I started taking a course on logic through Coursera. Ah, the internet, how cool. Free classes with amazing quality. The class is called “Think Again” and it is taught by Walter Sinnot-Armstrong, a philosopher whom I respect. The class started at the end of November and must be completed by mid March. I didn’t sign up until about a week ago, but I’m cruising through it. So far this is literally the best class I’ve ever had on logic. And to think, it is completely free.
I’m still figuring out how Coursera works, but it doesn’t look like it is accredited, but it is the same course taught by accredited programs (in this case, Sinnot-Armstrong is from Duke). At the end of the class you get a certificate of completion. So really, how is it different from a paid University, where you get the same thing at the end? And did I mention it’s free? If anyone else would like to join me, let me know. I think it would be fun to connect with someone else. The forums seem daunting. I posted an introduction, but I’m like one of 2 gazillion people. So it really didn’t work for me. Plus, since I started late, I have to catch up.
There’s another cool class coming up with Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational. The course is called A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior. It begins March 25 and goes for 6 weeks. It’s harder for me to justify taking the free courses at the same time I’m taking “real” (=paid) courses for my M.Div. program. But we’ll see. It’s not really too much of an investment other than watching the videos and doing multiple-choice forms afterwards.
When someone is presented with the gospel and asked to respond, is that person really free to accept or reject the message?
Well that depends on what you mean by “free.”
We could ask whether we are really free to do anything. This the question of free will in the “formal” sense, and it is primarily a philosophical question. But it is not really a very useful question. Even if it were not logically possible for any human to ever make a “free” decision, we would still be presented with choices, and many of these choices have the appearance of requiring a free will decision.
Ultimately the real question is: Are we free to respond to the gospel in the same sense as we are free to choose chocolate rather than peach gelato? This is the question of free will in the “material” sense.
Historically there have been three major families of theological answers on this topic.
1. The Calvinist answer. Following John Calvin (1509-1564), this position fully accepts the implications of Total Depravity. God chooses or elects some individuals to receive grace which empowers them to receive the gospel. God’s grace is said to be both irresistible and efficient, meaning that it always accomplishes salvation in the individuals God chooses. On this view, you are not free to accept or reject the gospel in the same sense as you are free to make other kinds of day-to-day choices.
2. The Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian positions. The Pelagian option is to deny or temper what we have said about Total Depravity. Pelagians, who derive their name from Pelagius, a fifth century British ascetic, deny the doctrine of Total Depravity altogether. Semi-Pelagians argue instead that humans are only partially depraved. For Semi-Pelagians, individuals have a real choice when presented with the gospel, but they are predisposed against it. Their choice, though free, is perhaps more like choosing between chocolate gelato and rice patties.
3. The Arminian answer. Following Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), Arminians also fully affirm the doctrine of Total Depravity. The effects of depravity can only be overcome by God’s grace, but on the Arminian view, this grace, called prevenient grace is given freely to all of humanity. In contrast to the Calvinist view, God’s grace can be resisted but it empowers people to be able to respond to the gospel despite the effects of Total Depravity. The final result is to affirm both material free will and Total Depravity.
Can I ask you for a favor? I’m really trying to restart this blog, and what makes blogging exciting is the comments. You’ve taken the time to read the post, so now please take an extra minute and leave a comment.
What do you think? Which answer makes the most sense to you? Have these three exhausted all the options?
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The concept of free will is one of the thorniest and most difficult for both theologians and secular philosophers. To complicate matters, within Christian theology, there is not just one problem of free will. There are two.
And lots of smart people who should know better regularly get them confused.
1. The formal problem of free will
The formal problem of free will is the question of how human will is related to the divine.
In philosophy, the question is whether our choices are really our own, or whether they are dictated by genetics, environment, and conditioning.
In theology, the question is how our decisions can really be our own when God is in control of everything.
In his entry on “Will” in the New Dictionary of Theology, Paul Helm states that no matter how one chooses to understand free will, “there is a prima facie problem of reconciling the activity of the human will with the divine. Those who have attributed powers of contrary choice or self-determination to the human will have often attempted to effect such reconciliation by limiting the scope of the divine decree in some respect… Others have rested content with maintaining that while God foreordains all human actions he is not the author of sin.”
The position that we have true freedom to choose any option when given a choice are often called libertarian free will.
