Magic Hand-waving in the Calvinist Cause

, posted by SEA

I. Introduction

This post responds to Calvinist scholar and assistant professor at Reformed Theological Seminary James Anderson’s latest rejoinder (“The Arminian Cause”) to me (specifically, to my last post: “Exposing Calvinist ‘Forgery’ in the Alleged Paper Trail of Prophesied Prayers”) in our ongoing debate about whether prayer can legitimately be considered a cause of God’s answers to prayer in Calvinism/determinism. James has declined to respond to the bulk of my comments, but endorses the critique offered by Steve Hays in the comment section of James’ prior post (“Arminianism and the Paper Trail of Prophesied Prayers”). Therefore, I will respond to Hays’ comments on these issues as if they were James’ as well as the little that James does say on these matters. But James does respond at length to one point I made concerning a matter that was not central to his last post, but that I criticized him on for somewhat derailing the conversation. So this response will consist of three main parts. First, I will respond to the little James has said in relation to the bulk of my last post, drawing in any relevant comments he has endorsed for critique of my last essay. Then I will respond to any approved comments which were given to my last essay that remain unaddressed. Then I will address the bulk of James’ latest response. Comments on this post may be made at Arminian Perspectives, specifically at this thread.

As this has been a discussion between James and me, I will not feel obliged to respond to any rejoinder offered by Steve Hays. As James mentioned in his post, time and energy are an issue in this discussion. This has been a discussion primarily between James and me, and I intend to keep my focus on responding to James and what he offers by way of response. I may or may not respond to commenters in the comboxes of the various posts in this discussion. But I think it would be a little unfair to ask me to debate both James and Steve at the same time. And I have no interest in switching my discussion partner from James to Steve. Now on to specific responses. My responses will be marked by asterisks.

II. Addressing James’ Hand-Waving and Refining My Position

James said: I’m confident enough that anyone who reads Arminian’s second response, and understands the metaphysical problems I raised for his position, will recognize that his rebuttal consists largely of hand-waving non-answers (e.g., appeals to divine transcendence, eternity, and omnipotence that somehow function like magic wands to dissolve away, without any further explanation, the paradoxes raised by backward/circular causation).

**** This is a remarkable statement. I simply followed the logic of positions James holds and grants to their natural conclusion. If God is outside of time and not bound by it, then it is not hand-waving to point out that what would be impossible for time-bound creatures would be possible for God. Indeed, we know God can do many things that are impossible for humans and that we have no idea how God could do them such as speaking the world into existence, be everywhere at the same time, command the elements of nature, raise the dead, etc. Some might claim it is logically impossible for God to do such things. But we know that is false. We know that he can do such things, but we don’t know how, just as, I would argue, that God can know the future without irresistibly causing it as demanded by Scripture.

James agreed that God being outside of time does not prevent him from reaching into time and acting in time. Then, however, he attempted to argue that God could not be affected by time-bound creatures. I believe my response showed that a time-transcendent God who could interact in time with time-bound humans could surely allow himself to be affected by them. But if this is so, then what James refers to as backward causation follows as possible for God, though this is impossible for humans, unless of course God grants them this power or brings backward causation to pass because of his knowledge of human action. The fact is that I specifically addressed his arguments against a time-transcendent God being able to allow time-bound creatures to affect him. (Indeed, Scripture clearly shows God being affected by (time-bound) humans beings, not least by prayers that move him to answer those prayers [e.g., James 5:15-18; Ex 32:11-14].) But James has in effect conveniently avoided addressing those arguments by calling them hand-waving non-answers. There is no need to go over my answers again. But I would encourage readers to look at them and see if James’ assessment is correct or if it is not he who has attempted some hand-waving of his own in hopes that my rebuttals would magically disappear.

Despite being confident that I have already shown that an omnipotent and time-transcendent being who is able to interact with time-bound human beings in time could allow them to affect him, let me add a point to strengthen the position a little more. We actually have an example of something that is “timeless”, does not experience time, yet can interact with time-bound reality and be impacted by it: light. Indeed, it can affect time-bound human beings and be affected by them.

