Bullets and Determinism

, posted by mackenzie

A Calvinist, attempting to explain an origin for sin that leaves God blameless, linked me John Piper’s “Where Did Satan’s First Desire For Evil Come From?“…a promising title, to be sure, since that’s a question Arminians often want to hear Calvinists answer. Unfortunately, the article was, as a whole, incredible disappointing.

Piper punts immediately to mystery, saying that this is “among the mysteries in my theology for which I do not have an adequate answer.” This is, of course, very puzzling for Arminians, because we’ve been told time and time again by Calvinists that everything has a cause and that nothing can happen apart from God’s direct will or else God isn’t sovereign. To us Arminians, this obviously includes Satan’s first desire for sin: Calvinists manage to avoid this simply by insisting “it’s complicated”, because the obvious answer to the complication is horrifying.

So the punt to mystery, while disappointing, isn’t surprising…after all, it’s the only move Calvinists can make. When you have a flat-out contradiction at the heart of your theology, you don’t have a lot of places to go from there. However, at the end, Piper does at least attempt an answer, and that’s where things get interesting.

Granted: He takes pains to say that this is not the explanation for certain. But he does see it as a possible pointer to an explanation, meaning that he believes it is logically valid and not mysterious in and of itself. Essentially, he uses a couple Bible verses to link sin and distance from God:

Isaiah 63:17

O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways

    and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?

Return for the sake of your servants,

    the tribes of your heritage.

Isaiah 64:7

There is no one who calls upon your name,

    who rouses himself to take hold of you;

for you have hidden your face from us,

    and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.**

Here is Piper’s explanation:

“And I am not saying this is a foolproof explanation of sin, but somehow God cloaked his glory from Lucifer and in the cloaking of his glory somehow, still inexplicable to me, there rises a preference in Lucifer’s heart for himself over God, who has cloaked his glory. I don’t know how that happens, but this is a pointer that something like that might have been going on. I am simply saying this is worth pondering that God may be able to govern the presence and absence of sin, not by direct active agency, but by concealing himself.”

Again, to be completely fair: He repeatedly states that this is not his definitive explanation for how sin can arise without God causing it. But he does believe it’s a “pointer”, that it is “worth pondering” as a potential explanation: That God can “govern the presence and absence of sin” (Calvinists hate to be pinned down with pesky words like “cause” or “ordain” or “decree” when we get tot this subject) by “concealing himself”, which he explicitly contrasts with “direct active agency.” (And note the passive language, both in this quote and throughout the piece: “there rises”, how the first sin “came about”, something “comes to pass”…this passive language is all misdirection, as explained below).

Here’s the problem: With all his caveats, he still clearly believes that this explanation is valid, that it is potentially accurate and has no gaping holes in it. But is it valid? Is it hole-free? Is it really the case that God can “govern” sin without “direct active agency”, and that Piper’s proposed theory actualizes it?

Let’s break down Piper’s theory. Remember that in the Calvinist worldview, everything that happens is part of God’s immutable, irresistible, unchangeable plan from all eternity. From the get-go, everything that happens is planned by God. Everything God does – or doesn’t do – has a specific goal and end.

So with that in mind, let’s break down the “steps” leading up to Satan’s first desire for sin.

Step 1: God has a plan for creation that requires Satan to fall. God plans for Satan to fall.

Step 2: God creates Satan (and the rest of the angels). As God creates Satan, he builds into him the following: “Nearness to God = No Desire for Sin. Distance from God = Desire for Sin.” That is how God creates Satan, and he does so purposefully and deliberately, in order that his plan (for Satan to sin) might be fulfilled. (This is important, as Calvinists LOVE to speak as though God is using preexisting conditions that he somehow did not bring about, even though that’s impossible in the Calvinist system).

Step 3: God hides himself from Satan/withdraws his presence from Satan/”cloaks his glory” from Satan. Again, he does this so that his plan for Satan to sin will be fulfilled. 

Step 4: Due to his new distance from God (or his new lack of perception of God’s glory), Satan sins and fulfills God’s plan.

This is all really simple stuff. Each step is something no Calvinist should argue with. I think it should be immediately apparent to anyone familiar with Calvinism, let alone one of Calvinism’s main proponents and scholars! So given that…can anyone look at this chain and say that God is not responsible for Satan’s sin? That he is able to have sin come about without “direct active agency”? How in the world can a Calvinist say that God withdrawing his presence in order to irresistibly achieve a specific purpose isn’t direct active agency, especially when it was God who set the rules for what that action would accomplish?

It’s mindboggling to me. It boggles my mind. But I know there are Calvinists out there who will still say that Piper is correct. And every Calvinist I’ve ever talked to has fallen back on “secondary causes” as the reason that God isn’t responsible for sin…that there are so many steps in between God kicking off the universe and each individual sin, that God’s hands are clean. So let me give an analogy.

Let’s say I build a gun. But this is no normal gun: Instead of pulling the trigger to fire the bullet, I construct it so that I am constantly holding the trigger, and it is the eventual release of the trigger that fires the bullet.

So I have this gun. And I point it at someone I wish to kill, and then I release the trigger. As I release the trigger, the hammer swings forward and hits the bullet. This causes a spark which ignites the propellant in the bullet. The ignited propellant propels the bullet through the barrel, which imparts a stabilizing spin on the bullet. The bullet flies through the air, penetrating first the skin, then an essential organ. The organ shuts down, which leads (through complex biological functions) to the other essential organs shutting down. And finally, at the end of this very long and complex process (which could be made even more complex), the man dies.

Now: Did I, with “direct active agency”, kill this man, even though all I did was remove my finger from the trigger? Of course I did. And that’s because it’s not the action that matters, it’s not the mechanics by which something happens, it’s the intention. Even though all I did was release some finger pressure – even if all I did was think something – I knew what that would accomplish, and I acted with that intention. And this is identical with Piper’s hypothetical – and any other mechanism Calvinists will contrive to try to wriggle out.

Sin doesn’t just “come about” as if it had it’s own agency, as if it’s something that just “happens” without a cause: Such would go against everything that Calvinism stands for. Everything has a cause…and in Calvinism, that cause is God, no matter how he chooses to accomplish it. Like a finger releasing a bullet and so causing a death, God conceals his presence and so causes sinHowever God accomplishes his plan, it is still God doing the accomplishing…unless, of course, the Calvinists wish to rid God of the glory of actively accomplishing his plan! However the first sin “comes about”, it comes about because of something God did, and it comes about because God desires for it to come about. Whatever the mechanism, no matter how convoluted, no matter how “indirect”, it is still God with his finger on the trigger. 

**It is not my purpose here to give a complete Arminian interpretation of these passages. One possible interpretation that comes immediately to mind is that such hardening is a response to free sin: it is a just punishment because the sin that is being punished was freely chosen, as opposed to being determined and caused by God. In response to sin, God can justly leave people in their sin by withdrawing his presence.


Originally published at Imperfect Reflections, where comments can be posted.