Clary’s 10 Concerns

calvinismIn my “The ‘C’ in Calvinism?” (reproduced here), I set out three difficulties for Calvinistic choice. In his “Calvinism and Choice,” historical theologian Ian Clary lists ten points at which my thinking is in need of correction. In this post, I correct some of the corrections.

Initial Comments

Before we examine Dr. Clary’s concerns, let’s briefly review the problems I pose. Using R. C. Sproul’s articulation and defense of Calvinism as my starting point, I argued, first, that the Sproul account implies that God’s giving irresistible grace to the elect is coercive. For it clearly meets Sproul’s definition of coercion, namely, “imposing choices upon people that, if left to themselves, they  would not choose” (Sproul, Chosen by God, p. 57).

Second, I noted that there is a fatal defect with the mechanism Sproul proposes for God’s guaranteeing our choices. God causally determines our choices by way of determining our desires. And it’s just a fact, he says, that the “will always chooses according to its strongest inclination (desire) at the moment” (p. 54). Sproul calls this ‘Edward’s Law of Choice’ (ELC). Here I argued that ELC is a frail reed; it is either a contentless tautology or it is unprovable.

Finally, I pointed out that ELC, if true, implies that God’s choice of the Eleven (but not Judas) is based on God’s strongest desire—a desire grounded in his nature and over which he has no control. Thus, Judas could have been among the elect (and thus have been saved) only if it is within God’s power to change his nature (and ultimately bring it about that he doesn’t exist). But of course this isn’t possible, in which case Judas can scarcely be blamed for not having believed. We might as well blame him for not being a married bachelor.

Now let’s have a look at Dr. Clary’s ten concerns. It seems to me that very few of them actually interact directly with the theological and philosophical specifics of the problems I pose. They strike me, for the most part, as historical animadversions on my method or approach. But the thing to see is that even if everything Dr. Clary says is true, it won’t show that there are any difficulties for the coercion, content, and control problems I’ve presented.

The Ten Concerns

Here, then, are Dr. Clary’s ten concerns followed by my brief reactions.

1. “[I]t is important to remember that this is not a new question [i.e., the question of whether there is free choice if God is sovereign] and that there are plenty of resources available giving various answers to the problem.

That’s true. I don’t think anyone would deny the point. The salient question, however, isn’t the availability of the resources but rather their sufficiency in solving the problem. Not all proposed solution are successful solutions.

2. “I am not totally sure why Dr. Davis has decided to take on this particular answer (ELC) to the question of free choice.”

This is how Sproul approaches the question. I begin with him not only because he is highly accessible, but because (unlike so many defenders of Calvinism) he doesn’t shy away from the details. Yes, on Calvinism, God is said to determine our choices and actions. But how, precisely, does that go? One cannot help but be grateful to Sproul here. He isn’t content to leave things at the level of vague, pietistic mystery. He gives us the concrete specifics of how Calvinistic choice could (and in his mind actually does) work. This is admirable.

3. “ELC is not the only answer given in the history of Christian theology to the problem of choice and sovereignty. In fact, it is not one that all Reformed people buy into. Even those Reformed theologians who do, also buy into other arguments.”

Here I’d be glad to hear about these “other arguments.” The problems I pose are obviously directed at versions of Calvinism relevantly similar to Sproul’s—those that cleave to something like Edward’s Law of Choice. If “Reformed people” don’t all “buy into” ELC, that’s fine. They can then suggest alternative mechanisms—of equal specificity and explanatory power—for how God might determine our choices and actions without abrogating our freedom. Dr. Clary hints that these alternatives are available, but he doesn’t single out any one of them as preferable to the Sproul-Edwards model.

4. “[W]hat is Calvinism? Is the Edwardsean version of Calvinism the only one? Is it the true one? Is Dr. Sproul’s version? Is Calvinism even a legitimate term to use? There are a host of assumptions in Dr. Davis’ essay that make readers such as myself wish that the sophistication of the philosophical language had given way to a more sophisticated understanding of the theological issues.”

The request here is for “a more sophisticated understanding of the theological issues.” However the questions asked are basically historical—e.g., “What is Calvinism?” Thus, answering the questions won’t lead to a “more sophisticated” theological understanding. At best it would give you a fuller historical framework. But of course my post is meant as theological and philosophical criticism—not historical survey. In any event, if you read Sproul’s treatment of Calvinistic choice, you’ll see that my discussion parallels his own in terms of its use of philosophical language and concepts, and is carried out at the same level of theological sophistication.

We might put the matter another way. To ask “How does one define Calvinism?” isn’t an argument. It’s a question. If you answered that question, you might get a premise you could use in a larger argument against the coercion, content, and control problems I pose. But you can’t create difficulties for those problems simply by asking a question.

5. “[W]hy use a secondary source to tell us about so-called “ELC”?… when telling us about Edwards’ views it would be better to use Edwards’ own work.”

