Theology: March 2011 Archives

Joel S. has an informative and thoughtful review of Miroslav Volf's new book Allah: A Christian Response [ht: Justin Taylor]. This post is adapted from a comment I left on Joel's review, with significant expansions and modifications.

I like a lot of what Volf is saying, but I think Joel's concerns about the book are important things to be concerned about, especially the ones numbered 2 or higher. I disagree with his take on the substantive issues for concern 1, and I've been on record defending my view on the matter for quite some time.

The issue is whether I refer to the same being a Muslim refers to when we both talk about God. The Muslim uses the word 'Allah'. I use 'God'. Volf apparently argues that the Christian view of God and the Muslim view of God are sufficiently similar to ensure that they both will refer to the same being. I think that's a terrible argument. Any argument based on sufficient similarity is going to fail pretty quickly once we look to the essential Trinitarian nature of God. That's a pretty core element of the Christian view, if we're basing the reference of terms on actual metaphysics.

But of course language doesn't work that way. When people starting talking about water, they weren't doing so with full understanding of its chemical structure. If two groups with competing scientific theories about what water really is still referred to the same stuff and called it water, it would be nothing short of obtuse to claim that they referred to different stuff. Their historical and causal connection with that stuff is what grounds their reference to it with their terms, even though they had conflicting theories about what it is in its nature.

Similarly, the general Abrahamic tradition, confused as it is at some historical points, grounds the Islamic reference to God when they use the word 'Allah'. They refer to the being who interacted with human beings in the patriarchal period, through the human king they call the prophet David, and (and this is key) through that guy that they call the prophet Jesus. Surely they believe false things about Jesus, by any Christian standard. But it's the historic Jesus whom they claim to be a prophet, whom they claim to be returning someday, whom they claim did not die on the cross but was replaced by Jesus. They get Jesus' nature very wrong, but they refer to him when they do so, just as scientists got the nature of heat wrong when they thought it a substance but still referred to it (the kinetic energy) when they talked about it.

So if the question of whether Muslims worship the same God means whether the being they call Allah is the same being we call God, then the answer is obviously yes. But Volf is wrong to base it on similarity. He doesn't seem aware of causal theories of reference or any such thing.

On the other hand, if the question of whether Muslims worship the same God means whether their worship is correct worship, then that's another question entirely. It shouldn't be confused with the metaphysical question of whether the same being is referred to by Christians and Muslims. I've seen too many people start with their stance that Muslim worship of God involves actual reference to the same God Christians worship and then conclude that Muslim worship is equivalent to Christian worship. That inference seems to me to be utterly fallacious.

Philosophy TV posted several reflections on issues related to Christmas during Christmas week last year. Jason Brennan's contribution presents the Christmas story (i.e. the gospel) as a bad story about an immoral divinity.

I chose not to post this actually near Christmas, but when I saw this I thought it would be a great exercise to identify exactly where Brennan gets the gospel message wrong (and Brennan's final question actually invites that).

In particular, there seem to be two general kinds of responses to a criticism like Brennan's. You might disagree with his portrayal of what the gospel message actually says, or you might think he gets the message right but applies a problematic moral framework. (And you might think he makes mistakes in both arenas). But if you're a Christian, you ought to think he does at least one of the two. The question is exactly which elements does he get wrong in what the gospel says or in the moral theory he applies to it, and I'm curious what people would say about that. What do you think?

[cross-posted at Evangel and Prosblogion, whose commenters will likely have very different things to say in response to this]

I've had occasion to complain before about a problematic discussion of Calvinism in a book review by William Klein (in that case in discussing David Peterson's commentary on Acts). His more recent review of David Allen and Steve Lemke's Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism critiques D.A. Carson in a way that I also think is a bit unfair, and he doesn't represent the terms of debate accurately, even apart from the fairness issue.

Here's what he says:

In various places the authors expose misunderstandings that Calvinists sometimes exhibit about those who oppose them, or how they confuse categories in their uses of terms. As one example, S. Lemke exposes D.A. Carson's misuse of the category of "compatibilism" (pp. 150-152). It does not mean that human freedom and divine sovereignty are compatible (this is the way that Carson uses it). Everyone--whether Calvinist, Arminian, or open theist--affirms that. Rather, as correctly understood, compatibilists assert that true human freedom is compatible with hard determinism. Those are more difficult to reconcile.

This is at once both right and wrong. He's right in saying that Carson uses the term 'compatibilism' differently from how philosophers typically use it. But I think he's wrong in offering this as a criticism, and he's certainly wrong in how he says the word is generally used. His misuse of the term is, to my mind, much worse than Carson's.

Compatibilism, as philosophers use the term, is the view that freedom is compatible with one's choices being predetermined. Carson doesn't seem to me to use it that way. His actual definition is in terms of divine sovereignty, not in terms of predetermination. If God is entirely sovereign over anything that occurs in a way that whatever happens is exactly as God intended, then it need not be predetermined by God but just anticipated by God in a way that, had God wanted something else to happen, God could have intervened. Carson's definition of compatibilism leaves that open.

To be fair, though, Carson's discussions of this all include expressions along the lines of "absolute freedom to the contrary" to describe the kind of view of sovereignty that he's denying. If someone has the absolute freedom to do something that even God can't intervene with (without removing the person's freedom), then it's not the kind of divine sovereignty he has in mind. Carson, then, is indeed denying libertarian freedom of the sort that provides the only way besides predetermination. So his definition itself does allow for this, but what he goes on to say shows that he doesn't really intend that result.

Klein's mistake is much worse than that, though. That's just being unfair to Carson's whole approach by focusing on the terms of his definition, ones that the rest of his discussion does clarify. But in trying to correct Carson, Klein makes a much worse blunder. He gets the definition of compatibilism entirely wrong and defines it as to be totally contradictory. He says compatibilism claims the compatibility of free will and hard determinism (as opposed to the correct definition, which is that it's the compatibility of free will and determinism).

Hard determinism is the view that determinism is true and incompatible with freedom. Soft determinism is compatibilism, i.e. the view that determinism is true but compatible with freedom. Both hard and soft determinism accept the same metaphysical view of determinism. What makes hard determinism hard determinism is that it adds the separate claim that determinism and freedom are incompatible. What makes soft determinism soft determinism is that it's compatibilist. So to claim that compatibilism (i.e. soft determinism) is the view that freedom is compatible with hard determinism is to charge compatibilism not just with holding two views that conflict (which incompatibilists do think of compatibilism) but asserting of it that it holds such an explicit contradiction as to leave no room for argument. Of course anyone claiming hard determinism is compatible with freedom is holding contradictory views, because hard determinism simply is the view that determinism is true and not compatible with freedom. But that doesn't make compatibilism contradictory, because compatibilists specifically deny hard determinism.

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