The position that we are free only to choose according to our motives and personality is usually called compatibilist free will because it is this view is said to be “compatible” with God’s divine choice as the ultimate cause of all of our human choices.
2. The material problem of free will
The material problem of free will is the question of whether we have the ability or power to follow through on a choice we have already made.
You might choose to start a new, aggressive plan for working out. But that doesn’t mean you’re really going to do it.
So even if you are logically free in a libertarian sense, you still may lack the material willpower to follow through on my decision, a commitment to exercise for instance. Likewise, even if the compatibilist position is true and your will is logically constrained, you may still have the discipline or “freedom” to follow through on your decisions.
What does gelato have to do with it?
Let’s put it in more concrete terms.
Let’s say my wife and I decide to get gelato from the Millstone, a popular mom-and-pop restaurant in Iola. Let’s say I have a choice between chocolate and peach.
I sit and stare at the choice. I go back and forth because they both look good. Finally I decide upon chocolate.
As I’m eating my gelato, I muse philosophically, “Was I really free to choose peach, or did I choose chocolate because God wanted me to choose chocolate?”
My wife turns to me and says, “You think too much.”
That’s because whether we have free will in the formal sense is really irrelevant in our day-to-day lives. What we care about on a day-to-day basis is whether we have free will in the material sense: we all know that I could just as easily have chosen peach, but for whatever reason I chose chocolate.
The good news
Christians believe that our material will is naturally constrained because of sin. Through faith in Jesus, you can be transformed so that you are finally free in every sense that matters.
If you have been “freed from sin and enslaved to God” (Romans 6.22), you receive the benefits of true freedom, to live as God intended and designed you.
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We can feel it. We know that this is not how things are supposed to be, but we can’t explain what the problem is.
Morpheus in The Matrix put it this way:
You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. That you are a slave… Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.
Of course this is real life, not a movie. The matrix is not our problem. The ancient Christians said the problem goes much deeper than that.
Why should we care what ancient Christians said?
The views of the ancient church are recorded in the Bible. I have close friends who don’t accept the Bible. They believe they have good reasons for rejecting the Bible. Why, they ask, should we take the time to listen to what the Bible has to say?
I would give two answers.
For one thing, even if it was merely written by men, it is a classic of Western literature. Until a couple hundred years ago, it served as the foundation for the fundamental ideas of the leaders of our society. That alone should count for something.
Beyond that, there’s the fact that countless Christians, both modern and ancient, have had their lives completely transformed by it. It’s worth looking at.
The Bible consists of 66 very diverse books written by multiple authors and complied into the book we have today. The statement of the problem is surprisingly consistent. Consider the following sampling of verses from nearly every strand of biblical material:
- Genesis 8.21: “[T]he Lord said to Himself, ‘…the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth…’”
- 2 Chronicles 6.36: “…for there is no man who does not sin…”
- Isaiah 53.6: “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way…”
- Rom 5.12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.”
- 1 Cor 2.14: “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”
- 1 John 1.10: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.”
The ancient Christian believers taught that the main problem is that humans are dead in sin. The conventional name for this doctrine is Total Depravity.
Loraine Boettner, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, describes the doctrine of Total Depravity in his book, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (X.2). Though he is from a stream of the Christian tradition that I would disagree with on many points, I agree with him on this point:
…since the Fall, man [sic] rests under the curse of sin, that he is actuated by wrong principles, and that he is wholly unable to love God or to do anything meriting salvation.
How bad is it?
It is somewhat unfortunate that we have inherited this particular term in the Christian theological tradition because the word “total” would seem to imply that humanity could not be any more depraved, and that we are as wicked as we can possibly be.
Boettner says that the doctrine, “does not mean that all men are equally bad, nor that any man is as bad as he could be, nor that any one is entirely destitute of virtue, nor that human nature is evil… His corruption is extensive but not necessarily intensive.”
Total Depravity means that every aspect of our character has been infected by sin, and on our own we can make no decision apart from its influence.
Anthony Hoekema suggests that the alternate term, “Pervasive Depravity” would be more appropriate. But that would spell complete and utter disaster for the five points of Calvinism, which would become PULIP instead of TULIP. For the sake of continuity, and so as not to tick off the AAAAA (American Association Against Acronym Abuse), it is perhaps best to retain the traditional term.
The doctrine of Total Depravity sums up several key themes. Humans, in their natural state, are dead in sin, unable to obey God, unable to please God, unable to free themselves, and unable to understand the things of God.