James begged the question by trying to restrict causation to temporal reality, which I pointed out leads to the absurd conclusion that God, if construed as timeless, never does anything. I did so by dealing with James’ attempt to link “effects” with “events”, which James illegitimately defined as time-bound. I asked, “How else are we to speak of God’s decision? Is it not an event? If not, then it never happens, which is to say God never decides, which renders talk of God’s decisions absurd.” Steve Hays now responds, “It’s east [sic] to say how else we’re to speak of it. There was never a time when God was undecided.” So is that really the response James wants to give? Apparently so; he approved all of Steve’s replies to me. So according to James, apparently we should not ever talk about God having done something in eternity (eternity past from our perpective) even though the Bible does. On this view, it seems we can’t even accurately speak of God doing something positively. We can only accurately speak of God—and this is going to be a mouthful—not having ever not done this or that particular thing. Calvinism sure makes it hard to speak reasonably. Perhaps that is why James also wants to leave behind normal definitions and ways of speaking for technical philosophical jargon that allows one to define things in such a way that are of no practical use for the ordinary person and that allows one to make one’s view work by definition even if it has no correspondence to reality (see below for a response to James’ opinion on this). I would urge that we stick with the Bible’s way of speaking about God’s actions in eternity, which actually allows for God to do things.

As a result of my interaction with James, I have come to refine my position on the issue of circular causation that James has raised. He seemed to focus on the issue of time as making it impossible. But I think that time would not be an issue on the supposition of a God who could transcend time. However, I overlooked the logical aspect of the specific type of circular causation that James proposed, and I am not even sure that James is aware of the specific point that is truly problematic. I made the point that someone being the cause of his own prayer would not necessarily be problematic if a time-transcendent God were involved, since he can operate outside of time and bring effects to what is to us the past or the future. But I would now say that the specific example of circular causation James proposes is impossible. The problem as I see it in James’ specific example is that God’s foreknowledge assumes the prophecy to have been given, but God decides to give the prophecy because he knows a prayer will be offered due to the prophecy having been given. This is logically impossible. (This may be what Steve Hays was getting at when he said, “Does Arminian1 think omnipotence can magically resolve the grandfather paradox?”) But it is not a problem for the Arminian view for more than one reason.

First, I would say that this never happens precisely because it is impossible. God cannot logically decide to do something partly because he decided to do it (we are not talking about a renewed decision here, but the same decision). The example that James cites from Jeremiah is not a true example, for the best understanding of the passage takes the prophecy as conditional. This note from the NET Bible on Jer 29:12 explains why:

    The verbs are vav consecutive perfects and can be taken either as unconditional futures or as contingent futures. See GKC §112.kk and §159.g and compare the usage in Gen 44:22 for the use of the vav consecutive perfects in contingent futures. The conditional clause in the middle of 29:13 and the deuteronomic theology reflected in both Deut 30:1-5 and 1 Kgs 8:46-48 suggest that the verbs are continent futures here. For the same demand for wholehearted seeking in these contexts which presuppose exile see especially Deut 30:2, 1 Kgs 8:48.

Therefore, the Arminian view does not commit one to the type of circular causation that James raises.

Second, there is the matter that I mentioned in my response to James which I said would forcefully counter James’ point, but which I decided not to get into to keep from complicating the discussion too much. But since I am now explaining my position more fully, I will appeal to what I call simple middle knowledge (MK hereafter), a non-Molinist version of middle knowledge rooted in a simple foreknowledge perspective (hence, simple middle knowledge). Basically, this is the belief that God generally knows what people who exist/will exist would freely do in certain circumstances based on access to their will via his transcendence over time. So he only has such knowledge of people who do/will in fact exist. This avoids the grounding objection often raised against Molinism, for God’s knowledge of what a person would do is grounded in the person’s actual will.

Such MK on God’s part can be seen in the Bible, such as when Jesus reveals what Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom would have done if circumstances had been different in Mt 11:20-24, and when the Lord tells David what Saul and the men of Keilah would do if David were to stay in Keilah (1 Sam 22:9-13; David did not stay and so they did not do what God knew they would have done). Clearly God knew what people would have done had circumstances been different. However, this type of knowledge does not fit comfortably into Calvinism/determinism. For it verges on preposterous to speak of what someone would have done differently in a deterministic scheme. It would amount to saying what God would have irresistibly caused them to do if he had irresistibly caused the situation to be different. So in Mt 11:20-24 Jesus would be castigating these people for not believing him and the wondrous miracles he did before them because he would have irresistibly caused the ancient people of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom to have repented if he had performed those miracles before them. That’s hard to swallow. Jesus’ statement of what they would have done in different circumstances only makes good sense in this context if they were really free to have acted in that way, which points toward the ultimate incoherence of determinism.

