Sunday, April 28, 2013

Critiquing a Defense of Compatibilism

What follows is my analysis of a discussion which took place on Greg Koukl's "Stand To Reason" radio program on November 19, 2012.

The discussion began with the caller, who described himself as "non-calvinist," and noted that libertarian free will is inconsistent with the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election, a notion that the host, Greg Koukl, was quick to affirm. But the caller also brought precisely the challenge that I just highlighted in "Compatible, Schmatible." He said,  "…if God sovereignly chooses, then I feel like I didn't legitimately choose.' And it is here where Koukl expressed disagreement and attempted to make a case for Compatibilist Freedom.

I found myself nodding enthusiastically at the caller's point: If God chooses for us, then how can we say that we choose anything?

Now, I've heard Koukl defend the elect's choice to believe as a "free choice" by saying that, well, God reaches down and 're-inclines our will' and then we choose, but because our will, our nature, has been altered, the choice we make to trust in Christ is a "free" choice. But this raises a question, seems to me:

Did we choose to have our will re-inclined in this way?

The answer must be "No." So even under Koukl's scenario, the choice is a direct (and, under the principle of Irresistible Grace, inevitable) result of this 're-inclining of our will' which itself was not our choice. The sum total of that is that our choice to trust in Christ does not reflect our own intentions or desires, it reflects God's. In other words, it wasn't our choice.  The caller's instincts are right on.

So all of that might help see what's going on with the rest of this call, where the host tries to defend the idea of Compatibilism, and explain why (though he never actually gets there) a Compatibilist choice can still be thought of as a genuine, meaningful choice. Here's how it goes:

Koukl: I do think you are right in suggesting that libertarian freedom on the salvation question is inconsistent with sovereign grace and election in the Calvinist or Reformed sense. …I think you are mistaken in saying that if God makes a choice for me, that somehow that choice also can't- uh, I can't make a choice for God that is a meaningful choice. … and I think I have a way of explaining that, did you want to hear it?

Caller: Yeah, I'll listen.

Koukl: Okay. When you make a decision to sin, are you making--broadly speaking--a decision here that you could have done otherwise? That is, as a fallen person can you live a sinless life if you choose to?

Caller: No.

Koukl: No, [Koukl agrees] you end up choosing sin, but the reason you're choosing sin is that your nature is fallen… is that a fair way of putting it?

Caller: Yes.

Koukl: Yes. And so the choice to sin is an inevitable result of our fallen nature.

That question about "when you make a decision to sin" is where the host pulls a bait and switch. The caller didn't realize it, but the question was actually two different questions with two different answers. The first half of the question was this:

"When you make a decision to sin, are you making …a decision here that you could have done otherwise?"

This question is about Libertarian Freedom, and notice that he's asking about in individual decision to commit a particular sin. Koukl wants the caller to give a "No" answer, because that would support Compatibilism. But even Koukl knows the answer to that part of the question is "Yes." How do I know? Because I've heard him say that even the unregenerate man doesn't sin at every opportunity he's given. This means that on occasion the unregenerate person is making a choice not to sin. And that means that whenever a, unregenerate person is presented with the opportunity to sin, that person could go either way. He could give in to that opportunity, or he can resist that opportunity. So, the answer to the first half of the question is actually "Yes."

So the first part of Koukl's question was about an individual decision to sin at a point in time. But then Koukl cleverly--and quickly--repackages the question:

"That is, as a fallen person can you live a sinless life if you choose to?"

Well now wait just a darned minute. That is a different question altogether! We were talking about an individual decision to sin, but now, suddenly, we're talking about an aggregate of all the decisions a person has made throughout their life. And he leads into it with "That is…" which dresses it up like a rephrase of the first question. But it's really a very different question with a very different answer. The answer to this question is "No" while the answer to the first was "Yes." Koukl has pulled a bait-and-switch on the caller.

So then Koukl says "No, you end up choosing sin."

Well, compatibilism isn't about how things "end up." Again, it's not about the aggregate. Compatibilism is about individual choices (the choice to believe in Christ, for example). And the answer to the first half of Koukl's question is "Yes" and this falsifies Compatibilism.

So then Koukl says that the choice to sin is the "inevitable result" of your fallen nature. Well, not so fast. First of all, notice now that Koukl seems to have switched back now to talking about a single choice to commit a particular sin at a moment in time… isn't that interesting? Again, consider Koukl's acknowledgment that even the unregenerate man doesn't necessarily sin at every opportunity he's given. In other words, sin isn't really "inevitable" for the unregenerate man on a moment-to-moment basis. It is only "inevitable" in the aggregate… but it turns out that's true whether you're regenerate or not. When viewed in its totality, everyone's life "ends up" being tainted by sin. Nobody lives a sinless life, saved or otherwise. And yet by the same token, a look back through the pages of anyone's life would reveal individual decisions not to commit particular sins, even when the opportunity to sin was there. And that brings us to the topic of "Total Depravity."

