Over the last several years I’ve had a lot of great discussions with Open Theists.
Open Theism — perhaps more properly called open futurism — is the idea that what we imagine as plausible future possibilities are all realizable (and not simply imaginary).
For them all to be realizable, it is asserted, God cannot have certain knowledge of a single future course.
There are 3 big reasons why folks might be interested in this sort of thing:
- It would let us take Scripture at face value — rather than anthropomorphically and/or hyperbolically — when it talks about God changing his mind on appeal or having regrets. Rather we’d be able to say, “He genuinely didn’t know what future would be realized and reacted upon that future becoming realized.”
- It relieves us of the existential gravity of being causal creatures. We can more easily imagine ourselves as spontaneous originators and “co-writers of history.” We can flee from the nihilism of reductive analysis; before, we were called to box an existential heavyweight, but now we don’t even have to get in the ring.
- If we (humans and angels and demons and whatever-you-please) are “co-writers of history,” we can selectively apply folk responsibility to guarantee the “cleanliness of God’s hands.” In other words, it seems to really help with theodicy. We can always find something other than God to take 100% responsibility for the “bad stuff” (Heb. raah).
Sounds pretty good, right?
The bad news is that all 3 of these have major snags (and we’ll get into the specifics in just a moment).
First, let’s talk about what you’d expect if it’s true that these have major snags.
If these contributions are deeply problematic (as opposed to surface-only problems with ready solutions) — like a leaky wooden ship set-sail — you’d expect:
- Radically novel conjecture (not just refinement or development) in order to “jury-rig.”
- Selective appeals to solutions pioneered by competing hypotheses in order to “patch.”
- Logical wildcards to keep the ship’s captain blissfully oblivious to the problems below; to “obfuscate.”
Open Theology is under development, and as such, different Open writers and thinkers have different ideas and approaches. Even so, I’m noticing those “you’d expect” patterns more and more.
This is especially of interest to me as a Christian compatibilist.
Because compatibilist solutions are very often being procured from the compatibilist “vessel” for at-sea patching! “Hey, that’s ours!”
Compatibilism is the idea that while creatures make decisions as strict functions of who they are and what makes them tick, we still make real choices, can be held responsible, and have free will. The angle is that these “agency things” dwell on a layer of meaningfulness that emerges from discriminatory interests (including interests of God).
It doesn’t seem like it at first, but compatibilism isn’t a big jump from Open Theism.
This is evinced by the fact that our vessels are neighborly enough for “trading”!
Of course, the hope is that Open brethren will eventually jump ship and board the U. S. S. Compatibilism, which is an amazing ship, and which would love a bigger crew to battle (in a friendly way) common theological foes.
Let’s tackle the snags within each of the above 3 contributions.
… In reverse order!
If we (humans and angels and demons and whatever you please) are “co-writers of history,” we can selectively apply folk responsibility to guarantee the “cleanliness of God’s hands.” In other words, it seems to really help with theodicy. We can always find something other than God to take 100% responsibility for the “bad stuff” (Heb. raah).
Problem 1.1: The Incoherence of Folk Responsibility
Notice “selectively apply folk responsibility.” That “selectively” is important: Folk responsibility is a logical wildcard.
Logical wildcards are hard to directly address because their power is in their ghostly incoherence, vagueness, and inconsistency.
There are two ways to battle these ghosts:
- Demand definition. (This is rhetorically weak because the ghosts will just fly away.)
- Show how the ghosts are yielding logical contradictions and/or algorithmic inconsistencies. (This is more rhetorically effective.)
The latter takes place in the following article: “Holding ‘Folk Responsibility’ Responsible.” There, you’ll see definitively how folk responsibility is leveraged inconsistently to “clean God’s hands.”
Problem 1.2: The Triviality & “Raah” of Deterministic Processes
This applies only to the subset of Open Theists who admit that some processes are indeed deterministic (or, would be unless effected by a “libertarian free agent”).
One such process might be the molding of costal cliffs. After millennia of water against rock, each coastal cliff is indescribably unique. So, did God micromanage each cliff face around the world?
A common, and (I think) proper, answer is, “No. There’s a difference between the micromanaged results of deterministic processes and the corollaries thereof. The former has teleology; the latter is just ‘byproduct.'”
Sweet! That’s a patch borrowed from compatibilism. And it works pretty well with coastal cliffs.
But what about tsunamis against cities? Or Pompeii?
At this fork in the road, the subset might jury-rig with radical novelty. For example, one could posit that libertarian-free demons are driving every natural disaster and accident.
Or rather, if they please, they’re invited to borrow another patch from our compatibilistic ship: Not only can there be byproduct trivialities, but there can also be byproduct “raah,” like wildfires, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, lava flows, meteoroids, lightning, blizzards, famines, floods, plagues, etc.
Some of these may have ancillary consequences — the more ancillary the better — but we need not ascribe to them “total teleology,” frantically searching for folks like Hindus or gay people or pervasive demons or “Christians-from-wrong-denominations” to blame.
It relieves us of the existential gravity of being causal creatures. We can more easily imagine ourselves as spontaneous originators and “co-writers of history.” We can flee from the nihilism of reductive analysis; before, we were called to box an existential heavyweight, but now we don’t even have to get in the ring.
Problem 2.1: Analysis Nags
When we look up at the starry sky, it appears as if all of the stars are the same distance away from us. But when we use observational instruments other than our “eyes & guts,” we see that this is false; they’re at all sorts of different distances.
Our “eyes & guts” tell us that we’re quite spontaneous. But other observational instruments keep telling us that we aren’t. We act according to who we are, and who we are is a function of what makes us tick.
Now, as a Christian, I have a faith-premise in some supernatural stuff. It comes with the territory. But supernaturalism is often used as a shoehorn toward arbitrary conclusions. And one way it protects this maneuver is through “gapping.”
By defining a treasure in an ambiguous or indiscernible way, there’s no way to disprove its existence. It establishes a “bunker,” “sandbag,” or “motte” — a “gap.”
Atheists accuse believers of positing a “God of the Gaps” all the time, and — to a point — there’s some validity to this indictment, especially because some believers recklessly plaster supernaturalism onto everything.
But we have faith in “He Who Is Unseen”; Paul tells us that unlike the readily tangible and powerless idols, God is powerful and wants to be sought, though he is not far from any of us. In other words, there is purpose in God’s veil of subtlety.
Here, though, folks take shelter in a “spontaneous will of the gaps,” and there is no such teleology explaining it.
No matter what analysis or observations we make, “something-or-other” can always live in the “something-or-other zone” (it’s no coincidence that libertarian free will lacks a coherent, positive definition; it is a “something-or-other”).
Problem 2.2: Coherent Remedial Response is Ruined by Spontaneity
When a child is spoiled, whom do we blame?
We don’t apply “buck-stops-here” responsibility for the child’s bad behavior.
But nor do we excuse the child.
Rather, we assign responsibility to every cofactor, focusing especially on those cofactors with the capacity to recognize a problem and the power to change catalyzing circumstances.
In short, we focus our attention on the parents and other environmental cofactors.
But the dynamism of responsibility (which entails a rejection of folk responsibility) is predicated on the fact that our decisions are influenced, molded, and knitted by prior causes.
How can this be reconciled with having a “free will”?
The compatibilist solution is to say that there is a sort of free will in the gap of human understanding and an interest in formative self-guidance:
- If I don’t know what’s causing you to do choose something bad (let’s talk about only bad behavior for now), I call that your “free will.”
- If I know what’s causing you to do something bad, but can anticipate you coming to correction in your own time, I also call that your “free will.”
- If, however, I know what’s causing you to do something bad, and cannot anticipate a self-guided turn-around, then I do not call that your “free will”; rather, I call it a disease or defect or disorder. No longer can you be held exhaustively culpable for persisting in your bad behavior. And if I know how to cure you of your disease and can easily do so, then I bear culpability by omission until I help cure it (and can be blamed or credited for any delay, depending on the prospects and costs thereof).
This should be rather intuitive. But the idea of spontaneity allows us to insert “buck-stops-here culpability-breaks.”
And what does that do for us? It lets us excuse potential “surgeons” of their omissive culpability!
And certain eschatologies need this excuse, else they become theodicean problems.
We talked before how folk responsibility is used as a logical wildcard. It rears its head here, too. One minute, an Open Theist named Linda might claim that George can become rooted in his behavior and lose his spontaneity. The next, she’ll use George’s spontaneity to excuse the “Great Surgeon” of omissive culpability for George’s predicament.
The former claim and latter excuse are not at all consonant. Typically, Linda’s confusion comes from equivocating George’s past spontaneity (where culpability still lived with George) with “current spontaneity” (or lack thereof, such that current-George is inexorably enslaved to bad decisions of past-George and needs external help).
Problem 2.3: God’s Still Sovereign
I don’t mean to say that Open Theism denies God’s sovereignty. Many Open Theologies uphold God’s sovereignty with certain re-stipulations.
The issue is that even under Open Theism, God’s “wholly puppeteering will” follows from benign premises unless and until compatibilism is employed to erase the qualifier “wholly puppeteering” through forms.
We’ve talked before about these ingredients:
- God has the raw power to do anything (at least things that are logically possible); if there is a coherent challenge to be met, God could do it if he net-wanted to.
- God knows everything about the past and present.
- God is occasionally willing to intervene and influence to various degrees.
- God has done this before, sometimes gratuitously.
Within the first ingredient, the following is entailed:
- No matter what happens, God can functionally undo it, such that it would not “stick.” Even if he cannot rewind time, he can manipulate particles and memories to duplicate the function of rewinding time.
These ingredients yield the following 2 “question-answer” pairs:
- When would something happen and “stick”? When and only when letting-stick conforms to God’s net-wants.
- When would something be “undone”? When and only when that undoing conforms to God’s net-wants.
Notice the reductive, ultimate appeal that answers both questions?
Now, remember that reduction destroys meaning. The above chain of logic — and its reductive conclusion — feel horrible and nihilistic, even as they are inarguable (assuming we agree on the premises).
