The following was written by valued reader and now contributor, br.d, who has long kept the discussion going on this blog. Edited by Eric Kemp.
Dr. Flowers engaged with Dr. James White, in a YouTube presentation titled “Does God Make a Sinner Sin?” In this dialog, Dr. White presents the following argument:
“If God did not specifically determine/decree the violent rape of a specific child, at a specified time, then that girl’s violent rape would be meaningless”.
Dr. White’s argument could be classified as a “greater good theodicy”. I believe Dr. Alvin Platinga in his free-will defense (1977) in God, Freedom, and Evil provides a useful rejoinder to White’s argument that shows it to be ill founded.
Plantinga’s argument is a defense against the logical problem of evil as formulated by the philosopher J. L. Mackie beginning in 1955. Mackie’s formulation argues that three attributes of God; omniscience, omnipotence, and omni-benevolence, in orthodox Christian theism are logically incompatible with the existence of evil. In 1982, Mackie published his response in “The Miracle of Theism” in which he conceded that Plantinga’s defense successfully refuted his argument.
Plantinga’s successfully showed that the attributes of God, cited by Makie, are not on their own contradictory. Mackie’s claimed contradiction actually originated from an implicit and unstated assumption Mackie inadvertently brought into his claim. What is relevant for our purposes here, are the logical conclusions of Plantinga’s rejoinder to Mackie.
A Range of Available Options
Plantinga argues: God, though omnipotent, cannot be expected to do literally anything. There are in fact things that are logically impossible even for God. God cannot for example, create square circles or married bachelors. And if God knows a proposition to be true, it is logically impossible for that proposition to be false. Specific to our discussion here, God could not create beings free to make moral decisions between good and evil while at the same time permitting them to only make good decisions or permitting them to make only evil decisions. Freedom in a true sense would require He allow them to make both good and evil decisions. Both options must be genuinely available to the creature for the creature to be able make them.
For Plantinga, accomplishing this is perfectly feasible in a world in which libertarian free will exists because by definition a libertarian decision involves the ability to choose an option which exists among a range of possible options – that choice being consistent with one’s nature. This also requires that both good options and evil options be genuinely available for the creature to choose. If, for example, evil options do not exist from which to choose, then the freedom to choose an evil option is never actualizable. In the history of philosophical discussion, such a world has been classified as the Garden of Forking Paths Model of Alternative Possibilities.
In contrast to a world in which creatures are permitted to make libertarian decisions, Dr. James White holds to a deterministic world where freedom is defined in compatiblistic terms. This is the worldview embraced by Calvinism. Dr. James N. Anderson, of the Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte NC, in his published work Calvinism and the first sin, states the underlying proposition:
“It should be conceded at the outset, and without embarrassment, that Calvinism is indeed committed to divine determinism: the view that everything is ultimately determined by God…..take it for granted as something on which the vast majority of Calvinists uphold and may be expressed as the following: “For every event [E], God decided that [E] should happen and that decision alone was the ultimate sufficient cause of [E].”
Dr. Anderson also states that Calvinism is committed to a compatiblist form of free will.
The deterministic world differs from the libertarian world in that libertarian freedom does not exist. The ability to choose between a range of options – one’s choice being consistent with one’s nature – does not exist. Neither does a range of available options from which to choose. Peter Van Inwagen expresses this in the following statement:
“Determinism may now be defined: it is the thesis that there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future.”
An Essay on Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 3.
This then distinguishes the difference between the libertarian free world and the deterministic/compatibilist world relevant to our discussion. With this as our foundation we can better understand the significant points within Dr. Plantinga’s argument on free will and how those points respond to Dr. White’s assertion of a “more meaningful”, or “greater good” world.
Plantinga’s More Valuable World
To preface Dr. Plantinga’s argument – it should be noted that with his use of the phrase “significantly free” – he understands this to be libertarian freedom.