The answer is quite simple. I’m not doing Edwards exegesis. Hence I’m not doing Edwards exegesis using a secondary source. I’m examining Sproul’s views. To be sure, one of Sproul’s principles is labelled ‘Edward’s Law of Choice’ because he considers it Edwardsean. It doesn’t follow that in examining ELC–as it’s stated by Sproul–I must involve myself in Edwards exegesis. (Certainly, Sproul himself doesn’t engage in it.) That’s what a historian like Dr. Clary might do if he wanted to see how faithful Sproul was to Edwards. However, that’s no part of my project. My interest is in whether ELC is true and reasonable. Dr. Clary cites no passage from Sproul or Edwards to suggest that it is either.

I guess one question I have for Dr. Clary is this. Do you think ELC is true? Why or why not? What about my argument that ELC is either tautologous or unprovable? What do you think of the various premises I employ in that argument? I think that is the level at which my argument needs to be engaged.

6. “Dr. Davis, in his discussion of the power of contrary choice, seems to assume libertarian free will (LFW). This is not surprising, as most contemporary evangelical philosophers hold to this view (think Plantinga). This assumption contrasts LFW with Reformed theology.”

Actually, none of my arguments depends on the assumption of libertarianism. All of my points are made using premises acceptable to Sproul—e.g., his definition of ‘coercion’, his use of ELC, and so on

7. “Dr. Davis at a number of points refers to the Reformed view as ‘determinism’. This is an unfortunate use of terms and does not accurately reflect the way the Reformed tradition views itself on these matters.”

The term ‘determinism’ appears only once in my post. It occurs in this sentence: “If Edward’s Law of Choice is true, free will and determinism are compatible.” Here I use ‘determinism’ to mean no more and no less than what Sproul means when he says, “every choice is free and every choice is determined” (Chosen by God, p. 54).

8. “Dr. Davis  suggests that Calvinism…makes no sense of Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37.”

Here is the passage: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” Dr. Clary has much to say about my (mishandling) of this passage. He says that Jesus is speaking in his human nature, that God might have two wills  (Piper), and so on. But strictly speaking, this is all unnecessary. The crucial thing to see is that my comments on Matthew 23:37 play no role at all in any of my three arguments. They serve merely as a dramatic hook to draw the reader into the thrill of the debate before turning to the main event: the detailed and powerful views of R. C. Sproul.

9. “Dr. Davis takes up the Old Testament figure of Gideon as an example of the power of contrary choice. Gideon was given a command to knock down his father’s idols in Judges 6:25, 27, but only did so at night out of fear.”

My use of this illustration is actually a minor, almost throw away point in my overall argument against ELC. I pose a dilemma. Either ELC is informatively vacuous (like the proposition ‘all bachelors are unmarried males’) or it is unprovable. How will Sproul or Clary show that every choice for every person (past, present, and future) has always been based on one’s strongest desire?  That’s the dilemma. And Dr. Clary doesn’t deny either horn. So it would be interesting to hear from him whether he actually believes ELC and how he thinks it can be defended.

As a possible biblical counter-example to ELC, I suggested Gideon’s choice. But notice how I frame the point: “there are cases where we seem to choose contrary to our strongest desire.” Seem. Now if that turns out to be false, it is of no matter. My dilemma will still hold. So the reader shouldn’t think that anything actually hinges on the example. Still, I did say that you can’t avoid the force of the counter-example by claiming that Gideon didn’t act contrary to his strongest desire; rather, he acted according to a new strongest desire (e.g., to obey God). Hence ELC is intact.

My point here was that this move is entirely question-begging. For how do we know that was Gideon’s strongest desire unless we are assuming a priori that the fact the he did obey the Lord is proof that this was his strongest desire? That simply presupposes what hasn’t yet been proved—namely, ELC itself.

Dr. Clary responds: “This is not question-begging, it is simply the relationship between one’s desire and action. GPI [i.e., Gideon’s Powerful Impulse] overrode his fear and enabled him to follow the command.” But consider: Dr. Clary wants us to think of this powerful, overriding impulse of Gideon’s as his new strongest desire. But how do we know that it is? How do we know that he’s not acting on a weaker desire here? Dr. Clary’s answer is that it “enabled him” to obey. But that’s just a restatement of ELC. Gideon acted the way he did because it was his strongest desire to do so. And that, I’m afraid, is question begging in the present dialectical context.

10. “I am not sure that Dr. Davis has proved the point that coercion (in the sense of regeneration, which is really what we are talking about) violates freedom. The philosophical idea of “compatibilism” gives us the categories to articulate how two seemingly opposed propositions are both true.”

The sense of ‘coercion’ I have in view is given by Sproul’s definition. If you impose on my argument some other understanding, then of course all bets are off. You might have a point, but it will be little more than a straw man if directed against what I call the ‘coercion problem’. Dr. Clary hints that ‘compatibilism’ might be used to show that free will and coercion are consistent. Perhaps so; but then again, perhaps not. I think we would have to see his proof on this score.


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