Tuesday, October 04, 2022

How to interpret James and his definition of faith? You don't!

Therefore, it is better to go with interpreting James according to its genre not as a doctrinal treatise, but as a letter on practice and encouragement; not didactic but parenetic. (Daniel H. Chew, "Did John Calvin Teach a Doctrine of Secondary Justification? Refuting Steven Wedgeworth on Secondary Justification," Trinity Review 357 (April/ May 2020): 5. Available here.)

Justification is an act of God's free grace, whereby He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone. (WSC Q33). The Protestant doctrine of Justification by Faith alone states that faith is contrary to any human work whatsoever. The only meritorious element in faith is the work of Christ, whereby He imputes His righteousness to us so that we are considered righteous not because we are actually righteous, but because we have an alien righteousness (iustitia aliena). By definition of the fact that the ground of justification lies outside of us (extra nos), our works or lack thereof plays no part in justification, as God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). To claim otherwise is to return to the Roman Catholic position that faith is a faith formed by love (fides formata caritate). Contrary to popular Evangelical distortions, Roman Catholicism actually has a robust view of faith. It is manifestly false that Roman Catholicism teaches Semi-Pelagianism or even Pelagianism. I would even say that an orthodox Roman Catholic (a minority given the state of today's Roman Catholicism but I disgress) is probably more tuned to grace than the average Evanglical today.

But, it is objected, isn't it true that all Protestants hold that faith without works is a dead faith? If one means that Protestants reject Antinomianism, then most definitely. In popular parlance, we can say that we are "saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone." That however is a rather reductionist cliche – good for a simple understanding but not the actual Protestant understanding of the relationship between faith and works. The focus on works is a practical outflow of true faith; a most pragmatic observation. The idea is simple: Those who are truly saved do not live like those who are not saved. The emphasis is not on the doing of works, but as works as evidence of true faith, the so-called Practical Syllogism (Syllogismus Practicus). The Practical Syllogism is practical, not doctrinal. It is meant for living out one's live, not probing the nature of faith, which brings us to the issue of James 2.

Perhaps because James seems to be an overt contradiction of the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, much ink has been spilled trying to "reconcile" Paul with James. However, after much thought on the matter, I think that much of the manner in which we deal with James is wrong. Most try the path of reconciliation, whereas if we dwell on the genre of the epistle and its place and use for the Church (not just James 2 but the entire epistle of James), you will notice that the parenetic (encouragment) genre of the epistle means that it was never meant to be used doctrinally. This is NOT to say that it does not deal with any doctrine at all, but that is not the focus of the epistle. Therefore, in reading James 2, we need to see it not as a discussion on the nature of faith, the order of salvation, the grounding of justification and all other questions we try to shoehorn into the text, but rather as an exhortation for Christians to live worthy of our heavenly calling. There is a big difference here between reading James 2 as doctrinal, and as parenetic. If we read it as doctrinal, we will think that James is qualifying the nature of saving faith as being "leading to good works" or things to that effect. The difference between the two approaches can be seen in the application of these two interpretations to a person (whom we shall call John) who has not done what is right in a particular situation:

The "doctrinal" interpretation:

Pastor: John did not do what is right at that instance. He has failed to do good. According to James 2 therefore, I must question his salvation, warn him that he is danger of hellfire if he does not repent and do what is right the next time.

The parenetic interpretation:

Pastor: John did not do what is right at that instance. He needs to be encouraged to do better the next time, since He is a child of God.

The parenetic nature of the genre implies that we should not treat James as discussing the nature of faith. James is meant to be encouragement toward fellow believers, not a rod to beat people down if they fail to be "faithful" in their Christian living, however one defines "faithfulness." It means that we should not go to James 2 when discussing whether faith is living or dead, because that is not its purpose, unless one wishes to discuss the "faith" of demons. For the nature of faith, we should go to the doctrinal texts of Scripture, and leave the practical outworkings to the working of faith in sanctification, not in justification.

How then should we interpret James and his definition of faith? We do not, because James does not have a definition of faith. Use James in the way it is intended, and stop using it for self-critical introspection or judgmentalism.

Monday, October 03, 2022

The American Idolatry of "Freedom" and David French's continual defense of rank immorality

David French is at it again, defending his so-called "moderate" views in his blog piece "When Culture Wars go too far." Under his so-called moderation, French defended his "classical liberal" view that everyone should have the freedom to sin, stating that he is a "strong believer in classical liberalism, pluralism, and legal equality." Unfortunately for him, French is none of these things. Does anyone seriously think that any of the American Founders would have agreed that anyone should be free to do Drag Queen Story Hour?

The problem with David French and many so-called conservatives is that they have imbibed the Spirit of the Age. French's view of freedom is that of Left Liberatarianism, not Classical Liberalism. It is an idolatry of "freedom" from all forms of law, where all men are to be free to violate laws as long as they are not illegal under the Zeitgeist. In other words, French's view of freedom is what John Calvin calls libertinism, where under the guise of freedom, men are to be free to break any law they want as long as the Zeitgeist does not agree with said law.

A simple thought experiment would be in order. Is there freedom for a person to own and flog another person as a slave today? It was considered legal in the American antebellum South, so one should be free to do so even if one disagrees with slavery, right? Of course not! French would probably claim that the law forbid it, so let me reframe the question. In the antebellum South, would French defend the right of a slaveowner to own slaves and flog his slaves, even if he thinks it is immoral? Let me repeat the question again: In the antebellum South, would French defend the right of a slaveowner to own slaves and flog his slaves, even if he thinks it is immoral? If French utilizes the same reasoning he uses to defend the freedom of Drag Queen Story Hour, he should logically say yes. But if French says no, as he probably would, then that is only proof that what should be awarded freedom depends on the Zeitgeist. What wickedness the current Zeitgeist allows and celebrates, French would defend the "freedom" to sin in that manner. What wickedness the current Zeitgeist demonizes, that he probably would deny the freedom to do so also.

There is a deep sickness in American conservatism, a pathology of immorality in thought even if not in act. The idea that Drag Queen Story Hour should be tolerated because of "classical liberalism" is total nonsense. Some sins have to be tolerated of course in society for a variety of reasons, like private immorality. But every healthy society has always criminalized gross public immorality. From a Christian perspective, this is just the application of the Natural Law, the Second Table of the Ten Commandments. There is nothing contrary to freedom to enforce the Natural Law, just as it is not contrary to the freedom of the rapist to criminalize rape, or against the freedom of the murderer to punish the murderer.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Trinity Foundation Radio Podcast: Thomas Aquinas Hypnotizes the Reformed Church

Some time ago, the Trinity Foundation Radio podcast has an episode on Thomas Aquinas. In this episode, "Thomas Aquinas Hypnotizes the Reformed Church," host Steve Matthew interviews Stuart Quint of Berean Beacon Ministries on the growing influence of Thomas Aquinas in Reformed circles, especially his growing prominence on the doctrine of God. You can listen to it here.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Law-Gospel, Natural Law, and Natural Theology

In Reformed teaching about salvation, the Law-Gospel distinction, is codified in the distinction between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. The Law, functioning as the revelation of righteousness, was the standard and condition for eternal life if gained "naturally." Adam, placed in the Garden of Eden, was placed under the Covenant of Works, which he failed. This same law, without the ability to grant righteousness, remains the standard for eternal life, for all mankind (Rom. 2:6-11). The law is universal to all, given to all, demanded of all. In contrast to that, the Covenant of Grace was given to the elect under her head Jesus Christ. Jesus fulfilled the conditions of the broken covenant of works; fulfilled the law (Mt. 5:17, Rom. 10:4). Thus for the elect, salvation is freely given upon condition of faith alone. By faith, a person believes in Jesus and is saved. The Gospel, while to be preached to all, is particular, for it speaks of a salvation that those who do not believe do not have, of a message that many parts of the worlds in various epochs of history do not hear. The Gospel in this sense is particular, focusing on a select group in history (those who believe Jesus), and not applicable to those who do not (for whatever reason whatsoever).

