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McCall on Theological Determinism & Compatibilism part 1

(This is the first entry in a series of posts on Tom McCall’s discussion of theological determinism and compatibilism in his book, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology. I am not sure how many parts it will be, but I assume less than five.)

I had the pleasure of picking up Tom McCall’s recent book, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (IVP 2015). It appears to be a fine work, and it seems to accomplish its goal of being an introduction to analytic theology for nonspecialists. Though what follows in this post is largely critical of one small section of McCall’s book, I hope that it won’t detract readers from its overall quality. I encourage you to get a copy, if you haven’t already. We need more (lay) analytic theologians (read the book to find out the content of that term!).

On pages 56-81, McCall discusses (theological) determinism and compatibilism. The main goal of this section is not to offer any sort of knockdown arguments against theological determinism and compatibilism (and Tom says as much); rather, it’s to illustrate how the tools and insights of analytic philosophy can be used to enrich and complement biblical theology. He achieves this through “case studies,” one of which is D.A. Carson’s argument for what Carson refers to as “compatibilism.” So we should recognize that McCall does not intend his arguments in this section to constitute a proof of incompatibilism or, stated another way, a proof that compatibilism is false.

That being said, I do not mean to be taken as criticizing McCall for missing this or that point, or somehow failing to demonstrate the falsity of compatibilism. Again, his main goal is to showcase how the tools, insights, conceptual distinctions, arguments, etc., produced by analytic philosophers (of religion) can be usefully employed to enrich or clarify certain debates within biblical theology. And I think he achieves that, even if I disagree with some of his premises and his conclusion. Nevertheless, I do think that his section on determinism and compatibilism raise some worries with what I’ll call the ‘standard approach’ to dealing with theological determinism and compatibilism. And so I want to highlight some of those worries in this post.

As I noted above, McCall tackles D.A. Carson’s claim that any orthodox Christian theology demands nothing less than “compatibilism.” How does Carson understand this term? As McCall puts it (p.60), Carson means by ‘compatibilism’ the logical consistency of these two propositions:

(DS) God is utterly sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions to mitigate human responsibility and,

(MR)  human beings are morally responsible creatures, but their moral responsibility never functions to make God contingent.

From here, McCall goes on to note what others have before (e.g., Steve Lemke and William Klein), that is, Carson is using the term ‘compatibilism’ differently from how (analytic) philosophers have traditionally used that term. To his credit, McCall, unlike Klein, expresses what philosophers have meant by ‘compatibilism’: it is “the view that determinism and freedom—not divine sovereignty and freedom—are compatible” (p.61). Whereas Klein, in his review of Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, stated that ‘compatibilism’ is the view that freed will is compatible with hard determinism. Hard determinism is the view that freedom is incompatible with determinism, and determinism is true. This makes ‘compatibilism’ self-contradictory on analysis. So, point McCall.

Moving forward, I will refrain from wading into McCall’s discussion of what “Carsonian compatibilism” does or doesn’t entail. I agree that Carson uses the term differently than (analytic) philosophers have, but I think we can get a compatibilism of the sort McCall is worried about once we unpack the content of what Carson means by ‘sovereignty’. McCall will, of course, deny that we get any of this content from the Bible. In any case, as I said, I won’t be wading into this debate here. I’m more interested in what we can learn from McCall’s rehearsing of the arguments against determinism and compatibilism.

I take it that part of what McCall is intending to show is that if we were to replace (DS) with some suitable statement of theological determinism (TD), then Carson would have a very tough time of establishing the compatibility of (TD) with (MR). McCall aims to achieve this by citing some of the standard arguments analytic philosophers have provided against compatibilism. This is what I referred to above as the ‘standard approach’. to dealing with theological determinism. By the ‘standard approach’ I mean the tendency to define ‘determinism’ in a way that rules out classical theological determinists from being determinists, and also appeals to standard arguments against compatibilism which uses nomological determinism as a premise. Let me explain.