Here we can find some interesting doublespeak within the Calvinist paradigm. In his book "The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism," Craig Brown uses a quote from Steele and Thomas to explain the Calvinist concept of Total Depravity:

"The sinner is dead, blind and deaf to the things of God. His heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt. His will is not free, (an allusion to compatibilism) it is in bondage to his evil nature, therefore he will not--indeed he cannot--choose good over evil."

Later in the same chapter, Brown writes:

"All of man's nature is corrupted by sin, but he is not as evil as he could be."

R.C. Sproul says it this way:

"Total depravity is not utter depravity. We are not as wicked as we possibly could be."

Well, it finally struck me just how self-contradictory this notion is, and it becomes, then, easy to see why Koukl had to bait-and-switch his caller the way he did. Compatibilism is shown to be false by the fact that humans with corrupt, evil and rebellious natures are capable of choosing against sin on an individual, choice-by-choice basis, even if they are unable to avoid sin over the course of an entire lifetime. One central claim of Compatibilism is that it is impossible to choose contrary to one's nature. Well, all that is needed to falsify this is one example of an unregenerate person choosing not to commit a particular sin on a particular day. And I don't even need to find a specific example, because no 5-point Calvinist appears to want to deny it! It would be absurd to suggest that an unregenerate person will sin at every opportunity given them. Imagine what the world would be like if that were true. And yet, thinking back to the quote from Thomas and Steele, wouldn't that have to be the case if the unregenerate man was truly "in bondage to his evil nature?" What does "in bondage to his evil nature" mean if it doesn't mean that the unregenerate man must sin at every opportunity given him?

Compatibilism is also falsified by the fact that genuinely regenerate persons do choose to commit sin. And again, I don't need to provide examples, Calvinists do not deny that this is the case. But since the regenerate person supposedly has a new nature, then the Christian's choice to commit a sin runs contrary to that "new" nature. Therefore, Compatibilist Freedom (in this life) is false. In other words, unregenerate people choose against their nature when they choose not to sin, while regenerate people choose against their nature when they choose to sin. In either of those realms we find exactly what we would expect to find if a person's nature isn't quite the slave master that Compatibilists make it out to be. In other words, for human life this side of Heaven, Libertarian Freedom is true. We can and do choose contrary to our natures.

What we see, in reality, is exactly the kind of world we would expect to see if Libertarian Freedom were true and people aren't enslaved in an absolute fashion by their natures. That is, unregenerate people can choose to not commit a particular sin in a moment of time--which clearly goes against their fallen nature--while regenerate people can choose to commit sins, which also goes against their new natures. Compatibilist Freedom is at best fiction and, at worst, a fraud.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Compatible, Schmatible…

There is an objection commonly leveled against Calvinism's doctrine of Unconditional Election, and the objection generally goes something like this:

    "If God chooses us, then how can we say we have chosen God? If God determines first that we will choose Him, then how is our choice meaningful, and is it really a choice at all?"
What I intend to do next is demonstrate why this objection is actually valid, understanding that the Calvinist will likely try to evade the objection by invoking a particular concept of "free will" known as "Compatibilism." To follow the discussion from here, however, we need to zoom in on the terms "Compatibilist Freedom," "Determinism," and "Libertarian Freedom."

Determinism is the idea that a person's actions are determined for them by some external causal entity. It might mean divine determinism, but the term is broad enough that it could also be a naturalistic kind of determinism, a view that would be held by naturalists like Richard Dawkins. Dawkins rejects free will, he sees our actions as purely determined by chemistry and genetics. Divine Determinism would be the idea that God, because He is sovereign and "in control of all things," actually determines every choice we make ahead of time, and this determination is causal. On this rather extreme view, you really don't make any choices. God makes every choice for you. This would be Divine Determinism.

It's important to understand that if determinism were false, and our actions are not determined by any external causal entity, then it must be the case that a person's actions are actually the result of a choice that person makes, a choice which originates within and is entirely unpredictable and inexplicable, and if the choice was to turn left, it could just as easily have been to turn right. This is Libertarian Freedom, determinism's polar opposite. I should point out that Libertarian choices certainly can be influenced by external conditions, but an "influence" is not a cause. The decisions we make are oriented toward the goals we have, so there are "reasons" behind the decisions we make, but those "reasons" don't actually cause the decisions.

The diagram below makes the distinction very clear.

Under Determinism, the source of a decision is external to the person, while under Libertarian Freedom, the source of a decision is internal.
Intuitively we can see a problem with Determinism: If our decisions are determined for us from the outside, then there's no basis on which to hold us responsible for those decisions. And yet, Calvinists clearly see that God does seem to hold us accountable for our decisions. But, the Calvinist doesn't want to make us responsible for our decisions because, in their minds, to suggest such a thing compromises God's sovereignty.