MK would allow for the functional equivalent of the scenario James poses. Using MK, God would be able to give a prophecy about someone praying a prayer in response to reading the very same prophecy, and he would be able to give the prophecy a hundred years prior to the event based on his knowledge of what the man would do if he read such a prophecy. This falls short of circular causation since the prayer does not serve as a cause of itself in this scheme. In any case, it is not logically impossible given the supposition of a God who can transcend time, the very supposition that James grants in order to try and refute it. It contains no logical contradiction. Therefore, even if Jer 29:10-14 were to be interpreted in the less likely way that James claims it should be, it would not present a problem for Arminian theology.

III. Addressing Further Replies Approved by James

I claimed: “In the case of one person making a request of another, the request can only be a genuine cause if it actually influences the granter of the request to grant the request.”

Steve Hays responded: “Of course, that’s a key contention of open theism. Is Arminian1 an open theist? If not, then he needs to explain how he can make a key concession to open theism without capitulating to open theism in toto.”

**** This is a rather blatant non sequitur. Just because two systems share a key contention does not make them equivalent nor suggest that they should be. Calvinism and Arminianism share various key contentions, but they obviously remain distinct. Both believe, e.g., in God’s exhaustive knowledge of the future. Indeed, Calvinism and Open Theism share a common contention, that God cannot know the future without irresistibly causing it. On this line of thinking, I could challenge James to explain how he can make a key concession to Open Theism (that God cannot know the future without irresistibly causing it) without capitulating to Open Theism in toto. Even Steve’s use of “concession” is misleading. It is not a concession to Open Theism. It’s common sense observation of common understanding of interpersonal causality. It is as reasonable to think of Arminianism conceding the point Steve mentions to Open Theism as it is to think of the point about foreknowledge I just mentioned as a concession of Calvinism to Open Theism.

I said: “we could use Piper’s definitions.”

Steve Hays responded: “Actually, we shouldn’t. That was the starting point for Justin Taylor. But the debate has moved beyond that.
Piper is a preacher and Bible scholar. His definition is a popular definition, not a technical definition. If Arminian1 is going to critique the logical and/or metaphysical coherence of the Reformed doctrine of prayer, then we need to recast the issue in more philosophically stringent terms.”

**** I completely disagree. This started from my critique of Piper’s argument for considering predestined prayer a cause of predestined answer to prayer. James has been defending Piper. The disagreement remains basically the same. I also challenge the idea that we need to recast the debate in stringent philosophical language. While I respect philosophy and view it as the handmaiden of theology, it carries no superiority over using common language. Indeed, it runs the risk of obscuring the issues by using language that does not match what people normally mean when communicating. Moreover, I began my critique of Piper in normal language, and see no reason why I should have to change to exclusively technical, philosophical language. I remain interested in establishing that Piper’s argument is bogus. If James needs to resort to stringent philosophical language alone to defend his position and cannot do so in normal language, then perhaps that reveals the weakness of his position and its incapability to match the real world. I am not objecting to using philosophical language. It can be helpful and I am happy to use it as is fitting. But I do object to restricting regular language from the discussion. Moreover, it is far from obvious that stringent philosophical language needs to be used to talk about logical and/or metaphysical coherence or that it is most appropriate.

James asserted: “either (a) God transcends time altogether and therefore does not exist in a series of moments or (b) God inhabits time therefore and exists in an endless series of moments.”

I said: “If God transcends time, that is not to say that he “therefore does not exist in a series of moments”, but that he is not bound by any series of moments. That is, he can exist partially in a series of moments, yet he goes beyond them, is not limited by them, and can also be outside of them. He . . . transcends them.”

Steve Hays responded: “That’s an assertion. Arminian1 needs to show how it’s coherent to claim that God can “exist partially in a series of moments, yet also be outside of them.” ”

**** So my comment was an assertion and James’ was not? Why should I have to demonstrate the coherence of my claim and James does not need to? In fact, James has been challenging my claim that God transcending time accounts for him being able to know the future without causing it. At this point, we were essentially giving definitions of what we are talking about. But perhaps it is James who bears the greater burden of establishing his definition since has was challenging my view of what God’s transcendence over time enables him to do. Nevertheless, let me say here that James’ view lacks coherence in that he believes that God does not exist in a series of moments, yet he agrees that God can act in the series of moments humans inhabit. It is unclear how his view can account for this. But my view runs into no tension with this scenario. Since God can operate inside and outside of time according to both me and James, it follows that he can be both inside and outside of time, which James seems to define as a series of moments.

