevant post, you can find it either by clicking on the link above or by pasting into your browser the following URL:

So, having now saved some time by directing your attention to something I have already written, I now invite you to pick any point in your critique that you would like to press further or to explore at greater length. Others, of course, are free to comment as well, and I will try to take comments from others into account whenever they seem pertinent to our own discussion. My intention, however, is to stick to one conversion at a time, for in no way can I now carry on several conversations at once. If you do not have time for an extended conversation, I will certainly understand. But if you do have the time (or the inclination) to explore something together in this public forum, I would be delighted to join you in further conversation. In any event, thank you for your thoughtful responses.


Anonymous said...

hi, Dr Talbott, thanks for responding, I don't get a page for
I'll gladly read it, I DON'T want to waste time, and if you've dealt with my issues, great, I want to read it & appreciate you pointing me there.

That is the main problem with this medium - commenters (like me heh) who would rather make statements than read the ground that's already been covered.

What I mean by straightforward - I read scripture verses as falling from one end as regards to precision (such as the 10 commandments) to the other end (say, who should receive baptism, which is much less clear). When I just read Romans 9, without even thinking about Calvin or having grown up in that environment, it seems to be making clear statements about predestination, on the level of 'Thou shalt not commit adultery' - very precise. Because this is not soteriological, I wouldn't hit someone over the head with it, but I do think it is true.

-Robert Fisher

Tom Talbott said...

Thanks for responding, Robert, and thanks for revealing your name. I was a bit worried that some other Anonymous might slip into your place without me even knowing it!

Also, I’m sorry about that link. It seems that I put a period at the end of the URL, and that prevented the link from working. That was one screw up, and here is another: When I spoke of “the link above,” I failed to mention that the relevant link was simply my name at the top of the post. So if you click on my name either in this post or in the previous one, the link should work. Otherwise you will need to erase the period at the end of the printed URL in my previous post.

I do have a further question about your understanding of “a straightforward reading” of Romans 9. You make the important point that individual texts seem to fall along a spectrum with very clear texts at one end of the spectrum and less clear texts at the other end. You then write: “When I just read Romans 9, without even thinking about Calvin or having grown up in that environment, it seems to be making clear statements about predestination, on the level of 'Thou shalt not commit adultery' - very precise.”

Now let us grant, at least for the sake of argument, that Romans 9 sets forth a clear doctrine of predestination. My further question is this: Do you think it also sets forth a clear doctrine of limited election? In other words, does it also teach, in your opinion, the doctrine of reprobation, that is, the idea that God has predestined some to eternal perdition?

Thanks again for your response, Robert, and I’ll look forward to your answer to my further question.