The New Christians

The New Christians


Comment of the Weekend

posted by Tony Jones

I’m glad to see that my weekend quote of Dante stirred up some commentary.  Here’s one, from Ben, followed by a response from me. (My apologies for Ben’s masculine language.)

I’m not sure how to understand Dante’s use of “free will” here but I’m
sure I don’t like Pinnock’s use of the term. I think there is some
confusion here and I think it would be helpful to define what we mean
by “will.” Clearly no man has the “free will” to fly, run faster than a
speeding bullet, etc because these things are not in his ability to do.
Mankind’s [sic] nature constrains him, even though he may want to do these
things. Furthermore, man [sic] only ever chooses that which he wants to do.
(The person injuring himself chooses bodily pain over emotional pain;
the person who eats collard greens probably values his health more than
an a food preference for a Snickers.) It is not anyone “constraining”
him to do these things, but HE IS BOUND by his own nature and desires.
So too, humans make real choices that entail real consequences, but
these are all constrained by nature, and thus are “free” in only a
limited sense.

Now Paul says, humans are “by nature, children of wrath”
which means that it is our nature to oppose God, leaving us incapable
of doing good. But thanks be to God, that He does not leave us there!
By His grace, God intervenes in the world and lets “children of wrath”
do some good things. Furthermore, some He changes so radically that
they become people who have a nature that loves righteousness and doing
good. It’s like these people are born a 2nd time (John 3).

Thus, I’d
agree with Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and J. Edwards: man has a free
will to make real choices in this world, but that will is bound by
man’s “contagion”, by his indwelling sin-nature to oppose God. Thus no
man can choose God or Christ or love without God first acting on that
person’s heart to create in them a new desire, love and will. So if
someone defines “free will” as “ability to choose any option at any
time” then I would vigorously disagree, but I would affirm biblically
that man has “free will” – meaning he makes real choices in the world,
even as the Sovereign God guides all things by His eternal decree from
infinity past. I find no conflict in affirming that God has decreed all
things from eternity past and yet humans make real choices in this
world that they will be held accountable for.

Brian, I would contend that the ideas of God being King (similar to a
Caesar – although holy, just, loving…) and being
different-from-mankind are biblical, not just from Greek philosophy,
etc.
Genesis 1 – God creates everything that is created and therefore
clearly is distinguished as the only being that is completely
self-sufficient.
Malachi 6:3 – “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children
of Jacob are not consumed.”
Colossians 1:16 – “For by [Jesus] all things were created, in heaven
and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or
rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him.”

Also – is the line between “coercing” love and “inspiring” love clear
for you? Did my wife inspire my love, or could I not also say that she
even coerced my love? Not by physical force or manipulation of course,
but coercion by her beauty, love and charm? I suggest that God’s work
in a sinner MUST be one of radical wooing – even “coercion” if you want
to call it that – because otherwise His advances would only lead
mankind to be all-the-more disgusted with Him, just like Laura Winslow
so often became disgusted with the advances of Steve Urkel. The real
question is – back to the Original Sin discussion – does man have a
will that can simply be re-directed to God (as Laura finally chose
Urkel), or is it so diseased and God-opposed that it first needs a “new
birth” in order for the heart to love God and His commandments? For me,
the Bible clearly affirms the latter.

TJ – I’m curious what was taught at PTS – do most teachers run in the
Reformed stream and affirm God’s sovereignty, man’s fallen nature, and
the primacy of God’s grace in salvation? Do most / many affirm the
libertarian form of free-will espoused by Pinnock (and possible Dante)?

Ben, the answer to your question is that it didn’t even come up, as far as I can remember.  The Reformed vs. Open Theism debate (think Piper vs. Boyd in the 90s) didn’t even make the radar of mainline theologians.  This debate is an exclusively evangelical debate, stemming from a literalistic hermeneutic that has to make sense of every phrase that seems to connote something about the nature of God.

The question of freewill was discussed a lot in my PhD seminars at Princeton, but always in the context of the sociological: structuralism vs. post-structuralism vs. rational actor theory.  I’m a post-structuralist.  And, no surprise, I think the Bible sets forth a post-structuralist account, too.  In fact, I think much of what Jesus did was to upset the controlling structures and paradigms of his day.



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Dan H

posted February 23, 2009 at 11:30 am


Hi Tony,
Could you possibly flesh out more what you mean when you apply post-structuralism to the question of free will, or whether we have a ‘sin nature’ of any sort? I did a bit of study on structural/post-structuralisms, but it was focused more on how we read texts (and was not very comprehensive, as you can probably tell). Specifically, while Jesus did indeed challenge many ‘controlling structures and paradigms of his day’, how do you see him (or Scripture in general) directly addressing the issue of free will, or the extent of our sinfulness, from a post-structuralist framework?
I guess this is a fancy way of saying, ‘I don’t get it.’



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Raymond

posted February 23, 2009 at 11:45 am


So how does this relate to my In-N-Out addiction? Am I back on the hook?



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jhimm

posted February 23, 2009 at 12:14 pm


I have to conclude that I am over-simplifying what I am reading here, and thus failing to correctly understand what is being asserted. When I read this:
“Thus no man can choose God or Christ or love without God first acting on that person’s heart to create in them a new desire, love and will. So if someone defines “free will” as “ability to choose any option at any time” then I would vigorously disagree, but I would affirm Biblically that man has “free will” – meaning he makes real choices in the world, even as the Sovereign God guides all things by His eternal decree from infinity past. I find no conflict in affirming that God has decreed all things from eternity past and yet humans make real choices in this world that they will be held accountable for.”
I “hear” something that boils down to “yes, you really are genuinely choosing eggs and bacon vs. pancakes for breakfast, but with regards to anything important like, say, the state of your soul, you have zero control of any kind over this, it is all up to G-d’s omniscience”.
Could someone please clarify for me further a more correct interpretation of that paragraph?



