To tu quoque or not to tu quoque?

Or I might equally call this: Why pinching an Alvin Plantinga argument to one problem and applying it to another isn’t really good enough!

Those of you who follow the exchange between Arminians and Calvinists will no doubt be aware of the objections against compatibilism. One chief concern with compatibilism (as opposed to the various libertarian accounts of human freedom) is simply to ask why God does not choose more people to ‘freely’ love him (as compatibilists define freedom). This is an argument very well articulated by Jerry Walls so I would suggest listening to his lecture called ‘What’s wrong with Calvinism’ to hear it from a great Arminian philosopher. [1]

Personally, I am yet to hear one single good response to this objection from any Calvinist. In fact, recent responses appear to be admitting that there is to be no rational reply at all and, even more than this, that we ought not expect one either!

In a recent post Calvinist blogger Derek Rishmawy expressed his response. After giving some quotes from Thaddeus Williams’ book ‘Love, Freedom, and Evil’ he summarizes:

“In other words, just because you can’t see a good enough reason for God to call and liberate those that he does and not others, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a good enough reason. It’s just one that you can’t see. But you’re not God. You’re not the counter-intuitive Lord of all Creation who chose to redeem the world through assuming human nature, frailty, and the weight of sin and dying on a cross in order to rise to new life. That’s not the sort of thing you would come up with on your own. So maybe, just maybe, God’s ways in salvation are going to be a bit beyond us. That doesn’t mean they’re not true, though.” [2]

This is Rishmawy’s explanation of what Williams calls the “cognitive gap” response. Williams is borrowing this response from Alvin Plantinga’s classic response to the logical problem of evil where Plantinga points out that one would have to know that there is no good or just reason for God to allow for suffering and evil in the world before logically concluding that God does not exist (as per Epicurus and Hume).

So Williams and Rishmawy appear to be claiming they can use this to answer this problem (which Williams calls the “sparcity objection”).

What they appear to have missed in Plantinga’s argument is that he did not stop there. He then proceded to provide a logically valid hypothesis for why there might be suffering and evil in the world (the classic argument from free will). Now I notice that Williams (at least so far as Rishmawy summarizes him) and Rishmawy don’t do this. Instead they end up envoking mystery as a virtue in the face of an extremely perplexing problem which seems to be in direct conflict with the God revealed in the Bible (as Calvinists claim to believe in). Plantinga’s response works precisely because he shows that there are reasonable responses to the logical problem of evil and conditions, under which, suffering might make some sense. In doing so he demonstrates that there is not necessarily any such logical contradiction in affirming God’s omnipotence, his omnibenevolence, and the existence of suffering and evil. He shows that the three affirmations do not contain a logical contradiction at all. These Calvinists appear to be doing no such thing with their mere appeal to mystery and cognitive distance between humans and God.

We all know that arguments from intuition can have their problems but are arguments which glory in their counter-intuitiveness to be given an uncritical welcome? It sure sounds like some Calvinists glory in such. Notice that God is now emphasized as the “counter-intuitive Lord” where I guess we just have to admit that our ways are not his ways.

So God loves all human beings (feel free to cite your favourite biblical verse) yet he chooses only a very small percentage to save? And yet when we ask why the reply is that we cannot understand God sufficiently to answer this question. These Calvinists often write endless multi-volume systematic theologies on how God has made it possible to know about the nature of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ (among many other highly complex Christological matters), God’s communicable attributes and his incommunicable attributes, the essential nature of humans, sin, atonement, miracles, and the resurrection ad infinitum. All these complex theological problems can be answered rationally so say the Calvinists albeit with some differences of opinion. But when it comes to a simple question a child might well ask as to why God chooses so few for salvation they have to “punt to mystery” (to borrow from Jerry Walls).

I also do not think that either Rishmawy or Williams have really seen the force of this argument. Certainly not the way in which Jerry Walls presents it. As he has said:

“Now consider how difficult it is to make sense of such passages [Walls has been looking at biblical passages where God pleads with people to repent and expresses saddness at their unwillingness to do so] if a compatibilist view of freedom is assumed. On this assumption God has determined his people to refuse to repent, for whatever people willingly do is what they have been determined to do. Moreover, God could, if he wanted to, cause his people to gladly turn from their sins and to joyously worship him. He could do this by causing them to have the appropriate desires so they would willingly repent and obey him. But if God has chosen not to do this, what do we make of his apparent desire that his people repent? What do we make of his sending his prophets over and over if the people can’t really repent, given that God has determined them to remain hard-hearted and unwilling to repent?”