Steve Hays said: “No, science has not shown that there are 11 dimensions to space. That’s merely a postulate of string theory. And string theory is quite controversial. It’s not a well-established theory, like Relativity or quantum mechanics.”

**** This is true. I spoke too positively about eleven dimensions of space as proven by science. Nevertheless, the theory is taken quite seriously by many scientists and it still supports my point that modern scientific theories explain how a being like God could know the future without irresistibly causing it. (Small note: String theory works from quantum mechanics and General Relativity, so it works from two well-established theories, and while controversial, is certainly considered a legitimate theory.)

Steve Hays said: “i) Adding extra dimensions to space is irrelevant to the point at issue since the issue concerns the temporal coordinate (God’s relation to time, our relation to time), not the spatial coordinate(s).”

**** I should have said space-time. Specifically, I think Ross believes there is at least one extra time dimension as well as extra space dimensions.

Steve Hays said: “ii) To the extent that you spatialize time, you wind up with a block view of time–which results in a closed future rather than an open future. And that, in turn, is antithetical to libertarian freewill.”

**** It is false that a block view of the universe necessarily contradicts libertarian freewill. Many assume this, apparently because of the basic and false assumption that certainty = necessity, while James has admitted to the fundamental distinction between the two. Since something can be certain yet not be necessary nor necessitated, a block view of time does not itself contradict free will. Moreover, Ross, who is a credentialed physicist, and whom William Lane Craig considers “evangelicalism’s most important scientific apologist”, obviously does not see it the way Steve does, since he advocates free will and the idea that God could use extra dimensions to know the future without irresistibly causing it.

I should also add that Ross’ use of string theory was just one possibility for current scientific theories that would allow for God to be able to know the future without irresistibly causing it. Other more established scientific understanding allows for this as well.

For example:

It is well established that time travel to the future is possible in principle (see e.g., Stephen Hawking with Leonard Mlodinow, A Briefer History of Time, 105; Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos, 448-51). This is something that Greene states is “an undisputed and experimentally verified prediction of special relativity” (449). Such travel may well be impossible for human beings because of limited technology and the fragility of the human body to accelerate to the speed required to travel to the future. But God is limited by neither. Moreover, if one can go at the speed of light, he can travel to the future and not experience any passage of time. And God can certainly travel at the speed of light.

Moreover, under this same sort of accepted scientific paradigm, backward time travel is possible if one can travel faster than the speed of light (Hawking, 107). And God can obviously travel faster than the speed of light. Indeed, he can travel with unlimited speed. Is James limiting God’s power?

Another way that time travel is possible, whether backward or forward is to warp space-time. Scientists think this is theoretically possible but doubt whether humans could do it, or do it long enough to be of any value, or be able to endure traveling in that way. But none of this is a problem for God. He can warp space-time, create what are known as wormholes, keep a wormhole open as long as he wants, and endure anything any wormhole or other entity could dish out. He is the almighty God.

According to Hawking, “the radiation by black holes shows that quantum theory allows time travel back in time on a microscopic scale” (112). If so, then God can certainly travel back in time.

Something that makes much of this even unnecessary to say, and that I mentioned in passing in my last post, is that God is omnipresent. But according to standard, current scientific understanding, an omnipresent being would know the past present, and future.

It is well known that time stops at the speed of light. Greene calls this a “ ‘timeless’ ” state and refers to the photon as having a “ ‘timeless’ ” perspective (496-79 note 5). Then when discussing a certain experiment, Greene seems implicitly to agree that the halting of time at the speed of light would make for a perspective in which all moments are the same moment, and that this perspective would provide the ability to “know” something that would be later in the time perspective and apply it to something that would be earlier in the time perspective (512 note 4). However, this possibility does not explain the data in the particular experiment he considers. But that is irrelevant to our purposes. The point is that well established scientific theory seems to provide for a being like God having the ability to know the future without irresistibly causing it and to act on this knowledge.

