Saturday, May 28, 2011

Fear o' Hell II: John Casey's Critique of Calvinism

Do Double-Predestination and Total Depravity Still Make Any Sense?

The Sorcerer's Apprentice, John Calvin

Question 12: What are the decrees of God?

Answer: God's decrees are the wise, free, and holy acts of the counsel of his will, whereby, from all eternity, he has, for his own glory, unchangeably foreordained: Whatsoever comes to pass in time, especially concerning angels and men.

Question 13: What has God especially decreed concerning angels and men?

Answer: God, by an eternal and immutable decree, out of his mere love, for the praise of his glorious grace, to be manifested in due time, has elected some angels to glory; and in Christ has chosen some men to eternal life, and the means thereof: and also, according to his sovereign power, and the unsearchable counsel of his own will (whereby he extends or withholds favor as he pleases), has passed by and foreordained the rest to dishonor and wrath, to be for their sin inflicted, to the praise of the glory of his justice.

Question 14: How does God execute his decrees?

Answer: God executes his decrees in the works of creation and providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will.

-- From the Westminster Shorter Catechism

A thought experiment...

Suppose that you have been found guilty of a capital offense and that you are in prison on death row with ninety-nine other guilty people.

Before your execution day comes up the governor makes an announcement. According to his sovereign power, and the unsearchable counsel of his own will (whereby he extends or withholds favor as he pleases), he has decided to grant you clemency and spare your life. The other ninety-nine are still consigned to death.

Bear in mind, the clemency granted to you had absolutely nothing to do with your merits in comparison to those of the other prisoners. It had nothing to do with your repentance, behavior in prison, amends, or restitution that you may have made in regard to the crimes you have committed. This decision was made by the governor in an inscrutable fashion, for reasons known only to him and which appeared entirely arbitrary to everyone else. In fact, if you had claimed any merits on your own behalf, or attempts at making amends at all, it probably would have been held against you. The governor hears petitions from no one who calls out to him on their own, only from those he draws to himself.

As you collect your belongings and pass through the gates of the prison into freedom, honestly, would you be crying tears of joy and gratitude that you had been spared the fate that still awaits the other ninety-nine? Would you swear your undying love to the governor and praise him for all eternity for showing you such kindness and mercy?

Or, rather, would you feel a certain quickening in your step as you leave, considering yourself merely lucky to have been the beneficiary of a strange, cruel and capricious whim on the part of a disciplinarian but volatile governor? That you had somehow escaped from the clutches of an unpredictable despot who gets a sense of satisfaction out of levying forms of justice and mercy that are understandable only to himself?

If you answered to the former, I suppose you would feel comfortable within the sect of Calvinism.

What if you were one out of ten instead of one out of ninety-nine? Would it change your answer? What if it was one out of two?

Well, considering how narrow the Calvinists consider the gate to be, the scenario would probably be more like one in a thousand. Maybe even one in a hundred-thousand. I've noticed that those who profess to believe the most in grace alone tend also to believe in the stingiest application of it.

What if the crime that you were guilty of was hereditary? It was for something a distant forefather had done, and was no fault of your own? Same answer?

What if the governor, rather than just letting you walk, actually punished his own beloved son in your place? Would you still be praising him for his glory, or would you think that he was a sociopath?

What if everyone was in the prison? According to the governor, we all deserve death for this inherited crime. Isn't it merciful then, for the governor to let some of us live, when none of us deserve to...?

I know, I know, elements of this can be seen in Catholic theology as well... We believe in the Fall, Original Sin, the necessity of grace for salvation, and that Jesus died to take away the sins of the world... We even have a place within our theology for predestination and foreknowledge... After all, St. Augustine was one of ours, we recognize Augustinianism when we see it, and what is Calvinism, really, other than Augustinianism taken to the nth degree?

