Philosophize with him!

A Calvinist writer, Randy Seiver, with whom I have engaged in discussion from time to time has written a post asking several questions about prevenient grace. Most of the questions center around how enabling grace works and whether it can be resistible.

Plato_School_of_athens_800px-Raffael_067I am not going to tackle these questions in this post. Instead I am going to tackle something he says in part of his opening statement. Before posing questions, Randy lays down two charges against those who reject Calvinism. The first is that they have a system built on philosophy. The second is that their system is not a biblical one.

I would like to pose a few “philosophical” questions about their position … . Since their position is a philosophical and not a biblical one, I should be permitted to ask what they call “philosophical questions.”

It is this set of charges that I want to address.

Before we begin we need to ask and answer two questions.

  • What is philosophy?
  • What does it mean to be Biblical?

What is philosophy?

The word philosophy comes from two Greek words (philia and sophia) which together mean “lover of wisdom”. The Florida State University Dept. of Philosophy notes that philosophy is an “activity people undertake when they seek to understand fundamental truths”. But defining philosophy is no easy task as Geisler and Feinberg note in the first chapter of their book Introduction to Philosophy. The challenge, they conclude, stems from the fact that asking questions and defining things are what philosophy is all about.

At its core philosophy ask questions that are often deep and complex.

  • What is truth?
  • What is knowledge?
  • What is morality (good and evil)?
  • Is there a God?

Peter Kreeft, in his book Philosophy 101 by Socrates, explores rather than defines philosophy by describing its characteristics as found in Plato’s Socratic dialogues. On page 104, he notes:

Socrates is the apostle of reason. He demands that we give logical reasons, grounds for beliefs, and follow the logical consequences of our beliefs, taken as premises or hypotheses, to their logical conclusions through a number of logically compelling steps.

… reason and faith, logic and piety, philosophy and religion are natural allies, not enemies.


Justin Martyr, an early theologian and philosopher, addresses this question in the Dialogue with Trypho (chapter 3) and concludes that philosophy is the search for the “knowledge … and clear perception of the truth”. And happiness is arriving at “such knowledge and wisdom”.

In the very popular Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem, the work of a theologian is described as:

collecting and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics and then summarizing their teachings clearly so that we know what to believe about each topic.

Theology (specifically systematic theology) sounds like an “activity” that seeks to “understand fundamental truths”. Theology sounds a lot like philosophy.

Millard Erickson, in Christian Theology, notes that:

Theology is subject to certain basic principles or axioms. In particular, it is answerable to the same canons of logic as are other disciplines. … It shows an affinity [for the] methodology of philosophy, since it advances metaphysical claims.

later he writes:

a major value of philosophy for the theologian [is] scrutiny of the meaning of terms and ideas employed in the theological task, the criticizing of arguments, and the sharpening of the message for clarity.

In my judgment, philosophy, within somewhat restricted scope, also performs the second function, weighing the truth-claims advanced by theology and giving part of the basis for accepting the message.

In this sense, anyone who studies theology is a philosopher. We are asking questions about God and the world He created and we are trying to clarify what is known (or revealed).

What does it mean to be Biblical?

If philosophy is hard to define, the term “Biblical” may be harder. Being Biblical or not being Biblical is thrown around when two theologians don’t agree, but rarely does anyone stop to define that they mean.

According to it means “in accord with the Bible”.

BiblicalFor the theologian, the primary source for information about God and the world is the Scriptures. As we assemble our theological view we are building on the foundation of Scripture.

Theologians come to the Scriptures with different presuppositions and hermeneutic principles. We read the same words (like sovereign, elect, world, and free will) but, for each of us, they mean very different things. We study a narrative yet draw different implications about what it may be teaching. All of these things lead us to interpret passages in dissimilar ways, which in turn lead to a divergent set of conclusions. But do these differences mean that one view is not “Biblical”?

Being Biblical and Philosophical are not mutually exclusive

When we read our Bibles and seek to understand it we are doing philosophy.

When we study (exegete) a passage and seek to understand what it means through the grammar, history, context, and other factors we are employing logic and reason to order our thoughts. We all use philosophical arguments to defend our view and to highlight the weaknesses of another position. When we synthesize multiple passages from various books of Scripture and propose or assert something about God and His dealings with man we are building a systematic theology and we are doing philosophy.

Calvinism and Arminianism are both systematic theologies that are built on Scripture. However, they emphasize different passages and interpret many passages differently.

Calvinism and Arminianism  are both systematic theologies that are built on philosophy. They both ask questions, seek understanding, and synthesize Scripture using logic and reason to answer questions about God, man, and salvation.

For a variety of reasons, Calvinism and Arminianism strongly disagree with each other on a variety of topics (particularly about what it means for God to be sovereign and how a person can come to faith) but we should be able to agree that both of these views (in their classic form) are both Biblical and philosophical.

13 thoughts on “Philosophize with him!

  1. Well written, my friend. I would agree with your statements about both philosophy and biblicism. I wrote what I did about philosophy because someone (a very vocal someone) from your side of the aisle questioned my right to ask philosophical questions about prevenient grace.

    You and I agree that not all will be saved and that God’s published desire is that the wicked turn from his wickedness and live. The difference is in how we seek to resolve that issue. We both agree that God has a purpose that is higher than his desire to save all. For you, that purpose seems to be the preservation of human free will. As I recall, your definition of free will is the ability to choose other than I have chosen. For me, “will “is not choice but desire. I can choose to wear a red tie as easily as I can choose to wear a blue tie (assuming that in a million years I would ever choose to wear a tie again). What I cannot do is want what I don’t want.

    In my view, God’s desire to manifest his own glory is his higher purpose.