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Brian

posted February 23, 2009 at 3:57 pm


Tony says, “The Reformed vs. Open Theism debate (think Piper vs. Boyd in the 90s) didn’t even make the radar of mainline theologians.” I would argue with this statement a bit. Some Mainline theologians followed many of these Evangelical debates, including this particular one. How closely they followed these debates depended on their background, time, and interest. But Tony is right to point out that Piper and Boyd are Evangelicals and therefore attracked a more Evangelical audience. It’s all about context!
Mainline theologians were having their own debates about these issues. Theologians from “free will” tradions such as Methodists and Desciples of Christ tended to follow Process theologians such as John B. Cobb. On the other side of the debate, theologians from the Reformed tradition, such as the Lutherans and Presbyterian Church (USA), tended to follow theologians such as Karl Barth. So for Mainline thelogians in general the debate was focused between Process Theology and Neo-Orthodoxy instead of between Piper and Boyd.
Mainline theologians, like Evangelical theologians, are very diverse and cannot be thought of as a monolithic bloc. Mainline theologians include a diverse group, including: Catherine Keller, George Lindbeck, Friedrich Schleiermacher, John B. Cobb, H. Richard Niebuhr, Jonathan Edwards, Stanley Hauerwas, Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, Charles Finney, etc. I can’t even imagine all of them in one room together! So, yeah, we’re a tossed salad of theologians and theologies.



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Brian

posted February 23, 2009 at 4:34 pm


Theological anthropology seems to be an important aspect of this conversation. So perhaps it would be helpful to open that part of the conversation up a little further.
Theological anthropology just means thinking about humanity in relation to God. It seeks to explore who and what we to God and in GOd’s world. The paradox of theological anthropology is that humanity is both made in the image of God and sinful at the same time. There are two basic orientations which navigate this tension.
First, there is low theological anthropology, which holds to a more pessimistic, sinful/fallen view of humanity. Such an understanding requires a God that is sovereign and able to unilaterally help the broken creatures. Karl Barth, living through the human horrors of Nazi Germany, held to such anthropology. For this reason, Barth argued for a turn away from the fallen state of human reason. For him, God is sovereign and the Bible is the only proper revelation of God. While neo-orthodoxy is considered mainstream, the docrtine of double predestination is an extreme example low theologial anthropology.
Second, there is high theological anthropology, which maintains a more optimistic, agential perception of humanity. Within this understanding, God’s power is more truncated to make space for the agency of humanity. Here, humans are understood more in terms of co-creators or “imago dei.” An extreme example of this perspective is the “high liberalism” of late 19th century Protestantism which had demoted the divinity of Jesus and associated the Reign of God with Western progress.
There are third options, such as the existential theological anrthopology in Process Theology. In this perspective humanity is simultaneously saint and sinner, faithful and fallen. God works through persuasive power to beckon humanity to God’s vision of justice, goodness, holiness, etc. Due to God working through persuasive power in Cobb’s Process perspective, it is incumbent upon humanity to open themselves to and respond faithfully to God’s call. Thus, discerning God’s saving and sanctifying calls for our lives is an important part of the faith journey. In the words of Suchocki, “God calls: We answer. In the answering we participate along with God in our own ongoing creation. Responding, we are responsible.”
God is the one who is our hope in existential theological anthropology. God’s call is trustworthy, just, holy, etc. because it leads to salvation and santification. But in the end it is humanity’s decision in each moment to be faithful to God. Cobb writes, “God offers possibilities that would lead us into the new life we need. God lures, urges, and persuades. We decide.” In each moment we can either choose to live open and faithful to God and experience hope and freedom, or we can lived closed off and unfaithful to God and experience bondage and sin. Each moment is a new moment.
While Process theology has a high theological anthropology in appearance (i.e. agential role of humanity), it is actually a low theological anthropology in practice (i.e. humanity continually fails). However, the most accurate description of this theological anthropology would existential. Each moment is a moment to live faithfully or sinfully. The community that is dedicated to consciously attempting to live faithfully to God as decisively revealed in Jesus Christ is known as the faithful.



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Albert the Abstainer

posted February 23, 2009 at 11:45 pm


Real free will is illusionary. Don’t believe me, try controlling your thoughts or dreams. The state we occupy is continuously changing in response to being a physical part of a physical universe. Our complexity not withstanding, emergent states are not within our ability to anticipate and control. We are not independent or even partially independent of the universe in which we reside. Hence, no free will.
We do, however, a strong subjective sense of being an independent free agent, such that all but the most dogmatic of deterministics behave as though real free will existed.
So there is your paradox of the day.



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Jeebus Freak

posted February 24, 2009 at 2:11 pm


Albert:
Even “the most dogmatic of deterministics behave as though real free will existed.” You have to. Don’t believe me? Try going out to eat and ordering your dinner without deciding what to order. You can’t just say, “I’m a determinist, I’ll just wait and see what I order when the time comes.” You still have to decide. You still have to choose. Illusion or no, choosing is the process that precedes all human action. Argue against it all you want, you’re still choosing to do so.
By the way, from a scientific stand point- your assertion about being part of a physical universe assumes that such a physical universe always abides by a rote pregression of cause to effect. What about the uncertainty prinicple? What about chaos theory? What about quantum physics? There are parts of the universe- basic, tiny parts, that behave in ways that we cannot predict and do not appear to be mitigated by any external forces. Why should quarks and photons be more free than us?
Paradox doesn’t bother me at all. Paradox is a flashpoint for divine mystery. God knows everything, what I’ve done, what I will do. But God still lets me decide. Doesn’t make sense. Makes me feel a little dizzy thinking about it. I like that feeling.



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