There is an obsessive fixation within Protestantism, however, and within Calvinism in particular on the Koine Greek word dikaiosune (righteousness) and all of its variations along with an emphasis on the polemical texts in the gospels and Pauline letters that are used in regard to election and chosenness (taken out of the original historical context of the disputes between Jews and Christians and between Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians) that negates much of the broader theme of salvation history to be found throughout the Old Testament and New Testament.

All that talk in the Old Testament about taking joy out of contemplating, studying, and following God's laws? All that talk about the law being very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out (Deut. 30-14)? The way the Calvinists read Paul, God's giving of the law was like a father catching his son smoking and subsequently forcing him to smoke a whole pack of cigarettes in order to break him. In other words, the law was meant to convict man of his sin and show him his utter helplessness.

All of the Bible's exhortations to good works, looking after the needs of the widow, orphan, and stranger, of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, of Jesus' own words to the young man who asked what a man needed to do to attain eternal life, to the biblical exhortations to hate evil and love good, to let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream - All of this is subsumed in a system in which God in his wrath is determined to crush and destroy any puny and presumptuous human who dares to take credit for any good that he does... Even though that man's nature, faith, and fate were set up and predetermined by God from the beginning of all time anyway.

Now, if you were to tell a pair of Calvinists that you could never believe in such a monster god, they'd glance at each other, exchange a knowing smile, and one would likely turn back to you and say "I know." You see, they know that the mind of the unregenerate man isn't capable of understanding it. As for themselves, they are fine with it, because a potter has the right to do whatever he wants to do with his clay vessels, doesn't he? Who are you, O man, to answer back?

If you tell them that their theology makes God the author of sin and negates man's free will, they would respond, "Not at all. Man has free will, but due to his depravity his inclination is toward sin, so his free will can only lead him into sin and rebellion against God."

If you were to tell me that these answers were unsatisfactory in answering the charges, I would agree.

My son has a sandbox in which he keeps his toy soldiers. He gives them orders, he moves them about, he builds and takes apart their worlds; everything happens according to his plans. According to his own decrees, for good reasons known only to him, he decides which ones will live and which ones will die. Do his toy soldiers love him? In his own mind, I suppose he can imagine that they do, but in reality they are inanimate. If they could respond to him, it is more likely that they would merely fear him rather than love him, and any love expressed by them would be feigned. He has no real relationship with them.

But we each are capable of having a relationship with God in which we respond to him or refuse to respond, saints and sinners alike, saved and lost.

It's important to be as fair as I can about this before going further. As obnoxious and un-Christian the Calvinist doctrines of Double-Predestination (God has once for all determined, both whom he would admit to salvation, and whom he would condemn to destruction) and Total Depravity (every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin and, apart from the efficacious or prevenient grace of God, is utterly unable to choose to follow God or choose to accept salvation as it is offered) are to me, I must admit that they have an ironclad logic to them and plenty of scriptural support, as long as the scriptures are being read through a certain type of lens - as long as you accept certain anachronistic presuppositions that read 16th century European concerns back onto 1st century Near Eastern texts.

The definitions of some of these terms can be subtle as well, and are not always congruent with the way they sound at first hearing. For example, Total Depravity does not mean absolute or complete depravity. It doesn't mean that man is as bad as he can be. To say "total" is to say that the corruption extends to all aspects of the human personality in an extensive way, not an intensive way. It maintains that every part of man is corrupt, even if they are not completely corrupt. Under this doctrine, it is recognized that there are still good things that a person can do out of "common grace."

Nevertheless, Total Depravity assumes that man is dead in his sins and that the "good" that he does is self-centered and egoistic, not God-centered. To quote from here: "This means that his nature is so thoroughly corrupted by sin that it is incapable of producing anything good. There is nothing which the sinner can do which is pleasing in the sight of God. His heart is dead."