‘Why I am not a Calvinist’ by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell pp.117,8

It is not just that we have a mystery here. Instead we have a theology which simply no longer makes any sense of the biblical narrative. God is single-handedly (monergistically) responsible for the hard hearts of unrepentant people and yet he endlessly expresses his frustration at this and even saddness when they fail to repent. This is a complete logical contradition. How can God genuinely want the unrepentant to repent and yet be monergistically in control of whether they repent or not? The Calvinist philosopher Paul Helm made a very astute observation when he critiqued Jim Packer’s Calvinism where he used the word antinomy to refer to mysteries in the face of such problems. Helm asks that if we resort to mystery in the face of a logical contradiction then how do we know the difference between a real contradiction and an apparent contradiction? [3] Exactly the same ought to be asked of Williams and Rishmawy. But then perhaps their reply would be the same as Calvinist Edwin Palmer when he said:

“He [the Calvinist] realizes that what he advocates is ridiculous… The Calvinist freely admits that his position is illogical, ridiculous, nonsensical, and foolish.”

‘The Five Points of Calvinism’ p.85

No doubt feeling a little guilty of punting to mystery, Rishmawy’s retort to such a practice was to point out that we all appeal to mystery at some point in our thinking. Hence the title of this post. Not content with appeals to mystery, we now have the use of a logical fallacy to support it! It is not a virtue to point out that others have problems in their worldviews as a justification for the existence of my own. The reason for that ought to be obvious. If that were a legitimate argument then you could make any worldview virtuous on this basis and preclude it from rational scrutiny. That way lies complete madness.

I would also point out that appeals to mystery by Christians seriously undermines their classical approach to evaluating other religions as not true. Christians will often appeal to logical problems in other religions in order to attempt to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity but if Christians persist with this mystery / cognitive gap approach to the knowledge of God then should they not give such a luxuary to others as well? Would a Christian find it convincing if a Hindu believed in many gods and one god at the same time? Surely they would want to reason with them. They should either accept Advaita Vedanta or some form of monotheism. But what if they tell the Christian that just because such concepts do not make sense logically doesn’t mean to say that both cannot be true at the same time? This is often the solution to the problem of god(s) being personal or ultimately impersonal as well. Where would the Christian go with these discussions now? I have talked to many Buddhists about the rationality of their worldview and often they will simply smile. They are not being patronizing (I don’t think) but rather their smile suggests that human reason is not capable of sufficiently causing them to doubt their beliefs or the teachings of the Buddha. If reason be usurped by appeals to mystery then why should Christians (or more specifically Calvinists) be the only ones to get a ‘get-out-of-logic-free’ card with this kind of strategy?

This modern-day mystical Calvinism, if taken to its logical conclusion, offers nothing but a gaping black hole epistemologically.

But then, perhaps there is a problem of cognitive distance between the divine and ourselves? That might start explaining why Christians can interpret their scriptures in such different and opposing ways on so many important issues? If Christians took this problem of cognitive distance a bit more seriously then perhaps they might end up being more inclusive and sympathetic to other religious views on what constitutes the divine and be less pedantic that their revelation is the only one which counts? Just a thought!


Also my blog summary and notes on the lecture:


[3] ‘The Providence of God’ by Paul Helm pp. 61-65


About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
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9 Responses to To tu quoque or not to tu quoque?

  1. Still exercised over this piece, are we?

    A couple of points:
    1. I wasn’t feeling “guilty” about “punting”, as you put it. I slept like a baby that night. No, I was simply making the point that appeals to mystery are acknowledged and used by all at some point in their theological systems, including Arminians. So an appeal to mystery isn’t illegitimate simpliciter.
    I also believe that in this place, understanding the eternal decrees of God, there is good, biblical rationale for thinking that this exactly the sort of place we might run up against an insuperable cognitive gap.

    2. On Plantinga, I’ve read him, and yes, while he does provide an alternative scenario, the epistemological point holds even without one. Stephen Wykstra’s original article on CORNEA, the condition of reasonable epistemic access, did not make the alternative scenario a prerequisite for appealing to this principle. I’d suggest you consult the literature there.

    3. I’ve read Walls’ book and I’ve felt the force, so to speak. Funny enough, just yesterday I ran across an article by Cowan and Welty that offer 14 rebuttals of Walls’ critique of compatibilism, many of which consist in pointing out the fact that Libertarianism has many of the same problems as compatibilism, simply at a slightly different location. For instance, in answer to the specific section of Walls that you quote, they reply:

    Argument 7: “infallible foreknowledge and the freeness of divine creation generates similar interpretive problems for libertarians”

    Walls cites passages “in which God warns his people, urges them to
    repent, expresses frustration for their hardness of heart, and pronounces
    judgment on them for their persistent refusal to heed his word.” He then says,
    “The obvious question demanding an answer here is how to make sense of
    these large stretches of scripture if one assumes compatibilism” (p. 94). But
    how do we make sense of these Scriptures if one assumes infallible
    foreknowledge? Why does God warn people whom he infallibly knows will not
    heed the warning? Why does God urge people to repent when he infallibly
    knows they will not? Why is God frustrated that there are people with hard
    hearts, when he infallibly knew from eternity that they would have such hearts,
    and yet he went ahead and created them anyway?
    Thus, both compatibilists and libertarians are already faced with a tension
    generated by these passages. So, why would compatibilism create an extra
    problem not already had on an orthodox view of foreknowledge? Do we get to
    count these passages twice?