Now, I want to stress that I am not saying that any of these ways is the way that God knows the future free actions of human beings. There could be any number of other ways that he could do this that we haven’t begun to understand or that are beyond any laws of science. The point is that even current scientific understanding can explain how a being like God could know the future without irresistibly causing it and even act based on that knowledge. And yet God is not limited by the laws of physics. He created them. So we have good reason to believe he can know the future without irresistibly causing it. And James’ objection to the Arminian view of foreknowledge as impossible is partly undermined by these facts. The real question is what the Bible reveals about these matters or ones that might have some impact on our assessment of these matters. As I said in my last post, “James might argue that the Arminian view is based on a certain relationship of God to time. But it is not so. It may demand that God is not bound by time (not necessarily timeless). But the Arminian view is actually based on Scripture and Scripture’s incompatibility with determinism and its attestation of free will among other things. In this case, the Arminian view is based on the fact that Scripture presents prayer as a cause of God’s answers to prayer, a fact Piper and Anderson agree with. Calvinism, on the other hand, still seems inconsistent with this biblical truth given petitionary prayer’s nature as requesting God to do something.”

I said: “It is unwise to base an objection to God’s ability to base his decisions to some extent on the actions of human beings performed in time on one’s view of God’s relationship to time when our understanding is so limited, God is so immense, and there are various models that can conceivably account for this.”

Steve Hays said: “One problem with this statement is that it’s an appeal to mystery. But that cuts both ways. On the one hand, Arminian1 is raising an intellectual objection to the coherence of Reformed theology vis-à-vis prayer. On the other hand, he retreats into mystery to shield the Arminian alternative from rational scrutiny. That’s special pleading. Either both sides can appeal to mystery or else both sides are subject to rational scrutiny.”

**** It is not really an appeal to mystery, at least not in the way Steve paints it nor in the way that Calvinists often use it, to shield logical contradictions in their system from rational scrutiny. Notice that I said “when there are various models that can conceivably account for this”. What I meant was that since it is possible in light of various reasonable options, it is unwise to claim it is impossible because one’s view of the one option one think best sees it that way. Indeed, we even disagree over whether God being timeless makes it possible or impossible for God. Traditionally, it has been held to make it possible for God to know the future without irresistibly causing it. James says that in reality it makes it impossible. And that is one of the main points we have been arguing about. I did not in any way suggest my view should not be rationally scrutinized, but made this comment as a result of rational scrutiny, which I take to show that it is possible for God to act based on his knowledge of what is to us the future. It does make use of mystery in the sense that, although we know it is possible, we cannot know the exact way God knows the future free actions of human beings since Scripture does not tell us how he does. But it does not matter for the reasonability of the view how God can do it, just that he can do it. Similarly, it is a caution to tread lightly in an area in which our knowledge is so limited, unlike the very common human experience and understanding of what a cause is. To be sure, when professional philosophers get their hands on something, they can make it much more complicated and just about any topic is going to have many varying views. But some topics are more difficult and speculative than others. The nature of time is one of them. The quote I provided in my last post bears repeating:

    Questions about God’s relation to time involve many of the most perplexing topics in metaphysics. These include the nature of the fundamental structures of the universe as well as the nature of God’s own life. It is not surprising that the questions are still open even after over two millennia of careful inquiry. While philosophers often come to conclusions that are reasonably settled in their mind, they are wise to hold such conclusions with an open hand” (Gregory E. Ganssle, “God and Time” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Steve Hays said: “Yet he just told us that “it’s unwise to base an objection to God’s ability to base his decisions to some extent on the actions of human beings performed in time on one’s view of God’s relationship to time.”

But if he doesn’t think we know enough about the nature of time, or God’s relationship to time, then, by his own admission, he’s in no position to say that retrocausation is not a problem for his position. He can’t evaluate retrocausation unless he has a working theory on the nature of time.”

**** Steve takes my words out of context here, cutting them off mid-sentence when the part he cut out gives the critical basis of my statement. See my last set of comments above for explanation. Suffice it to say here that I do think that retrocausation can be evaluated, and that I think that more than one working theory of time allows for God to know the future without irresistibly causing it and to be able to act on that knowledge.

Steve Hays said: “According to Arminian1, ‘We come yet again to the critical difference between certainty and necessity, a distinction which James acknowledged as valid but thought irrelevant. But just as before, it again turns out to be quite relevant. On this, see see e.g., Robert E. Picirilli, “Foreknowledge, Freedom, and the Future”. The logic on this distinction is definitive, which is probably why James accepts it as valid.’

But from my reading, Picirilli’s “definitive” explanation is subject to the same intractable problem as the grounding objection to Molinism.’