So, how do we “get out” of this? How do we come up for air?
Again, we have a little fork in the road, this time 4-pronged:
- We can “come up for air” by cupping hands over ears and reverting to non-analysis.
- We can “come up for air” by using logical wildcards (like folk responsibility and libertarian freedom) to bridge-break the logic.
- We can “come up for air” by denying the premises. A subset of Open Theists, for example, has dabbled in denying God’s raw power. A weak God would not yield the sovereign conclusion; theodicy is solved by positing a God “wholly willing, but unable.”
- We can “come up for air” by plowing forward, blasting through the nihilism of reduction to capture our refined, meaningful forms.
The last is entailed by compatibilism.
One such discriminating interest is that between “directly affected stuff vs. stuff affected through distant indirection.” The forms that emerge from such an interest allow us to take a HUGE breath after ascending from the fish’s belly of reduction.
Some Open Theists sense this payoff!
Some will even package this interest-driven discrimination into a stipulative (“True Scotsman”) redefinition of sovereignty and/or power, e.g., “True power is that which subtly influences.”
(This is like to borrowing a patch from the compatibilistic ship but claiming it was in the other cargo hold all along.)
Problem 2.4: Its Theodicean Sword is Borrowed
It’s one thing to appeal to a permissive interest in indirection. But you have to further claim that this is part of a manifold interest set, in which there are two or more interests that are incommensurable.
That’s because we know that God isn’t just interested in indirection or permission or “allowing for free will” or what have you. We know that he’s also interested in beautiful stuff like “nonsuffering.”
Circumstantial incommensurability within a manifold interest set (“CIWAMIS”), in other words, acts like a “from-God confounder” that tells us why we might have both a benevolent God and bad stuff in the world.
We get theodicean “oomph” from CIWAMIS.
But here’s the upshot: “God’s not knowing the future” and/or “libertarian free will” has no “oomph” without it!
In other words, “God’s not knowing the future” and “libertarian free will” both bragged about their theodicean “oomph,” but were just brandishing CIWAMIS’s sword, while claiming it was their smithery.
And CIWAMIS, as it turns out, lends its theodicean sword to all sorts of theologies, including compatibilistic theologies.
I want to point out that at this point, we’ve taken the wind out of Open Theism’s theodicean sails.
- Remove libertarian free will; replace with “compatibilistic free will” or “natural will” or something.
- Remove folk responsibility; replace with dynamic responsibility.
- Uphold God’s discriminating interest in “direct/indirect” influence.
- Uphold CIWAMIS.
Zero theodicean “oomph” is lost in the above cookie recipe. The cookies still taste great, perhaps even better, after we replace the raisins with chocolate chips.
It would let us take Scripture at face value — rather than anthropomorphically and/or hyperbolically — when it talks about God changing his mind on appeal or having regrets. Rather we’d be able to say, “He genuinely didn’t know what future would be realized and reacted upon that future becoming realized.”
Problem 3.1: Face Value is Still Denied Selectively
We depend on anthropomorphic and/or hyperbolic interpretations anyway.
That’s because a face-value interpretation makes God not merely uncertain, but capricious and recklessly curiosity-driven. He wouldn’t just be imperfect at prediction — he’d have to be really, really terrible at it.
The “waiting to see” and “fickle” passages do not supply proof texts for those Open Theologies actually being proposed, which generally go out of their way to laud God’s exhaustive wisdom to guide history through subtle influences and maintain a stability of interests and firmness in purpose.
Often an Open Theologian will admit that Genesis 6 (for example) is being rather hyperbolic for whatever reason (to resonate with fickle man? to express CIWAMIS via athropomorphism? both?) when it talks about God regretting having made mankind… and beasts… and birds.
Problem 3.2: The Book of Job Lacks it
This would be a fallacious argument from silence, except that the Book of Job goes out of its way cover all sorts of theodicean proposals (most rebuked). It’s bizarre that it lacks any sort of libertarian excuse-making (i.e., “I didn’t do this to you; Satan did!”) if such a thing ought indeed be considered legitimate theodicy.
Job is rebuked (and repents) for claiming that God lacks justice and/or is distant and powerless.
The three stooges of Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad are rebuked for claiming that Job’s predicament was a perfect divine expression of karmic justice, and that all lowly humans deserve unbridled suffering for their failing such a lofty God.
By contrast, Elihu, who (1) boasts perfect knowledge, (2) introduces the Storm of God, and (3) is never rebuked, weaves a theodicy of hope. He affirms God as super-powerful, completely wise, firm in purpose, despising nobody, and the ultimate teacher of mankind.
This is the theodicy that introduces the Storm, after which Job admits having failed to ascertain the grand plan “to wonderful for me to know.”
God’s superordinate responsibility (in a hierarchical stack) + a theodicy of corollary and ancillary function?
Such are the hull and sails of the U. S. S. Compatibilism.
Problem 3.3: That God is Worse
Josephus has a must-read account of the story of Abraham and Isaac. In it, God’s purpose is explicated: To see what’ll happen! ‘I’m going to tell Abraham to do this horrifying thing and see what he does.’
Afterward, this God is genuinely surprised; ‘Wow, I’m shocked at how readily you did that!’
The hilarious part about Josephus’s account is that both Abraham and Isaac reason a prospective justification for God’s command, that is, they conclude that God — in his wisdom and foresight — knew that Isaac would otherwise undergo some horrible disease or murder or other “severity” if Isaac were not kindly slain now.
In other words, in the face of divine inexplicability, they reason an explanation that preserves both God’s benevolence (in terms of prospective aims and investments) and cosmic foresight.
The reason this is hilarious is because — in Josephus’s account — the God in which Abraham and Isaac believed is clearly better (in terms of benevolence) and wiser (in terms of foresight) than the “actual” God (presented by the omniscient narrator).
When we finish reading the story, and our own giggles fade to crickets, we come to the sobering realization that a God subjecting people to tests out of reckless curiosity — instead of benevolent ancillary investment and/or corollaries to creative processes — is indeed “less good.”
The common response is an insistence that only this “less good” situation is fertile turf to garden “genuine love.” Seasoned compatibilists, however, have been trained by experience to spot “genuine/authentic/true/real” persuasive stipulations a mile away. This one is the product of “genuineness by association.”
“Open Theism helps with theodicy.”
- It relies on folk responsibility which is demonstrably bad.
- “Creation’s deterministic trivialities” argumentum ad absurdum.
- Patch: Concede to “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
- Posit indeterminism even of non-choosing things; “the falling leaves have libertarian openness.”
- Patch: Concede to “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
- “Creation’s deterministic raah” argumentum ad absurdum.
- Patch: Concede “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
- Jury-rig: “Demons do those things.”
- Posit indeterminism even of non-choosing things; “the falling boulders have libertarian openness.”
- Patch: Concede “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
“Open Theism prevents the existential anxiety of the loss of origination.”
- Deeper analysis has been scoring slam dunks and three-pointers only for the following team: “We decide based on who we are, which is a function of that which makes us tick.”
- Obfuscate: “Gapping” maneuvers keep the game clock going. But a deliberately subtle God would preclude overt detection; there is no such teleological explanation for the “gapping” of libertarian free will.
- A coherent theology of remediation is selectively ruined by spontaneity. This is woefully useful because certain eschatologies need such selective ruination.
- God’s superordinate responsibility still pops from his classical attributes like toast from a toaster, even if he has no clue about the future.
- Obfuscate: Revert to non-analysis.
- Obfuscate: Logical wildcards to bridge-break the logic.
- Jury-rig: Explore “weak God” theology.
- Patch: Borrow “direct/indirect” formation from compatibilism.
- Obfuscate: Revert to non-analysis.
- It never had theodicean “oomph” anyway. The “oomph” was from “CIWAMIS”: circumstantial incommensurability within a manifold interest set. Compatibilism can fence with the same sword (and is, in fact, more adept at it).
“Open Theism plays more nicely with Scripture.”
- Open Theologies actually being proposed leverage the same “anthropomorphic and/or hyperbole” interpretations as compatibilist Christians to handle certain passages that would otherwise have God being clueless or capricious.
- The Book of Job is theodicean. It has a libertarian defense readily available to it and avoids its use, preferring instead God’s superordinate responsibility. Neither Job, nor the three stooges, nor “perfect knowledge” Elihu, nor the Storm of God employ it.
- A “mad scientist” God is worse, as exemplified in the laughably upside-down account of Abraham & Isaac given to us by Josephus.
- Obfuscate: Persuasive stipulation of what “genuine love” requires. (An ancient maneuver that has always been non-cogent.)
If you’re an Open Theist, I hope this has at least piqued your curiosity in solutions pioneered by compatiblistic theology and perhaps fostered some prudent internal scrutiny.
In appealing to scrutiny, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit my own fallibility. But I nonetheless have conviction that compatibilism is the way to go. It’s a really, really, really great ship, resolute enough and flexible enough to navigate the waters of Scripture Sea.
In addition to the in-line hyperlinks in this post, check out the following:
Today we’re going to talk about one of the biggest “bugs” in theology, which cascades down into conversation & contemplation bugs in soteriology, eschatology, metaphysics, and more.
This “bug” underpins much of what we’ve already talked about on this site over the past year or so.
First, let’s meet Apollos.
This is because Apollos is exclusively about reduction.
As soon as he found out that the blue rider and red horse were “both Play Doh,” he took a hammer to them and squished them into a hideous, formless mass.
His problem wasn’t that he looked deeper. And he wasn’t lying when he observed that both forms were, ultimately, “Play Doh.”
But he went too far in drawing a destructive, form-killing “should/ought” conclusion merely from observing shared pieces/parts or shared ultimate causes.
See the other guy in that last panel? That’s Amon.
The story’s not over. Let’s see what happened the next day.
This is because Amon is exclusively concerned with maintaining forms.