    The reason I would believe your view is “unbiblical” is that I do not see anyone even attempting to bring forth biblical passages that show that God has given the unregenerate the ability to choose not only what desire (they do not even desire it after they have received the abundant common grace of God), but to which their entire being is totally averse.

    Perhaps one day I will have time to debate this issue further with you. If that time ever comes, it would be a waste of time, in my opinion, for us to continue to debate our conclusions. The debate would have to center around a precise definition of terms and the validity of our presuppositions. There is no sense debating issues on which we agree. I have no interest in debating philosophical determinism vs. free will. On that issue, I am sure you and I would agree.

    • I wrote what I did about philosophy because someone (a very vocal someone) from your side of the aisle questioned my right to ask philosophical questions about prevenient grace.

      You should know that that did not come across at all in your post.

      I would believe your view is “unbiblical”

      just want to make sure I understand you clearly: are you stating that Arminianism is an unbiblical (as in not in accordance with the Bible) theological position?

    • Randy

      Here is a simple question: Do you accept what the Nicean creed teaches us about the Trinity?

      And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

      • Of course, we both know the word Trinity is not in the Bible, but we also both know the doctrine is. Show me the teaching of free will. I know the term isn’t there, so don’t waste your time or mine with a worn out argument.

      • No Trinity is a word that is not in the Bible. It is also not in the Nicean creedal statement. Do you believe that the creedal statement as stated above is Biblical (in accordance with the Bible)?

      • Randy:

        Assuming for the moment that you accept the creedal statement as stated above is Biblical (in accordance with the Bible), then we would next want to bring forth biblical passages that describe for us the substance that God is comprised of?

        When we can’t furnish those we are left with the following:

        1. Lord Jesus Christ is … of one substance with the Father
        2. This definition can be logically deduced from passages in the Scriptures
        3. The definition is accepted as Biblical

        Now for the record, I affirm the Nicean Creed and consider it Biblical. My point in asking the questions was to highlight that we are often to quick to label as “unbiblical” any view that we disagree with. Especially if part of the view is based on implicit ideas in Scripture. This of course is nothing new.

        For example, Athanasius wrote De Decretis around 350. In this text he is defending the use of the term substance that was used to describe God in the creed, which had been accepted at Nicea in 325. He is writing b/c there was continued debate around the use of that term which resulted in another council in 381.

        In Chapter 5 of this work, we are told:

        even if the expressions are not in so many words in the Scriptures, yet, as was said before, they contain the sense of the Scriptures, and expressing it, they convey it to those who have their hearing unimpaired for religious doctrine.

        Despite your protests to the contrary, you have been given numerous passages that together allow one to infer PG. Nor is there any shortage of scholarly work out there that provide Scriptural arguments.

        Here is how most who hold to PG get there:

        1. Total Depravity – man in his natural state cannot desire God or respond in faith (Rom 3:9-12; 7:18; Eph 2:3; Matt 7:18; John 8:44)
        2. God wants all to be saved and none to perish (Ezek 18:23,32; 33:11; Hosea 11:8; Matt 23:37-39; John 3:17; 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9)
        3. whoever believes (has faith) in Christ will be saved (John 3:16,36;6:40;11:25-26; Rom 10:9-13)
        4. God gives grace to draw/enable natural man so that they can respond in faith (Luke 24:45; John 6:44; Acts 16:14)
        5. Not all are saved, some perish (Matt 7:13-14)

        Therefore: because God wants all to be saved, yet all are not saved we can infer that the grace God gives must enable people in a resistible way (verses that may suggest that include: Ezek 18:23,32; 33:11; Titus 2:11; Rev 2:21; Matt 23:37-39)

        I think we would agree on the first 5 premises.

        Now, I can understand that you reject the conclusion that PG is the correct model for salvation. I know that the Reformed position answers the question: if God wants none to perish why do some perish? differently.

        Your comments here and on your blog continue to help me wrestle with the Scriptures. They challenge me to understand other points of views on passages. However, I think you go too far in using the term “unbiblical”. Giving you the benefit of the doubt I think you are confusing rejecting the conclusion that PG is the right interpretation with accepting the idea that this is another possible valid interpretation based on different presuppositions/definitions.

  2. And, as an aside, I want you to know I find the name of your blog offensive since it implies there are some who believe dead heroes save. There is only one Savior, and I believe we all agree on that.

  3. I find it interesting the amount of modern Calvinists who have little to no time or interest in debating determinism vs free will. I wonder how they fail to see how damaging that is to their case?

  4. Great Post Mike!

    I don’t know what happened above, but feel free to delete it.

    It is so obvious that we come to our theological conclusions through philosophical frameworks that we hold. They form the foundation for the entire system. To argue against that, seems foolish.

  5. “We both agree that God has a purpose that is higher than his desire to save all.”

    I would say God’s intention was to save all people. But I would define the “people” God chose to create as beings who He invested with a personhood and freedom similar to His own – in His image, if you will. To save beings who were simply scripted entities and to save them from the sins He Himself unilaterally scripted – but to only save some of the beings He this scripted – would hardly seem to be “saving” people, or saving “people.”

    This assertion of what it means to be a person is not founded on mere philsophy or our sensation of ‘willingness.’ It’s based on scriptures like Isaiah 5:14 and Jeremiah 7:31 and Matthew 23:37.

    God doesn’t have a purpose which overrides His desire that a wicked person would turn rather than perish in sin (what would that overiding desire even mean in a deterministic worldview? That God would rather they turn rather than perish, but *actually* God would rather they perish rather than turn? Determinism speaks of God’s proclaimed will, but that’s just a pretty way of saying God’s proclaimed deceit).

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