For the Calvinist, the solution is different conception of freedom called "Compatibilism." The name "Compatibilism" comes from its central claim which is that free will and Determinism are actually "compatible" with each other. Notice, however, that to say free will is "compatible" with Determinism is to actually affirm Determinism. And just to be fair, it also affirms free will. If that seems counterintuitive to you, well there's a good reason for that. In logic it's called the "Law of the Excluded Middle" and it appears to render Compatibilism Dead On Arrival. Either our decisions originate within ourselves (internally), or they do not originate within ourselves. And if the source of the decisions I make is not internal, then that source has to be external. There are no other options. In or out, there is nothing inbetween. If the source is external, then Determinism is true.

What's perplexing is that Compatibilists like Jim Wallace, whom I referred to in an earlier post, end up locating the source of those decisions internally… but how is this "compatible" with Determinism? Wallace has adopted different lingo to refer to Libertarian Freedom and Compatibilist Freedom, which should illustrate the problem sufficiently. Wallace refers to Libertarian Freedom as "Unfettered Free Will," and he refers to Compatibilist Freedom as "Self-Fettered Free Will." Well, if the self is fettering or restricting choices, then the decisions are still coming from within the person. A person's nature--which Wallace believes limits a person's choices--is internal. It's not external. But for Determinism to be true, the decisions have to originate externally, not internally.

In a podcast by Jim Wallace which focuses on these issues, he defines Compatibilist or "Self-Fettered Free Will" in these terms:

    "Humans have the ability to choose something, …but they always are restrained by their pre-existing nature… You are limited in your choices because you're not going to choose [those things which are contrary to your nature]. You only choose WITHIN YOUR NATURE."
So, your nature determines your choices by limiting what you will choose. According to Wallace, if something is contrary to your nature, then you will not choose it. But again… where is the person's nature? Is it not within the person?

The difficulty here can be clearly seen in the diagram below.

Compatibilism makes decisions a product of our nature… but is a person's nature internal or external?
Compatibilism claims "compatibility" with free will. But as you study this diagram, where is this compatibility? The only thing that's different is that Compatibilism invokes the person's "nature"--an entity which cannot be separated from the person and is therefore inside the person. But it's not as though the Libertarian denies that a human nature exists… the only thing we would deny is that the human nature dictates in any absolute, mechanical fashion the choices that a person makes.

Another way to visualize the ideas of Compatibilism versus Libertarianism is to picture yourself driving down a street, and the street you're driving on ends in a 'T' where you have the option to turn right or left. Either option is open to you. This is a picture of Libertarian Freedom.

On the other hand, under Compatibilist Freedom you arrive at the same intersection but your nature has closed off the possibility of turning right. So, you turn left instead, but you do so "freely."


So under Libertarian Freedom, the choices you make may or may not align with your nature. You may have natural inclination to eat chocolate, but maybe for health reasons you've decided to stop eating chocolate. You have the ability to act contrary to your own nature.

But under Compatibilism, the choices you make are governed absolutely by your nature. Every choice you make is in alignment with your nature, you do not have the ability to act contrary to your own nature.

But I've not yet validated the challenge against Calvinism that I said I wanted to validate in this post. That challenge is this:

    "If God chooses us, then how can we say we have chosen God? If God determines first that we will choose Him, then how is our choice meaningful, and is it really a choice at all?"

Well, here we have a problem, because there is doublespeak within this concept of Compatibilism. On the one hand, our decisions are determined by our internal nature. But, with the Calvinist doctrine of Unconditional Election, a person's decision to trust in Christ results from God's determination, His election, of that individual. So what gives? Now we're back to an external source of a decision?

Not exactly. What the Calvinist wants to claim is that we choose to trust in Christ freely because that choice is compatible with a new nature which God has given us in His act of regenerating us. Absent this regeneration, our nature is (according to the Calvinist) in rebellion against God and would never choose Him.

So, the Calvinist says, God doesn't make up our minds for us. We freely choose Him because God has changed our nature and now our nature can choose God. But wait… did we choose to have our nature changed? No, we didn't. God changed our nature quite against our will. (even according to the Calvinist) And because this change in our nature makes our 'free' choice of God inevitable (according to the Calvinist) then we really don't have any choice. The word "inevitable" means "unavoidable."

Back to our question, and back to the intersection diagram to illustrate why a choice determined from the outside is not meaningful:


Suppose on Monday you're driving your usual route to work. There is one intersection you pass which, if you turned right, you would also end up at your work same as if you went straight. Your usual route is to go straight through the intersection, but you could turn right and still get where you're going.

But suppose on Tuesday you're driving to work again but there's road construction along your preferred route. At the intersection described above, there is a barrier across the road with a "Detour" sign directing you to turn right. And so you do turn right.