Here, the problem wasn’t that Amon wanted to protect Blue-Monkey-on-Red-Elephant. Of course he wanted to protect it! It is interesting and meaningful and beautiful!
Rather, the problem was that — like Apollos — he erroneously thought that a destructive, form-killing “should/ought” conclusion proceeds from any observation about shared pieces/parts or shared ultimate causes.
This reasoning error prompted a loss-aversive overreaction against anyone making such an observation.
The inhumanly pallid faces of both Apollos and Amon represent the fact that both characters represent errors of reasoning (in specific, they are powered by the same is/ought non sequitur). These errors yield lifeless, bug-ridden theology, and Christianity has had a major problem with it for over 1800 years.
The Checkmark-Shaped Reaction
It’s true that as we practice reduction, a sort of “existential gravity” makes us feel as if we’re losing our forms.
This is because forms are where all meaning resides.
The situation looks a bit like this — for everything we care about:
This is the teaching of the Teacher, concluded “upright and true” in Ecclesiastes. “At the end of the day,” all prospects can be reduced to that which is ultimately empty of meaning — “hollow.” (Read more about Ecclesiastes and meaning here.)
In other words, by default we live in a “macroscopic” world where forms are common-sense and plain-to-see. We have all sorts of folk conclusions about the simplicity of the world, like that meaning is purely objective (has no interest-dependencies), that responsibility is “buck-stops-here,” and that we have spontaneity and multiple realizable futures (encapsulated in a feeling of libertarian free will).
But as soon as someone busts out a “microscope” — literally or proverbially — these folk ideas begin to break down, and we start to feel “existential gravity” just like the Teacher of Ecclesiastes (probably Solomon) did:
There are 3 reactions we can have.
The first is Apollos’s reaction: Radical reduction into a “tomb,” “dungeon,” or “fish’s belly” of nihilism, denying formative truth.
The third is Solomon’s reaction: Remember that formative truth remains true, even while reductive truth is also true, although some forms need to be dropped, modified, or refined, like a faceted gem cut from rough rock.
This “check-marked shaped” journey ends in a declaration of compatibility: Formative truth is compatible with reductive truth, and their appearance of “disagreement” — their paradoxy — is because they proceed from different vantage points, i.e., “hetero-phroneo.”
(That, and the surface forms did contain a bit of false junk.)
Our quirky brains have trouble with heterophroneo; by default, they’re rather “monophroneo.”
And this yields the huge theology bug. It’s solvable, but only with hard work, and a refusal to be an Apollos or Amon (both of these characters are “Kochabs“).
“The dog and the dirty napkin” (we used this example before):
- Dogs and dirty napkins are 100% different.
- Actually, they’re 100% the same: They’re both mere collections of particles.
- You’re both right depending on the vantage point. Yes, they’re both reducible to mere collections of particles, and we should avoid thinking that there’s some “magical” animating principle in dogs that makes them substantially distinct. But I don’t care much about that. I care about the fact that the former has feelings, thoughts, loyalty, and can play fetch, and is happy to greet me when I come home. The latter doesn’t have any of that stuff. And that’s where meaning lives.
“Altruism” (we also used this one before):
- Altruism and selfishness are 100% different.
- (“Psychological egoism”) Actually, they’re 100% the same. They’re both products of what eventually reduce to self-interests. For example, your desire to give to a certain charity reduces to something you care about. Even self-sacrifice is always in terms of what prospects you hope to achieve or principles you hope to exemplify.
- You’re both right depending on the vantage point. Yes, they are both so-reducible. But our dictionary still functions. There’s still a difference in form between generosity and stinginess. There’s still a difference in form between sacrifice and retention. There’s still a difference in form between love-driven behavior and gratuitous self-service. Those are the things I care about. That’s where meaning lives.
“Ecclesiastes” (a deeper look here):
- Objectives and objects are brimming with meaning.
- Actually, everything is ultimately empty and meaningless. Laughter is great, but what does it accomplish? Wealth seems awesome, but it never satisfies. Ambition is an envy-fueled treadmill. The ground on which we build children, projects, labor, and learning is hollow.
- (“Existentialism”) The search for ultimate meaning is futile — a chasing after the wind. This is an upright and true teaching. But it is also upright and true that laughter is great. Our journey should not yield nihilism, but a gem-like refinement toward what is really meaningful in life according to our interests, that is, food, drink, friends, family, finding satisfaction in our labor and projects, and fulfilling our “owes” to one another (social and moral obligations, including oaths to leaders and God) so that we avoid the “Collection Agent.” That’s where meaning lives. (Later, Christus Victor restores the shattered vessel, so that helps.)
“Freedom & Sovereignty” (many examples on this site; start here):
- We act with free will; we make real choices and can be held accountable.
- Actually, we are causal creatures and our thoughts & decisions are products of that which makes us “tick.” Rewinding far enough, we owe ourselves ultimately to external factors.
- (“Compatibilism”) You’re both right depending on the vantage point. I’m a caused, causal creature, and I make real choices all the time. I have interests, emotions, thoughts, a will, and all of these are genuine. I make mistakes and have successes and triumphs, all of which are products of who I am, and who I am is always changing (God willing, I can even change myself in a recursive way!). As such, I can be held truly accountable for my real choices, but we definitely need to jettison folk notions of responsibility.
The Sun Also Rises
Ecclesiastes 1:5 says, “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.”
But does it really do this?
The sun’s behavior used to be a big deal. The fact of sunsets/sunrises being mere perceptual phenomena from rotational motion — and the additional fact of the sun’s relative stagnancy compared to the Earth — so violated folk “surface forms” that many people became Amons and took up hammers.
When we take a microscope to the situation, we find that the sun isn’t actually traveling across the sky and “hurrying back.” The sun is millions of miles away, relatively still, while the Earth flies around it, rotating while it does so and illuminating a perpetually-changing hemisphere.
To some folks, this reduction destroys sunrises. And it does, sort of.
But look out the window!
See the fiery sky against the shadowy land?
See the clouds underlit with morning?
Look! The sky has been punctured with a knife of blinding light!
The sword of morning is slaying shadows right and left. The stone is rolling. The dungeon gate is opening. The fish’s maw is heaving.
Our reduction “destroyed” the sunrise.
And yet, the sun also rises.
(In this article, we’ll talk about the Fall in flatly literal language, even though I go with Origen’s perspective on the origins account, where some degree of folk symbolism obfuscates the underlying history.)
A while ago we talked about the Big Three Sovereignties: Three Christian approaches, broadly, to the soteriological and theodicean nitty-gritty of God and human freedom.
One of those broad approaches was the “Libertarian Free Will” approach. This is the wide path taken by most who believers in Christ: Numerous Evangelicals (both progressive and conservative), many Mainline Protestants (particularly Arminians), the vast majority of Orthodox and Catholics, and fans of things like Molinism and Open Theism / “Open Future.”
Libertarian free will lacks a coherent definition, but each attempt goes about positing a world — or nature of human choice — wherein causal backtracing is “cut off” at the point of human decision.
Remember that “power” of libertarian free will as we make a slight diversion.
“Responsibility” is the identification of cofactors that contributed to something happening. This identification is in service of predicting, changing, encouraging, or fixing similar cofactors in the future.
This is what has made such a vital tool, for both individuals (regret, retrospect, self-teaching) and societies (punishment, reward), for both basic survival and for the rise of civilization.
But a weird thing happened, and continues to happen.
The process of ascribing responsibility became naturally simplified into something that mostly “did the job” of the above sense of responsibility, but was a bit easier to articulate and packed a bigger “punch.”
This was the idea of “causal buck-stops-here responsibility.” We can nickname this “folk responsibility,” as pretty much everybody slides into it “by default” and has to crawl and claw their way back out.
The “algorithm” works like this:
- Select an event that satisfies (+) or fails to satisfy (-) interests.
- Backtrace through the event’s causes. Stop backtracing when you arrive at any willful agents.
- Populate an array with each found willful agent.
- Divide responsibility — credit (+) or blame (-) as defined by your interests against that event-in-question — among those in the array.
That’s “folk responsibility,” and it’s the by-default view of responsibility, even such that it is popularly considered “what responsibility is.”
The above algorithm, of course, has a problem with a God exhaustively sovereign over a world that “runs on” cause-and-effect.
That’s because even the actions of willful agents are events with backtraceable causes. With God in the mix, he becomes the root cause of everything that happens (albeit most of it through indirection).
So, we have a problem:
What do we do?
See Romans 9:19. Our antagonist is saying, “Who then can be blamed? For who can resist his will?”
Enter Libertarian Free Will
Remember the “power” of libertarian free will: “Causal backtracing is ‘cut off‘ at the point of human decision.”
It doesn’t matter that libertarian free will lacks a coherent definition; not even advocates therefor can agree on one.
All definition attempts are plays at coming up with something that has the “power” above.
That’s what it’s all about, like a centuries-old theological Hokey Pokey.
It is a maneuver designed to protect folk responsibility — to prevent it from becoming absurd under classical theism and a world of cause-and-effect — because folk responsibility is taken for granted as true.
- Diseases? No problem; backtrace them to Adam’s decision in the Garden, then cut off.
- Natural disasters? Hah! Backtrace them to Adam’s decision in the Garden, then cut off.
- God creating those he foreknows will go to endless hell? Big deal. Backtrace their doom to their own decisions (their sins and obstinacy), then cut off. A man damns himself. God’s hands are clean.
Nice job, team. The Problems have been solved!
So, What’s the Problem?
Unfortunately, the problem with folk responsibility was always that it broke down under the load of various test cases.
Like a 16th-century schooner ferrying too many barrels of sugar.
Scripture’s pretty clear that Adam was deceived. Not only did Satan deceive Adam, but Satan deceived the whole world. Satan is responsible. And yet, Adam is still held responsible for his (and, by inheritance, our) expulsion from the Garden of Grace.
How does that work under folk responsibility?
It doesn’t. It violates the algorithm (and for good reason!).
We (that is, the majority of believers) choose to arbitrarily ignore the backtrace-stopping at Adam and keep going, while simultaneously adding Adam to the array of culpable agents.
