Sunday, April 07, 2013

soteriology and theodicy are not the same thing and it's not helpful to conflate them

Long ago I was Arminian and I happen to be a Calvinist now.  Or, to be even more pedantic, I am a convinced proponent of monergistic soteriology rather than a synergist.  That's to say I think the role you can play in your own salvation is zip.

But I have much better things to do with my time than attempt to argue with Arminians that their semi-Pelagian soteriology means they don't really believe the Gospel. I have better things to do with my time than to get into fights with trinitarians about something that's not something I need to be officially concerned about.  It's not that I have no convictions on these subjects or don't care about them, it's that this blog is more likely to be a place where I'll get into why I enjoy Wenzaslaus Matiegka's grand sonatas for solo guitar more than those of Fernando Sor.  I promise I will eventually get to that and I'll make sure to plug for some recordings of Matiegka I've been enjoying when I get to that.  Just be aware Wenatchee The Hatchet can take time and here's hoping that the time spent will actually be worth it.

No, the centuries old debate between Arminians and Calvinists doesn't interest me enough to become a topic of steady blogging here.  However, there is something I would like to discuss because it seems to be popular among partisans on both sides to do this thing that is a bad idea, which is to conflate soteriology with theodicy as a way to argue against the other team.  Calvinists can be tempted to claim that Arminians are so bent on free will they deny God's sovreignty and Arminians claim that Calvinists are hard determinists who think nobody has free choice and all evil things are willed by God.

This is the sort of stupidity that can happen when you insist on conflating soteriology with theodicy.  Look, Arminians, I get the anxiety and dismay about the possibilty that you have no moral agency in your life.  But you know what?  The idea that Calvinists place doctrine over people is nonsense.  The idea that providence can guide you to a decision you wouldn't make unless providence pushed you can show up in any doctrinal system.  Let's take Satan entering into Judas.  Judas made his decision but was he impelled by Satan?  That betrayal was predicted so somebody was going to do it, right? 

Look, Arminians, much as I get your dislike of Calvinism and a temptation to see Calvinist soteriology as the same as hard determinism on all points, Arminian as a theodicy is also a failure because soteriology and theodicy are not the same fields of thought.  You need to appreciate that the author who wrote "The Grand Inquisitor", Fyodor Dostoevsky, was some fashion of Russian Orthodox.  The Orthodox subscribe to synergistic soteriology.  Yet Dostoevsky pointed out that the tears of a tortured, dying child don't really make an end-of-time cosmic harmony worth that price, does it?  The point of "The Grand Inquisitor" is that if God permits the emergence of a universe in which one desparate, dying child is the price to be paid for a universe of perfection that price is still too high for Ivan.  So God gave people free will, so what?  What good is it to preserve that level of free will in a world in which parents can have their own child devoured by hounds?  Or in which a soldier amuses himself by shooting off a baby's head just as he's coaxed it into laughing and reaching out to a pistol he's been brandishing at the baby the whole time?

I've grown impatient as I enter middle age with partisans who pretend that they have a trump card in which they make an emotional appeal.  That other person's view, that other side's ideas, those condone child abuse.  That's the trump card, a type of identity politics in which people use straw men and reductio ad absurdums on the other side to say that all these people have ideas that condone child abuse.  An Arminian who would say a Calvinist condones child abuse for believing in monergistic soteriology has to account for a Lutheran variation of monergism.  And the Arminian has to account for the fact that if free will is so very important that God won't violate a person's free will that this means free will is so important God won't violate the free will of a man who for some terrible reason decides to rape his own child.  Can an Arminian really be that certain that in defending whatever free will is that this isn't the same problem the Calvinist is said to have, defending a doctrine over a person?  It can end up being the same problem from the opposite side.  Surely we must all have enough atheist friends to be around us they can point out that this ends up being a distinction without a difference attempting to apply determinism and free will to human suffering.  The problem of evil is a philosophical and ethical dillema whether people believe in deities or not. 

