Thursday, May 29, 2014

Mystery in Calvinism, .38 Special, and "Epistemic Status." Plus, the Detroit Tigers

Yes, you read that right.  By .38 Special, I'm referring to the southern rock band of the 80's heyday. Do you have a particular song in mind?  Keep it there, and read on.  Most readers know that Calvinism is a rather robust (and controversial) theology which emphasizes the authority of Scripture and the sovereignty of God in election and history.  Some Calvinists believe in free will (Thomistic Calvinist scholastics of the post-Reformation era of the (late) 16th and 17th centuries, while others deny free will, holding to the doctrine of Total Depravity and hence the bondage of the human will in sin, which serves to allow only the grace of God in the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit to set people free from such bondage; this regeneration is by the grace of God and is done according to God's eternal decree to save the elect.  Still other Calvinists, like Calvin himself -who if ever there was a Calvinist, it was John Calvin* - and Herman Bavinck, hold that while other theories of God's sovereignty in election and history lack Scriptural and philosophical veracity, admit that we must be content with the concept of mystery.  Contemporary Reformed theologian John H. Armstrong seems comfortable with this view of mystery as well (from correspondence on Facebook). 

Hold on Loosely, But Don't Let Go.  It's a catchy tune.  Can we learn theology from it?  Well, no--we can't "learn" theology from it, but we can apply this as an axiom for ourselves regarding "epistemic status."  Epistemic status is simply the degree to which a person holds certain beliefs.  I might hold the belief that the Detroit Tigers are the best team in the Major Leagues, but then I'd have to contend with other teams that seem to be, or are argued by others to be, just as good, if not better.  Perhaps then, my epistemic status of the Tigers as the best team in baseball is defeated, by the counter-argument.  The counter-argument is that the St. Louis Cardinals are just as good (if not better) than the Tigers.  I'm at a standby.  I see the argument for the Cardinals is rationally compelling, even though it's not airtight.  Still, it causes me enough internal trouble to have to reconsider my argument concerning the Tigers.  Through this process of "defeasible reasoning," I must reconstitute my argument.  Now, perhaps I argue that the Tigers are the best team in the AL.  If that doesn't work, then maybe I contend that they are the best team in the AL East.  If that doesn't work, then I've done and lost.  Maybe they're the best team in Michigan.  But that isn't saying much.  At this point, I'd not have an argument that the Tigers are the "best" anything of real significance.  My epistemic status of holding that the Tigers are the best team in baseball has suffered great peril, much like the Orcs and Uruk Hai after the Battle of Helm's Deep. Thank Eru for the Ents.

Calvinism then.  Let us say that in order to be a Calvinist, one must hold that the Scripture is the primary epistemic authority, and such a theory of knowledge brings with it the concepts typical to Calvinism - sovereignty over history and election, and the supreme limits of human free will, and the concept of mystery in all of this.  No doubt many Calvinists (and ~non) find their emotions troubled as they try to resolve the problem of divine foreknowledge and human responsibility (DF/HR).  I certainly have.  It can be rather vexing, to say the least. Suppose then, the Calvinist remembers that there is a concept called Mere Christianity, popularized by literary giant C.S. Lewis, and said Calvinist is reminded of an ecumenical creed such as the Apostle's Creed.  The Apostle's Creed offers a full assurance of doctrine and life i.e. Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection (the "great things of the gospel" noted by philosopher Alvin Plantinga), but it does not speak to things like DF/HR.  Now suppose this person is attracted to the Apostle's Creed both for its depth and simplicity, and its avoidance of such mind-bending issues like DF/HR.  Or, suppose the Calvinist still holds to the beliefs of Calvinism, and is happy to live by the axiom of mystery in DF/HR. 

It would seem, then, that 'mystery' is a good way to Hold on Loosely, But Don't Let Go when it comes to Calvinism.  Given mystery, the epistemic status of Calvinism's view on DF/HR is therefore 'held in check' and has the freedom to both wax and wane in the cognitive apparatus of the one holding to such a system of belief.  The status of the belief therefore may experience periods of doubt "How can this be?" (waning), or it may experience periods of great confidence "The Lord is sovereign!" (waxing).  When the Calvinist belief of DF/HR waxes, the person S who holds to this system of thought may experience the emotional trouble of the concept of determinism, and this in turn may cause S experience doubts about God's goodness.  The epistemic status of DF/HR then shifts to the other end of the spectrum of doubt.  However, person S is reminded of the Scripture's clear case of the sovereign power of God to bring all things to pass according to his eternal decree, then finds "cognitive rest" in holding loosely to the Calvinist approach to DF/HR.  By holding it loosely i.e. "in check," S is again reminded that another clear teaching of Scripture is that human beings are most certainly responsible before God for their actions.  This concept of responsibility therefore reminds S of the concept of mystery.  (This includes God's sovereignty over natural phenomena as well).  The result is a happy one: emotional satisfaction that one has done one's intellectual duty in analyzing the different views of DF/HR, and avoiding both extremes of determinism and supreme, human autonomy. 

*This funny quip comes from Alvin Plantinga's article, "The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology."


worldviewguy said...

I was going to respond to your argument regarding the epistemic status of Calvinism's major tenets, but after reading your illustration of the supremacy of the Detroit Tigers, I was speechless... doubled over, rolling on the floor... and forgot what I was going to say. Must have been my irresponsibility in light of God's sovereign plan. The mystery remains... I think! (Thanks for a brilliant and informative take on the topic!)

Christopher Mark Van Allsburg said...

Hey, don't diss the Tigers, Chuck!
Thanks for the kind words, though.