Furthermore, we (again, the majority of believers) arbitrarily say God “catches” only the “leftovers”; when it comes to unsavory stuff, we never add him to the array unless everybody else is “disqualified” for culpability.
For example, Romans 8 tells us that creation was subject to frustration — disease, natural disasters, thorns, etc. — as a choice of he who cursed it, that is, God. While the curse was indeed a response to human folly, God chose to respond in the way he did.
But here, we do not add God to the array, nor do we stop the backtracing, even as God is ostensibly a “freely willing agent!” Instead, we let the responsibility trickle back to the Adam/Satan combo from earlier, which itself violated our algorithm.
You can make the Adam/Satan “share” or “hierarchical stack” for the Fall. And you can make the God-to-(Adam/Satan) “pass through” for the agonizing thorniness of the Curse. But you cannot do both and have a consistent view of responsibility.
We make these arbitrary exceptions because even as we assert folk responsibility, our reasoning tells us that responsibility doesn’t really work like that: We know that responsibility can be mitigated, transferred, shared, and stacked hierarchically, with potential for blame and credit to vary along that stack, depending on prospective intent (benevolence or malevolence), recklessness, negligence, and a host of other moral factors.
In other words, we’re almost all infected by cognitive dissonance on this issue.
- We know folk responsibility isn’t really valid,
- but that’s the definition of responsibility we assert,
- and furthermore assert that it is valid.
The Disease’s Power
Unless laboriously rooted-out and recognized, cognitive dissonance is extraordinarily powerful in rhetoric.
That’s because it acts like a wildcard: An Ace when the round is called high-hand, a Deuce when the round is called low-hand.
And thus it is used — very convincingly to even very intelligent people — in an intricate, special-pleading dance to keep God’s hands 100% clean.
As logical dealers, we need to firmly say, “No wilds.”
(And the point of this post is that above “laborious rooting-out” and “recognition.”)
Folk responsibility should not be protected. It sucks.
The Other Avenue
Instead of the “Protected/Compromised” avenue from before, we ought to do the following:
We then assign credit and blame (and even amoral ascription!) according to the moral teleology mentioned before, precluding the absurdum that “God suddenly becomes a sinner,” and adopt compatibilism, precluding the absurdum that “we suddenly become robots.” We rightly reject such conclusions as Kochab’s Errors, subsisting on an incomplete, only-partial rejection of folk responsibility.
Further, we appeal to a manifold interest set of God to:
- Find meaningful the discrimination between primary and secondary causation. (More reading.)
- Explain, at least in theory, why things are messy at all, i.e., why God would choose the thorny response. Which he did. On purpose! (More reading.)
Remember our antagonist from Romans 9:19? “Who then can be blamed? For who can resist his will?”
Romans chs. 9 through 11 have a “national,” not an “individual” thesis.
But Paul’s response wasn’t, “You misunderstand! We individuals can resist his will.”
Rather, Paul’s response was a reiteration of God’s superordinate responsibility as a potter who makes vessels of both honorable (Gr. timen) and dishonorable (Gr. atimien) use; wine jugs and chamber pots (v. 21).
Indeed, Paul’s chapter 9 thesis is predicated on nations being like individuals, employed — sometimes despite themselves — for an ultimate chapter 11 ending.
But even though Paul did this, he proved his dynamic view of responsibility later on, in his second letter to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:20-22).
Here, he used the very same juxtaposition — of honorable implements and dishonorable implements, wine jugs and chamber pots — and emphasized the subordinate responsibility “we vessels” have to determine our own timen/atimien status!
This doesn’t work under the definition of responsibility that sucks.
The Bible’s “heterophroneo handling” of responsibility is absolutely vital.
The following chart gives an overview of the cyclic “free will debate” in the form of an adventure game. The Blue character is a compatibilist, arguing for the compatibility of human choice and responsibility with determinism, against the Green character.
Notice how the lynchpin moment happens at “responsibility for choices,” ending in a boring acceptance of compatibilism, a stubborn refusal to refine language, or a re-engagement in the cycle ad infinitum.
The following video features several thought experiments to help articulate why folk responsibility is bad, and how we, when we use our noodles, intuit responses according to dynamic responsibility instead.
Note that none of this is “Calvinism.” Many Calvinists are Christian determinists and compatibilists, but Christian determinism does not entail Calvinism, which has a number of eccentricities, especially in how it struggles with the prospect of endless hell.
A while back, my wife and I attended a small family reunion, and observed the behavior of some little humans to which I am related.
Three of the children were involved in a drawn-out game of tag, and one of those being chased was clearly losing steam.
That’s when he had an ingenious idea.
“Okay, break time!” he cried out. And all three children stopped immediately.
After all, it was break time now.
Had he shouted, “I want to take a break!,” it probably wouldn’t have had the desired effect. The chaser might even have responded, “Tough luck!” and tagged him.
By wrapping his interests in objective language, it no longer felt a disputable and subjective matter; it’s almost as if the universe itself was invoked. Discussion isn’t needed or wanted. It’s just break time.
My wife teaches second grade, and has her students do a certain small group exercise in which each group member has a role, one of which is “writer.”
During one of these exercises, she recounts a certain little boy (we’ll pretend his name was Charlie) announcing, “I’m the writer, period, end of discussion.” His groupmates were subdued immediately.
My wife saw this happen, though, and asked, “Charlie, why do you get to be writer?”
“Because,” Charlie revealed, “I want it the most.”
At this point, a wave of realization swept over the children — it wasn’t “end of discussion” at all. They’d been tricked!
Everyone wants to be writer. You don’t get to be writer just because you want it.
But if my wife hadn’t intervened, they’d never have put that together. When he just is the writer, objectively, there’s nothing to discuss.
But when he just wants to be the writer, the matter’s in dispute.
Both “Break Time” and “Rightful Writer” proceeded from personal interests, and a desire to manipulate or subjugate group behavior. But both proclamations “invoked the universe” — cited objective states of the world — in order to obfuscate those interest contingencies, since personal interest contingencies weaken attempts at group manipulation and subjugation.
The “Rightful Writer” case was especially amusing to me, because I’m almost certain the child learned this technique from his parents.
Parents do universe-invocation all the time.
Silencing the Ice Scream
There are several good reasons to reject a child’s plea for pre-dinner ice cream. If the child pesters for a “good reason,” there are many to give.
One is that delayed ice cream is effective to compel dinner-finishing. It’s “bait,” in other words.
We can’t say that, though. “You can’t have any yet because I’m using it as bait” feels manipulative, and too arbitrary against such a “really-really-needs-ice-cream-now” emergency.
Another reason is that too much dessert is unhealthy, and inconsistent giving-in yields child-spoiling. But recognition of incentive gradients to ill consequences aren’t very convincing in the moment; “I know, I know,” the child says, “It’s just this once.”
Another is that you just plain don’t want to bother.
“I’ll get it myself!” the child offers.
Nothing is working.
But what if you invoke the universe?
“Dessert comes after dinner, not before.”
Now, this isn’t to say that a child won’t continue to protest. But this new reason doesn’t feel so dodgeable. You can “rest your case” here and repeat this invocation until the child is exhausted.
Indeed, every reason that made an interest appeal had the weakness of interest-circumvention. This new reason doesn’t have an interest appeal; as a result, there’s no circumventing it.
It’s just a “fact” about dessert and dinner. No subjective referents. No slipperiness.
Hot and Cold
There are all sorts of objective things about hot and cold.
- Water boils at 100° C. That’s hot. Water freezes at 0° C. That’s cold!
- When my wife and I get into our outside-parked car on a sunny day, we rush to turn on the air conditioning. It’s hot! We want it cooler.
- During summer, it’s on-average hotter than during winter. In winter, it’s on-average colder than during summer.
Pretty straightforward, right? Seems basically objective.
The other day, though, my wife and I had a dispute in the car. I thought the cabin temperature was hot, and flipped the dial to barely-blue. My wife thought the temperature was cold, and responded by cranking the dial slightly into the red zone.
This is our eternal struggle.
You see, we have different comfort zones. Whether it’s the temperature of water or the temperature of the car, there is a dispute within the blurriness between hot and cold.
That’s because “hot” and “cold” are experiential reactions to objective things. They’re ultimately interest-driven.
Did I arbitrate my comfort zone, and my wife hers? Of course not. If we could, we’d avoid all sorts of drama by syncing-up.
But they’re subjective things — proceeding from personal interests — nonetheless.
To what can my wife appeal to win the dial debate over what we “should” do? (It’s a zero-sum game in a car without dual-zone climate control.)
She could appeal to interest-consensus to invalidate my interests. “You always are too hot. Everyone else would think it’s cold right now.”
She could circumvent interest-appeals entirely by invoking the universe. “It is not cold right now. You’re just wrong.”
But those don’t work on me anymore. I can spot them a mile away.
And so, she does the only thing left: She engages me in a physical battle over the dial, a War of Mutually-Assured Destruction (given that I’m trying to drive) that I quickly concede.
As we’ve talked about many, many times on this blog (and will continue to talk about), right decisionmaking — the way in which we determine the answers to “shoulds” and “oughts” — works like this:
The square on the upper-right is purely objective.
But the circle on the upper-left proceeds subjectively. And this can cause problems when presented with zero-sum interest impasses.
So how do we solve those problems, in practice?
- (Plan A) We can assert personal interests for sympathy or (Plan B) appeal to (hopefully) shared higher interests, but those often don’t work in genuine impasse.
- (Plan C) We can then play at invalidating their interests by appealing to consensus interests. But why should a vegetarian bow to getting pepperoni pizza just because the rest of the group wants it?
- (Plan D) We can then invoke the universe; “The thing that aligns with my interests, and against yours, is simply right, purely objectively.”
Notice what’s happening. A failure to subjugate through sympathy, shared consensus, and invalidation by external consensus naturally leads to the “pure objectivization” backup plan.