I've seen people on the internet use phrases that I'm not always sure they think through.  One of the ones that has stuck with me is a claim that "X idea fails the love test".  What the love test even is never gets explained and is used as a cudgel to beat a set of ideas in effigy associated with evil people.  This is not much different from "All Republicans are idiots and evil bigots" or "All Democrats are crazy tax-and-spend liberals who love queers"  Even if you think those bromides are based on reality exemplifying those biases doesn't make you come across like a better person for that.  Even the blanket condemnation "X fails the love test" or "people into X love dogma over people" may be true but it is a paradoxical dogma against dogma.  It's possible to meet people who hold ideas and dogmas you disagree with who are actually healthy, well-adjusted kind people. 

Let's return axiom for axiom, dogmas are ideas and they can't fail any kind of love test.  People can fail a "love test" all sorts of ways.  Doctrines like Arminianism and Calvinism don't fail "the love test", people do, and people can and will fail whatever the love test is any time their having to make their point is considered so important they will sacrifice or belittle the dignity and humanity of whomever they disagree with to prove their point.  Arminians and Calvinists exist who love people regardless of doctrinal differences and Arminians and Calvinists exist who are so dedicated to their pet dogmas they will demonize people who differ with them.  One of my goals in life is to not be one of those second types of people.  Yes, as I've said a few times here I advocate a monergistic soteriology but I'm not going to say synergists are terrible nasty people who have no regard for the sovreignty of God.  Who came up with the free-will theodicy?  Wasn't that some guy named Augustine?  Augustine punted on the origin of the evil will, stating in City of God that he could not find a natural or efficient explanation of the origin of the evil will that led to the lapsarian state. 

If you look in the history of any group of people long enough you'll find something appalling, something atrocious, something indefensible.  That's how people are.  If you can look at the whole history of movement and, somehow, find nothing impeachable about it then, congratulations, you're part of the problem.  Every hero in one tradition will likely to be a monster in another.  That's how we humans are.  That kinda gets at the Christian profession that we all need divine rescue, that none of us is so above reproach or so unstained by the capacity to be terrible we have no need of redemption from the frailties of body and soul that can often be the inspiration for the most terrible things we say and do.  Who will deliver us from this body of death is how it gets put in Romans 7, yes?

My friend J.S. Bangs wrote about how we live in an age that enjoys abjection of the past.

One of the more interesting ideas of critical theory is the concept of abjection, which is the attitude by which the mainstream rejects and symbolically casts out its antithesis, defining itself by what it excludes. Racial whiteness is defined by the abjection of blackness. Literary fiction is defined by the abjection of genre. And modernity is defined by the abjection of the past.

This abjection is absolutely necessary for modernity to function. We have to be ashamed and disgusted by our ancestors, for how else would we justify the vandalism of our inheritance and our pollution of the natural and social environments? By making the past abject, we reassure ourselves that we have lost nothing in the transition to modernity, that our forefathers have nothing to teach us, that we were right to leave all of that behind. Daniel “The Past Sucked” Polansky is merely participating in this ongoing project of abjection.

Polansky says that he doesn’t understand fantasy, in particular its fascination with the past. But there is really an obvious alliance between the genre of fantasy, which abjected both by mainstream literary fiction and by its older sister science fiction, and the abjected past. The outcast genre and the outcast history have to make an alliance together. It is no coincidence that fantasy literature emerges as a distinct genre at the same time that the modern world starts onto its feet and begins to persecute history.

Or like my banner quote says: Realism is for those whose worldviews are already accepted as realistic. The rest of us must make do with genre.

Now if a recent or inattentive reader plans to object that defending Calvinism is defending a position held by some evil man who had Servetus killed, remember The Grand Inquisitor.  And keep in mind that Wenatchee The Hatchet being a Calvinist doesn't mean Wenatchee wouldn't have published a  musical/litarary satire of super-Calvinist homeschooling types who think that culture war means outbreeding the Muslims and repudiating semi-Pelagians. For folks who don't read music the allusions to Dixieland are intentional. Wenatchee has satirized smug or paranoid Calvinists more than once, for that matter.

We do have to be ashamed of those who came before us because that is part of a narrative of "repentance" in some circles.  Baby Boomers have been selling a line of how we can right wrongs done by earlier generations for a while.  Yet it is also hardly a surprise that once Baby Boomers reached the same geezery age as their own parents were approaching a few generations ago The Greatest Generation suddenly didn't seem so bad.  How many decades ago did Phil Collins write this sentiment:

I won't be coming home tonight
My generation will make it right
We're not just making promises
We know we'll never keep

Thanks, Phil, it's really obvious those promises could and were promises that anyone could keep.