The doctrine of Total Depravity is another way of stating the need of every single person to be transformed. It is the doctrine that is necessarily entailed whenever someone says you should be “born-again.” The ancient Christians believed that this could only happen through the power of Jesus.
Before you write it off, ask yourself: Are you disagreeing because you have evidence that it’s not true, or are you disagreeing because you don’t want it to be true?
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There are a lot of passages in scripture that have puzzled me.
Perhaps the most puzzling is Paul’s allegorical use of the story of Isaac and Ishmael in Galatians 4.
Paul’s goal in the letter is to convince the Gentiles that gentile converts did not need to be circumcised. His opponents have been arguing strongly that they do.
Here is the argument that Paul uses in Galatians 4.21-31:
21 Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise.
24 This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. 25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. 27 For it is written, “Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear; Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor; For more numerous are the children of the desolate than of the one who has a husband.” (Isaiah 54.1)
28 And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.” (Gen 21.10-12) 31 So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.
Would that convince you? Paul pulls out a random story from the Penteteuch, reads a foreign and arbitrary meaning into it, and then expects that his critics will buy it? I don’t think so.
“You who want to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” Oh sure, all they need to do is re-read the passage about Isaac and Ishmael and they will suddenly understand that gentiles don’t need to be circumcised. No, I don’t think so.
If you have read this passage in the past and it has never bothered you, I want to suggest that perhaps you are not taking your Bible seriously enough.
Has Paul distorted scripture and gotten away with it? Is he asserting some apostolic right to read into the scriptures any interpretation he feels the Holy Spirit has shown him? Some interpreters have given up and accepted that he did.
Other commentators speculate that perhaps Paul’s opponents were using the Sarah-Hagar story in their own rhetoric, and Paul is attempting to turn their own logic back at them. If so, he did a lousy job. Using an allegory to try to convince someone who disagrees is a stupid argument.
I have come to think there is a better explanation.
Context, context, context
We must start by recounting Paul’s argument so far, beginning back in 3.6. He has been arguing that those who have faith are Abraham’s true descendants according to the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12. They are therefore no longer slaves, but are now Abraham’s heirs.
Here are the relevant verses leading up to our passage:
3.7 – Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.
3.9 – So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.
3.14 – …in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
3.29 – And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
4.7 – Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.
So what’s going on in this passage?
The first thing to notice is that the use of Isaac and Ishmael is not a “random story,” as I suggested above. Paul has been talking about being Abraham’s true descendants. This story is about Abraham’s first descendants. Isaac and Ishmael literally embodied the point Paul was making. Isaac was born in accordance with the promise of Genesis 12; Ishmael wasn’t. What happened to Isaac is paradigmatic for what it means to be Abraham’s descendant by faith through the promise.
The second thing to notice is that, in typical Pauline style, he states his conclusion at the beginning of the passage, and then jumps back to show the logic that leads to the conclusion. In this case, his summary statement (v.21) is, “Do you not listen to the law?” The only quotation from the law (the Penteteuch) will not come until the end of the passage (v.30): “Cast out the bondwoman and her son. For the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.”
The argument is that Abraham’s children are not all Abraham’s heirs – only the sons of the promise are heirs. Paul uses this verse to confirm the argument he has been making thus far. It is theologically relevant to his overall argument. Believers are brothers with Isaac in some true sense that is not merely metaphorical (v.28). Just as Paul applies Abraham’s blessing to believers (3.9), so he also applies Isaac’s promise to believers.
But there is still the question of the gap between v.21 and v.28. Why didn’t he go straight to this verse? Why digress into a discussion of Sarah and Hagar? And why complicate it by saying they are allegorical?
The answer, I believe, is best found by starting at the end of the passage and tracing Paul’s logic backwards.
The first clue is to notice that Paul has altered the Genesis quotation in v.30 by replacing the phrase “my son Isaac,” with “the son of the free woman.” Of course this does not change the sense of the passage, since both phrases refer to the same person, Isaac. But Paul uses the new vocabulary to draw out the implicit dichotomy between bondslave and free. The language of “bondslave” in reference to Hagar was already explicit in the Genesis text.