Recently, certain Baptists (Bethelem Bible Church) have posted this innuendo on Twitter:

The allusion is made that there is a link between Federal Visionist Douglas Wilson, who denies the Law-Gospel distinction, and those who reject Classical Theism, and that both are of course leading believers down a cliff. But that there is such a link is a mere assertion. I for one am against the Federal Vision, reject Douglas Wilson, hold to the Law-Gospel distinction, and yet also reject Classical Theism. But more than just personalities, a greater problem for such people is that there is a logical inconsistency between the Law-Gospel distinction and those who are broadly on the Classical Theism Ressourcement project: namely, their downplaying of the universality of natural law while promoting the idea of Natural Theology.

What is Natural Law and what is Natural Theology? Natural law is the law revealed in nature concerning the created things. It is a branch of philosophy/ ethics whereby what is good and ought to be done is understood from what is seen in nature. Natural Theology on the other hand is a much more contested concept. According to David Haimes, Natural Theology "is that part of philosophy which explores that which man can know about God (His existence, divine nature, etc.) from nature alone via man’s divinely bestowed faculty of reason, unaided by special revelation from any religion, and without presupposing the truth of any religion" (David Haimes, Natural Theology, 12). Jordan Steffaniak of the London Lyceum however rejects this definition for "the task of utilizing natural means via our renewed reason (i.e., the light of nature) in service of theological construction under the authority of Scripture, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the context of the church." However, as I have pointed out in my response, Steffaniak's version is not the definition most people would probably have when they see the term "Natural Theology." Haimes' definition, on the other hand, would be the definition most people would run with.

Placing the concepts alongside each other, it is clear that Natural Law corresponds to the "Law" in the Law-Gospel distinction. Natural Theology on the other hand is a misfit. Haimes' Natural Theology asserts the ability to gain certain true knowledge of the true God by all men regardless of religion, whereas the Gospel gives true knowledge of the true God only to those who repent of their sins and turn to Jesus Christ. In other words, Natural Theology attempts to gain something that can only be true given the Gospel (knowledge of God) in a way that is through the law (from creation apart from any religion). Natural Theology is thus a mongrel of Law and Gospel, violating the Law-Gospel distinction in its very essence.

It is therefore inconsistent for someone to hold to the Law-Gospel distinction and at the same time subscribe to the Ressourcement project in its recovery of Natural Theology. For sure, one can be a Classical Theist without being part of the current Ressourcement project, but that is certainly not the case for many of the current crop of "Great Tradition" converts. Many of them are in love with the "Great Tradition," including the "recovery" of Natural Theology, and thus the growing inconsistency between their soteriology and theology proper will increase.

Ressourcement and the downplaying of the universality of Natural Law

With regards to the critique on Douglas Wilson, one curious thing is their attack on Wilson's vision of a Christian society. Now, it is perfectly leigitimate to criticize Wilson's view of a Christian society, but I find it interesting that the same group of people who are attacking Wilson on this are also advocating for or at least staying silent on the withdrawal of Christian witness on the issue of the Natural Law (under the guise of a rejection of the "Religious Right"). The Law is universal and is binding on all humans regardless of ethnicity, language or religion. Natural Law especially is the law of creation, and therefore ought to be implemented in society regardless of ethnicity, language, nationality or religion. But the same people trumpeting the Law-Gospel distinction, teaching that the Law is universal upon all peoples, are also the same people who downplay the universality of the Natural Law. There is a downplaying of what the Natural Law demands as it pertains to the correct moral response to things like Drag Queen Story Hour and the LGBTQ+ agenda as a whole. If Natural Law is so universal and binding, then why is it that those who trumpet the Law-Gospel distinction neuters the Law at precisely the point where it is binding on society? Why are American Christians in general having morals like David French who asserts that one should have the freedom to violate Natural Law? If Natural Law is true, then LGBTQ+ in all its forms should be criminalized, period! Gross violations of Natural Law should never be permitted in any society, and the Reformed tradition has always understood that to be the case.

Ressourcement and the promotion of epistemic "G-law-spel"

A polemical angle of the Law-Gospel distinction is that one should not mix Law and Gospel together into a tertium quid - "G-law-spel." The Federal Visionists including Douglas Wilson do this, denying the Covenant of Works and moving works into the Fiducia element of faith. But if that is true, then the Ressourcement project is mixing Law and Gospel in the epistmic sense, creating this mongrel called "Natural Theology," which is not truly natural and yet not supernatural. In Natural Theology, God is known truly in nature in part, and then the other part of that knowledge of God comes in the Gospel. If the mixing of Law and Gospel is an error, then likewise this epistemic mixture called Natural Theology is in error as well. Since God is necessarily Father, Son and Spirit, those who reject the Son do not have the Father (1 Jn. 2:23). Even as God revealed His truth through Creation (Rom. 1:20, Jn. 1:4), it did not result in knowledge of God, for the mind of sinful man is the darkness that does not know or understand the light (Jn. 1:5, 10)

According to Haimes, "it is natural theology which provides us with the truths necessary for the proper functioning of the principle of appropriate predication" (Haimes, 21). In other words, Classical Theism without Natural Theology is deficient, because Natural Theology provides the tools necessary for Classical Theism to function. Now, other Classical Theists can dispute this assertion of Haimes, but it seems clear that parts of the Ressourcement community can only function if Natural Theology is accepted as true. If that is true, what does this tell us about the assertion that attempts to associate Douglas Wilson and those who reject Classical Theism, except that it is attempting guilt by association, attempting to pass off anyone who rejects Classical Theism as no different from Federal Visionists? However, as we have seen, a belief in the Law-Gospel distinction actually undermines a key component of the Ressourcement project. NoCo radio's slander notwithstanding, it is clear that a true belief in the Law-Gospel distinction would result in a rejection of Natuural Theology, and thus undermine much of the push towards Classical Theism especailly in its Thomistic variant.