When Christians attempt to conflate soteriology and theodicy it's understandable but soteriology is a set of doctrines discussing how a person is saved.  Theodicy is the study of the existence of God and evil and how the two seem to exist.  Neither a Calvinist nor an Arminian can really say their respective soteriologies "work" as theodicy.  The straw man, reductio ad absurdum the Arminian can come up with is "God's perfect will controlled all circumstances so this child got abused."  The straw man, reductio ad absurdum the Calvinist can provide in reply is "Free will is so important that God won't violate a single person's free will even if it means a parent rapes his own child."  Clearly neither soteriology as a theodicy makes any sense because an actually Christian theodicy is not about the soteriology, about which there will never be agreement.  The theodicy both camps have in common is known as Christ on the cross, voluntarily sharing in the misery and death Jesus, make of heaven and earth, let creation suffer by foreseeing our decline. 

Now if this seems a bit goofy to Christians think of how absurd it will seem to unbelievers of various stripes.  Atheists don't see the Arminian soteriology as any more plausible a theodicy than the Calvinist version.  God is ultimately responsible for all evil in the cosmos simply by having made all things and knowing all things, even if we'd agree momentarily to an open theistic deity who can't possibly know the future because said deity exists within time.  It doesn't matter.  It still gets back to The Grand Inquisitor.  A synergist still runs into Dostoevsky's blunt question of whether cosmic harmony is worth the death of a single innocent child just as a monergist does.  That too many monergists try to get around the question by saying there can't really be any truly innocent children doesn't work any better than claiming that free will is so important we needed it because without evil there couldn't be good.  Arguments of that sort were what tipped me from Arminian to Calvinist.  I used to be an Arminian but Arminianism fails as theodicy and Calvinism may seem terrible for conceding that God lets a lot of terrible things happen the theodicy is the Cross and on that, you'd think, Arminians and Calvinists could at least partly agree.  Among the men and women who have taught me many wonderful things are Arminians, Calvinists, Lutherans, and even some Catholics and Orthodox.  We can learn from each other, can't we?

But, no, they're going to argue about the TULIP forever and ever.  The saddest part is that these arguments are espoused by too many people who think that saying that so-and-so fails the love test for espousing certain doctrines makes any difference to a child who's been abused.  I've met people who were abused by Arminian parents and I don't think that the first thought that was going through their mind was, "The reason my parent is doing this to me is because of errant, semi-Pelagian doctrines!"  Alternatively, the kid of a Calvinist child-abuser isn't thinking "My dad is an abusive drunk because he values double-imputation more than me. If only he would hold to merely natural headship rather than federal headship!  Does he not know that postmillenialist millenarian theonomistic views are a pseudo-Papist abomination with some medieval roots!?"   Trust me, not even the smartest ten-year old kids are thinking that and most adults who are professing Christians don't even know or care what these concepts are. 

Except maybe on the internet ... .


Descriptive Grace said...

"Long ago I was Arminian and I happen to be a Calvinist now."

You should rephrase that to "Long ago I believed in God and I happen to be an Atheist now." That's what it means. Calvinism is just a way of denying that God expects anything of us. The atheist can say "There is no God, so go bang your neighbor's wife with impunity," and the Calvinist likewise "Its all predestined, so go bang your neighbor's wife with impunity." There's no real difference between the two except the Calvinist pretends to believe in God, and being on the inside, terrorizes the church!

Again, the atheist says "There's no free will because evolution proves everything we do in predetermined by the prior movement of particles." The Calvinist says "there is no free will because our perverted misinterpretation of Romans 9 says so." There's no real difference between the two except the Calvinist pretends to believe in God, and being on the inside, terrorizes the church!

Descriptive Grace said...