It’s technically erroneous (clearly, it is not “pure”; there are clearly interests spurring this thing).
It is meta-ethically incoherent.
It’s a language bug.
But it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that pure objectivization is the natural plan D and often works.
And, of course, a refusal at this juncture leads to a bland power struggle.
So “plan D” is the last “civilized” border town before the wild frontier, even while it’s corrupt.
Non-Objective Meaning and Morality
Meaning and morality are non-objective, which is to say, they are not purely objective.
Similarly, they are non-subjective, which is to say, they are not purely subjective.
Both the circle and the square are essential for coherent moral facts.
Ecclesiastes goes out of its way to explore this puzzle, and comes to the very same conclusion.
It’s a bullet we must bite.
But that doesn’t mean it ain’t handy to ignore this conclusion. Many smart folks have been doing so — by mistake or on purpose — for centuries.
Here’s a free truth we have by virtue of classical logic:
- All self-contradictory claims are necessarily false.
This is very useful, and (of course) very intuitive. If Harriet says I’ve got the job, and Bernard says that I haven’t got the job, we know that “Both Harriet and Bernard are correct,” is a false claim.
If you’re like me, however, your brain did something funny upon reading the above sentence.
If you’re like me, the first thing you did — upon reading that brazen declaration of the claim being false — was re-read the premise and excitedly explore if there was a strange way that Harriet and Bernard might both be correct.
For example, it may be that the hiring team is definitely going to give me the job. So in a sense, Harriet is correct; the job is headed my way. But since I don’t yet have it officially, Bernard is correct when he says I don’t have it.
It’s important to recognize, however, that to make “Both Harriet and Bernard are correct” true, we had to add extra qualifiers to make Harriet’s sense of “got the job” and Bernard’s sense of “got the job” different.
In doing so, we actually changed the premise to, “Harriet says I’ve got the job in one sense, and Bernard says that I haven’t got the job, but in a different sense.”
And, of course, it no longer necessarily follows that “Both Harriet and Bernard are correct” is a false claim.
Paradoxes vs. Contradictions
A paradox is a claim that appears to be contradictory on the surface, whether or not it actually entails a contradiction.
Paradoxes are useful for conveying non-contradictions because, by looking like a contradiction at first, they excite and engage the reader. They pique the reader’s curiosity.
This is due to stimulation of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is correlated with reward-interested contemplation, and which is extra active when dealing with spikes of uncertainty or surprise, especially in anticipation of prospective rewards. These rewards can be solid (like a donut), imagined (like a promised donut inside an actually-empty box), or psychological (like feelings of self-validation).
In other words, the brain activates “nitro,” trying extra hard to untangle what just occurred, and/or to refine strategic expectations and hold on to important data. And this “nitro” experience is almost always euphoric.
It’s a brain chemical trick, in a sense, and the Bible frequently takes advantage of it for greater resonance, just as so many songs employ rhyming and so many novels employ plot twists.
Because “All actual contradictions are false” is a “free truth” that we know for certain, it follows that if some paradox is true, it must not entail a contradiction. There must be some way to resolve it, even if humans cannot yet know that way.
Sometimes, we can think for a brief moment and see that, even on its face, the paradox in question is just wordplay using antonyms.
- For example, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first” is a mere reversal of fortune; it’s not contradictory any more than saying, “He who is hired now shall be fired tomorrow.” Exchanges, like “You must give to receive,” are similarly obviously non-contradictory.
Sometimes, we can (like with the Harriet and Bernard example above) infer qualifiers that, when selectively applied, “split” a single term into two different terms.
- For instance, “When I am weak, then I am strong” is resolved through inference and context — “Ah! He’s saying, ‘When I am weak in myself, then I am strong in Christ.'”
Sometimes, we can resolve a paradox partially by the above method, but cannot “dig deeper” once we’ve reached the limit of human observation and divine revelation.
- The Trinitarian paradox — “both three and one” — is a good example. This would be contradictory, but we’re supposed to infer qualifiers that break the contradiction: “Three in persons, but one in essence.”
Do we know precisely what “persons” and “essence” are, in that sentence? Of course not; we’re dead-ended at grunting analogies at best.
But that’s okay. The paradox is resolved, even though we’re at the limits of explication.
Finally, we can resolve some of the most notorious paradoxes through philosophical deconstruction, especially through theological quietude: Refining terms that we erroneously thought were coherently defined, jettisoning unworkable garbage, and recognizing/accepting linguistic fuzziness and modality of communication.
Some examples of philosophical deconstruction through theological quietude:
- “God ‘changes moral rules’ while being himself unchanging” can be resolved by treating moral rules as functions that make references to, among other things, those being given the rules and of what they’re capable. Check out pivotal philosopher of language R. M. Hare’s “Angelic Ladder” figure for more about this.
- “God forbidding humans to do things he himself does” is similarly resolved through the “Angelic Ladder” (but is a bit more obvious, akin to having special rules for my dog that I don’t follow).
- “God willing evil come to pass while not willing that evil come to pass” is resolved by parsing the variety of senses of “willing” and “wanting” — just as we parsed the variety of senses of “got the job” in our earlier example. See “Is God the Author of Evil? (Semantics of ‘Want/Will’)“.
- “Human responsibility vs. sovereignty.” Paradoxes of sovereign (superordinate) ascription and subordinate ascription are resolved through the Bible’s heterophroneo.
The Doctrinal Refrigerator
While there are limits to human reason and the revelation we’ve been given, with most paradoxes of doctrine, I don’t think we should feel content “riding the dopamine wave” of perpetual tension — which many believers are prone to do — however exciting (and often very mystical-sounding) it might be to do so.
Like leftovers sitting in the back of the fridge, these things can breed and cultivate incoherent doctrine, especially since contradictions serve as powerful logical wildcards.
When you’re asked which of two contradictory doctrines is correct, it’s seldom the case that the answer is simply, “Yes!”
That’s a very cute, even mystical-sounding answer. But on many issues, a moldy answer.
We have the tools — in our noggins and in our Bibles — to explore and articulate the doctrines of our faith in a best, responsible attempt at coherence.
Is killing in self-defense a sin?
As a follower of Jesus Christ, you are supposed to do everything in your power to self-defend doing the least possible damage. Killing should be “prioritized last” on our list of options, and the manner of self-defense we employ should not recklessly catalyze a “killing” conclusion.
This makes us and our families more vulnerable — when in immediate danger — than someone who is willing and eager to kill any assailant.
The previous sentence bothers some folks enough to rationalize violence in their minds. This anxiety can affect even us Christians, who are called to radical love and peace, even at the expense of our property, welfare, and lives.
The debate within Christianity is mostly tension between deontological morality and consequential morality.
Deontological morality is where “rules rule.”
About what rules are we talking here? Jesus told us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek, and showed by example what that can mean: martyrdom.
Many believers thereafter, and I’m sure plenty of their family members, too, followed that example to their graves.
Consequential morality is where “results rule.”
We can vividly imagine situations in which an otherwise ill action is the right action in terms of consequence.
For example, James praised Rahab for saving lives through deception, and we praise those who used deception to save Jews from Nazi investigators.
The clearest statement of New Covenant consequentialism comes from Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:23 — “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable; all things are lawful, but not all things are constructive” — after he relaxed a moral rule (forbidding the eating of idol-sacrificed food) held sacrosanct by the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.
Some of us — for better or for worse — extend this “justified means” to allow killing in certain circumstances.
Now, consequentialism is how morality “works,” if “morality” is defined as “right decisionmaking on lofty or grave issues.” Or, at least, that’s the assertion driving this post!
But there are two big problems with pure consequentialism:
- First, it has a subjective appeal to make. A particular person’s interest set might be wildly out of sync with the interest set of society in aggregate.
There is no “objectively right” interest set under consequentialism, because the question of “rightness” in turn makes an appeal to an interest set. Is Madeline consequentially right to defend herself and her family if her actions unintentionally spark a war? Well, depends whose interest set we’re using, right?
Madeline may say, “I don’t care! My family’s all that matters.” Under consequentialism, it is not foregone that humanity “ought be valued” at all, let alone society vs. me (some New Atheists propose otherwise, and are flatly mistaken).
- Second, we’re notoriously terrible at understanding the full consequences of our actions.
A more plausible version of the above “sparking war” example would have Madeline not at all fathoming that defending her family would spark a war!
To solve these two problems in practice, a two-fold solution is employed:
- An agent can force his interest set upon another agent. The more powerful he is, the more he is able to do this.
This power can be in numbers — i.e., a town against a serial killer — or can be in raw ability — i.e., God against the wicked.
So, an interest set is forced. It helps if these forced interests are not popularly thought to have subjective roots (even though they do).
- Once we have an interest set, we can simplify moral action using rules.
Instead of permitting a person to think for himself when contemplating whether stealing bread is justified (Surprise! He very often thinks it’s justified!) we tell him “You are forbidden to steal.”
Occasionally, this will cause something bad to happen, but a good (as defined by the interest set) rule will be generally profitable (as defined by the interest set) when followed by everyone all the time.
So, morality is simplified into rules. Assuming these rules are good (that is, generally consequentially profitable), it helps if morality is popularly thought to be “primarily about rules” (even though it isn’t) so that folks don’t think their rule-breaking is ever justified (even though it can be).
Now, we don’t simplify everything into rules; consequentialism is still how morality “works,” and we can make most decisions day-to-day by applying observation, reason, and prediction.
But for very impactful actions whose consequences are numerous and incalculable, we say to ourselves, “Only an expert should feel entitled to violate this rule” (trivially true) and “No human is an expert” (trivially true). The “free truth” that pops out of these trivial truths is, “No human should feel entitled to violate this rule.”
Further, we’re more inclined to “rule-ify” something if we notice that individuals are weirdly quick to take certain actions at the expense of everyone else. That is, for highly-tempting actions.
We can see Jesus employ this practical solution in his radical advocacy of nonviolent response:
- An interest set is forced. Our own interest set, including the safety of our families, is made subordinate to the will of God and the good of his Kingdom, and his good purposes for the whole world.