Conclusion

The Law is given to all, demands from all, and is revealed in nature. Natural Law is of nature, available to all and reflects God's order ruling creation. Natural Law corresponds to God's Law. The Gospel on the other hand is not unviversal but particular, supernatural in nature, for a people elected by God for saving faith in Jesus Christ. True Christian theology therefore is likewise not universal but particular, supernatural in nature, the epistemic property of the elect of God who gain true knowledge and wisdom by faith in Jesus Christ.

Natural Theology, partly by nature, partly by grace, is the analog of the Glawspel. It is just as illegitimate. But just as it is integral to some for the working of Classical Theism, thus a consistent application of the Law-Gospel distinction would undermine some defences of Classical Theism. Would NoCo Radio therefore repent of their slander against those of us who reject Classical Theism? I doubt so, but one can always hope.

The nature of "submission" in general

As it pertains to the word "submission," Western Christianity in particular seem to have an extremely negative reaction to the word. For some strange reason, "submission" is treated like a cuss word even in supposed Christian circles, a fact very strange in the light of biblical commands for various peoples to submit to others.

Is the word "submission" really a "four-letter" word? What does "submit" mean? According to Merriam Webster, the word "submit" has the meaning of "yield to government or authority." In other words, the word submission is an act or disposition towards someone over the person. Christians are to submit to God and to the governing authorities, and therefore "submission" should not have negative connotations for the Christian.

That said, is "submission" necessarily tied to a differential of authority? For the secular world, perhaps that is almost always the case. Yet, for the Christian, that is not true. An obvious example would be the call for "mutual submission" in Ephesians 5:21, which even egalitarians must admit that there is no differential of authority or hierarchy in it. But if there is no hierarchy in Ephesians 5:21, then it must be the case that "submission" does not have to be associated with differential of authority or hierarchy. Therefore, when wives are called to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22, Col. 3:18), then one should not presuppose there is any necessary differential of authority of hierarchy in the relationship between husbands and wives. One should likewise not read any form of hierarchy in any use of the word "submission" as it pertains to the Son either, for "submission" in the Bible is not necessarily the "submission" of the world.

But if Christian "submission" is not necessarily due to differential of authority or hierarchy, then what does "submission" mean in the context of the Christian faith? I would suggest that Christian submission is to be seen in the life of the man Jesus Christ. Christian "submission" therefore is to follow the leading of another, just as Jesus obeyed the Father fully during the incarnation. There is no hierarchy between the Father and the Son, yet the Son submitted to the Father and followed His leading. Therefore, as opposed to the secular "submission," Christian "submission" should be seen as a "disposition to follow the leading of another." In other words, while the world's definition seem to require hierarchy or differential authority, this definition does not require either, keeping at its core meaning the idea of following another's lead. The world requires the one submitting to be inferior to the one leading, while the Bible does not require this to be the case.

This has many implications for how we live our Christian lives. On the issue of husbands and wives, it means that husbands should not be bossing their wives around. Husbands lead by love, patience and self-sacrifice, not by demanding their wives to act subservient to them. The submission expected of wives is one done out of love for the husband who leads them in love. It is a true act of submission ("putting oneself under") not because one is truly beneath the other in being, but because that is how one acts in love. Needless to say, any husband using the Bible to browbeat his wife into "submission" needs to be rebuked. Women are not second-class citizens, and are to be cherised and loved.

Likewise, in the doctrine of God, to say that the Son submits to the Father is merely to assert that the Son follows the Father's leading. The Father initiates, the Son does likewise after the manner of the Father. The Father has authority over the Son in the sense of leadership, but there is no differential in authority in the sense of forcing one will over another (a most repugnant image). It is an act of who initiates, and who follows; not an act of the demands of a king forcing his subject to obey. Any authority or submission in the Godhead is therefore economic, in the internal acts of the Father, Son and Spirit as they interact with each other in eternity and from eternity.

Christians therefore ought to recover a biblical view of "submission." While there is nothing necessarily wrong with hierarchy and differential authority, "submission" exists independent of these created things. All Christians are to live lives of submission, because none of us have the right to be the Head. Within our lives of submission, some take the lead over others in various roles and vocations, but they never stop being submissive to God. "Submission" should never be seen as a cuss word, or a word that only applies to women and children, as if men do not need to submit to anyone! Let me just put it bluntly, the man who will not submit to anyone is a wild man in sin, and woe is any woman who is married to that wild man!

Monday, September 12, 2022

Side B theology, "nature" and "will"

Over in the degenerate country that was once a long time ago a godly nation, Christianity Astray Today back in December 3 2021 had published a opinion piece promoting the ideas of "Side B Christianity." "Side B Christianity" teaches that one can legitimately be or identify as homosexual, LGBTQ+, as an expression of one's struggle with these sexual sins, and at the same time call oneself a Christian. As opposed to "Side A" which celebrates the goodness of homosexual acts and LGBTQ+ sex acts, up to and including "marriage," "Side B" claims they agree with the Bible that these sex acts are sins. Therefore, as Christians, they would not engage in these acts, yet they continue to assert their identity as LGBTQ+ and assert they are in those "communities."

As LGBTQ+ acts are gross sexual perversions, Side B followers are most definitely to be lauded for treating these as sins and refusing to engage in these sins. At the same time, their continual identification with gross sin as an identity marker goes against everything Christ died for in purchasing us to be holy in His sight, which excludes identifying with our sins. One argument that a Side B advocate might advance though is a favorite of the LGBTQ+ lobby, that they are just "born this way." In other words, by nature, they were created with this LGBTQ+ orientation. Therefore, just as one born a man identifies as a man, one borns Hispanic identifies as Hispanic, so likewise one born LGBTQ+ should identify as LGBTQ+.

Now, there are various ways to adddess Side B theology and show how it is contrary to Scripture. I however would like to approach it alongside the issue of "will" and "nature." When we tell someone that LGBTQ+ is wrong, we are asking them to "will" to not engage in it, to "will" to not identify as that. In classical metaphysics however, "will" is a property of "nature." But if "will" truly is a property of "nature," then what does this imply for the issue of Side B theology? If by nature they are LGBTQ+, then they would be unable to will to be something else. In other words, under classical metaphysics, Side B proponents would be justified in claiming LGBTQ+ as their identity, even while they do not engage in the sex acts themselves.

Christians of course would point out that in Christ, we are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). Therefore, as new creation, our identity is now in Christ and not in our past sins. They are correct in their response. However, that is an insufficient response when one understandings how classical metaphysics interact with Side B theology. If in classical metaphysics, the "will" is a property of "nature," then having a new nature in Christ means having a new "will." However, as Reformed Christians, we hold that grace does not destroy nature but rather renews it. In other words, the new nature we have in Christ does not nullify the created nature. The old, sinful nature most certainly would slowly pass away. However, the old, sinful nature is not necessarily the same as the created nature. Side B proponents could claim that LGBTQ+ identity is just like being male or being Hispanic, and therefore is not part of the old, sinful nature. If that is the case, then being a new creation does not remove the LGBTQ+ aspect anymore than being a new creation makes a Hispanic man not a man and not a Hispanic. Of course, there are a couple of spectacular claims made here, all of which I do not believe are defensible. The point here is that if such a claim is made, then classical metaphysics has been used in the service of Side B theology. Since "will" is a property of "nature," then it is wrong to attempt to make a LGBTQ+ "Christian" change his "will" on this matter, as he can no more change that than a human become a cat.