This raises a question: Was this choice a "free" choice? Well, in a sense I think we could say that it is a "free" choice. But even so, there's something unique about your choice to turn right in this circumstance: Your choice to turn right doesn't actually reflect your own intentions. If you had your druthers, you'd have gone straight. Your choice to turn right really reflects the intentions of the person who erected the barrier. The construction crew is acting under authority of the local government, and must keep traffic flowing, while keeping it away from the construction zone. So the construction crew intended for you to turn right. They are taking responsibility for the route you take. Why did you turn right? Because that was the only route available to you; you had no other choice.

Well another day has gone by and so now it's Wednesday and the road construction is complete and you're driving to work… But this time when you come to the intersection you turn right EVEN THOUGH there is no barrier. In this instance, both options were available to you; you could have gone either way. But your turned right same as you did the day before when you had no choice. But this time your decision to turn right was truly your own. Since there was no barricade, no detour, no one else's intentions were in play but your own, which means that you and you alone are responsible for your decision to turn right.

The Tuesday scenario relates to the Calvinist's view of total depravity, unconditional election and irresistible grace in that an outside entity has acted to eliminate a possible route that would otherwise be available to the person… the route which has been eliminated is the route which leads to eternal separation from God. The only route remaining is the route that leads to eternal life with God. But it is God who really bears the responsibility for your choice because He is the one who eliminated the other route, leaving only one route available. Therefore the person's choice to turn down that road doesn't reflect their own intentions, but rather God's intentions and for that reason this choice isn't meaningful and the person can't really be held responsible for that choice.

In the next post, I will analyze Stand To Reason host Greg Koukl's response to a caller who brought the very challenge I'm affirming here. Koul's response is telling, as you will see.

Human Freedom: Denying The Upper Story

One debate that rages within Christianity is the debate over human freedom. In this life, do humans have genuine freedom of choice and what does that look like? What is the extent of our freedom? And many folks are convinced that this issue is just too deep or too complex or mysterious to even try to sort out, and in fact many pastors will encourage folks not to bother with such controversies; that to do so will ultimately be unproductive.

I think the issue is much more important than that and I think it's important because it relates directly to the character of God. Calvinists have tried to reconcile this issue with a conception of human freedom called "Compatibilist Freedom," and they think this resolves the tension. Arminians generally hold to a more straightforward conception of human freedom called "Libertarian Freedom."

I listen to two apologetics-oriented podcasts each week… Please Convince Me, hosted by Jim Wallace, and Stand To Reason, hosted by Greg Koukl. I learn a lot from these men and I respect them. I also have it on good authority that, well, they're human. And humans make mistakes. Jim Wallace has produced several podcasts which deal in depth with this issue, and what follows is a careful analysis of the things he offered in those podcasts. No disrespect is intended toward Mr. Wallace. I just think this issue is very important and I think it's worth exploring.

In two older podcasts from 2010 Jim Wallace describes the concepts of Libertarian freedom in the following ways:

    "…humans have the ability to choose anything that's possible, even when the choice made by the human is contrary to their nature, contrary to your inclinations, your desires, likes and dislikes."

    "Humans have the ability to choose anything. Even when there's a choice that you might make that might be contrary to your nature, to your inclinations, your likes and dislikes. I call this 'unfettered free will.'"

And in those same podcasts, Mr. Wallace describes Compatibilist freedom in this way:

    "Humans have the ability to choose something, …but they always are restrained by their pre-existing nature… You are limited in your choices because you're not going to choose [those things which are contrary to your nature]. You only choose WITHIN YOUR NATURE."

And in an October 2010 podcast, Mr. Wallace's clearly rejects the concept of Libertarian freedom :

    "The atheists and the skeptics who would charge us with this idea that you don't really have free will are people who believe that there is such a thing as Libertarian free will, that humans actually could have Libertarian free will--the ability to choose things outside their nature--and I would just argue that that's just a false notion… Nobody chooses outside their nature. They just don't."

Another popular notion of Libertarian free will involves what Greg Koukl has described as the "Could've Done Otherwise" condition… that a Libertarian free will choice is a choice that could have gone the other way.

For the time being, I think it's fair to conclude that Libertarian freedom encapsulates two basic ideas: The ability to choose contrary to one's nature, and--given two options--the ability to choose either of those options.

By contrast, Compatibilism denies the ability to choose anything that's contrary to my nature. That is, my nature directly and absolutely governs my decisions. And Mr. Wallace seems quite convinced that Compatibilism is true when he says emphatically "Nobody chooses outside their nature. They just don't." This is an emphatic, blanket statement which gives no hint of any exceptions.

But there seems to be an absolutely fatal problem with this idea. We all agree that man's nature is sinful. And yet we all know that even non-Christians frequently choose not to commit sin. It's true, of course, that none of us will reach the end of our lives having never committed a sin. But we're not talking about adding up the choices throughout one's life and then looking at the aggregate, we're talking about the individual decisions which make up that aggregate.