A world containing significantly free creatures is more valuable than a world containing no free creatures at all. God can create free creatures. But even an omnipotent God can’t CAUSE free creatures to only do what is right. If he did, then they wouldn’t be significantly free. Thus, in creating creatures capable of moral good, God must create creatures capable of moral evil. When these creatures misuse their freedom, evil and suffering result. This fact does not count against God’s goodness or power, however, since God could prevent the occurrence of moral evil only by preventing the possibility of moral good.(pp. 166-167)
For our purposes here, a critical element of Plantinga’s argument is that a world containing libertarian choice is more valuable than a world in which people are CAUSED to make the choices they make – which is the case in the Deterministic world. First, in a deterministic world, at any instant in time only one future is physically possible, only one choice is available, and thus alternative choices are not available for the creature to choose. There is not a single alternative available much less a “greater” or “more meaningful” one. Plantinga’s observation of greater value is predicated upon the greater degree of freedom to choose something that is actually greater, more meaningful. In Dr. White’s deterministic worldview, any idea of a “greater good” or “more meaningful” world in nonsense since only one physically possible future exists.
Secondly, in the deterministic/compatiblist world, since the creature’s choice is CAUSED by factors beyond the creature’s control where God actually CAUSES the creature to make the specific choice the creature makes, there remains the question; is the creature making the choice, or is God making the choice?
On this concern, the determinist/compatiblist will assert quite strongly his reasoning on how this constitutes the creature making a choice in a genuine sense. This argument is based mostly on the assertion that the creature is not forced to make the choice it makes. But there remains no explicit evidence to show that to be the case. And determinists acknowledge they don’t understand the mechanics of how God can CAUSE the creature to make a choice while attributing the full responsibility of that choice to the creature. This weakness is significantly compounded when the determinist additionally attributes the full responsibility of only evil choices to the creature, while attributing only good choices to God. This comes off as cherry-picking, cosmetic in nature, and appears to be driven by an urgency to present one’s position as consistent with morality and ethics found with the language of scripture.
Yet another question that might be asked is what Dr. White means by the term “meaningful”. Perhaps he is entertaining the nothing that a person to whom evil has been perpetrated can look back and say, “God meant this for the greater good”. But I do not find that notion consistent within Calvinist literature. For example, Jonathan Edwards states:
“It is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory be complete; that is all parts of his glory should shine forth…thus it is necessary that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice and holiness manifested. But this could not be unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect both because the parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the other do, and also the glory of his goodness, love and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all. “
And John Calvin writes that evils are meted out for God’s good pleasure:
“Augustine elsewhere observes: Who can refrain from trembling at those Judgments when God does according to his pleasure even in the hearts of the wicked, at the same time rendering to them according to their deeds?”
“God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined …..it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction.”
And concerning the entrance of sin and evil coming into the world Calvin declares that God:
“At his own pleasure arranged it”
What is Meaningful to Adam?
In a deterministic/compatiblist world where Adam and Eve are being escorted out of the garden, and sin, evil and death have come upon them, does Adam look back with reflection, and console himself with the thought that God did this to him because it gave God some kind of pleasure, or because it gave God an opportunity to manifest more of his attributes, or perhaps to bring about some greater good? Are God’s resources limited in this world? In this world, Adam would know that God led him to believe he could obey – while God secretly knew he would not permit it, and for some reason God wanted Adam to believe a falsehood. Adam would look back and realize there was never any real possibility that he could obey. There was only one physically possible future – his choice to disobey – a choice which God determined for him. Adam would have learned there are times he can’t tell whether God is strategically leading people to believe falsehoods. According to Dr. White, having that knowledge would make such things “meaningful” for Adam.
Now let us contrast that to a world in which libertarian choice exists, and Adam’s choice was truly available, for him and him alone to decide. Here God has prepared for Adam, a garden of forking paths, where Adam is permitted to choose from a range of options – his choice being consistent with his own nature. In this world “mere” permission exists, and God truly permits Adam to obey just as much as he permits Adam to disobey and leaves the choice solely to Adam. According to Dr. White, having that knowledge would make this world “meaningless” for Adam.
Does anyone weighing those two options agree with Dr. White? Perhaps more importantly, for what reason is anyone compelled to agree with Dr. White? What Dr. White’s thinks is “meaningful” is subjective and based upon his urgency to maximize a good perception of his theology.
In contrast to Dr. White’s subjection evaluation of what is “meaningful”, Dr. Plantinga’s argument clearly shows a libertarian world fully meaningful since only in a world in which options are truly available does the concept of “better” make sense.