As to the question of whether theodicy and soteriology belong together...soteriology is obviously anthropodicy. What is man that thou art mindful of him or the son of man that thou visitest him? If there is nothing good in man left after the fall, as Calvinism asserts, then no soteriology makes any sense whatsoever. There must be some worth left in man, or why bother. This is one of the major problems with Calvinism: it can't see why God would want to save anyone. Your problem with theodicy starts with anthropodicy. Because you hate your fellow man, you make God also do the same. The question "Why would God even want to save anyone?" can only be answered with some worthless cliche by a Calvinist, like "for his good pleasure" or "for his glory," things which sidestep the question, for the question is "What is man that thou art mindful of him?" not whether God can do what he wants. If Calvinism is true, then there is no salvation, because there is nothing redeemable in man to be saved.

Anonymous said...

My take is as follows. Theodicy and Soteriology are more interrelated than you think. First, soteriology is not truly separable from your whole view of the afterlife, including your view of damnation. So, take for example a soteriology like the following pre-Reformation soteriology: unbeliever's all go to hell, but there are different levels of hell correspdonging to different badness levels of sin, so the "virtuous pagan" goes to the "first circle of hell" that ain't all that bad. Then believers are all saved, except for those who sins are really really bad after baptism (like murder, rape, etc.) This is a soteriology. Whether scriptural or not is another matter, but it is a soteriology. And it is better at theodicy than either Calvinism or Arminianism. In fact, it would seem that the advent of the Reformation, and the banishing of this type of soteriology is what made "theodicy" such a prominent subject. That is, the soteriologies that the Evangelical Intelligencia insist on are such that they are incompatible with the view that God is just. The afterlife taught by them does not mete out anything remotely resembling justice. In them, all unbelievers go and burn in a one-room hell where the fire is as hot for the rapist as for the kid who hardly did anything wrong at all but is only there because of "original sin" and having not heard the gospel! The older, pre-Reformation soteriology wasn't constantly complained at like the modern ones, because it didn't prevent the unjust view of God the modern ones do. There is obviously a reason why those old catholics prior to Trent went for this Dante's Inferno type stuff, right? It was this view that ultimately God will mete out justice, not just some arbitrary this guy is saved and this one is not like in Calvinism, and yes, frankly, in Arminianism too. The rapist and the kid who just never heard of Jesus may have both been placed in hell, but the kid would be in the very top of hell where there was no torment other than knowing that technically this was hell, but the rapist would be upside down in hot lava or whatever. So, soteriology and theodicy were the same back then. Modern "enlightened" thinking, however, has separated them, to the great benefit of atheism!!!!

Anonymous said...

"Theodicy is the study of the existence of God and evil and how the two seem to exist."

I would define theodicy as the question: what is God going to do to the evil? and will he do it only to the evil, or to the just and unjust both?

Its not a question of why evil exists. I take it for granted that its not possible for a physical world to exist without evil, and that if a God exists he would necessarily at some point create a physical world. So evil exists essentially be necessity, until God destroys the physical world at least. And soteriology is tied directly to escatology which asserts that God will one day destroy the physical world, and then judge us humans for the evil we have done. So the question is what is God going to do about evil, not why does evil exist. When you define soteriology as "why does evil exist?" you prejudice the whole thing in favor of atheism. When you ask "what will God do about evil?" you have led directly into a question of soteriology and escatology!

Anonymous said...

One place Christians always go wrong on theodicy is misinterpreting "good" as "perfect." "God created a PERFECT world. It says so in Genesis 'God saw that is was GOOD.'" So my statement above about evil existing necessarily in a physical world will rile them up. "God created a perfect world. It says it right there: He saw everything he made was GOOD." Yes, it says Good, not Perfect. Even before the fall of Adam and Eve, there was evil in the world. It was never perfect. Theodicy to me is not "Why" evil exist, although you can claim this very explanation is theodicy if you fancy that definition, but what will he do about it. Having created the world, he is obligated to do something about it. So its now a competition of who's soteriology/escatology is most convincing, not really of which fits the NT better, but which fits the OT better, for he created the world in the OT not the NT. The NT's answers may all be wrong. The answer to soteriology may be found in the OT. Or it may be found in pre-Reformation Chritian theology. If we acknowledge that no Christian theology based on "sola scriptura" is compatibly with theodicy, it is essentially an admission either than we are applying "sola scriptura" to too big of a canon (i.e. we should drop the NT from the canon) or that we should go by tradition instead of "sola scriptura" and go for a Dante-esque Christian answer. For clearly no soteriology that is nonsense to theodicy can be true.