Does God’s Omnipotence Rule Out Free Will?

A number of Calvinist/Reformed thinkers claim that human free will is strictly incompatible with God’s omnipotence. It’s important to note right away that this is distinct from the view that Scripture teaches we do not have free will, which many Calvinists also hold. (The latter claim is absolutely obliterated by D.A. Carson, summarized nicely by William Lane Craig here.)

I’ll begin with a quote from Gordon Clark – a Calvinist and one of the most influential American theologians of the 20th century – who held just such a view. Next, I’ll give a limited account of human free will and Divine omnipotence that, if even possibly true, will defeat Clark’s argument. Finally, I’ll consider two likely objections.

Here‘s the quote from Clark who is writing in the context of theodicy:

The free will argument has been the most popular proposed solution to the problem of evil, but it actually seeks to solve the problem by agreeing to one of the problem’s alternatives: The free-will argument concedes that God is not almighty, for the free will of man can and does frustrate God’s will. Like the unbeliever, the defender of free will is left with a god who may be god, but who is not omnipotent, and therefore he is not and cannot be the God of the Bible. (NOTE: The quote is lightly edited by me because the source contains some obvious copying errors)

The key assertion here is, “[T]he free will of man can and does frustrate God’s will.” We ought to agree that the will of God (the God of the Bible, anyway) cannot be frustrated, defeated, or thwarted. If man’s free will implies God’s will can be frustrated, then it follows Christians ought to side with Clark (and like-minded Calvinists) and abandon belief in man’s free will.

Clark is so confident in this assertion that he doesn’t bother to justify it with any argumentation. But whether or not a good argument exist to back up this assertion, all we must do to defeat it is show that it is possible for man to have free will (sufficient to answer the problem of evil) and yet still be unable to frustrate God’s will. Note that this state of affairs doesn’t necessarily have to be true, or even probable; if it is even logically possible, then Clark’s dismissal of the free-will theodicy is refuted.

To do this, I propose the following as a possible (obviously incomplete) account of God’s omnipotence and man’s free will:

  • (1) Man’s free will consists in his being able to take more than one possible course of morally significant action under a given set of circumstances.
  • (2) God is omnipotent if and only if it is impossible that His will be frustrated.
  • (3) God has ordered his creation from the beginning such that, under any given set of circumstances that prevails for any person at any time, there is no possible course of action open that would frustrate God’s will.

Now, I don’t see any reason to suppose that (1), (2), and (3) can’t simultaneously be true. For clarity, let’s quickly evaluate each statement.

Statement (1) seems to be a perfectly accurate and sufficient construction of “libertarian” free will, which is precisely what proponents of free-will theodicy need to defend and precisely what Calvinists like Clark, White, and Piper deny. In being able to take more than one course of morally significant action, there is a definite possibility that a man takes either a sinful and blameworthy one or a just and praiseworthy one. Note also that nothing in (1) implies that man is able to earn his salvation or turn his heart toward God apart from His grace.

Is there any inherent contradiction in statement (3)? None that I can see. Is there anything in Scripture that rules out God ordering his creation this way? That’s doubtful. If God is powerless to order his creation in this way, that would seem to count against his omnipotence rather than in favor of it. Remember, we only need to give an account that is possible, not one that is necessary or even probable, to defeat Clark’s objection.

Perhaps (2) is the weak link here, because the Calvinist may want to insist that God’s omnipotence consists in something more than the impossibility of being frustrated. He is free to do so, provided he can substantiate the claim in Scripture. But this is the only criterion to which Clark appeals, so it is the only one we need address in order to rebut his claim.

Since Calvinists of Clark’s stripe obviously think there must be something wrong with this account, let me try to anticipate some likely objections.

OBJECTION 1: If more than one possible course of morally significant action is open to a man, then God surely has a preference for which action that man chooses. But then the man could never take the course of action contrary to God’s preference, or else God’s preference (will) would be defeated. So man cannot have free will.

