Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Difficult Theology

Often, when there's a difficult problem in theology, people seem to come at it by assuming the truth of one philosophical / theological system or other, and then end up fighting for some passages against other ones. I don't think that's the ideal evangelical way to do it.

It's much better to be clear first on everything that we can affirm or deny explicitly from Scripture, make sure those are in place, then seeing what we can fit around them. I guess I see it more as bottom-up theology than top-down - not assuming the overall shape of the doctrine until later, and even then leaving room for vagueness.

So, for example, with predestination:

  • Only those whom God the Father has called come to the Son
  • God predestines those who follow him from at least as far back as the creation of the world
  • We are responsible for our own actions and for whether or not we follow Jesus
  • Christians should tell people who aren't Christians about Jesus and put a lot of effort into trying to persuade them to become Christians.

Now, if we hold all of those together, we avoid a lot of the common errors, and it becomes apparent that the problems a lot of people have are actually because of dodgy logic (assuming all of those statements are true, and that that's possible).

There does appear to be a logical difficulty there (and it's a slightly different logical difficulty depending on whether or not we have free will), but theres a way out in each case:

  • If we do have free will (in some sense), then it means that our freedom can't rule out God having predetermined what we freely decide. And that might be possible if God's outside time.
  • If we don't have free will, then it means that moral responsibility can still exist without freedom of will. And that also seems possible, because God can ascribe whatever responsibilities he wants

I don't know if free will exists or not. The Bible doesn't say, and I don't think you can derive an answer either way from the Bible. Modern physics suggests not, but modern physics might be wrong on that.

I think it is wrong to be dogmatic on specific theological theories which we use to connect data from the Bible, but right to be dogmatic on those data.


Anonymous said...


As a fellow physicist I have never had any problem with the whole predestination and free will thing. If God is outside of time then to Him everything is simultaneous. To us-who are temporal creatures, then we measure existence by the passage of time in space.

To us free will is perceived as to what happens along our 'world lines' so to speak. If God was represented by a world line then it would fill a space-time diagram completely.

I think we often get our theological knickers in a twist when we try to marry up our temporal existence with God's eternal existence.

To my mind, passages like 'God declaring the end of the beginning' are simply reflecting the different temporal natures of God amd Man.

IMHO we should just accept the fact that we are temporal creatures and assume we have free-will since this is the framework in which we move and have our being.

Yours temporally,


Daniel Hill said...

Custard, two quick questions,if I may:
(i) how does physics suggest that we have no free will?
(ii) how does God's being outside of time solve the predestination/free will problem?

John said...

Iconoclast - quite.

Daniel -

free will: physics suggests our brains consist entirely of particles following the laws of physics, which while they aren't deterministic, still just follow probability distributions and don't leave room for free will. For free will to work, we'd need some physical process going on in our heads which doesn't happen elsewhere. And there's no evidence for that, so physics tends to say it doesn't happen.

Time: God being outside time means that causal logic is inapplicable, which means that the contradictions you'd normally be able to derive don't work. So it doesn't show it's possible, just that it's not impossible, which is all it needs to show.

Daniel Hill said...

Thanks, Custard.

I don't agree that physics suggests that there is no non-physical soul to have free will, though I agree that it doesn't suggest there is one either.

I also don't see why God's being outside time means that 'causal logic is inapplicable'. Most people that think that God is outside time still think he caused the world to exist.


John said...

That's a causal statement, not causal logic. Causal statements are still potentially valid, just we can't reason from them in the usual way.

Daniel Hill said...

Surely logic does apply to causal statements even if God is outside time?

For example, surely we can logically valdily deduce from the fact that God caused the world to exist that he is powerful?

John said...

But that's not causal logic. Is it?

Daniel Hill said...

I thought that you meant by `causal logic' `logic applied to causal statements'?