The good thing about rejecting classical metaphysics is that we do not have to worry about what one's nature is. The fact is that God commands us to be such, therefore everything else is wrong. Side B theology is wrong because it matters not what their natures may or may not be; whether they are "born this way" or not is irrelevant. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) and all are to repent of what God calls sin regardless of their "nature" or feelings about the matter. It matters not whether your nature allows you to reject LGBTQ+, because God has commanded therefore it must be done.

A Response to Glen Butner's 2017 journal article on EFS

In 2017, Glen Butner wrote a journal article in the Priscilla Papers, the academimc journal of the egalitarian promoting "Christian for Biblical Equaity" (CBE), attacking the doctrine of EFS (Eternal Functional Submission), primarily claiming it undermines the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. For those who are interested to read the article, you may search for it as follows: D. Glen Butner Jr., “Against Eternal Submission: Changing the Doctrine of the Trinity Endangers the Doctrine of Salvation and Women,” Priscilla Papers 31 No. 1 (Winter 2017): 15-21.

Butner's arguments are weighty, and so I have decided to analyze and respond to them. You can find my response here. An excerpt:

This journal article by Butner has given us weighty arguments against the doctrine of EFS. However, upon examination, Butner’s arguments are seen to be based upon faulty premises and thus unsound, based as they are on faulty philosophy. Regardless of one’s position on EFS, one should be wary of adopting Butner’s arguments and manner of argumentation.

[continue]

Saturday, September 10, 2022

The Reformed Arsenal and defective reading comprehension

Whoever the Reformed Arsenal is, it is clear that his reading comprehension is defective. It is sad when a framework is imposed upon what others are saying, because one just *knows * that the other side has committed such and such errors, and therefore everything must be read in that manner. After all, where in what Scott Aniol has said mentioned anything about creeds and confessions?

On a side note, I have noticed that both the soft wokies and the internet Thomists seem incapable of comprehending what others are saying. I have never seen such appalling reading comprehension from learned men, with reading comprehension levels on par with secondary (Middle and High school) students that I have taught. Evidently, university and seminary have not improved their reading comprehension skills one bit!

Tuesday, September 06, 2022

An exegesis of James 1:5: Response to Scott Swain’s interpretation of the same

4. ἡ δὲ ὑπομονὴ ἔργον τέλειον ἐχέτω, ἵνα ἦτε τέλειοι καὶ ὁλόκληροι ἐν μηδενὶ λειπόμενοι. 5 Εἰ δέ τις ὑμῶν λείπεται σοφίας, αἰτείτω παρὰ τοῦ διδόντος θεοῦ πᾶσιν ἁπλῶς καὶ μὴ ὀνειδίζοντος καὶ δοθήσεται αὐτῷ. 6 αἰτείτω δὲ ἐν πίστει μηδὲν διακρινόμενος· ὁ γὰρ διακρινόμενος ἔοικεν κλύδωνι θαλάσσης ἀνεμιζομένῳ καὶ ῥιπιζομένῳ. 7 μὴ γὰρ οἰέσθω ὁ ἄνθρωπος ἐκεῖνος ὅτι λήμψεταί τι παρὰ τοῦ κυρίου, 8 ἀνὴρ δίψυχος, ἀκατάστατος ἐν πάσαις ταῖς ὁδοῖς αὐτοῦ. … 17 πᾶσα δόσις ἀγαθὴ καὶ πᾶν δώρημα τέλειον ἄνωθέν ἐστιν καταβαῖνον ἀπὸ τοῦ πατρὸς τῶν φώτων, παρ᾽ ᾧ οὐκ ἔνι παραλλαγὴ ἢ τροπῆς ἀποσκίασμα. (James 1:4-6, 17 - BGT)

And let perseverance works completion, in order that you may be complete and whole, [in a state of] lacking nothing. And if one of you lacks wisdom, let him ask from the giving God [who gives] to all simply and without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith without self-doubt. For the one who self-doubts is like crashing waves of the sea, driven and blown by the wind. … Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, descending from the father of lights, from whom there is no change or shadow of variation. (James 1:4-6, 17. Own translation)

What does James 1:5 teaches? Dr. Scott Swain has recently suggested that James 1:5 teaches the doctrine of divine simplicity, focusing on the term ἁπλῶς there.[1] But is the point of James 1:5 to teach about the simplicity of God?

James 1:5 exist in the larger context of James 2-18, where believers are called to persevere through trials, with God offering gifts to his people to endure. In the midst of trials, perseverance works the fruit of the Spirit in the believer, leading to a state of completion and lacking nothing. This completion (τέλειον) has a view of perfection, thus showing the goal of the Christian life as the believer perseveres through trials. Trials are difficult to endure though, and wisdom is required to navigate through them without sinning. Thus, verse 5 show us God’s gift to us in the midst of trials. God will give us wisdom in the midst of our trials when we ask him. Verse 6 continues this train of thought by asking the one asking not to doubt of this, with the idea that one should not judge on whether God has indeed given us gifts, wavering between faith and unbelief and thus being double-minded (verse 8: δίψυχος) in his faith. Finally, in verse 17, we are told that God gives us all every good and perfect gift, contrasting Him as the Father of lights with change, shadow and variation.

What then does ἁπλῶς mean in James 1:5? A word study does show it means simply, as seen in the LSJ lexicon, thus “simply” is the most generic meaning which is why I translated it thus. Yet at the same time, the context makes it clear that, whatever ἁπλῶς is, it is an adverb modifying the giving of gifts by God. It is also put alongside as its opposite, “without reproach” (μὴ ὀνειδίζοντος). Therefore, the best word meaning is “’sincerely.” God is sincere in his giving of gifts. His sincere giving of gifts is the opposite of the double-minded man who doubts. Thus, BDAG gives the meaning of the word ἁπλῶς in James 1:5 as “pertaining to being straightforward, simply, above-board, sincerely, openly.” Louw-Nida gives its functional use in the text as under “possess, transfer, exchange,” under “give,” as “pertaining to willful and generous giving.” Certainly, there is a connotation of God’s generosity there, yet I will say that “sincerely” seems to me the main focus of that word in the context of James 1:5.

In the NIGTC series, ἁπλῶς is taken to mean sincerely. Accordingly, “God is, then, one who gives sincerely, without hesitation or mental reservation. He does not grumble or criticize. His commitment to this people is total and unreserved: they can expect to receive.”[2] Thus, this term is “a term for ‘generously’ that means ‘simple, open, sincere action.’”[3] Therefore, James 1:5 is all about God’s sincere desire to give gifts to his people, giving us every good and perfect gift for our benefit as we persevere through trials in this life.