In large part, this objection has been answered already by C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:

[A]nyone who has been in authority knows how a thing can be in accordance with your will in one way and not in another. It may be quite sensible for a mother to say to the children, “I’m not going to go and make you tidy the schoolroom every night. You’ve got to learn to keep it tidy on your own.” Then she goes up one night and finds the Teddy bear and the ink and the French Grammar all lying in the grate. That is against her will. She would prefer the children to be tidy. But on the other hand, it is her will which has left the children free to be untidy. The same thing arises in any regiment, or trade union, or school. You make a thing voluntary and then half the people do not do it. That is not what you willed, but your will has made it possible.

With help from Lewis’s analogy, we can see how to avoid the objection. The mother’s preferred outcome (under the possibilities which she leaves open to the children) and the mother’s will are not strictly identical. In Lewis’s words, it is “in accordance with [her] will in one way and not in another”. Her preferred outcome is not realized, but neither is her will frustrated or defeated. Why should it be out of the question that God’s will be similarly two-dimensional?

Further it would certainly be strange for a Calvinist to claim God’s will must be strictly identical to his every preference, given that Calvinists over the centuries have variously appealed to God’s “sovereign will and moral will, efficient will and permissive will, secret will and revealed will, will of decree and will of command, decretive will and preceptive will, voluntas signi (will of sign) and voluntas beneplaciti (will of good pleasure), etc.” as a way to deal with what is essentially the same problem – the clear difference between what God commands (and therefore presumably wills) and what actually comes to pass. And in this regard, Lewis’s appeal to two aspects of a single will strikes me as far more coherent than the notion of God possessing two (seemingly contradictory) wills.

OBJECTION 2: An appeal to Lewis’s analogy is ad hoc and can only succeed by redefining what is meant by “frustrate God’s will”.

I don’t see how the appeal is ad hoc in the least, since it is taken from the section of Mere Christianity in which Lewis offers a free will theodicy and is an integral part of it. To be sure, the Calvinist might argue that any course of action that isn’t precisely the exact outcome God wills ought to count as frustrating God’s will. But to overturn my account he would have to show that this is the only possible way of defining the phrase “frustrate God’s will”. Also, it’s worth mentioning that the Calvinist who defends the “two wills” position is open himself to the charge of ad hoc reasoning, since there seems to be no reason to argue for it other than avoiding a difficulty in the Calvinist systematic.

The popularity (which Clark acknowledges) of the free will theodicy is not without good reason; choosing one course of action over another is, by the intuition of many, precisely why a person is morally responsible for his or her actions. To deny that a man could have done otherwise is to effectively place him on par with a lion or a parrot – a beast whose “actions” do not extend into the realm of moral judgements.

Theology, Politics, And The Value Of Tradition

Reformed theologian Dr. James White was recently attacked on Twitter over some comments he made about government overreach during the COVID-19 crisis. I don’t care to cover all the details, but it’s notable that even White’s soteriological nemesis opponent Dr. Leighton Flowers is sticking up for him. And as much as I’ve criticized White on this blog, I happen to think his tweets over the past couple weeks have been absolutely spot on regarding the erasure of our Constitutional liberties.

But I also think that White himself sometimes uses the very weapon (in a theological context) against his opponents that tyrannical governments use (in a social/political context) to manipulate and browbeat the people. That weapon is, of course, the degradation of attachment to specific tradition.

White frequently disparages tradition when engaged in theological debate. His open letter to Dave Hunt is a prime example, but White has also accused Dr. Flowers and other non-Calvinists of being blinded by or slavishly devoted to a theological tradition rather than Scriptural exegesis. The implied argument is that tradition is worthless when compared to a careful, rational exegesis of Scripture, so we should be quick to abandon our traditions.

The relevant political parallel is that significant government overreach requires convincing the people that advocating for existing (i.e., Constitutional) restraints on power is just a blind or slavish devotion to tradition. The implied argument is that political traditions are worthless in addressing this or that crisis, and that only a careful, rational (or “scientific”) approach to the problem will do, so we should be quick to abandon our traditions.

White would have us Americans remain firmly committed to our our legal traditions while trying to convince the vast majority of Christians worldwide (i.e., non-Calvinists) to reject their theological traditions. Is this position tenable? White’s certainly not guilty of a contradiction that I can see, but there is undoubtedly something fishy about treating tradition – abstractly considered – so very differently from one realm of human experience to the next.