I've heard Greg Koukl explain on his program that unregenerate people do not sin at every opportunity given them. This means that, at least on occasion, unregenerate people choose against sin. (not that it does them any good) That is, given the opportunity to commit a particular sin, the unregenerate person IS capable of saying "No, I'm not going to do that."

But every time a non-Christian (with an unregenerate, totally depraved and sinful nature) does that, they are demonstrating precisely the capability which compatibilists deny: They are making a choice that is contrary to their sinful nature. Mr. Wallace is adamant in his denial of this possibility: "You're not going to choose something that your nature inclines you against," and "…fallen humans are restrained by a nature that inclines us toward evil."

Well, if these statements are true, if our nature inclines us toward evil and we are unable to choose contrary to that inclination, then how do you account for the fact that unregenerate people do not commit sin at every opportunity they're given? It ought to be impossible for an unregenerate, "natural" man to choose against committing a particular sin.

Also, we know that regenerate (born again) persons choose to commit sins, even though this is clearly contrary to their new nature. Compatibilism utterly fails to explain this reality, while Libertarian freedom seems to accommodate it quite comfortably.

In a podcast from earlier last year, Mr. Wallace seemed to appeal to Libertarian freedom as he (properly) came to the defense of the personhood of infants. It's true, he didn't use the phrase "Libertarian freedom", but what he described clearly fits Libertarian free will:

    "So what makes us 'morally relevant'? It seems that morality is based on the ability to say that we have free agency, that we could have chosen otherwise. If we can't choose otherwise, and we're just another domino falling because some synapse fired in our brain that was caused by something we ate or something that was already pre-designed in our genes, we can't step out of our nature and make a decision that's above our nature, then you really can't hold us morally accountable for anything. Fault requires the freedom to choose something that you should or shouldn't choose."

and…

    "…Morality is based on the ability to say that we have free agency, that we could have chosen otherwise. If we can't choose otherwise, and …we can't step out of our nature and make a decision that's above our nature, then you really can't hold us morally accountable for anything. Fault requires the freedom to choose something that you should or shouldn't choose."

These descriptions contain both aspects of Libertarian freedom: The ability to make a decision that is "above" our nature, or to "step outside" our nature (where our nature is not calling the shots) and the "Could've Done Otherwise" condition; the ability to choose otherwise.

And in a very recent podcast Mr. Wallace discusses the moral culpability of criminals and here he invokes the ability to choose otherwise, sounding very much like an affirmation of Libertarian freedom:

    "When someone commits a crime, we believe they ought to be punished. Hmmm. Think about that for a minute. We believe that people ought to be punished when they do something that we've determined up-front is wrong. It almost sounds like we believe that people had choices, had the freedom to do otherwise. If they didn't have the freedom to do otherwise, then does it make much sense to punish them when they had no freedom to do otherwise? I mean, I've been working on homicides for a lot of years. Have I been working them meaninglessly? Is this work really meaningless in the sense that, you know, do people have moral culpability? And over the years I can say that some of my suspects had a claim that they were not responsible for their actions. And there were times when they would say that, you know, they had some prior physical condition, some excuse, some reason why they were not free to choose otherwise."

This is an excellent argument for Libertarian freedom. It's entirely reasonable and, in fact, self-evident. Mr. Wallace has explained very clearly why it would be unjust to hold someone morally responsible for the choices we make--and that includes what we believe and in whom we choose to place our trust--if we didn't have Libertarian freedom. And yet, inexplicably, Mr. Wallace says that Libertarian freedom is false.

However, if Compatibilism is true as Wallace asserts, then the person had no choice but to commit that crime. They could not have chosen otherwise because to choose otherwise would be to make a decision that runs contrary to their sinful nature.  And yet Mr. Wallace clearly believes that criminals are morally culpable. And I do, too. But that stands to reason because I would affirm Libertarian Freedom. The question is, why doesn't he?

I notice that as we study apologetics, we often point to the adherents to other world views and how they cannot, in the end, live consistently within their view. Francis Schaeffer used a metaphor to help illustrate this which involves a two-story house. Frequently the metaphor is used relative to, for example, objective morality. The upper story of the house represents the view that there is such a thing as objective morality. The lower story represents the view that there are no objective morals. Those who deny objective morality claim to live in the lower story and deny that the upper story exists, but whenever it suits them--and when they think no one's looking--they sneak up the stairs to the upper story. We see this every time an event like the shooting at Sandy Hook or the bombing at the Boston Marathon take place. People who deny that the upper story exists suddenly become upset that someone has done something so awful. But when they do this, they're sneaking up the stairs into the upper story. If no objective morality exists, then there's nothing morally wrong with those horrific acts.

Well, I can apply the same metaphor to the controversy about human freedom; where compatibilism is the lower story and libertarianism is the upper story. Mr. Wallace denies the upper story, but when it suits him, he sneaks up the stairs. The paragraph quote above is like a photograph of a two-story house in which you can see a face peering out the window from behind a curtain on the top floor… that face belongs to Mr. Wallace.