Read in the broader redemptive-historical context, this illustrates the unchanging goodness of God in providing for His people. God does not let us live this life on earth alone, in a deistic sort of way. Rather, He is our provider, and His devotion to His people the Church is as the most perfect husband to His bride, nurturing her and providing her with all she needs.

The question then comes: Does this passage support the doctrine of divine simplicity? Divine simplicity is the doctrine that God is simple and thus without parts of any kind. If God is without parts, then there can be nothing removed from God and yet God remains. All are therefore one in God. God is His essence, and God is His attributes. “Simplicity” here is a systematic theological category, not a biblical category. Yet, the question is not whether one can find the category in Scripture, but whether the Scripture teaches it. In a certain sense, the Scripture does not teach simplicity, in that one does not, I assert, find it taught anywhere in any one particular text of Scripture. At the same time, as the truths of Scripture is systematized, the doctrine of simplicity emerges as a way to show forth how God is necessarily everything that He is and only everything that He is. God cannot “un-god” himself so to speak.

That the truths of Scripture lead to the doctrine of divine simplicity is not an issue of dispute within much of the Reformed world, notwithstanding some hysterical grandstanding by various internet Thomists. The issue is not whether divine simplicity is true, but whether one can get it from any one text of Scripture. Swain asserts that it is possible to get simplicity from texts such as James 1:5 through the analogy of Scripture. But is that possible?

The analogy of Scripture compares passages of Scripture with each other to derive truths from them. In other words, it is the immediate precursor to both biblical and systematic theology. But in order for a mere comparison of texts to allow for truths to emerge, without having actually worked on the task of systematization, the truths must be close to the surface so to speak. Therefore, for any analogy of Scripture to bring forth divine simplicity, that doctrine must be close to the surface meaning of the text so that mere comparison can elucidate it. Is that the case with James 1:5 then? I would suggest not. James 1:5 with its focus on God’s sincerity is primarily focused on God’s steadfastness and unchanging trustworthiness and love. Thus, what emerges through comparison with other texts are the doctrine of divine immutability, the doctrine of God’s love in adoption, and the doctrine of God’s gifts to his people. Even the most abstract doctrine here, immutability, is a far cry from simplicity. Swain’s citation of 1 Jn. 1:5 likewise speak at most of immutability and goodness. Just because the word ἁπλῶς in 1 Jn. 1:5 can mean “simple” in the Platonic sense (see LSJ) does not mean that it teaches divine simplicity in James 1:5, for the meaning of the text must first be established (Grammatical-historical exegesis), then its canonical or redemptive-historical meaning exegeted, prior to any analogy of Scripture. In other words, one cannot short-circuit the interpretive process by going direct from word to philosophy. James 1:5 does not directly teach divine simplicity, and indirectly supports divine immutability only.

Therefore, in conclusion, Swain’s attempt to short circuit the theological process of arriving at the doctrine of divine simplicity fails. As one reads his article, one should take note of how many philosophical concepts he smuggles into the article (e.g. “God is light and nothing but light, God is essentially x and exhaustively x”). Now, there is a place for philosophical concepts, but that is only done in the systematizing phase, where the concepts themselves are to be examined before use, not used implicitly but explicitly. Swain’s article therefore fails to prove that divine simplicity can be easily seen merely through the use of the analogy of Scripture. Perhaps we should stop all the short cuts and wrestle with the actual systematization of biblical truths and the examination of philosophical concepts instead.


[1] Scott Swain, “A biblical argument for divine simplicity: the analogy of Scripture,” Reformed Blogmatics (blog). Accessed https://www.scottrswain.com/2022/08/30/a-biblical-argument-for-divine-simplicity-the-analogy-of-scripture/

[2] P. H. Davids, The Epistle of James: a commentary on the Greek text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 73

[3] K.A. Richardson, James (NAC; Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 64

Thursday, September 01, 2022

Musings on actualism and possibilism in modality

Actualism, with respect to possible worlds, is the view that if there are any true statements in which there are said to be nonactual possible worlds, they must be reducible to statements in which the only things there are said to be are things which there are in the actual world and which are not identical with nonactual possibles. The actualist will not agree that there are nonactual possible worlds, if the notion of possible worlds is to be regarded as primitive. Possibilism, with respect to possible worlds, is the view that there are nonactual possible worlds and that the notion of a possible world is not to be analyzed in terms of actual things. … As we shall see, it may involve the difference between an absolute and a world-relative concept of truth. [Robert Merrihew Adams, "Theories of Actuality," in Michael J. Loux, ed., The possible and the Actual: Readings in the Metaphysics of Modality, 202-3]

(20) It is possible that there exists an object distinct from every actually existent object. [Michael J. Loux, "Introduction" in Loux, ed., 45]

What do the term "actualism" and "possiblism" mean when discussing the issue of modality? One might guess it is somehow related to realism and anti-realism as it comes to the nature of things, and that would be close. However, it is possible to be an actualist and an anti-realist concerning possible worlds (probably Plantinga?), and possible to be a possibilism and an extreme realist (e.g. David Lewis). So actualism does not mean realism, and possibilism does not mean anti-realism. What are they then?

As defined by Robert Adams, the difference between actualism and possibilism concerns the type (and the quantity) of things in any possible world, and that entire possible world as well. An actualist believes that all possible worlds can only be construed out of what is in the actual world. In other words, they deny statement 20 as stated by Michael Loux above. An actualist must also deny the extensionist sense of the statement:

It is possible for there to exist more things than actually exist.

In my understanding, actualism therefore thinks that all possible things, worlds, etc, must in some way exist in the actual world. The "furniture" to work on are only things that we can see in the actual world. For possibilism on the other thing, the sky's the limit. For both, it is of course possible to claim nonactual things. In actualism however, nonactual things can be taken to be mere words, and it is impossible to evaluate truth conditions for them, since nonactual things do not, well, exist.

It is more in line with commonsense to hold to the existence of possibilia, although actualists have many objections to possibilism. Thus, without taking a firm position on the issue, I hold to possiblism for now, noting that we can talk about truth values in possible worlds of fiction, as for example evaluating a scene from the Star Wards universe according to interal world coherence.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Flirting with flavors of Nestorianism....

The Internet Classical Theists have been focusing their attention on trying to "maximize" the divinity of Christ. It is of course true that Jesus in his incarnate state continue to possess all the attributes of deity, possessing his full divine nature (contra kenoticism). But we know that Jesus did not always "act divine" and therefore in those many times throughout his 33 years on earth, at those instances he had set aside the use of his divine attributes. For example, it is inconceivable for Jesus to "act divine" while dying on the Cross, for immortality is a divine attribute. This idea that Jesus set aside the use of certain divine attributes from time to time during his incarnation is basic evangelical teaching about the incarnation, for if Jesus had it, and it was not expressed, it was not used.