White’s see-saw attitude toward traditions likely comes from simply never considering what the proper human attitude toward traditions ought to be. (I hasten to add this isn’t a criticism so much as a mere observation, since White isn’t a philosopher.) And while I won’t try to answer that question in a single blog post, perhaps I can sketch how someone with White’s commitments might modify his views to bring his political and theological approach to tradition closer together.

I propose that Protestants who regard Scripture as the only source of doctrinal authority ought to seriously reconsider Sola Scriptura. Instead, we ought to regard Scripture as first in theological matters in the same way that we ought to regard the U.S. Constitution as first in (U.S.) political matters.

What would this entail? Primarily, it would affirm the importance of exegesis; we need to understand the original meaning and intent of Scripture to engage in theology, just as we need to scrutinize the original meaning and intent of the Constitution to engage in statesmanship.

But here’s the kicker: Just as any serious constitutional lawyer must have a healthy understanding of (and some measure of deference to) the existing body of constitutional law, so the serious theologian must have a healthy understanding of (and some measure of deference to) Church tradition.

Notice that “some measure of deference to” doesn’t mean “absolute surrender to”, nor does it mean “place on equal footing with” the respective text. I think Protestants are right to be willing to question theological developments that are handed down and practiced in light of Scripture, just as we had better be willing to question political developments (e.g., Roe v. Wade) handed down and practiced in light of the Constitution itself.

If I thought tradition was equal to Scripture, I’d be a Roman Catholic. And if I thought constitutional law was equal to the Constitution, I’d be a pro-abortion, America-should-invade-the-world, eminent-domain-for-private-profit raging statist. I’m neither, because I recognize that traditions can and do go awry; it is therefore the proper role of reason to systematize and correct our traditions. (However, I am convinced that 2 Thess. 2:15 gives the Catholics a far stronger position – relatively speaking – than anything to which American progressive liberals might appeal in the Constitution.)

But to use reason to systematize and correct tradition, we must live and breathe within that tradition. It must be criticism from the inside, as one who loves and cherishes what his forefathers have handed down – even though it is imperfect.

I regard legalized abortion as an abomination; no doubt there are Protestants who feel much the same about purgatory or Papal infallibility. But in both cases, the choice is not between accepting what is handed down and secession/schism. Dissenting voices can work within a tradition to change its trajectory, while still maintaining unity in a larger sense. However, this third way is absolutely closed off so long as (1) Protestants are unwilling to accept tradition as a valid source of authority and (2) Catholics are unwilling to more critically examine certain traditions and practices.

Total disregard (or outright hatred) for tradition stands in the way of this larger unity. This is how progressive leftists have created such a serious rift in the American political fabric. The same arguably happened to Western Christianity in the Reformation (see Frank van Dun’s excellent paper here). In either case, I think healing and reconciliation – if it is to happen at all – can begin when tradition is restored to it’s proper place.

So let us applaud Dr. James White’s devotion to his American political tradition – imperfect as it is – and pray that he discovers why so many Christians are equally devoted to their imperfect theological traditions, too.

James White Fails Logic 101 on John 6:44

John 6:44 sometimes gets cited by Calvinists who believe it supports their version of monergism or irresistible grace. That’s a mistake, and the best breakdown of the basic logical structure of the verse I have seen is by Douglas Beaumont here. For an account of some variations in the Reformed camp on this verse, along with some excellent commentary, see this post from Orthodox Reformed Bridge. In most cases, even these kinds of obvious errors from Calvinists come from a place of intellectually honest confusion rather than willful ignorance or deceitfulness.

Sadly, this cannot be said of Dr. James White, who is perfectly capable of understanding formal logic at the level of a freshman undergraduate. (This is not hyperbole; no one passed “Intro to Logic” at my university without grasping what White fails to concede.) Further, White has had his errors pointed out again and again.

White has responded by arguing that his approach is to “walk through the text”, as if the logical structure and meaning of the text were not the very issue at stake. He claims he’s been “doing this for decades”, as if repeating the same error over and over – even while reading the original Greek! – somehow makes it not-an-error.