What I've learned from Francis Schaeffer's metaphor is that I should reject those views which cannot be held consistently. For that reason and a couple of others, I have to conclude that compatibilist freedom in this life is a fiction.

In a subsequent post we'll explore these notions of human freedom further and discuss their implications.

Human History: God's Rube Goldberg Machine

You don’t have to dig very deep into Christianity to bump into this controversy regarding God’s sovereignty and man’s choice. One school of thought will object (in varying degrees) to the idea that man has any free choice at all because, so they say, to imagine man making genuine free choices is to throw God’s sovereignty under the bus. In order to uphold God’s sovereignty, we must ultimately deny that humans have free will and that our actions are determined in an absolute fashion by God.

Another viewpoint tries to find a middle ground by proposing that free will and determinism are "compatible" in some sense. And this, too, is necessary (they suppose) in order to preserve God's sovereignty.

I have a way to “test” this notion. I don’t aim to prove here that man has genuine freedom of choice, though I have very good reasons to think that he does. But I do intend to demonstrate something very ironic: That denying human freedom of choice for the sake of preserving God’s sovereignty can be seen to actually diminish God’s sovereignty.

But first, I think it’s necessary to consider carefully what it means to say that man was created “in the image of God.”

Setting it up
In my research I have encountered various ways of expressing the idea of being “made in the image of God,” but there does seem to be some commonality. The Christian Q & A web site GotQuestions.org describes it like this:
    Having the “image” or “likeness” of God means, in the simplest terms, that we were made to resemble God.
But, the article goes on to explain that this “resemblance” isn’t intended to be visual, but rather relates in some way to God’s attributes. And an article at Answers In Genesis echoes this general sentiment:
    “God endues man with some of his divine attributes, thereby separating and making him different from the beasts.”
I suspect I don’t need to defend God’s attributes here… most Christians seem pretty committed to the idea that God has attributes such as perfect righteousness, sovereignty, justice, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, immutability and so on. And few Christians would object to the notion that these attributes are unlimited or infinite. And I think it’s pretty clear to most folks, particularly Christians, that man’s attributes, though they might correspond to God’s attributes, are far from unlimited.

The conclusion I’ve reached is this: To be “made in the image of God” means that God chose to give man versions of God’s own attributes that are finite or limited in some crucial way.

The article at GotQuestions.org had something else to say, which lends itself nicely to the analogy we’re going to explore related to God’s sovereignty and man’s choice. Of particular interest to me is the “inventing a machine” part:
    “Anytime someone invents a machine, writes a book, paints a landscape, enjoys a symphony, calculates a sum, or names a pet, he or she is proclaiming the fact that we are made in God’s image.”
Next, we have to examine and come to an understanding of the word “sovereignty”. I’ve seen the idea of sovereignty expressed in different ways, but they all have a common theme which has to do with making decisions which are not determined or influenced by any outside entity. Sovereignty relates to authority or autonomy. A person who is in authority rightfully makes decisions which affect those whom he has been given authority over, and no outside entity causes those decisions.

What follows are a couple of characterizations of “sovereignty” that I discovered, each of which can be seen to relate to making decisions independent of outside influence:

    “Supreme and independent power or authority in government as possessed or claimed by a state or community.”
    “Supreme authority within a territory”
Well, alright… both of these definitions rely on the word “authority.” So let’s take a second to examine how that word is defined:
    “The power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine.”
Notice how words like “determine,” “adjudicate,” and phrases like “settle issues or disputes” relate to decision making. Conclusion: Sovereignty relates to making decisions.

And sovereignty isn’t always absolute and exhaustive. Notice the definition “Supreme authority within a territory.” In this instance, the authority is supreme, but only within a certain sphere or territory. In a localized sense, the authority is supreme, but in a global sense, the authority is limited and yet this can still be described as “sovereignty.”

Houston, we have a problem…
But at this point we face a problem, because although we might understand that God’s attributes are infinite and ours are finite, we have trouble grasping ideas like infinity and eternity. As humans, we are locked inside the finite and while we can assent to the idea of the infinite, our minds cannot get control of such an idea. So how can we understand what unlimited or infinite sovereignty looks like?

Well, I would suggest that we can’t. Not directly, anyway. But we can understand man’s sovereignty… we’re all too familiar with its limitations. So it seems to me that we could use that knowledge to help us understand God’s sovereignty, because if we know what man’s sovereignty is, then we know what God’s sovereignty cannot be. God’s sovereignty has to be qualitatively superior to man’s. If our view of God’s sovereignty ends up being qualitatively equivalent to man’s, then we’d have reason to think we had it wrong.
Introducing Rube Goldberg

Rube Goldberg was an inventor and a cartoonist during the 1940s and 50s and became famous for his humorous drawings of elaborate machines that were supposed to perform very pedestrian tasks, like this one depicting an alarm clock.