Is this credible? Is this supportable from what we know today about human nature? In the field of psychology, we have come a long, long way from the armchair theorizing of quacks like Sigmund Freud. Today we recognize that the capacity for good and evil is built into every one of us from our ancestral past. We have proclivities towards both altruism and selfishness. Humankind is not totally depraved. Neither is human nature a neutral blank slate which can only express evil if evil is learned from others. Both good and evil are coded into our DNA. We are capable of selfless acts of kindness and acts of utter brutality. We tend to base our relationships on reciprocity, and our altruism is usually directed towards kin and others we can categorize as being part of our in-group, and hostility and team aggression are directed towards those we consider strangers or part of an out-group. We are capable of enormous empathy, but we also have an inbred ability to turn it off and to treat others as less than human.

There are some evolutionary atheists like Richard Dawkins who might agree in a certain sense with the notion of Total Depravity, arguing that our altruistic characteristics are motivated at their very bedrock by selfishness. Other, like Frans de Waal, would be likely to disagree.

Take the example of a firefighter who lays down his life as part of his job. Is he selfishly motivated by the notion of posthumous honor and glory? Most probably not... What if he died in the service of rescuing someone of a different race or ethnicity? Did he die trying to unconsciously rescue his own set of recognizable (kin) genes? Again, probably not. Experience shows us that some people, even non-religious people, are capable of true goodness and altruism, with no self-serving motivations behind them.

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned Cambridge University scholar John Casey's book After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. He had an interesting take on some of these matters. In a chapter titled 'Predestination: Augustine to Calvin and Beyond' he takes on Total Depravity in particular....

Casey makes mention of when Erasmus of Rotterdam ('On the Freedom of the Will') took up his pen in a debate with Martin Luther ('On the Bondage of the Will').

Erasmus had, in fact, argued only for a modest contribution of the will to human goodness, and had allowed an extremely limited scope for the will's freedom. He asserted that if the will is simply enslaved, as Luther suggests, and if all human sins are predetermined, there would be no point in passages of scripture that seem directly to call people to repentance. For instance "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15) and Paul's adjuration: "Let us cast off the works of darkness" (Rom 13:12) along with Paul's demand for a "sloughing off of the old man and his acts." How, Erasmus asks, can we be ordered to throw off and strip off our old bad selves if we really cannot do anything for ourselves at all? Erasmus proposes a "middle way" in which the human will is not completely passive, but cooperates with God's grace. Just as reason had been dulled but not extinguished in those who lack grace, so "it is probable that the power of the will has not been absolutely extinguished in them either, but only rendered incapable of doing good."

Luther's rage at the middle way of Erasmus (which would later be confirmed as Catholic orthodoxy by the Council of Trent) may testify to his almost psychotic sense of sin and of personal impotence in the face of the perfection of God. It also shows, though, that he had a very good instinct for the way things were going. The Catholic Church, while keeping predestination in theory, would be in practice ready to soften it and adapt it to more humane instincts—indeed, to something like humanism.
Casey then moves on to describe how John Calvin's views built upon, and in some ways differed from, Augustine's.

It is possible that total depravity is even more certainly a doctrine of Calvin's than it is of Augustine. This is because Calvin does not seem to share Augustine's vision of evil as the privation of good. In the Confessions Augustine writes that all things are good even if they are corrupted. Man's being consists in his enjoyment of God's goodness; so if his corruption is so total as to deprave utterly, he would cease to exist... So Augustine's philosophical theory about the good does —just— mean his picture of human depravity is not quite as thoroughgoing as Calvin's. But it is a close-run thing.

Calvin does add something to Augustine's account of original sin and human depravity. For him man is totally depraved. Yet for Calvin the sense of impotence and even of despair that the conviction of sin engenders, the misery of the human predicament and the sense of a fallen world, are not purely negative, because he sees them as the starting point of our knowledge of God. "For, as a veritable world of miseries is to be found in mankind, and we are thereby despoiled of living raiment, our shameful nakedness exposes a teeming hoard of infamies. Each of us must, then, be so stung by the consciosuness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God."
Calvin's views are also contrasted to those of Thomas Aquinas.