Perhaps worst of all is the implicit solipsism in White’s refusals to acknowledge the clear logical implication of the text. In an age dominated by logical, moral, and legal relativism, the example White sets for his listeners is to reject reason and objectivity and substitute them with his own authority to “exegete” Scripture.

I try to avoid psychologizing on this blog, because it is a tool of Marxists and other polylogists to marginalize their opponents without having to reason with them. In this case however, White is the one implicitly denying that he should have to answer to reason, so I’m going to make an exception. Remember, this is not an argument, just an observation:

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the systematic which leads people to claim that the perfect God of the universe meticulously decrees every act of evil, including the rape of children, would eventually lead to rejecting reason outright.

White Vs. Wilson: Exegetical Foundations (Part 4)

For this installment in the ongoing saga, I’m going to address a single argument made by Dr. James White in this post here, although he’s made similar claims on his Dividing Line program before. The claim is this:

Obviously, if you are going to allege that Augustine adopted “Manichaean” interpretations of various passages of Scripture you have to be able to back this up by defining Manichaean exegetical foundations.

I don’t think this assertion makes any sense at all. White seems to think that adopting someone else’s interpretation of something means that you have to adopt that person’s entire methodology and all the reasoning (i.e., exegetical foundations) behind that interpretation.

But that’s completely false. I can agree with your interpretation of something even if I disagree with how you arrived at that interpretation.

Here’s an example: A hard-left liberal historian might interpret the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as “bad for America” because he sees it as an act of neocolonialist oppression. A hard-right conservative historian who originally supported the war might change his mind and come to agree with the liberal’s interpretation of “bad for America”, even if he does so for a completely unrelated reason – say, because he thinks it will lead to a permanent warfare state that will bankrupt the country.

Now, imagine the conservative in this scenario is totally offended when you tell him that he agrees with the liberal’s interpretation of Second Persian Gulf War. So he starts complaining:

If you’re going to allege that I’ve adopted a hard-left liberal interpretation of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, you have to be able to back this up by explaining the foundations of hard-left liberal political philosophy.

Does the conservative have a point? Only insofar as he doesn’t really understand what you mean when you tell him he agrees with the hard-left liberal. Obviously you don’t mean that he arrived at his conclusion by reasoning from the same political ideology as the liberal; instead, you only mean he arrived at the same conclusion. And it doesn’t do any good to complain that the conservative and the liberal have completely different worldviews. Of course they do; that is totally beside the point. It’s the interpretation that we’re comparing, not the worldviews.

The situation is the same in Wilson’s assessment of Augustine. Wilson does not claim that Augustine and the Manicheans have the same exegetical starting point; rather, he shows that they reached the same conclusions about the unilateral-deterministic meaning of certain verses. Once again, it doesn’t do any good to complain that Christians and Manicheans have completely different systematic theologies/worldviews. Of course they do. It’s the interpretation of certain key scriptures Wilson is comparing, not the systematic theologies.

We should note also that changing one’s mind or adopting another’s interpretation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If the Manicheans were actually right in their interpretation, then we all should adopt that interpretation just like Augustine did. (The problem with taking the position that Augustine was right is precisely what is laid out in Wilson’s thesis – in short, it has no basis in what the early Church taught.)

I don’t see how this distinction is terribly hard to gasp, so perhaps that’s why later on in the article White declares:

Wilson’s writing is opaque, convoluted, and disjointed. This dissertation is terribly written on a simple grammatical and syntactical level.

As someone who reads many dissertations, White must know that PhD candidates often write in a way that presupposes the reader has a great depth of knowledge about the topic already, since dissertations are written primarily for one’s committee and not a popular audience. The emphasis is on substance rather than style. It appears as though White is trying to exploit this reality in order to “poison the well“.

If anyone is interested in seeing for themselves that White’s assessment of Wilson’s writing is absolutely false and uncharitable, you can browse portions of Wilson’s thesis for free here. It is densely academic, but not at all poorly put together.