Classical Theists however are not happpy with this teaching. They insist that Jesus as God always have these divine attributes. Most certainly, none of us will disagree with what they say, on the surface. But, at least for one such proponent, he states that for Jesus to not use his divine attributes is to have it go "from actuality into potentiality." I must say that is a very bizzare way of inserting Aristotelian metaphysics into Scripture, as if use or disuse has any correlation with actuality and potentiality in God, noting especially that everyone agrees that the incarnate state is something unique to the Son, not to the entire Godhead. More generally, there is a pushback against any supposed limits on the divine nature. Jesus according to these internet classical theists must express his divine nature all the time, while expressing the human nature also.

All of this comes to a head in the interpretation of Mark 13:32. When Jesus expressed his ignorance of future times, was he doing so out of his human nature? In a sense, everyone agrees that this was done according to the human nature. But the internet classical theists seem to think that Jesus was simultaneously knowing the future times "according to the divinity" even as he denied it in his mouth "according to his humanity." However, if one holds that Jesus is one person, we have a problem. Natures are not persons. Therefore, by definition, natures cannot do, act, or think. So if Jesus "according to his divinity" knows the future times while "according to his humanity" does not know the future times, the natures seem to acquire quasi-personal qualities. One can perhaps claim that Jesus both know and does not know in his one person, that natures do not truly know anything, but unless one is stating that as an indicative of split personality, that is a blatant contradiction. One's mental state cannot be both knowing and not knowing of the same thing at the same time, for such violates the law of non-contradiction.

It is in this light that the classical theists' strong assertions that seem to separate the divine nature and the human nature begin to acquire flavors of Nestorianism. Nestorianism (whether Nestorius actually believed it is irrelevant here) is the teaching that Jesus Christ is two persons: one divine, one human. In Nestorianism, because Jesus is two persons, one can easily do what Josh Sommers has done and clearly demarcate "the Son qua God" and "the Son qua Man." The Nestorian does not have to be concerned if the two natures are doing different things and thinking different thoughts even, for they are two natures of the two persons. This is not to say that the internet classical theists are Nestorians, only that what they are saying seems to be flirting with Nestorianism.

A solution that has been floated is the ideat that Jesus has two minds. But in response, how does that not look like split personality disorder? How do the two minds work together in the one person if they are thinking different things? Lastly, since minds are properties of persons, how does that not ultimately lead back to Nestorianism? I do not believe that this works either, and therefore the internet classical theists seem to be in a pickle: Either they can embrace Nestorianism, or claim paradox in their system without providing an explanation for the paradox. Perhaps there is some other way for them to proceed, but I do not see it.

Monday, August 29, 2022

EFS and the issue of modality

(1) If Hard EFS is true, then the Son has the property being functionally subordinate in all time segments in all possible worlds.

(2) If the Son has this property in every possible world, then the Son has this property necessarily. Furthermore, the Son has this property with de re rather than de dicto necessity.

(3) If the Son has this property necessarily (de re), then the Son has it essentially.

(4) If Hard EFS is true, then the Son has this property essentially while the Father does not.

(5) If the Son has this property essentially and the Father does not, then the Son is of a different essence than the Father. Thus the Son is heteroousios rather than homoousios.

[Thomas H. McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology, 179-80]

In other words, because McCall has defined “essential property” according to Lowe’s definition, and was required by using that definition to equivocate on the term “essential property” when moving from premises (3) and (4) to premise (5), all McCall has demonstrated is the inadequacy of possible world semantics to provide an adequate account of the sui generis metaphysical distinctions that exist between the divine essence and persons, as well as among the three divine persons themselves. [Paul C. Maxwell, "Is there an Authority Analogy between the Trinity and Marriage? Untangling arguments of Subordination and Ontology in Egalitarian-Complementarian Discourse," JETS 59/3 (2016): 561]

Thomas McCall's argument against what he had termed "Hard EFS" has irked EFS proponents like Bruce Ware. It is rather natural to see the equivocation in the word "necessary" in statement 2, where the word "necessary" is equivocated between "belonging to its essence" and "must happen." On a second look however, it seems there is more to this argument than just the eqivocation part, but a use of modal logic that seems to makes his point clearer. Paul Maxwell in his paper seems to think that the problem in McCall's argument is due to a limitation of possible world semantics, but I do not believe such is the case.

Let us however start with looking at the modal parts of McCall's argument. McCall is basically using the concepts of possible worlds, where something that is necessary in all possible worlds is taken to have de re necessity, or necessity belonging to the essence of a thing. Since EFS states that the Son is functionally "subordinate" to the Father necessarily, therefore it would seem that using the logic of modality, such a necessity of "functional subordination" is de re, as pertaining to the nature of the Son. If the necessity is de re, then McCall's statement 2 makes sense. But why must it be de re necessity and not de dicto necessity? It is true that the sentence, "Necessarily, the Son submits to the Father" sounds odd, but I cannot see any reason why one should not interpret the necessity de dicto rather than de re, as "The Son exists as necessily submitting to the Father."

But if it is a de dicto necessity, what grounds the necessity if not the nature of a thing? After all, God is the only being that necessarily exists a se, so therefore one cannot ground necessity in anything else because none exists prior to God. This is where things get interesting, because if one really thinks about it using the idea of possible worlds, this necessity is not a true necessity at all, or is it?

One thing about God is that He is simple. Simplicity states that all of God's attributes are united as one in God, such that one cannot subtract any of them from God. When one considers why one would think the Son submits to the Father, one returns back to the decree of God. But can God decree otherwise? In a certain sense, God has free will and can decree whatever He wants. But God is at the same time one, and cannot decree against Himself and violate one or another of His attributes. Thus, we see the problems for possible world semantics when we consider the things of God. For if possible worlds for the Christian is one where God exists, then this God comes with all of His attributes. How then can we consider God's middle knowledge, if the reason why God does something or not may be because that does not fully show His holiness, or His love, or something else? Certainly, we can consider possible worlds where God does not express His attributes in a maximal manner, but if possible world semantics is supposed to work when considering all of God's free and middle knowledge, how can possible worlds semantics work there?

It would therefore seem that we must add new categories for possible world semantics if we want them to work in a world with a simple God. We need to add the concept of theologically impossible worlds, impossible not because it is logically inconsistent or incoherent, but seeemingly possible worlds that are imposssible because they somehow violate or temper with the expression of one of more of God's attributes (not the attributes themselves). Thus, there is an impossible world where God does not show His holiness at all. There is also an impossible world where the Father decided to take the place of the Son. If one takes on this category of theologically impossible worlds, then the issue of necessity and EFS becomes soluble in this modified concept of possible worlds. The necessity of EFS is a de dicto necessity that is necessary because God wants it so. It is not de re because it is not necessary in the impossible worlds where God did not create the world and have sinners to save. Therefore, in the impossible world where God is not the Savior, EFS is not necesary.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

How to evaluate truth values in possible worlds under possibilism

Part of the allure of modal actualism is that it makes it easier to state what we mean by truth values in possible worlds. Truth values in an actualist world is evaluated by whether it corresponds with any or some possible world, be they considered as "states of affairs," "sets of properties," "propositions" etc. Since these are actual things that any statement can be compared, one is able to evaluate the truth of falsity of modal statements. Whereas in a possibilist system, how exactly are the truth values of modal statements to be evaluated? Possibilia are non-existent things, so how does one evaluate any modal statement under possiblism?