In the same Augustinian spirit, Calvin concludes that the whole of human nature is overwhelmed by original sin "as by a deluge," so that all which proceeds from man "is to be imputed to sin." It is not just the brute appetites that need to be obliterated, but the whole of man's corrupted heart and mind - indeed, his whole rebellious spirit. Calvin criticizes Plato and Aristotle for believing that reason, though clogged and sometimes conquered by the senses, nevertheless "like a queen governs the will." He rejects utterly their conviction that to be virtuous is, in the end, a matter of free human choice.

Thomas Aquinas had upheld a doctrine of predestination that looks very like that of Augustine. He taught that "some people God rejects" and that this rejection can properly be called "reprobation." There is hardly any softening — for instance, Aquinas says that reprobation does not indicate God's foreknowledge only, for as predestination includes the will to confer grace and glory, so reprobation "includes the will to permit someone to fall into fault and to inflict the penalty of damnation in consequence." Nevertheless, the reprobate abandon grace out of a free decision of their own. Within the general scheme of God's providence Aquinas allows a free choice of the individual will.

It is a tiny concession, but one not to be found in Calvin who (as we shall see) will teach the stern doctrine of "double predestination" — i.e., that God not only determines some souls, before their creation, to eternal bliss but a consigns others, in the unsearchable counsel of his own will, to everlasting torment. (Calvin's Catholic critics accused him of teaching that God actually wills the sins of the damned.) Calvin reserved some of his harshest strictures for those Catholic theologians who even hint that man can, of his own free will, cooperate with God's grace, or that he does, sometimes, even if ineffectively, "somehow seek after the good." He quotes with approval St. Augustine's insistence, in his reply to Julian of Eclanum, that without the Spirit the will is not free. Not even one single good work is possible without grace.
Casey than briefly explicates Calvin's central doctrines.

Since man's will is so corrupted, he actually sins willingly. So, although the will is not free, and man is subject to the necessity of sinning, his very wickedness ensures that he sins with gusto and determination—hence, guiltily. So he sins of necessity, but without compulsion.

It obviously follows that good works avail us nothing — and Calvin, while
grimly praising Augustine because "he admirably deprives man of all credit for righteousness, and transfers it to God's grace," complains nevertheless that Augustine does not go far enough, since he "subsumes grace under sanctification, by which we are reborn in newness of life through the Spirit."

Calvin moves without apparent hesitation to the conclusion that defines "Calvinism" — since man is totally depraved, and since only God's grace, freely granted, can save him, a grace that includes the gift of faith in Christ, which is both necessary and sufficient for salvation; and since God has known from all eternity whom he would chose to favor with his grace and whom he would pass over, it follows that all human beings are, from all eternity, predestined by God either everlasting bliss or everlasting torment — the notorious doctrine of double predestination comes in. As we saw, the Roman Church would put the darkest construction on Calvin's doctrine — that God does not simply permit the sins of those who will (as he foresaw) be damned —he actually wills them. Not only did he permit Adam to sin, he willed it. He furthermore wills every actual sin.

There is no doubt but that the doctrine of original sin, grace, and predestination as developed by Augustine and Calvin has a magnificent logic. If man's nature is indeed as depraved as the doctrine of original sin entails, so that moral evil proceeds not from the appetites and passions overcoming reason — as Plato and Aristotle thought — but in a taint that runs through all of human nature, then it is entirely plausible to conclude that from human nature alone nothing good can proceed. Hence, any good in man comes from the free granting of God's grace, which none of us merits. Therefore we are, through the unsearchable counsel of God's will from all eternity, either of the elect or of the reprobate, and if of the latter, we are condemned to an eternity of torment through a decision God took before time began.
Finally, Casey gets to the heart of the matter as to whether or not this view of Total Depravity holds water.