White Vs. Wilson (Part 3)

After sitting through several hours of Dr. James White responding to Dr. Ken Wilson’s thesis and exposing some of White’s obvious errors in Part 1 and Part 2, it became apparent (to me) that White is either unwilling or unable to mount anything like a clear, coherent critique of Wilson – much less a refutation. It also seemed (again, to me) that White himself was generally aware of this and, after several hours of podcast blustering, he’d have the good sense to move on to any of a hundred different topics about which he has something helpful and constructive to say.

Instead, White has gone full Social Justice Warrior and decided to double down. In this podcast from April 13, White claims to have discovered a clear and obvious example of Christian monergism in the 2nd century! Leighton Flowers has already pointed out that numerous scholars – even of the Reformed persuasion – have come to the opposite conclusion, so it appears that one of two things must be true: Either (1) James White has made an incredible, groundbreaking discovery all on his own (yet White himself can’t understand how those dummies at Oxford were just, like, too dumb or lazy to notice it when they were reading Ken Wilson’s thesis a few years ago); or (2) James White has actually sunk to the level of making wild, baseless claims and duplicitous arguments rather than gracefully back down and admit what a host of Reformed scholars have already conceded.

Before I go on to substantiate (2), I encourage everyone to read The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus for yourself; it’s not very long and it’s not hard to understand. No honest reader will find monergism there unless he’s willing to torture the text to fit certain preconceived notions. (I get that White thinks of his preconceived notions as “very biblical categories” though I have yet to find the passage in my Bible that lays these out with the kind of Aristotelian clarity that White seems to take for granted.)

In this blog post, White proposes examining “key phrases that would rightly lead Dr. Wilson to consider this section as teaching the sovereignty of God, the inability of man, etc. (i.e., concepts consistent with Reformed theology, which he boldly proclaims in his teachings, based upon his research, did not exist in Christianity until Augustine).”:

First we have the assertion that God “ordained the season” or, better, the time, specifically, of the sending of the Son as a ransom for sin (the emphasis upon substitutionary atonement in this epistle is simply wonderful). God ordains times? God ordained the specific time of Jesus’ coming? In light of the fact that every interaction Jesus had with anyone during His ministry involved literally millions of “free will” choices, it is truly hard to understand how anyone can think that God ordains only specific actions in time, but does not decree the fabric of time itself. How could Acts 4:27-28 be true, for example, if the existence of Herod or Pontius Pilate was a fortuitous happenstance? No, if major events in history are to be “ordained” by God, the contexts that lead up to those events must likewise be a part of His perfect plan, including the actions of His creatures.

Notice that White has not done any exegesis of the epistle here; all we have is the cherry-picked phrase “ordained the season”, followed by White’s philosophizing about how major events couldn’t possibly be ordained by God unless we accept the Calvinists’ deterministic version of God’s sovereignty. Read all of chapter 9 (it’s only a single paragraph) in the epistle yourself to see just how much White has tortured the text to try and make it appear as though the author were preaching Calvinistic sovereignty. The “assertion” is no such thing; the phrase is used in passing to make a point that is completely unrelated to any question of God’s sovereignty. Instead, the focus of that passage is “how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred.”

White, who often complains that his opponents have done poor or no exegesis, knows quite well that anyone can take a three word phrase like “ordained the season” out of context and then construct an argument about what he thinks it means. And he also knows that this is the very opposite of honestly approaching a text for the purpose of genuinely understanding the author.

Next, White tries to establish total inability:

[N]otice the phrase, “having demonstrated in past times the inability of our nature to obtain life.” Here is depravity, inability, in the very words of the epistle. This is not libertarianism. This is not “we simply choose not to grasp hold of the life so graciously offered.” No, this is ἀδύνατον, inability, in the very words of the text, and attached to our “nature” (φύσεως).

White is claiming that “inability” attaches to “our nature” without qualification, which if true would indeed strongly imply Calvinistic total inability. But the text does not speak of the inability of our nature simpliciter, but rather of the inability of our nature to obtain life (i.e., to obtain salvation). No Christian – Roman Catholic, Arminian, Orthodox, you name it – denies this claim; it is simply that salvation is by grace, not works.