- Knowing that violent response is high-impact and highly-tempting, the morality thereof is simplified into rules.
It remains false that “the ends never justify the means” — under consequentialism, means are justified (or not) by their many ends — but extrapolating the impact of killing people to defend ourselves and our families is astronomically above our “non-expert” paygrade.
As such, we’re “no longer allowed” to think completely for ourselves about killing people.
Put simply, God’s interests reign supreme and we are non-experts. And so we’re called to be hyper, hyper reluctant, exhausting every other option, even if it means our families are at greater risk because we try warnings before punching and punching before shooting (so to speak).
We recognize that “results rule,” but we reject pure consequentialism and find rule obligations very useful. This is what compels us, in humility and obedience, to resist violence under the banner of Jesus Christ.
The following talks about the intersection of deontology and consequentialism through the figure of the “Angelic Ladder,” introduced by pivotal 20th-century Christian philosopher of language R. M. Hare:
- The Angelic Ladder (with video)
The following talks about why “the ends can’t justify the means” is false in theory, but why it’s super-useful and, for most of us, practically true when it comes to very-ill means:
- Thorny Moral Chestnuts, Pt. 1 (with diagrams)
Last summer, we talked about how the claim, “If universal reconciliation (like through purgatorial hell) were certain, then free will would be destroyed,” reveals the incoherence of libertarian notions of free will.
At that time, I gave brief support to a direct rebuttal. That wasn’t really the primary thesis, though; the primary thesis was that “this whole thing” served as a good red flag “alert” that libertarian free will is just a logical wildcard (useful in rhetoric and conceptually-evocative, but mostly incoherent and ultimately confusing).
It turns out, however, that this rebuttal wasn’t very well-crafted, and I needed to do a better job of showing clearly why that original claim is false.
Hopefully I can do that irrespective of what kind of “free will” we’re talking about or in which we believe.
In this thought experiment, we’re going to pretend that Patricia is the only human being. God created Patricia and called it done. Patricia is the whole of the human race.
Patricia sins and undergoes the Fall, and is in need of reconciliation. To accept God’s offer of reconciliation, she must exert her “free will,” whatever that might mean. But she hasn’t done it yet.
God turns to an angel and declares, “Patricia will eventually be reconciled.”
One of the following must be true:
- God’s has knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation, and this has destroyed her “free will.”
- God’s has knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation, and this has not destroyed her “free will.”
- God doesn’t have knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation; he’s just guessing or hoping.
I think most Christians (who aren’t Open Theists) would bank on option #2: God’s knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation has no effect on her freedom or lack thereof.
In this next thought experiment, we’ll pretend that Patricia and Patrick are the only human beings. They Fall, they need reconciliation, and they must exert their “free wills” to accept it.
God turns to an angel and declares, “Both Patricia and Patrick will eventually be reconciled.”
Again, one of the following must be true:
- God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of both Patricia and Patrick, and this has destroyed their “free will.”
- God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of both Patricia and Patrick, and this has not destroyed their “free will.”
- God doesn’t have knowledge of their eventual reconciliation; he’s just guessing or hoping.
That Christian from the previous thought experiment, who banked on option #2, has no justifiable reason to change his mind here. Adding a second individual changes nothing.
The trick, of course, is that God’s statements were statements of universal reconciliation in both thought experiments.
And we can just keep adding people to the thought experiment — adding Adam, Eve, Tatum, Steve, Theresa, Bree, you, me — until we arrive at the total real population of human souls.
Thus, if you’re the sort of Christian who believes that God’s knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of a particular individual does not destroy “free will,” then you’re burdened to also believe that God’s knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of everyone — if he had such knowledge — would likewise not destroy “free will.”
This argument should work no matter what you mean by “free will,” as long as you’re a “Green Christian.”
Even Vague Promises are Promises
But what if you’re not a “Green Christian?” What if you’re an “Orange Christian?”
(In this case, you’d probably be an Open Theist; you deny God’s certainty of future will-contingent events.)
Let’s revisit the second thought experiment, the one with both Patricia and Patrick.
This time, though, God turns to an angel and declares, “One of these two will eventually be reconciled; the other will never be reconciled.”
In this case, where no specific declaration is made about the destination of any particular individual, the options mutate slightly. We find that one of the following must be true:
- God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of at least one person, and this has destroyed the “free will” of both Patricia and Patrick.
- God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of at least one person, and this has not destroyed the “free will” of both Patricia and Patrick.
- God doesn’t have knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of at least one person; he’s just guessing or hoping.
Option #3 doesn’t seem so bad with only Patricia and Patrick in play.
But when we add the rest of humanity into the thought experiment — Adam, Eve, Tatum, Steve, Theresa, Bree, you, me — option #3 remains annoyingly unchanged.
In other words, for “Orange Christians,” God isn’t sure that even one person will be reconciled. It may be that, in the end, literally everybody will (in exercise of their “free will”) spurn God at the last moment.
He can play the odds, of course. “What are the chances,” a future-uncertain God might ask, “that everyone will duck out at the last moment? Pretty slim!”
But it remains possible under that paradigm. The final apocalyptic expectation may be a disaster. The New Jerusalem may be empty of citizenry.
Put simply, under option #3, God supplied us with vivid promises, and there’s a possibility that he may be proven a liar.
Either Bail Out…
That “liar possibility” is a reductio ad absurdum against option #3.
If we don’t think there’s any chance that the City will be empty — if our confidence in God’s revelatory imagery is more than just “he’s pretty dang sure some folks will make it” — then option #3 must be rejected (in favor of, say, option #2).
And if option #2 is accepted, then one is burdened to admit that God’s knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of everyone — if he had such knowledge — would not destroy “free will.”
… Or Bite the Bullet
If a person does not “bail out” of option #3, then they must bite the bullet on the possibility of a complete eschatological failure of God’s plan.
“But that’s so implausible as to be silly,” such a person might say.
But now the trap is sprung; any “probability against” this silly result can be employed as “probability against” a failure of universal reconciliation (by, say, an Open Theist who believes in universal reconciliation).
Put another way, under Open Theism, the contradictory force of universal reconciliation vs. “free will” is equal to the contradictory force of “at least somebody will be reconciled” vs. “free will.”
That is, “an infinitesimally insignificant amount of contradictory force.”
If you’re a person who asserts option #1, then there’s no “free will” regardless of whether universal reconciliation is true. As such, universal reconciliation represents no “additional invalidating power” against “free will.”
Otherwise, you’re left with either option #2 or option #3. Whichever of these other routes you take, a confidence in universal reconciliation can coexist with “free will” — regardless of how you define “free will.”
- For those of us who believe God knows the future with certainty, that confidence can be a complete confidence, and “free will” remains undestroyed.
- Under Open Theism, that confidence can be a near-complete confidence — akin to the confidence one has that at least somebody will be reconciled — and “free will” remains undestroyed.
- We can use Compatibilism — through the “heterophroneo” — to reconcile Scripture’s statements on sovereignty and freedom.
- For a big primer on purgatorialism, see the Purgatorial Hell FAQ. Included is additional discussion of free will, and how incoherent views of free will can allow “modal scope fallacies” to emerge.
Why is belief in libertarian free will popular?
We’ve explored before how the popularity of an idea is a function of that idea’s memetic virulence and resilience.
- Memetics Pt. 1: Introduction, and the “Fitness” Snag
- Memetics Pt. 2: The Four Brothers (and Their Business Booths)
- Memetics Pt. 3: The Short Tower Problem
- Memetics Pt. 4: Short Towers + Secret Gnosis
The truth or falsity of such an idea is irrelevant for popularity except insofar as that truth or falsity helps or hurts virulence and resilience.
As such, “Um, because it’s correct, DUH!” is not the “easy answer” to our question!
(1) It’s the Default Feeling
As we’ve asserted several times on this blog, libertarian free will is not a “real thing.” It has several different definitions, but all definition attempts so far have been either non-positive abstractions, or vapid, or incoherent, or simply analytically false.
Our assertion, in other words: “We don’t have it. God doesn’t have it. Nobody has it. It’s not a ‘thing to be had.'”
So, what is “it”?
Libertarian free will could be described as an amorphous conceptual blob that roughly encapsulates 3 things nearly all of us feel “by default” and “in our guts.”
- First, we cannot sense the emergence of our thoughts from their underlying causes. Choices seem “ex nihilo,” or “made out of nothing,” because we lack this sense.
It’s similar to how our depth perception stops discriminating at a certain distance, giving a starry sky the false appearance of being a dome.
- Second, we surprise ourselves, and others surprise us, with our thoughts and behaviors. Choices often “seem spontaneous.”
- Finally, those of us with well-developed frontal lobes and vivid spatiotemporal faculties often imagine “multiple future worlds” floating out there. Using our imaginations, we “fill up” these “worlds” with likely details as a way to help us make decisions.
Thus, choices can seem like they elect a “world” into being, and the other “worlds” are still floating there. Prospective hypothetical thinking (“What happens if I do this?”) gives rise to counterfactual hypothetical thinking (“What would’ve happened if I hadn’t?”), giving us the false impression that we have the ability to “have done other than what we have done.”
So, libertarian free will is something like “My decisions have some measure of being uncaused and spontaneous, and they elect between really possible worlds.” Different advocates will quibble about the definition, but generally seek an end result wherein, “I have absolute culpability for my choices and I really could have done otherwise (I don’t just imagine being able).“
(This definition seems meaningful until we demand articulation of “done otherwise.”)
And right from the outset, thanks to these feelings, libertarian free will has a huge “head start” on any competing meme by being the one held “by default” by most of us.
(2) Kochab’s Errors are Sandbags Against Competition
Since it’s the default feeling, any competing meme is a “world-rocker.”
And as we’ve discussed before, when our “worlds are rocked,” they tend to be “TOO rocked,” and we conclude — or worry about concluding — zany conclusions that shouldn’t actually follow from the new information.