Post-Enlightenment pictures of human nature have tended to move toward an Augustinian pessimism. At any rate, our being in the grip of forces that we can neither acknowledge nor control is an idea to be found, in one way or another, in Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. Augustine's account of concupiscence also finds echoes in modern philosophy. Sartre finds sexual love to be a locus of conflict, a source of impossibly self-contradictory desires. In desiring another, I want to reduce him to his flesh, to abrogate his freedom, convert his subjectivity into an object of my own will. My means of achieving this is to evoke in the Other sexual desire for myself... This has analogies with what Augustine says of concupiscence, and why he finds in the involuntary movement of the sexual parts in erotic love a deformity, a product of original sin.

But can evidence of perversity, irrationality, the power over us of unconscious forces support a doctrine of human nature since the Fall as fundamentally depraved?

In consequence of the horrors of the twentieth century it became quite common for people to say that they had rediscovered a belief in original sin. But did they really mean that they see human nature as so depraved that we cannot possibly bring about any good through our own efforts? For we can bring contrary evidence — of a mother acting with heroic self-sacrifice to save her child; of people sacrificing their lives for the good of their country, of those whose sense of justice overcomes self-interest; those with a generous love of fine qualities in other people; others who struggle with increasing success to overcome childish jealousies and resentments.

In pointing to such things, we need not be falling into some optimistic trap, a Panglossian view of human nature...

Were our understanding as depraved as Augustine and Calvin suggest, it is very hard to see how we could know our own depravity. They argue, of course, that we see our own blackness when we contrast ourselves with God. But this does not help their argument. Whatever our conviction of the supreme goodness of God, it does not follow that we have a clear idea of the profound depravity of man. Even though God be infinitely superior to us in goodness, that does not help us to understand how, say, a moment of irritation with someone is no different in its gravity from mass murder (as Newman appeared to suggest). Nor would the fact that God is entirely just show that we cannot see some human acts as more just than others. The very idea of depravity, of perversity, depends on our being able to think of some actions and motives as being better than others.

We could not understand human actions at all unless we were capable of seeing some people as acting courageously and honorably, others as moved by spite or envy, of distinguishing between kindness and sadism, generosity and mean spiritedness. We know that some people are more dominated by irrational fears than others, that some are more mature and others more childish. Some can subordinate their own urgent desires to the common good, can defer gratifications, can see a situation as it really is.

At any rate, some of us— probably, most of us — can exercise some of these virtues some of the time and fail in them at other times. If we acknowledge that for practical purposes — for the purpose of seeing intelligible patterns in human action —this is true but nevertheless add "But it is not strictly true, for we are helplessly depraved," then that remark and others like it would become simply a sort of incantation or a cog unattached to a wheel. It would be like saying "I have no real belief in the solidity of physical objects" while unconcernedly sitting on a chair or mounting a staircase.

If we accept that we can in practice understand the moral distinctions that we make all the time, but insist that these have no ultimate validity in theory, it is unclear what we are doing. It seems that we are denying that any evidence can come to bear. But this again would seem to be paying lip service to an idea that has no actual purchase on our experience.

Augustine based his belief in human depravity not primarily on experience but on revelation. The support for the idea that he found in experience — especially in sexual desire — was a sort of optional extra. But even revelation cannot make the idea of total depravity ultimately intelligible if does not answer to our experience, and, indeed, if it conflicts with it.

Augustine's picture of fallen nature has power and persuasiveness, but it can never escape its inherent paradoxicality. To refuse to distinguish between different degrees of goodness, or virtue, or benevolence in human motivation makes it impossible in the end to understand human actions at all.


crystal said...

Hi Jeff,

Are you not as busy at work now?

Most of the time I am pretty depressed about human nature, but I can't believe in tital depravity. As the guy you quoted wrote, it doesn't make practical sense. - we live our lives as if we have some choice about being a little better than the default position, whether we really do or not, and I don't think we'd feel that way if we were totally depraved.

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

I get windows of opportunity every now and then. :-)

I like the Chesterton quote that goes something along the lines of "To believe in original sin, all I have to do is read the morning newspaper." But I don't buy into total depravity either.

I also get frustrated with people who claim to believe in predestination and that everything happens out of necessity, but spend all their time striving to convince people of it.