McCall points out that (DS) is not deterministic. To be deterministic it would need to affirm determinism. We are then treated to several philosophers’ definition of determinism. McCall cites the definitions given by William Hasker, Michael Rea, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, and Keith Yandell. In each of his definitions there is some claim to the effect that determinism just is the thesis that past states, in conjunction with the laws, ensure only one future, given those past states or past truths (and laws). But here’s a problem, this understanding of determinism entails that most theological determinists are not determinists after all. Here’s why: suppose you think, as I do, that God’s decree determines everything that occurs. Moreover, suppose you think, as I do, that God is not in time; that is, he (and thus his decree) is timeless. If this is the case, then it’s not the case that any “past state” determined all future states. But according to what McCall has stated, determinism just is the thesis that past states (conjoined with the laws) determine all future states. Therefore, I couldn’t be a determinist, and so couldn’t be a theological determinist.

This point is not benign for the ‘standard approach’. The ‘standard approach’ typically uses the standard arguments against compatibilism to show that determinism is incompatible with free will and moral responsibility. The standard arguments employ the standard definitions of determinism (the ones McCall appealed to) as a premise leading to the incompatibilist conclusion. But those standard premises don’t apply to (classical) theological determinism.

Perhaps an analogy will be useful. Consider now compatibilism about freedom and foreknowledge. Here’s a rough statement of the standard argument against the compatibility of libertarian free will and foreknowledge: Necessarily, if God infallibly believes S will A at time t, then S will A at t. At time t, God believes that S will A at t3. At t2, S can’t prevent the fact that God believed S will A at t3 (can’t change the past!). Therefore, unpreventably S will A at t3. If at t2 S’s A-ing at t3 is unpreventable, then S lacks libertarian freedom with respect to A. (This generalizes to all actions, so there was no need to distinguish between direct and indirect libertarian free action.)

It is not my purpose here to engage in the long-standing debates about this sort of argument. My main purpose in bringing it up is because it allows me to illustrate the similarity of one response to the above argument and my response to the standard arguments (the kind McCall employs) against the compatibility of free will (or moral responsibility) and theological determinism. Consider now what is called ‘Boethianism’. Boethianism names a response to the above argument from God’s infallible beliefs that appeals to God’s timelessness to defeat the objection. The response is simple and straightforward: Since God is timeless, he doesn’t have beliefs at times. Therefore, the argument is unsound.

Putting aside the merits of this appeal and whether it does successfully avoid the spirit of the argument from foreknowledge, one thing is clear: the argument from foreknowledge must be recast. It simply will not do to continue to use premises that describe God has having beliefs at times, but it’s precisely this recasting that gets tricky, given the mysterious nature of the timeless realm. Likewise, I hope to have shown that the standard arguments against compatibilism can’t simply be applied to show that theological determinism rules out freedom or moral responsibility. Theological determinists must press theological incompatibilists to not only recast their arguments against compatibilism, but also not stack the deck by defining determinism as essentially requiring facts about the past as featuring into the determining conditions. That’s a contingent feature of determinism. Determinism per se doesn’t require it, and certainly theological determinism doesn’t require it.

There’s clearly a lot more to be said. Like McCall, I do not intend this post to demonstrate that free will or moral responsibility is compatible with theological determinism. Rather, my main goal was to show how the tools of analytic philosophy can be applied to this debate to further help clarify matters and help us get to the heart of the problem. In future posts in this series, I think I shall (i) make some remarks about McCall’s presentation of the standard arguments against compatibilism, (ii) worry about his use of the term “keep the conditions the same up to the moment of choice,” since “the conditions” is ambiguous and on some readings it makes Molinism (with which McCall is sympathetic) equally deterministic, but the way out here can also be had by theological determinists, and (iii) poke and prod at some of his scriptural support he cites as telling against compatibilism but in favor of libertarian free will.


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January 2016


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