A Simple Alarm Clock, Rube Goldberg-Style. The early bird (A) arrives and catches worm (B), pulling string (C) and shooting off pistol (D). Bullet busts balloon (F), dropping brick (G) on bulb (F) of atomizer (I) and shooting perfume (J) on sponge (K)–As sponge gains in weight, it lowers itself and pulls string (L), raising end of board (M)–Cannon ball (N) drops on nose of sleeping gentleman–String tied to cannon ball releases cork (O) of vacuum bottle (P) and ice water falls on sleeper’s face to assist the cannon ball in its good work.

If you want to waste some time watching YouTube videos, just type “Rube Goldberg machine” into the search field. You will be treated to hundreds of videos of amazing and clever contraptions, painstakingly designed… some occupying multiple rooms in a house. It boggles the mind to think about how much time and effort went into these things. And being Rube Goldberg machines, the end game for each machine is comically easy and should not have required so much effort. One machine I viewed poured a bowl of cereal. Another crushed a grape. There are easier ways to pour a bowl of cereal or crush a grape. But Rube Goldberg machines are not about efficiency… their creators know there are easier ways; they just want to be creative and do it in a way that is unusual.

The creation of such a machine--any machine, really--is an expression of God’s attributes, albeit in a finite way, and one of these attributes is sovereignty. That is, he or she makes decisions--and has the proper authority to make these decisions--about what the machine’s final objective will be, how the cascade of events will be initiated, how each segment of the machine will accomplish work towards the final objective, etc. The creator of a Rube Goldberg machine is making decision after decision as the machine takes shape. He or she rules over the machine they are creating… they have supreme authority in this particular local realm; they are sovereign.

And yet, this sovereignty is limited. Because for one thing, the creator of a Rube Goldberg machine didn’t create the laws of physics and chemistry, nor did they create atoms and molecules that make up all of the component parts of the machine. But when it comes to carefully selecting the various component parts for a given machine, isn’t it interesting that nobody ever uses any kind of living creature in their machine… like a cat, for example? Why is that? Perhaps it’s because a cat has a mind of its own--a will, and because of this, it’s highly unlikely that the cat will cooperate with the creator’s plan for the machine. On the other hand, inanimate objects like ramps, levers, balls and dominos are entirely predictable and can be relied upon (once placed in the proper arrangement) to contribute toward the function of the machine.

Suppose that I build a Rube Goldberg machine, with all the usual ramps, levers, dominos, pulleys, counterweights and so on, but in this machine, I choose to employ a cat. You know, maybe there’s a surface for the cat to stand on, and maybe a box with a plate of tuna inside. The plate rests on a spring-loaded gizmo and at a crucial point in the chain of events, a door would slide open giving the cat access to the tuna, he would eat the tuna, the reduced weight would unload the spring, the support would rise up and trip a lever that knocks down a row of dominos and when the final lever falls, the final objective of, say, sprinkling a bit of fish food in the fish tank is achieved.




But wait… This is only what I intend to happen. Suppose at that crucial moment as the machine does its thing, the cat decides to vacate the machine and visit the litter box. Or what if the cat has to cough up a hairball? Or gets distracted by a housefly? See, even though I’m the creator of this machine and even though I have a kind of “sovereignty” over the machine, I cannot accommodate the free and unpredictable actions of the cat in the function of the machine. Because of this, creators of Rube Goldberg machines tend to incorporate only inanimate objects which lack free will.

Now, Rube Goldberg machines can take various forms… actually the only thing that distinguishes a Rube Goldberg machine from any other is that efficiency and simplicity are not among the objectives. But even machines that are designed to maximize efficiency operate the same way… there is a final objective, and there are component parts which contribute to that objective.

In his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe devoted a whole chapter to the discussion of a biochemical machine that all humans benefit from known as the blood clotting cascade… except this isn’t a “machine” in the usual sense, but rather a complex chain of chemical reactions at the molecular level. The chapter was titled “Rube Goldberg in the Blood.”

History as a Rube Goldberg machine
Well, suppose we look at God’s plan for history as a kind of giant Rube Goldberg machine. It has an objective and it has component parts, but in this case, a large number of the component parts in this machine are people. God uses these component parts to accomplish His final objective… I think the vast majority of Christians would agree with that. And with God as the creator of this machine, we know He created everything in the machine… all of the component parts. And as creator of this giant Rube Goldberg machine, we know He has sovereignty over it. But this is where we can, perhaps, learn something about God’s sovereignty compared with man’s sovereignty.

Again, we know the limitations of our own sovereignty. And we know that if our view of God’s sovereignty is correct, He will not be subject to those same kinds of limitations. So, since many Christians firmly believe that a high view of God’s sovereignty requires the denial of human free will, consider the following question carefully:

If we think it’s impossible for God to be sovereign over a machine made of component parts which have free will, then isn’t the sovereignty we’re ascribing to God qualitatively equivalent to our own?