To answer this question, we must ask ourselves how possible worlds come about. Possible worlds are thought of by someone. Someone wonders what might happen if aliens invaded the earth, and we end up with tons of alien invasions storylines. Some others wondered what a mythology for England would look like, and we arrived at Tolkien's Middle Earth. George Lucas conceived of a possible world with New Age concepts in a sci-fi fantasy setting, and we have Star Wars. The list goes on and on. All of these are possible worlds, conceived by one or more humans using the power of their imaginations. Despite being fiction, they fit any qualification for inclusion as possible worlds, as a giant catalogue of "What If" scenarios play out in the minds of imaginative minds.

What allows some possible worlds to actually seem like a possible universe, while others are absolute trash? Plausible possible worlds are internally coherent. If the world holds that the laws of physics are similar to our own, then the laws of physics will operate just like ours. If the world is a sci-fi setting that holds that there is a miracle ubotainium metal that provides energy and gravitational manipulation, that unobtainium will not suddenly become a human being without powers. In a fantasy setting with magic that is governed by quantity of mana, it is always the case that someone with more mana has access to more magical power. The point here is simple: Any real possible world must be self-consistent. In other words, there is a coherence to any possible world which cannot be violated without undermining that world.

After Disney Star Wars took the liberty of "innovating" Star Wars, Episode VIII The Last Jedi was an absolute mess (I did not even bother paying to watch it; just watch the train wreck later on either Netflix or Disney Plus). One scene in that stinking mess illustrates why coherence in world-building is so important. That scene is the so-called "Lightspeed ramming" by woke feminist 'Admiral' Holdo. In that scene, Holdo sacrificed herself to take out the pursuing Imperial Dreadnought. Her method to do so is to accelerate to "lightspeed," which normally means entering hyperspace. However, by doing so so close to the dreadnought, hyperspace was not entered before the startship hit the dreadnought, destroying them both together with many other surrounding imperial ships.

That scene was one of the things Star Wars fans were furious over, and with good reason. If "lightspeed ramming" were possible, then everyone should be using it and there would be no reason to build any capital ship. One can just program a droid to make the calculations to execute such suicide missions, and the enemy capital ships would be gone. In fact, the supposed existential threat posed by the two Death Stars make no sense. Just program twenty droid ships, make them do lightspeed ramming into the Death Star, and goodbye Death Star! In other words, "lightspeed ramming" violates the internal logic of the Star Wards mythology. JJ. Abrams' forced retcon that the "Holdo manoeuvre" is a "one in a million" thing is a total joke, because one can get around the odds by using droids who are suposed to be able to do the precise calculations faster than any human (including Holdo) ever could.

All of these show us how we can evaluate truth values in possible worlds, if we reject modal actualism. One evaluates truth values by its consistency with the mythos of the imagined world. From a consistency standpoint, "lightspeed ramming" is necessarily false in the Star Wars universe. That it is treated as "true" by Disney Star Wars makes the Disney Star Wars version of Star Wars an irrational world, where nothing in the world needs to cohere with each other. Is that a "possible world"? No, it is an irrational world where "truth values" corresponds merely to the ipse dixit of whoever happens to be the storyteller at the moment. Nothing needs to make sense anymore in such an irrational world, where nothing can work until the narrator decides how they ought to work, for who knows whether a giant Mickey Mouse will suddenly appear out of nowhere, pick up Darth Sidious and swallow him up before instituting a 1000 year of intergalatic peace under Wanda Maximoff?

Truth values are evaluated in possible worlds based upon the internal logic of each possible world in addition to the normal nonmodal predicates, and none of the entities need to exist ontologially for modal arguments to be evaluated. One does not need to think any of them are actually existing, and thus truth claims in possible worlds can be evaluated under possibilism, or in this case, conceptual possibilism.

Monday, August 22, 2022

The catastrophe of repealing S377A in Singapore

In his National Day rally speech, Singapore Prime Minister LEE Hsien Long took the step of announcing the decision to repeal S377A of the Singapore penal code. This part of the law has been assaulted by the LGBTQ+++ lobby in Singapore (that take its social cues from the West) for many years, and it seems that the pressure of the pink dollar is getting too hard to bear.

Section 377A of the Penal Code state thus:

Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.

Many people have seen S337A as expressing social disapproval of homosexuality, as well as being the defence against a militant LGBT+ activism. However, many Christians have not thought through the issue clearly, and it shows. S377A did indeed perform those functions for some time, but the reasaon why any society should be against LGBT+ was not well thought through. While certainly, Christianity abominates homosexuality, there is a more systematic reason why homosexuality should not be entertained by any human society secular or religious, and the reason has nothing to do with institutional religion at all.

From a Christian perspective, God is the same God who has created the world. He has set forth His order in creation, and this order is seen in what is known as Natural Law. Natural Law is that part of General Revelation that concerns the creation and moral order of the world that is partly stamped into the Imago Dei. Man always have a sense of Natural Law with him. While ethicists can debate issues of ethics, no professional philosopher has to tell any human that killing and stealing is wrong, even though killing and stealing are found in all societies on earth. Even where killing and stealing are somehow excused, it is excused only in relation to "outsiders," never to those in one's tribe. This proves the reality stated in Scripture, that

For when Gentiles, who do not have the [Mosaic -DHC] law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them. (Rom. 2:14-15)

That LGBT is wrong is found in the Natural Law, encoded into creation that marriage is between a man and a woman. Polygamy, while a violation of the moral law, is not a violation of the creation norm that man and woman together makes a marriage. In the entirety of human history, normal marriage is seen as normative. LGBT+ activists love to point out instances of homosexuality in history, but that's not the issue. The issue is what has always been considered normative versus what was seen as non-normative. Normal marriages are the norm, and homosexuality always as not the norm, even if that particular society did not consider it a sin.

LGBT+ activists love to assert that allowing for LGBTQ+ does not affect the rest of us. That however is a false statement. It affects us by normalizing LGBTQ+ as an alternative. If these are normal, then for those of us who continue to believe in the truth, would we now be considered "hateful" and "intolerant" for speaking what most people in the past had always believed to be true? That is the issue, not whether LGBT+ identified people are present, but whether LGBTQ+ is to be considered normal.

For those of us in Singapore, the sad thing is that many Christians evidently think nothing of the repeal of S377A. Many have bought into the lie that those who are not LGBTQ+ would not be affected in any way by the repeal. But perhaps worse of all is that we have actual theological resources that speak to this situation: the situation of how ethics and morality interact with the State.