This we called Kochab’s Error, and the story of Kochab gave us an amusing way to think about it.
Here are a few Kochab’s Errors that act like “sandbags” against a rejection of libertarian free will:
- “Without libertarian free will, we couldn’t be held responsible for our actions.”
This comes from a “buck stops here,” folk idea of responsibility that we know — when we spend some time noodling — doesn’t make any sense. Folk responsibility doesn’t come together philosophically and, for us Christians, doesn’t come together Biblically.
For evidence of the folly of folk responsibility, check out the article, “Holding Folk Responsibility Responsible.”
- “Without libertarian free will, we couldn’t practice genuine love.”
This is likely the oldest Kochab’s Error related to libertarian free will in Christian theology, first asserted by 2nd century apologist Justin Martyr. And it’s been a common defense — though non-cogent — of libertarian free will ever since, repeated even today by popular speakers like Ravi Zacharias and others.
These speakers claim that “genuine love” is predicated on risk. For reasons why this is not the case, check out the article, “Genuineness by Association,” on this blog.
- “Without libertarian free will, we’d be robots or puppets.”
This is the most “Kochab” of the Kochab’s Errors, since it represents a severely irrational non sequitur from an acceptance of adequate determinism. We’re surprised that Kochab’s rethinking of the size of our world would affect the distance between two cities; it is similarly nonsensical to imagine that we “become” something lesser upon adequate determinism “becoming” true.
Consider the following thought experiment. Let’s pretend that God decided that on half the days of the year, humans would have libertarian free will. On the other half, their choices would be adequately deterministic (that is, our wills would be strict functions of who we are at a given moment).
How would we be able to tell which days were “on” and which were “off”?
The answer is, “We couldn’t, because the presence or lack of libertarian free will is 100% indiscernible and nonfunctional.” Think of it. The thought experiment above could very well be the way of things right now, and we’d have no way of knowing!
Put simply, whether or not adequate determinism is true, we can make the two benign assertions: First, that we have thoughts and emotions. And second, that robots and puppets do not. Everything else, like whether we make choices through biological mechanisms and/or whether our behavior is back-traceable to external causes, should be discussed on their own merits, without pejorative nicknames therefor.
For more, check out the article, “Does Determinism Make Us Robots?,” on this blog.
- “Without libertarian free will, all events would be reducible to God’s will, and God would be the author of evil.”
Whenever we talk about reducing, we need to make sure we aren’t radically reducing, and blasting past checkpoints of meaning that we know are important.
What’s the important checkpoint here? The reduction-stopper at play is the phenomenon of “deterministic chaos.” Because of the way our universe works, authorship “evaporates” over time unless deliberately reasserted. As such, things can emerge that cannot meaningfully be called God’s authorship, and we find it useful to draw a distinction between “primary causation” and “secondary causation.”
As you can see, each of these sandbags takes hard work to drain.
The whole endeavor requires scaling the scaffolding of things like ethics, semantics, and metaphysics.
Who has time for that?
Who has the patience?
Who has the driving interest?
Some folks do, but the vast majority of us don’t. As such, the memetic sandbags remain for almost everybody.
The Resilient Cocktail
The end result is an idea cocktail that is very resilient.
- First, it’s held by-default. It’s intuitive, even if it isn’t coherently articulable. It’s “gut true,” even if nobody can define it in a way that makes positive sense.
- Second, it resists competition by means of an array of Kochab-driven sandbags. This is especially true for us Christians, since some of these sandbags are traditional and theological.
And thus, libertarian free will remains extremely popular, irrespective of its truth or lack thereof.
It’s possible to talk about our free will while rejecting libertarian free will. We can do this through “compatibilism.” To see how this approach works using Scripture, check out, “Freedom & Sovereignty: The Heterophroneo.”
It is not necessary to accept Calvinism under Christian determinism. For a helicopter view of the “sovereignty situation,” see “The Big Three Sovereignties.”
Love is great.
But truth is great, too.
What do we do when the two appear to be in conflict?
The answer for some believers is to “speak truth in love.”
But is this reliable as an M.O.? Are we actually equipped to do this consistently?
First, it’s important to dissect what “truth in love” actually means.
The phrase comes from Ephesians 4:14-15.
“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”
This is “truth against gullibility,” ferried by loving concern for the health of the church.
It is a very specific kind of truth. It’s not an affirming truth, but a discerning or, more specifically, judgmental truth.
It’s a truth that calls-out and puts-down and, as such, must be buttressed with love to avoid being needlessly discouraging or excessively offensive.
We can imagine it a bit like this:
In an ideal world, when we try to practice “judgmental truth in love,” we’d see this:
“A delivery of judgmental truth with a balancing portion of patience, compassion, understanding, mercy, and tenderness.”
But this idealism is confounded by…
One Weird Psychological Quirk
This quirk is called validation-seeking.
Our inner piping works with several different neurotransmitters, two of which are dopamine and serotonin.
- Dopamine is correlated with feelings of anticipatory excitement and stimulation; problems with dopamine are correlated with a bleak lack of hope.
- Serotonin is correlated with feelings of satisfaction and well-being; problems with serotonin are correlated with prospective anxiety and retrospective guilt.
Excitement about prospects, combined with our desire to minimize past guilt and future anxiety, makes us extra-prone to seek self-securing “proofs.” We want external praise from bosses, loved ones, and even strangers, in service of a feeling of being “well-equipped” to tackle anything.
When someone insults us, it stings precisely because it threatens our future.
It can make us doubt our attractiveness or our intelligence or our knowledge — and we need attractiveness to charm people, intelligence to figure things out, and knowledge to know how the world is. Heaven forbid we are repulsive, stupid, or ignorant!
And these insults hurt all the more when they’re done in front of others.
We worry, “What if the others think I’m repulsive, stupid, or ignorant? They won’t want to be my friend,” or “They won’t offer me the good assignment,” or “They won’t want to go out with me,”
It’s one thing to feel like we have the “mining tools” to excavate whatever “gold mine.” That feels good. And when those tools are threatened, we react very poorly.
But we’d also like to find that the “other person’s tools” are subpar, or that she can’t mine opportunities like we can.
In other words, it helps our self-confidence when other people — especially those with whom we are not close — are revealed to have faults.
The last sentence should resonate with most of us.
- It’s what makes gossip so addictive.
- It’s what makes “this generation stinks” narratives so stimulative to parent generations.
- It’s what cultivates “us-versus-those-idiots” political and culture warfare.
When someone we don’t care about or actively dislike stumbles, we delight in it, as it validates our lives (our choices and character) through the invalidation of their choices and character.
But why does this matter?
The Hidden Weight
It matters because, thanks to these neurochemical patterns, there’s a hidden weight of “love for judgment” attached to the scale.
That is, whenever we try to practice “judgmental truth in love,” our secret “love for judgment” tilts the scales, and the “judgmental end” far outweighs the expressed patience, compassion, understanding, mercy, and tenderness.
When the hypocritical teachers in Jesus’s day went after sinners — like prostitutes and grifters — I’m sure a large number of them convinced themselves that this was a loving judgment; “I indict because I care.”
When we try to practice “judgmental truth in love,” we express an imbalance, just like that expressed by the teachers that Jesus
We imagine that we’re doing this:
But what actually happens is this, making the whole structure unbalanced:
In other words, “practice judgmental truth in love” leads to “express judgmental truth with little love at all.”
The solution is to “practice love overwhelmingly“:
This is uncomfortable for us, because it seems like we’re loving too much. Our loss-aversive fear and worry of “excessive tolerance” and “slippery slopes” makes us terrified of how unbalanced we imagine the final expression will be.
But when we “practice love overwhelmingly,” our innate predilection towards judgment magically makes up the difference — without us even trying! — and the final expression is a balanced “truth in love”:
It’s not that Jesus didn’t care about virtuous behavior, it’s just that his M.O. was always “accept first.” He openly invited the “classic” sinners, as well as hypocrites with hidden sins, to rush in to the Kingdom of God.
It’s no mistake that Jesus says the greatest commandment is love (Matthew 22:36-40):
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
It’s no mistake that Jesus’s “sheep/goat” judgment is based on expressed, charitable love (Matthew 25:37-40):
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”
It’s no mistake that Paul says love fulfills the Law and prophets (Galatians 5:6b, 14):
“The only thing that counts is faith, through love, working [Gr. pistis di agapes energoumene]. … For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
It’s no mistake that Jesus mandates a “plank-removal” prerequisite to judgment (Matthew 7:4):
“How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”
It’s no mistake that Paul lambasts those who hypocritically judge unbelievers and hedonists, as if they themselves were completely faithful and pure (Romans 2:1):
“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”
It’s no mistake that Paul explicitly declares love superior to faith (1 Corinthians 13:13):
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
It’s no mistake that John predicates true faith on expressed, merciful love (1 John 4:7-8, 18):
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. … There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
It’s no mistake that Paul gives us only one continuing debt — that of loving others (Romans 13:8-10):
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
It’s no mistake that James lauds the “royal law of freedom” — loving others — by positing that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:8, 12-13):
“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. … Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
These aren’t typos.
The specific admonitions to specific audiences in Scripture are not our “highest pillar.”
Niddling legalism and culture mores — even those declared universal, like Paul’s opinions about gender and hair length — must always be subordinate and subservient to the royal law of freedom.
It’s one thing to recognize this “king love” hierarchy in the Kingdom of God.
It’s another to express it.
And to express it truly — to fight past the human propensity for self-validating hypocrisy and judgment — requires overwhelming love-driven practice.
To hit the target with a weak bow, one must aim shockingly high.
So aim shockingly high.
For a thought experiment that explores the disruptive force of love under New Covenant morality, read “The Fourfaced Writ.”
The Book of Job is one of the most important of the entire Bible, and is a prerequisite to all discussions of Christian theology, particularly theodicy.
Unfortunately, two erroneous interpretations of Job’s theses are by far the most popular.