Here’s why I am forced to conclude, sadly, that White is not merely mistaken but has engaged in downright duplicity: Dr. White is quite rightly regarded as an expert in Biblical Greek, and as such he clearly has sufficient skill as a grammarian to recognize an infinitive phrase when he reads one. So yes, White is correct that ‘inability’ is attached to ‘our nature’, but he completely ignores the infinitive phrase ‘to obtain life’ that modifies ‘inability of our nature’. He is trying to convince his readers that the epistle is describing total inability of our nature full stop rather than the inability (of man as he naturally is) to obtain life. White is obviously a smart guy; he knows better.

It gets even worse for White’s argument, because for some bizarre reason he thinks this rules out libertarianism. In other words, White is asserting that “inability of our nature to obtain life” is the opposite or negation of “able to take more than one possible course of action under a given set of circumstances” (which is a decent, basic definition of libertarian free will).

But obviously that does not follow. Put another way, my being able to take more than one possible course of action under a given set of circumstances does not imply that I am able by my own nature to obtain salvation, any more than it implies I am able to flap my arms and fly around the room. Libertarian free will is not in itself at odds with the total and absolute necessity of grace to achieve our salvation.

Finally, let’s all take a step back and try to remember how the whole dispute got started: Wilson’s Oxford thesis claims that Augustine’s proto-Calvinist teachings were supported by an interpretation of key Scriptures that was previously unknown in Christian writings, but nonetheless did exist in Gnostic and Manichean authors which Augustine himself likely read when he himself was a Manichean; therefore, those aspects of Calvinism which appeal to Augustinian interpretations of Scripture are, perhaps unwittingly but as a matter of fact, built upon an interpretation that originated outside the Apostolic traditions.

That White has resorted to abusing an anonymous epistle in order to “refute” Wilson is telling, very telling indeed.

Is Every Christian A Theologian? (Part 2)

Part 1 ended by arguing that the famous quote which inspired the post equivocates on two senses of the word “knowledge”, which are helpfully distinguished in Greek by epistēmē and gnōsis. This one’s going to be a bit more…out there. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Let’s begin by considering Sextus, a young Roman legionary who wants nothing more than to prove himself virtuous in combat. Before his first battle, Sextus reads all the biographies of past great warriors and studies the tactics of history’s most revered generals. He familiarizes himself with all the intricate details of his and his enemy’s weapons and war machines. He reads and even commits to memory hundreds of soldiers’ war journals that describe the overwhelming sights and sounds of battle and give incredibly accurate and insightful accounts of the impulses, thoughts, and emotions of every sort that a soldier might experience in any number of battlefield situations.

Image source

Can we be certain Sextus will prove to be a decent soldier? I think not even Sextus himself could truly know how he’ll turn out. For despite his incredible knowledge (epistēmē) of soldiery, it’s still entirely possible Sextus is a coward who will turn and flee at first sight of the enemy. In fact, on the balance it seems that if he overvalues epistēmē about soldiering, Sextus could very well turn out to be a much worse legionary than if he had stuck to merely drilling with his cohort.

In that case, we might say Sextus is approaching his martial discipline in a far too individualistic (though not necessarily self-centered) manner. As it turns out, being an excellent legionary might depend more on fulfilling one’s role within the legion than with achieving a certain kind of theoretical mastery. What Sextus really needs is whatever experiential, inward knowledge (gnōsis) is most relevant to his particular role in the legion.

What does this have to do with theology? I think it’s perfectly understandably that Reformed theologians would have a tendency to overvalue theology (epistēmē). To this point, Frank Van Dun has masterfully argued that the Protestant Reformation “reformed nothing but changed everything” by radically individualizing the meaning of the word “conscience”. This new individualism of conscience is really at the center of what split the Church (and Christendom) apart.

Now, I don’t claim the Reformers acted without cause or even valid reasons, nor to I question their motives. Let’s assume that, like Sextus, they genuinely seek to do good. But having made the difficult choice to split the Church, what sort of argument can the Reformed theologian give – even to himself – in order to prove that he is right? I submit that outside of pursuing “correct” theology (i.e., a superior epistēmē), he has no sensible direction to turn, no other conceivable path to vindicate his choice. In other words, the Reformation justifies its individualism by appealing to even more individualism.