The dichotomy between slave and free is exactly the theme he has been discussing until this point in the letter. But Genesis 21.10 introduces a new element into Paul’s discussion – two mothers. So before he can give the quotation, he must first set up the significance of the mothers for Abraham’s heirs. After all, believers may be Isaac’s brothers, but they are not Sarah’s sons. This part of the verse would be meaningless in the Galatian’s context – unless Paul can find a valid scriptural interpretation of the mother that applies theologically to believers.
What does Isaiah have to say about it?
Paul finds just such an interpretation in Isaiah 54.1 (v.27), where Jerusalem is depicted as a barren woman who suddenly has numerous children. This provides Paul with theological grounds for associating “the free woman” with “Jerusalem” in reference to believers.
But everybody knows that gentile believers are not accepted by the Jews in Jerusalem. So before he can introduce the Isaiah passage, he must make one more move. Paul looks to Jewish theology that says that the earthly temple is a copy of the heavenly temple (cf. Ex 25.12, Is 6), and thus the earthly Jerusalem is a copy of the heavenly Jerusalem. He calls them the “Now-Jerusalem,” (Νυν Ἰερουσαλήμ) and the “Above-Jerusalem,” (Ἄνω Ἰερουσαλήμ). So he explicitly links the bondwoman with the earthly Jerusalem and the free woman with the heavenly Jerusalem (v.25-6).
At the same time, he ties all of this back to his argument in chapter 2, that Abraham and Moses represent two covenants (v.24). Notice that this is not a contrast between a new and an old covenant, since Abraham’s covenant of faith is older than the Mosaic covenant.
The important thing to recognize is that every logical move makes is theologically justified, either by (a) the argument he has already made in the earlier part of the letter, or (b) interpretations made by the prophets, specifically Isaiah. But while it is theologically justified, it is not textually justified by the Genesis text alone. Paul is aware that his argument is not exegetically sound apart from the theological argument. Thus he introduces this section of Galatians (v.24) by declaring that he has allegorized (ἀλληγορούμενα) the account.
So Galatians 4.21-31 is allegory but it is not fanciful allegory. It is an interpretation that is theologically warranted by an intertextual reading of scripture. Paul was merely drawing out implications which were inherent in the Old Testament itself. It is not the stupid argument I once thought it to be.
Now that I’m back to blogging, I’m trying to post every Monday and Thursday night. But I’m still working out the schedule. I have a really fun post I’m working on about Paul’s allegorical use of Isaac and Ishmael in Gal 4. I think you’ll dig it. But it’s not done yet, and I’m not going to stay up to finish it. I haven’t promised to post today, but I’ll feel like a dog if I go to bed without posting something at least.
In the meantime, here is my favorite video of the week, from the old MTV show:
It does not mean “putting things before God.”
People say, “If you are putting a relationship, or a job, or success, or music, or anything else in place of God, then you are an idolator.”
Sometimes they will go on to say, “So we are really all idolators.” It makes for good preaching if you are trying to produce a big altar call with lots of tears. But here’s the thing. It’s not biblical. It’s a pious hoax.
It might be sin, but it’s not idolatry
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for being challenged to search my heart to see if God is really first. But it’s not a matter of idolatry.
Idolatry means there’s an image. And you’re worshiping it.
It can be the image of a false god.
Or it can be a false image of the true god. And any image of the true god is a false image.
The only exception is Colossians 3.5, where greed is called idolatry. Wait, greed? And nothing else anywhere in the Bible? Why? Why that sin?
I suspect it comes from Matthew 22.17-21. Jesus is asked if they should pay taxes to Caesar, and in so doing he would be implicitly siding with the Romans. Jesus asks for a coin. Apparently he wasn’t carrying any money with him. I know that feeling.
“Show me the money used to pay taxes,” he says. They show him a Benjamin. Technically it was called a Denarius, and it was worth about a day’s wages for a field worker. So a Benjamin is probably a good equivalent by today’s standards.
“Whose image and whose inscription is on it?” he asks.
“Benjamin,” they say. Okay, my attempt to make it contemporary has completely broken down and failed at this point. Actually it’s “Caesar” they say. But it meant to them what a Benjamin means to us.
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s.”
But notice the question Jesus asked them. “Whose image?”
When you pursue money, you are metaphorically putting an image before God. Of course we all know it’s not literal worship. Except that it kind of is. And that’s the play that Paul is making in Col 3.
Greed is idolatry because you can’t serve both God and Benjamin.
Photo credit: Arian Zwegers