Job the Hero: The Sunday School Interpretation
In Sunday School as a child, the Book of Job was presented to me as the story of:
- Satan’s challenge to God,
- Job’s suffering as a result,
- Job courageously refusing to curse God through the suffering,
- and God rewarding that fortitude with recompense and a happy ending.
This is the story of Job in the shallow end of the Christian pool. Take a gander, for example, at Christian heavy metal band Tourniquet’s take on the story:
Bad Friends: The “No Heroes” Interpretation
The other popular “take-away” from Job is that when someone is suffering, words only make things worse, and each person who talked to Job was wrong.
Job’s friends Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad are indeed rebuked, in the end, by God himself. And Job’s complaints against his friends would seem to serve such a thesis.
Ravi Zacharias wrote in his recent book, “Why Suffering? Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense”:
“[A ‘negative reality’ emerged in] the colossal failure of [Job’s] friends. They were at their best when they took time out of their own lives just to be with him, saying nothing. The moment they began to give their own observations for why Job was suffering and offer their suggestions for remedying his situation, Job’s pain intensified. To be loved and feel cared about is what someone who is hurting needs from friends.”
Zacharias sees the problem of Job’s friends remedied only by God’s ultimate arrival:
“So the failure we see in the story of Job is the failure of friendship. Then comes the answer of God. God’s answer was not propositional, but relational. And that is what Job most needed. He simply needed to know that God was with him through his ordeal… that God had not abandoned him.”
The Problems With These Interpretations
The former interpretation accounts for Job chapters 1, chapter 2 verses 1 through 10, and chapter 42 verses 10 through 16. As such, it is missing about 40 chapters of content.
The latter interpretation has completely jettisoned the most overlooked prophet in the Old Testament: Elihu.
An Overview of Job
Job’s 42 chapters contain the following:
- An introduction to Job’s predicament.
- Job arguing with friends Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad about whether Job is righteous vs. whether God is just.
- Elihu arguing against both Job and Job’s 3 friends.
- The Storm of God arriving and boasting of His transcendent power, wisdom, and justice.
- The conclusion: Job repents, God rebukes Job’s 3 friends (not Elihu), and Job is given recompense (as far as it can be called that).
Notice how much material Elihu provides, material never thereafter rebutted, left to be punctuated by God himself. Isn’t it odd that he is so often forgotten, bundled as “just another friend” alongside Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad?
Elihu as Prophet
Elihu is not a shy character. He’s a young upstart, and makes no apologies about the wisdom he brings to the table:
“I thought, ‘Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.’ But it is the spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding. It is not only the old who are wise, not only the aged who understand what is right. … My words come from an upright heart; my lips sincerely speak what I know. The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life. … Be silent, [Job,] and I will teach you wisdom. … Hear my words, you wise men [Eliphaz, Zophar, Bildad]; listen to me, you men of learning. … So listen to me, you men of understanding. … If you have understanding, hear this; listen to what I say.”
All this, and God does not rebuke him like he rebukes everyone else.
Because Elihu really is providing us with truth and revelation.
He really is confronting Job, Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad and correcting their bad theology.
“Bear with me a little longer and I will show you that there is more to be said on God’s behalf. I get my knowledge from afar; I will ascribe justice to my Maker. Be assured that my words are not false; one who has perfect knowledge is with you.”
This isn’t some joke.
This is prophecy.
Elihu is on the scene to resolve the dispute, chastising both prior groups and offering the correct theological perspective.
Job’s Lamentation Theology
The calamity that befalls Job — and for which God is superordinately responsible (he deliberately gave permission to Satan here, after all) — prompts Job to regret the day he was born. He claims personal righteousness, and thus his misfortunes must be indicative (given that superordinate responsibility) of injustice in God, given that justice means, “He repays everyone for what they have done; he brings on them what their conduct deserves (Job 34).”
Job laments the fact that he cannot approach God personally with the case for his innocence; he yearns to do so! His friends aren’t “buying” that case, but Job surmises that a person lives that could vindicate him.
Job doesn’t relax God’s classical attributes. He fully endorses God’s omnipotence and superordinate responsibility (Job 12), as well as his cosmic wisdom (Job 28).
As such, Job’s theodicean solution — his “lamentation theology” — is to indict God’s benevolence.
“There is no justice,” Job says.
The Karmic Folk Theology of Eliphaz, Zophar, & Bildad
Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad have different emphases, but repeat some similar themes, and since are all rebuked, can be treated as a group.
Their argument is as follows: Since God is just (“He repays everyone for what they have done”) and superordinately responsible for what happens to a person, then if something bad happens to a person, it must be in response to something that person has done. Eliphaz articulates this “common sense” karmic folk theology:
“Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it.”
Bildad, for example, jumps to the conclusion that Job’s sons must have been sinners, too:
“Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right? When your children sinned against him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin.”
Every time Job insists that he’s innocent, his friends go the opposite direction: Job must be super wicked, and trying to hide it. Zophar says:
“Though evil is sweet in [a wicked man’s] mouth, and he hides it under his tongue… [it] will turn sour in his stomach [and] become the venom of serpents within him.”
As Job proves adamant in his own defense, his friend Bildad retreats to that classic “catch-all” of total depravity: As a human, you are so beneath God that you are a worthless maggot and deserve whatever happens to you.
“How then can a mortal be righteous before God? How can one born of woman be pure? If even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in his eyes, how much less a mortal, who is but a maggot; a human being, who is only a worm!”
Eliphaz weaves a powerful figure: A wealthy man, portly and happy, brought down to shriveling, sickly misery.
Elihu’s Rejection of Job’s Lamentation Theology
First, Elihu sees it within human capacity to discern God’s justice in the abstract, even if we don’t know how it plays out day-by-day. He rejects the idea that God’s goodness and justice are completely inscrutable, as if something without human-appreciable meaning.
“For the ear tests words as the tongue tastes food. Let us discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good.”
Elihu further defines justice (“He repays everyone for what they have done”) and rejects the notion that God would pervert justice.
So, Elihu joins Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad against Job’s claim of innocence.
“His eyes are on the ways of mortals; he sees their every step. … Should God then reward you on your terms, when you refuse to repent? … [We all agree that] Job speaks without knowledge; his words lack insight. Oh, that Job might be tested to the utmost for answering like a wicked man! To his sin he adds rebellion; scornfully he claps his hands among us and multiplies his words against God.”
Elihu’s Rejection of Karmic Folk Theology
But here’s where it gets interesting.
Elihu agrees, Job has sinned, insofar as Job arrogantly indicted God for injustice, speaking “of things [he] did not understand”; Job’s plea, laden with such “empty talk,” was brazen, reckless, and cheap.
But he rejects the notion that man is a “maggot” who deserves whatever befalls him. The transcendence of God to man does not make man despised, but rather, makes man’s wickedness less impactful to God:
“Look up at the heavens and see; gaze at the clouds so high above you. If you sin, how does that affect him? If your sins are many, what does that do to him? … Your wickedness only affects humans like yourself.”
Instead of a “despised mankind” narrative, Elihu crafts a narrative in which God has an instrumental purpose for all he does:
“God is mighty, but despises no one; he is mighty, and firm in his purpose.”
In this way, God’s justice is comprehensible, but the intricacies of how that justice will be made manifest are mysterious. God is not a flayer; he’s a teacher:
“Who is a teacher like him? Who has prescribed his ways for him, or said to him, ‘You have done wrong’? … How great is God — beyond our understanding!”
It’s less about “vengeance,” but instead about correction, forebearing as long as that purpose has hope:
“He tells [the sinner] what they have done — that they have sinned arrogantly. He makes them listen to correction and commands them to repent of their evil.”
He recrafts Eliphaz’s tale of the sickened man into a narrative of redemption:
“Someone may be chastened on a bed of pain with constant distress in their bones, so that their body finds food repulsive and their soul loathes the choicest meal. Their flesh wastes away to nothing, and their bones, once hidden, now stick out. They draw near to the pit, and their life to the place of the dead.
Yet if there is an angel at their side, a messenger, one out of a thousand, sent to tell them how to be upright, and he is gracious to that person and says to God, ‘Spare them from going down to the pit; I have found a ransom for them — let their flesh be renewed like a child’s; let them be restored as in the days of their youth’ — then that person can pray to God and find favor with him, they will see God’s face and shout for joy; he will restore them to full well-being. … God does all these things to a person — twice, even three times — to turn them back from the pit, that the light of life may shine on them.”
Christ as Victor
We’ve talked before about how the existential dilemma of Ecclesiastes — ultimate meaninglessness — received a practical solution in Christ as conqueror of death.
In Job, we see the dilemma of justice, where the wicked may enjoy the peace of death without their due repayment, and where the playing-out of God’s justice may involve the unrewarded — in life — suffering of the faithful.
Christ, as conqueror of death, is also the final judge. The final judgment is not for God’s edification — Elihu correctly explains that God doesn’t need to hold a tribunal — but for ours. And through that process, all “loose ends” can be wrapped-up entirely:
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
Elihu as Bridge
From the Jewish Encyclopedia:
“[Elihu’s] meaning is ‘He is my God’ [in the sense of] ‘He remains my God and does not change.’ … [His] argument is as follows: God is the educator of mankind, who punishes only until the sinner has atoned for his sin and recognizes his wrong-doing. Then God has attained His object, to ‘bring back his soul from the pit, to be enlightened with the light of the living.’
Elihu, therefore, holds a middle ground, maintaining that God neither ‘takes away judgment,’ nor sends suffering merely as a punishment, but acts as the educator and teacher of mankind.”
Elihu is our “bridge” to Christ. His is a theological response that unites justice and mercy — not by conflating them, but by employing them as part of a single grand plan.
His is a rejection of pure retribution and an embrace of prospective instrumentality, an exaltation of a God who is mighty, despises no one, and is firm in his purpose.
Elihu, who heralds the Lord Himself:
“Out of the north he comes in golden splendor;
God comes in awesome majesty.
The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power;
in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress.”