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.


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.


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

[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.