Why does it matter whether we insist every Christian be a theologian? Because like it or not, overvaluing epistēmē actually serves to intensify the solipsistic tendencies that have trapped and enslaved American culture (in and out of the Church) for generations.

For the Roman legion, Sextus’ misplaced individualistic focus on epistēmē could be harmful, and in that case the solution isn’t to encourage other legionaries to mimic him; that would only serve to further undermine the necessary unity of the legion. In the same way, I don’t see the Church being strengthened and served by over-emphasizing the kind of individualistic pursuit of theology that has already caused disastrous divisions.

If this line of thought is even remotely intriguing, I highly recommend reading Van Dun; you won’t regret it.

White Vs. Wilson (Part 2)

I’ve just finished reading Ken Wilson’s The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism. The book is intended to be a more accessible summary of his longer Oxford dissertation, but in my estimation is still academic enough to make “popular” a poor descriptor. Contrary to White’s characterization of it as some sort of baseless rant filled with “simplistic error” and “forms of argumentation [that] are stunning – stunningly bad“, I thought the arguments generally focused and well-defined.

The main take-away from reading the book is that, in James White’s first four podcasts purporting to deal with it, he doesn’t actually address any of the substantive claims in Wilson’s book. And though Leighton Flowers’ response to White is generally OK, his format doesn’t really lend itself to demonstrating just how pathetic White’s analysis (so far) has been. To do that, we need to dig into (some of) the details of Wilson’s thesis, point by point.

1. Ground zero of Wilson’s thesis is his view that earlier Augustine scholars misdated certain portions of the Augustinian corpus, because those portions were revisions Augustine made to his own works. This line of argument is interesting and pretty well developed in Foundation, but White doesn’t mention it at all.

2. If Wilson is correct about the dates/revisions Augustine made, then it becomes clear that Augustine did not develop the deterministic aspects of his theology that Calvin, et. al. latched onto until after he began his battle with the Pelagians in 412 AD. That would mean Augustine did not write anything Calvin or Calvinists could meaningfully appeal to until at least 16 years after reading Romans and Galatians. Again, White does not address this point.

3. Therefore, if Augustine did not, as was previously thought, develop his deterministic views shortly after reading Romans and Galatians, a scholar might reasonably wonder, “What did cause Augustine to change his views?” Wilson argues that the timeline suggests, quite plausibly, that Augustine’s shift was prompted by his battle with the Pelagians and therefore more rhetorical/polemical than textual/exegetical. Once again, White does not attempt a reply.

4. Now, here’s where it gets interesting: Wilson contends that in order to more effectively fight off the Pelagian heresy, Augustine adopted a deterministic interpretation of key passages of Scripture in a way that no prior (known) Christian had before. But neither was Augustine the first to offer said deterministic interpretations; Fortunatus the Manichaean, to take only a single example cited by Wilson, had previously argued that John 14:6 and Ephesians 2:3, 8-9 imply unilateral determinism. Reformed theologians likewise have appealed to deterministic interpretations of these same key passages that were first offered by pagans.

White’s responses on this point are several, but each attempt rests on a laughably bad argument. Against Wilson’s claim that Augustine’s deterministic interpretations of Scripture were previously unknown within Christianity, White protests:

 We don’t have a tremendous amount of the early church’s writings. For many of the earliest fathers what we have is because somebody quotes them, partially, at a later point in time. If we didn’t have Eusebius’s church history, we wouldn’t even know some of these people existed. But the reality is we have only a small portion of the extant literature. And so, one of the first things that caught me, when I first started looking through this, was how many times [Wilson claims] “It was the universal view…” The only fair way of actually saying that is: In the extant literature that we have, that specifically addresses this issue, it seems that the predominant view prior to would be this, and then Augustine changed it. That’s fair. This has no desire to be fair, does not even try to be fair. It is completely imbalanced, horrifically so, just way out there.