**** That is not really fair. Picirilli did not address how God might know the future. That was not the purpose or focus of his article. He was addressing the common Calvinist argument that if God knows something will certainly happen, then that must mean it is necessary and that the future actions of human beings cannot be free, but must be necessitated by God. James’ contention which I was responding to was that if God foreknew someone would do a particular thing, then if the person is free, when it comes time to act in time, the person would have the power to undo any effects that had been brought about in prior time by God acting on his foreknowledge of the person’s future act. But this is bogus by the distinction James acknowledges to be valid: the distinction between certainty and necessity, and the related point that in the Arminian view, God would foreknow whatever action the person will actually do. God’s foreknowledge tracks whatever the person will actually do and is based on it. As I said, “While the potential pray-er would have the ability to not pray (there is no necessity), he certainly will pray (there is certainty in God’s foreknowledge).”

IV. Decisions vs. Answers, and James Missing the Original Argument

Now we come to the main reply that James has offered to my last post.

James said: “Okay, let’s recap. Arminian’s original objection was that Calvinism can’t accommodate the idea that our prayers can be the causes of God’s answers to those prayers, because on the Calvinist view (1) God has decided in advance how to answer the prayer and (2) God predestines the prayer itself. I pointed out, first of all, that (1) is also true on the classical Arminian view. Does Arminian disagree here? Some real progress might be made if he were to make clear his position on this point.

**** Well, James offered the first (1) in his comment above as the case for a temporal view of God. But I said that I do not believe that God is temporally bound. On the other view James mentioned, a timeless view of God, God’s decision would not be made before, during, or after the prayer since eternity exists apart from time or outside it. Instead, God’s decision would be made according to the prayer without temporal reference. In either view, what would be considered God’s foreknowledge from the human time-bound perspective would be contingent on the prayer. For what it is worth, I think that classical Arminians would differ among themselves on whether God’s foreknowledge of his decision would mean that his decision was already made prior to the prayer. But I don’t think it matters too much. James seems to be missing the thrust of my point. See below.

James said: “As for (2), this is precisely the point that Piper’s dialog addressed. I haven’t read anything yet from Arminian that shows Piper’s claim to be incoherent. Arminian originally wrote, “the person’s request for God to do the thing cannot reasonably considered a cause of God doing the thing. God had already decided to do it, and then irresistibly causes the person to ask him to do it.” So which is the problem for the Calvinist? That God had already decided to do it? Well, I’ve addressed that point at great length. Why is Arminian now complaining that I did so?”

**** It is not merely one or the other, but the two together that presents the problem most severely. However, predestination of the prayer is the real sticking point. Temporally prior decision is not necessarily problematic in itself. That is why I complain that James has addressed the point at length. While I don’t think it is a problem in itself, it is a problem coming from the Calvinist system since that decision goes hand in hand with predestination. It is not merely that God made the decision first, but that he made the decision unconditionally; he alone thought up the thing he wanted to happen, decides to make it happen, then irresistibly causes someone to ask him to do it, then does it. In such a scheme, the request for him to do it does not really influence him to do it nor cause him to do it in any meaningfully causative way. I will explain more after citing James’ next paragraph.

Before doing that, let me mention that it seems strange that James talks about defending Piper’s point after objecting—through Steve’s comment—to using Piper’s definition of the main term we are discussing. I believe we should stick with Piper’s view, since that is the basis of our disagreement. But this seems a bit inconsistent. And it pops up more below.

James said: “Or is the real problem that God irresistibly causes the person to ask him to do it? Well, why should we think that is incompatible with the claim that the person’s prayer (e.g., for healing) is a cause of the answer to that prayer (e.g., the actual healing)? I’ve yet to hear a good argument for any inconsistency. If I’ve missed it among all the back-and-forth, I’d be grateful for a concise restatement.”

**** Yes, that is the severest point in the problematic. But, as I have said, it is actually the whole package together that brings out the severest form of the problem. I think the trouble is that rather than responding directly to my argument, James chose to go the route of charging Arminianism as logically leading to the same result. That’s an acceptable form of argumentation of course, but it seems to have led him away from understanding my argument. And it still does leave my original argument hanging out there. It probably would have been good for him to explain how Piper’s set-up can be a cause. I would suggest that he go back to my original argument at Taylor’s blog and interact with it. That presents the issue relatively concisely. In fact, I will paste it in below. He could ask questions if there is anything he doesn’t understand. I even provided a couple of illustrations. I have to say that I find it surprising that James doesn’t at least perceive the tension I have highlighted. Most people seem to grasp it pretty readily. One more thought: perhaps the definitional clarification I offered in my last post captures some of the essence of the issue concisely, as when I said that:

    In the case of one person making a request of another, the request can only be a genuine cause if it actually influences the granter of the request to grant the request. Or we could use Piper’s definitions: a prayer can only be a genuine cause of the answer to the prayer if the event that was prayed for is contingent on our praying for it to happen; the prayer must be a real reason that the event happens.