When Reformed Christian talk about the moral law of God, which is binding on all humans, most of us focus on the first and third uses of the Law. The first use of the law (the Gospel Use) is that the Law shows us our failure to obey it and thus drives us to Christ. The third use of the Law states that the Law shows us God's standards and therefore show us the way we should live (the Regulative Use). What has been misssing in much of our conversations all this time is the second use of the Law: the Civil use. As its name suggests, it is the use of the Law for civil society, precisely because this use of the Law reflects Natural Law back on to society and call society both to the order of creation and to the moral law they have already in their consciences. The Civil use of the Law is meant to restrain sin, and thus it has a communal aspect. It applies to the entire domain of creation, and therefore has no regard for one's religious affiliation or lack thereof. As the atheists kindly tell us, one does not need Christianity to know murder is wrong, and penalizing murder is not an imposition of religion even though all religions are against murder. Thus, likewise, one does not need Christianity to know LGBTQ+ is wrong, and penalizing LGBTQ+ is likewise not an imposition of religion even though many religions consider it wrong.

Singapore Christians, and even entire churches, who have no regards for S377A show that they have neither thought through what Scripture clearly teaches, nor have they contemplated the Natural Law given to all people everywhere. Now that the decision to repeal has been announced, these Christians and churches are culpable for how they have contributed to the normalization of what Scripture calls an abomination. They will answer to God for their crimes, and it is indeed a crime to call what God calls evil good.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Alvin Plantinga, Modal Actualism, and the Modal Ontological Argument

Socrates is a contingent being; his essence, however, is not. Properties, like propositions and possible worlds, are necessary beings. If Socrates had not existed, his essence would have been unexemplified, but not nonexistent. ... so being exemplified by Socrates if at all is essential to Socrateity, while being exemplified by Socrates is accidental to it. [Alvin Plantinga, "Actualism and Possible Worlds," in Michael J. Loux, ed., The Possible and the Actual: Readings in the Metaphysics of Modality, 268]

The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga is well-known for his modal ontological argument for the existence of God, a modification of the original ontological argument first expressed by Anselm in the Proslogion. A version of the modal ontological argument can be expressed as follows:

  1. It is at least possible for God to exist.
  2. If God’s existence is possible, then necessarily, God does exist.
  3. Therefore, necessarily, God exists.

The argument is expanded as follows:

  1. It is possible for God to exist.
  2. Therefore, God exists in some possible world.
  3. Necessarily, God exists in some possible world.
  4. Necessarily, God exists.
  5. God exists.

Premise 1 seems true for certainly the existence of God is conceivable, thus it is possible for God to exist and therefore statement 2 is true. From statement 2, one arrives at statement 3 through the modal axiom S5. Since the definition of God is that He has necessary existence, therefore if God necessarily exists in some possible world, he exists necessarily (Statement 4). Therefore, God exists (Statement 5).

Another way to frame the modal ontological argument is taken from "Formulation 4" of the entry on "Ontological Argument" on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosphy (accessed Aug 20, 2022), and simplified and expanded as follows:

  1. For any being x, there is a possible world w where x exists.
  2. For any beings x and y, there are possible worlds w and v, such that x exists in w and v, while y exists in w and not v.
  3. Being x is superior to being y as it exists in both w and y.
  4. If being x exists in worlds w, y, z, while God exists in y and z, then being x is superior to God.
  5. God, being defined as maximally great, cannot have any being superior to Him. Therefore, God must exists in more possible worlds than other beings
  6. A being that exists in the actual world would exists in more worlds than a being that does not exist in the actual world.
  7. God in order to be maximally great must exists in the actual world and all possible worlds.
  8. God exists.

Premises 1 and 2 are statements about possible worlds. Statements 3 and 4 are normally taken to be true, based on the premise that existence is greater than non-existence. Statement 5-7 flow from statements 3 and 4 and the idea that God is defined as a maximally great being, which is defined as such for the purpose of this argument.

So here we have two slightly different versions of the modal ontological argument. Unlike Anselm's original ontological argument, these arguments have more meat in them, and does not seem to require us to hold to some idea that God is defined as "greater than that can be conceived," with all its attendant problems. Are these arguments sound then? Have Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga stumble upon a viable form of the ontological argument that does indeed, as Natural Theology, prove the existence of God without appeal to special revelation?

Analyzing the arguments

The first argument form looks sound. However, note here that the argument depends on how one interprets premise 1. What does it mean for God to "exist in some possible world"? Most certainly, if one means that God ontologically exist in some possible world, then certainly the argument is sound, but is that what one means by premise 1?

The second argument form looks a bit more problematic. This form is closer to the traditional ontological argument, but it deals with maximal greatness through linking it with existence in possible worlds. The possible issues with this argument are the hidden premises correlating greatness with existence, and the idea that the actual world is a possible world that we see of as actual.

Existence is certainly better than non-existence, but this this only applies for creatures who can differentiate between the two states. For non-creatures, non-existence could mean imaginery existence, as in the case of imaginery numbers in Mathematics or virtual particles in quantum physics. Therefore, the idea that existence is always better than non-existence does not apply to everything. While in the case of God (and all creatures) it is true that existence is better than non-existence, to assert that is to assume God (or at least creaturely existence as superior to non-creaturely existence) from the start and therefore cannot truly function as an axiom to prove God's existence.

The key problem: Actualist modal ontology

Both argument forms when analyzed seem sound, until one digs deeper. For the first argument form, premise 1 states that God exists in some possible world. But does this possible world truly and actually exist? For the second argument form, the hidden premise is that the actual world is a possible world that we see as actual to us. Presumably, individuals in some possible world w would see theirs as an actual world and ours as a possible world.

Underlying this is a commitment to an actualist modal ontology. What is an actualist modal ontology? An actualist modal ontology states that all modal entities truly and actually exist. How that is so divides the actualists. Plantinga's form of actualist modal ontology borrows from Platonism and differentiates existence from examplification. As seen in the quote above, for Plantinga, all modal entities exist as "things" or haecceities, which are analogous to the Platonic forms. In any possible world, these forms all exist but the actual thing exist only if the form is "exemplified" in any particular world. Therefore, the existence of Socrates in world w is due to the "exemplification" of "Socrateity" in that possible world. In possible world v however where Socrates does not exist, "Socrateity" still exists in that possible world v but "Socrateity" was not "exemplified" in possible world v.

According to Plantinga's modal ontological argument therefore, that God exists in some possible world can start as something as simple as the Platonic form of "God" being present in that possible world. Likewise, there is nothing essentially different between the actual world and possible worlds except in the perspectives of the ones in that world. The actual world in this case is a possible world that we are in. With this actualist modal ontology, things possible are more than mental conceptions but are possible existing objects.

Plantinga's modal ontological argument therefore seem to depend on an actualist modal ontology. It is a question if the argument can survive without actualism. For many of us, possible worlds are taken as hypothetical worlds, creations of the mind to explore alternate forms of the world. We are possibilists, and believe in one actual world where things ontologically exist.

Conclusion

The modal ontological argument is indeed a stronger argument that seems to point to the success of Natural Theology to prove God's existence. However, at least one variation of that argument by Alvin Plantinga seems to demand an actualist modal ontology which I do not hold to. Therefore, it stands to reason that the modal ontological argument has not been proven to be sound, and the goal of Natural Theology seems unrealized.