    You can read the rest of the article here:

    Honestly, man, we probably won’t get too far down this road, but I figured I’d show you the respect of responding at least once.

    Take care.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      I do wish you could find a way of engaging in dialogue which does not sound patronizing. Since you cannot neither shall I.

      1. You clearly didn’t spot the difference between appealing to a mystery and shrugging one’s shoulders at a logical contradiction – they are not the same.
      2. I have read the necessary literature. Plantinga’s refutation demonstrates that there is not necessarily any logical contradiction – that’s the power of the argument. He also shows the atheist has not done enough to show a logical contradiction whereas, in this situation, even many Calvinists are admitting THERE IS a logical contradition. You say you’ve read Plantinga and yet you falsely called him a Calvinist in your piece!
      3. I think that’s quite easy to answer. If God does not warn people he knows will not respond anyway he could not then say they had not been warned! It is so they are without excuse. Duh! No problem there in the slightest. And the frustration God feels is because he does genuinely love them (not the facade of ‘love’ we find in Calvinism). So there is no ‘tension’ at all I’m afraid.

      So compatibilists and libertarians are not sharing the same degree of ‘tension’ at all. (I do find it funny how Calvinists love to use all kinds of different words for the fact they are shrugging their shoulders at a logical contradition! I remember ‘tension’ being a favourite of one of my systematic theology lecturers as well.) A change of words does not answer Helm’s criticism.

      And if the only respect you can afford is to be so patronizing as to say “Honestly, man, we probably won’t get too far down this road, but I figured I’d show you the respect of responding at least once.” then please don’t bother!

      • Dude, you complain about “patronizing” but you were the one who started in with the “Hey man, no offense, but your theological tradition is kind of a joke here” comments and so forth. I’m sorry if I’ve been patronizing. I just have to confess my irritation with your initial lead-in and engagement. I have found it to be unfortunately smug and condescending. I don’t find obvious what you do and neither has a significant portion of the broader theological tradition of which we are both a part.

        • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

          I can’t believe you would stoop so low as to make up a fictional quote! For a start, no Brit would ever begin a sentence with “Hey, man…” What I actually said was, “No offense to you personally Derek but this is why I find it quite laughable that Calvinism often gets a reputation for being the ‘academic’ or ‘sophisticated’ theology for the thinking Christian.” That is not akin to saying your theological tradition is a joke. I was talking about the supposed reputation some attempt to give that theological tradition. I also said it was not aimed at you personally because I have not seen you showing such a haughty attitude about Calvinism yourself which is why I said that. So, in fact, I was making it clear that I exempt you from that criticism entirely.

          Maybe you should spend longer reading people’s comments instead of hasty replies? You sound way too defensive to have any kind of meaningful dialogue with. You commented on my post only ten minutes after I published it. Now you may be an exceptional post-graduate systematic theologian but you are not exactly answering the questions I am putting forward in my opinion.

          I’m sorry but I am no longer a part of the theological tradition (I take it you mean Christianity?) you refer to. I thought I had made that pretty clear. I am no longer a Christian even in the broadest sense. But I am afraid I feel no need to apologize for finding Calvinism (as a system of thought) to be contemptible and thoroughly discredited. At least, now I’m not a Christian, I don’t feel the peer pressure to afford it respect anymore.

          I’m sure if we could sit down over a jolly nice cup of tea in person this exchange could be most polite and courteous but this form of communication seems not to be working.

          All the best.

  2. randystarkey says:

    Certainly there is some cognitive distance. Just not enough to advance Buddhism or Calvinism. Both are fully unsustainable and untenable. Some false systems are “Christian”. Some are not. But regardless, the cognitive distance is not so great that it keeps us from identifying what is false.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      I would agree. I do think there is some. But the problem the Calvinist appears to have is why they are permitted to appeal to ‘tensions’ when their theology leads to logical contradictions and yet they use that very same bar as the one to critique other religions on. Suffice to say, I would find it pretty hard to listen to a Calvinist giving a critique of Buddhism while using logic in doing so.

  3. Gene Brode, Jr. says:

    Good arguments and an engaging post. I just realized from the comments that you’re no longer a Christian. I’m curious, how did that come about?

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