James appears to disagree with the first sentence, since Steve Hays claimed that it is a key contention of Open Theism, and that I need to explain how I am therefore not an Open Theist (the latter being a strange and invalid claim as explained earlier). James is apparently uncomfortable with Piper’s definition as well, since Steve objected to its use, though it seems unlikely that James actually disagrees with Piper’s definition since he has been defending it to some extent.

James said: “Arminian is apparently unhappy because I chose to “focus on the decision aspect” rather than his “direct challenge to what he says Piper was talking about—answer to prayer.” But here’s the thing: the “decision aspect” and the “answer to prayer” are not distinct issues. As I see it, an answer to prayer has two components: (GD) God’s decision about whether (and how) the prayer request will be granted and (GI) God’s implementation of that decision in the events following the prayer. I’ve addressed (GD) and I’ve seen no cogent objection to Piper’s claim that the prayer can be considered a cause of (GI). So I’m at a loss to see why Arminian thinks I’ve somehow missed the point.

**** (1) James faulted me for addressing (GD) and missing what Piper was talking about, namely, (GI). So I pointed out that I talked about both (GD) and (GI). Now James faults me for conflating these two aspects of the issue (see below), and has carefully distinguished these two aspects himself. But when I fault him for missing my use of both concepts, he defends himself by saying that the two are not distinct! He seems to be inconsistent here. Are they intertwined or to be sharply distinguished? They could be both sharply distinguishable and thoroughly intertwined. But then why did he fault me for addressing what he took as the wrong one? The irony is that I did not only address one. I spoke of both.

James said: “As I’ve explained, I didn’t ignore Arminian’s framing of the issue. Rather, I made some important distinctions and then tried to focus in on the precise point at which the Calvinist view was alleged to be problematic. If Arminian is now claiming that wasn’t the point he was making after all, so much the better! But in that case I’m left genuinely confused as to what the point really was.”

**** I do think James has misunderstood my argument, and that probably because James has not dealt with it directly but chose to try and prove it equivalent to the Calvinist view. Again, I urge James to go back and read my initial comments. In fact, let me paste them in here. Then he can interact with them:

Piper’s main argument is nonsensical IMO. It is one thing to claim that a predestined event is the cause of another when the one genuinely causes the other, but it is illegitimate to claim that in a Calvinistic/deterministic system that prayer is a cause of anything. For prayer is asking God to do something. But the the claim is that God predestines someone to ask him to do the thing; God predestines the prayer and its content of asking God to do the thing God had already decided on doing, and predestines the person to ask him to do. In such a case, the person’s request for God to do the thing cannot reasonably considered a cause of God doing the thing. God had already decided to do it, and then irresistibly causes the person to ask him to do it. IMO, Calvinism/determinism undermines a biblical concept of prayer. Here is a good article on this:

“Examining Inconsistencies in Calvinistic Monergism Part 1: Intercessory Prayer”

It can’t be any kind of cause since it does not vitally contribute anything to the performance of the action. The idea is that prayer is supposed to influence God to act (the use of “cause” cannot mean less than this). But it is nonsensical to say that God is influenced to act by a request to act when he decided to do the thing, then irresistibly caused someone to ask him to do it, and then does it.

[revised to make clearer:] To illustrate: if someone decides that he will irresitibly cause someone to accept his offer to accept a free check from him (suppose he administers a drug that makes the other person willing to do whatever he is told), but that he will only irresistibly cause the person to accept the check upon irresitibly causing someone else to ask him to irresistibly cause the other person to accept his offer, that person asking him cannot properly be said to cause the other person to accept the check. It does not genuinely influence the check giver except that he wants to cause the intercessor to ask him to do something he already thought up and was already set on doing. It does not actually affect the check giver who is determining everything everyone is doing in the situation. And it does not affect the check receiver. It would be different if the check giver irresitibly caused another to go and ask the person to receive the check and then irresistibly caused the person to receive the check. In that case, the check offerer would really be a cause of some sort used to give the person the check. But the situation that relates to intercessory prayer is more like someone who decides he is going to brush his teeth, but he will only brush his teeth after he first says “bonzo”. Saying “bonzo” is not a cause of brushing his teeth. It is simply something he has determined he wants to be a prerequisite, though it is arbitrarily chosen as a prerequisite. It is not necessary for it to be so.