Maybe our view of God’s sovereignty should be higher than that, so that it is qualitatively superior to man’s. What would that look like?

Well, to use the Rube Goldberg metaphor, if God’s sovereignty is qualitatively superior to man’s, then God could make a giant Rube Goldberg machine, give all of the component parts genuine freedom of choice, and still expect His objective to be met. But to say that man cannot have genuine freedom of choice because it would compromise God’s sovereignty is to ascribe a finite sort of sovereignty to God; a kind of sovereignty that is just as limited as man’s. And that doesn’t seem right, does it?

Again, this illustration is not intended to prove that man has genuine freedom of choice even though I am convinced that this is the case. It is only intended to demonstrate that affirming genuine free will in man does not necessarily translate to a low view of God’s sovereignty and actually can be seen as being consistent with a very high view of God’s sovereignty.

In other words, this perceived tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s choice is totally superfluous if we have a sufficiently high view of God’s sovereignty.

No Reserve 'Chute?

No, you didn't somehow stumble onto a skydiving blog. No Reserve 'Chute is about Christianity and, well, controversy. Mostly, the significant controversies surrounding the doctrine of salvation. And you can't discuss the doctrine of salvation without diving into issues like Calvinism and Arminianism and free will and God's sovereignty and, well, I could go on.

So here's the basic idea behind the title: A skydiver relies on his parachute to get him to the ground safely after he has flung himself out of a perfectly good airplane thousands of feet above the ground. If he hits the ground without a chute, he will die instantly. Skydivers' lives are at stake. An improperly packed 'chute or damaged hardware could lead to disaster. So, it's a good context in which to discuss the idea of "trust" and consider how that might relate to the concept of the gospel as presented in the New Testament. More on that shortly…

The subtitle says "Christian Apologetics From a Free Grace Perspective." Christian Apologetics is a discipline oriented toward giving a reasoned defense for Christianity. And there are many 'reasoned defenses' to be given. But somehow theology, and the doctrine of salvation in particular, gets left out of discussions about apologetics. And that strikes me as a little odd because salvation and the gospel is really the core of Christianity. And if we can't take a stand on that, if we say those details don't really matter and we can just "agree to disagree" about, for example, whether a person can lose their salvation, then why learn about defending the Christian faith? You'd think there's nothing important to defend.

"Free Grace" is a term for a theological system which affirms faith alone in Christ alone, and actually means it. Most folks within the Free Grace movement would understand that there are deep flaws in aspects of Arminianism and Calvinism both, and that asking, "Which is right, Arminianism or Calvinism?" is a false dichotomy. There are more than two options.

Back to the parachute metaphor: In numerous places in the New Testament, Jesus and the New Testament writers implore their audiences to "believe" in Jesus Christ, and that those who do will be saved from eternal separation from God and will receive, as a free gift, eternal life.

Well, the word translated "believe" in many of these passages is the Greek verb "pisteuo" and this word conveys the idea of trust or reliance. And the title of this blog connects with that in what I think is an interesting way.

A skydiver knows his life is at stake. He knows something could go wrong with his main chute. And so, as a "B plan," he carries a reserve chute which he can deploy in case of trouble. This reveals something important: The skydiver does not trust his main chute, and we know this because we see that he carries a reserve. You show me a skydiver who jumps with only one chute--with no reserve 'chute--and I'll show you a skydiver who really trusts that one parachute.

I'm convinced that if skydiving had been a sport during the 1st century A.D., Greek-speaking people of that day would have used the word "pisteuo" to describe the skydiver's reliance on his parachute.

There's an expression in Christianity that encapsulates how salvation is received… I've already invoked it once just in this introduction. That expression is "Faith alone in Christ alone." But what does it mean? Well, I'm convinced it means that God is inviting us to jump out of the plane with no reserve chute. He wants us to trust in or rely on Jesus Christ completely, without relying on anything else in addition to that. Not our works, not our obedience, not our commitment, not our promises, not our performance. It's not that we shouldn't do good works or be obedient or any of that, it's just that we shouldn't rely on those things for our salvation. But it's quite common today to hear that if you're performing poorly, if you lack works and if you're disobedient beyond some undefined threshold, you should doubt your salvation. Likewise, if you're performing well, if your good works are plentiful, then your salvation is rendered more certain. But this is what it looks like to rely on your own performance. It's a kind of reserve 'chute.

Within Christianity everyone seems to give lip service to the idea of "faith alone in Christ alone," but is that all it is? If we examine popular Christian teaching carefully, will we find a genuine commitment to the idea of "faith alone in Christ alone," or will we find many popular Christian authorities mouthing those words one minute, while instructing us to pack a reserve chute the next?

Call me crazy, but if we're going to learn to give a "reasoned defense" for Christianity, then I think we should understand just exactly what we're defending. And that means examining the issue of faith and works more critically in addition to all the standard topics you're likely to find in discussions about apologetics.