-Taken here around the 32:50 43:00 mark **NOTE: This has been updated to reflect the correct timestamp. Thank you to commenter RHUTCHIN on the Soteriology 101 site for catching this mistake***

First, either White misspoke several times or he hasn’t quite grasped the meaning of the word “extant”; indeed, the extant literature is precisely all we have. Second, Wilson’s claim is this: “Of the eighty-four pre-Augustinian authors studied from 95-430 CE, over fifty authors addressed the topic [of predestination]. All of these early Christian authors championed traditional free choice against pagan and heretical Divine Unilateral Predetermination of Individuals’ Eternal Destinies”. Sounds pretty unanimous to me.

Third, for Wilson’s conclusion to be “completely imbalanced”, we have to imagine it highly probable that there were many early Christian writers before Augustine who interpreted these passages deterministically, but somehow none of these writings survived. Instead, God – through His meticulous determination of every detail in the universe and in perfect accord with His will – chose to preserve for posterity over fifty early Christian writers arguing the exact opposite (and thirty more who on this issue were silent). This, evidently, is what White considers real scholarship; in reality, it’s just another fallacy.

White tries a different tactic in a separate podcast:

There is no single objective Gnostic doctrine of determinism that is, that could ever, logically or rationally be said to be identical to, parental to, ancestor of, the personal self-glorifying decree of the triune God of the Christian scriptures. That’s the assertion that’s being made. That’s why it’s impossible.

-Taken here around 1:04:50 mark

But, as anyone who has read Wilson’s book will know, Wilson never claims there is a “single objective Gnostic doctrine of determinism”. Nor does any part of his argument depend on this bizarre assertion. Wilson invokes the determinism(s) of Gnosticism in contradistinction to the clear anti-determinism of the early church. This fact is rather inconvenient for White, so he once again offers a fallacious argument.

In yet another podcast, White offers the following:

From a historical perspective, to make a long story short, when [Wilson] says that, basically, if you’re reformed and you believe in the sovereign decree of God, well, that came to you through Calvin, through Augustine, through Manichaeism and Gnosticism… [However] both Manichaeism and Gnosticism have such a fundamentally different worldview and different theological foundations that how can you make that – I mean, to make that connection would require a massive – it would require a demonstration that every exegetical insight, every grammatical insight offered by Reformed theologians from Calvin onward was a brainless, simplistic, [in mock robot voice] “I have to say this because I believe Augustine”. And the vast majority of us today became Reformed before we read Calvin… and we did so on the basis of exegesis.

– Taken here around 24:20 mark

White has really outdone himself on this one, so we’ll have to break it down even smaller. First, it won’t surprise any reasonable person to discover that Wilson makes no claims about how White or anyone else became Reformed. Second, Wilson’s actual argument does not “require a demonstration that every exegetical insight, every grammatical insight offered by Reformed theologians from Calvin onward” is based on slavish devotion to Augustine. White is here attempting to move the goalposts.

Third – and this is key, because on this point White also claims “This kind of simplistic, straight-line stuff is absurd” (here, around 1:02:30), as though Wilson were putting forth a kind of conspiracy theory of ideas with Augustine (or maybe Calvin) right in the middle of the crazy wall. The only sensible reply is to encourage people to read Wilson’s book for themselves and remind White that intellectual history (or history of ideas) is a legitimate academic endeavor that is prone to discover truths that upset people.

Consider a totally unrelated parallel: probably one in 10,000 self-professed capitalists and Marxists alike would consider that the better part of Karl Marx’s economic system was spun out of the economic principle of Adam Smith. This conclusion may shock and disturb, and yet the dedicated historian of economic thought who really understands the development of the labor theory of value has to admit that it’s not an absurd claim by any stretch.

Now, none of this is to say that I’m completely persuaded by Wilson. To the contrary, the book raises (in my mind, at least) a number of questions that may in the end lead to real difficulties for Wilson’s conclusions about how to understand Augustine and his contributions. If I get curious enough, I might buy Wilson’s dissertation and write about it.

However, it appears White, for the time being, is content merely to take these sorts of pot shots at Flowers’ interviews of Wilson rather than address the factual claims or arguments in Wilson’s book. If that changes, this series may have a part 3. In the meantime, everyone should go buy Wilson’s book! It’s short and it’s only $10, what more do you want?