James said: I’m quite willing to accept correction if I’ve misunderstood the objection Arminian meant to raise. However, I’ve re-read his original comments several times and I’m finding it hard to make out what the objection was, if it wasn’t that a human prayer can’t be a “genuine cause” of a prior divine decision. Part of the problem, perhaps, is that Arminian seems intent on conflating (GD) and (GI) when speaking of “God’s answering of prayer” while I’ve made a point of distinguishing them and treating them separately.

**** Again, it is not the priority that is the problem. But the priority apart from any influence of the prayer itself (or at least influence from the foreknowledge of the prayer offered freely) followed by, yet together with, predestination (irresistible causation) of the prayer that is supposedly to cause the answer to the prayer, followed by, yet together with, predestination of the answer to the prayer. Then in time the prayer gets prayed and the answer takes place. But there is simply no causal connection that appears between the prayer itself and the action God takes that was requested by the prayer. It is not that request that influenced God to act. God decided that on his own and then irresistibly caused the prayer and that which was requested. I saw that I was pointing out James’ misunderstanding to him in the comments on his first post at his site about this issue. Look at what I said there:

    You have misunderstood my argument, thinking my point was merely temporal, that God decides from eternity. But that’s not it. It’s that in the case of a request, for the request to be a genuine cause of an action, the action must be a response to the request and contingent on the request. Determinism does not provide this. If I decide I would like to open the door in response to a request for me to open the door, and then put a sock puppet on my hand and have it ask me to open the door, and then I open the door, the sock puppet’s request is not a genuine cause of my opening of the door. It is just something I wanted to have done before I opened the door. Assuming I have the power to irresistibly control people, if I want to give my friend some money in response to him asking me to give him money, if I irresistibly cause him to ask me to give him money and then give him the money, his request cannot reasonably be considered a cause of me giving him the money. It is just something I wanted done before I would give him the money. His request did not genuinely influence me to give him the money, all the more so with God since there is nothing that could stop his plan.

Conclusion

While James has charged that my rebuttal to his second to last post in this exchange consisted “largely of hand-waving non-answers”, it seems that it is rather his argumentation that has involved a sort of hand-waving which conveniently allows him to avoid addressing a number of my arguments and unsuccessfully attempts to make prayer in Calvinist theology a real cause of God doing anything. He admits that God is outside of time and that God affects time-bound human beings. But if God can interact with human beings, then surely he can allow them to affect him. Part of what James considsers hand-waving to explain away impossibilities are appeals to divine transcendence, eternity, and omnipotence. Surely these cannot make the logically impossible possible, but I believe I have shown that the Arminian view does not violate logic. At the same time it is these very things that do make it possible for God to do many things that we would normally consider impossible such as speak the world into existence. Can James tell us how God can do that and why it is not impossible for him? Interestingly, current scientific understanding even explains how a being like God could know the future without causing it and act on that knowledge, which is much more explanation than we can have for something like ex nihilo creation.

But I stress that I am not saying that such scientific theories are how God knows the future free acts of human beings. It simply builds our confidence that God can do this. Indeed, God is not limited by the physical laws of the universe. He created them, is not bound by them, and transcends them. It does not matter a whole lot for our purposes how God does know the future without irresistibly causing it, just that he can.

It is actually the Bible that drives us to the conclusion that God can do this because of Scripture’s incompatibility with determinism and its attestation of free will among other things. In the specific context of this exchange, the Arminian view is based on the fact that Scripture presents prayer as a cause of God’s answers to prayer, a fact Piper and James both agree with. But this is the point that James has really left largely unaddressed. The Arminian view agrees with the Bible on this point. But Calvinist doctrine makes it hard to see how petitionary prayer (i.e., asking God to do something) can be a cause of anything when God unconditionally thinks up something to do and unconditionally decides to bring it to pass, and then irresistibly causes someone to ask him to do it (i.e., to pray for it), and then God does it. The prayer of the person does not exercise any genuine influence on God to do what was requested. The suggestion that a predestined prayer is the cause of a predestined “answer” to prayer has more to do more with magic hand-waving and illusion than it does reality.

Comments on this post may be made here.